Wired has a generally pretty fun sort of gee-whiz cover feature on the “big questions” remaining for science. But the section on the question of how the brain gives rise to the conscious mind is just endlessly irritating. The author closes thus:
Some philosophers still argue that consciousness is too subjective to explain, or that it is the irreducible result of matter organized in a specific way. That philosophic black-boxing is probably more nostalgic than scientific, a clinging to the idea of a spirit or soul. Without that, after all, we’re just organisms – more complex, but no less predictable, than dung beetles. But scientists live to reduce the seemingly irreducible, and sentimentality is off-limits in the lab. Understanding consciousness means finding the biophysical mechanisms that generate it. Somewhere behind your eyes, that meat becomes the mind.
– Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you let science writers ponce about in philosophers’ territory. It’s not just that this fails to gesture very helpfully in the direction of an answer; it fails to even understand the question. Philosophers of mind are not, by and large, plagued by soul-nostalgia, or under illusions that we are other than fundamentally physical beings—”just organisms.” But they also see, as Rhodes appears not to, the distinction between the “easy” (hah!) questions of consciousness, which involve how various kinds of mental processes are instantiated in the brain, and the “hard question” of how or why objective physical processes acquire a subjective character.
There are, mind you, philosophers like Dan Dennett who deny the distinction, asserting that the “hard question” is just an illusion generated by all the “easy” ones combined, but the Wired piece doesn’t even appear to appreciate the distinction clearly enough to take this sort of stance. The kinds of questions science clearly can answer involve what processes are involved in various kinds of cognition. I walk into a room, see a bowl of strawberries on the table, decide I’m hungry, and pop one in my mouth. For each step of the process, an ideal and complete neuroscience would tell a byzantine and fantastically complicated tale of flowing neurotransmitters and firing synapses that trace the chain of cause and effect taking us from the strawberry-light striking my optic nerve to a bit of fruit-mush sizzling in stomach acid.
The best imaginable scientific story here, though, is going to leave out a rather salient part of the picture, to wit: What red looks like, what it feels like to be hungry or form an intention and what strawberries taste like. A fortiori, the fullest neurological explanation of the brain’s strawberry detecting, seeking, and tasting processes will not get at why there’s something it’s like, from the inside to be this cluster of processes. This is not because there’s necessarily something too magical or lofty about these questions for grubby science; they’re just not scientific questions. When you’ve told the micro-story, the synaptic story, of what’s happening here, you’ve told all the causal story there is to tell. It would sound exactly the same if we were “zombies” processing all this information and going through these motions without any internal lives. (Actually, it wouldn’t “sound” like anything, which is sort of the point…) That doesn’t mean we need to start positing immaterial spirits and psyches and souls (oh my!), but it does mean the causal story is not the only story to be told. Now, it may be that philosophers aren’t equipped to tell it either, but they’ve at least made some progress toward a kind of meta-narrative of writers’ block explaining why it’s so hard to say anything terribly illuminating.
I suppose it’s understandable that folks who cover science might feel entitled to make sweeping pronouncements about philosophy without having any very clear idea what they’re talking about. A lot of the history of philosophy, one might reasonably say, consists of folks stroking their chins concocting elaborate (and often silly) accounts of how the world works, then fruitlessly debating them for a few centuries until a scientist comes along and actually checks. It’s almost a cliché to point out that if Newton walked into a modern college physics course, he’d have a lot to learn, while Aristotle could register for Ethics 101 and shoot straight to the head of the class.
But I think this Philosophy Now article on the ways in which philosophy has been “progressive” captures some underappreciated points. And indeed, I’d add one more way: Philosophy has become much better about understanding its proper scope, spinning off much of its subject matter to narrower disciplines, where mysteries were reduced to puzzles. What remains has—and I don’t know that I can articulate precisely what this consists of—a kind of fractal unity, with problems in seemingly disparate subfields occasionally cracking open, ever so slightly, to afford a glimpse of a common underlying structure.