"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The 'Hard Problem' of Consciousness

Due to radical advances in brain imaging technologies - improved electroencephelogram (EEG),  positive-emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computer tomography (SPECT) - it is now relatively easy to find out 'what' is going on in the brain at any point in time. What remains elusive is 'why' what is going on is, in fact, going on.

"Most neurophysiologists," says philosopher John Hick, Ph.D., "work on some highly specialized area of brain research and are not particularly interested in the philosophical issue, as they see it of the relationship between brain and consciousness." The 'easy problem,' according to Hicks, "is to trace precisely what is going on in the brain when someone is consciously perceiving, thinking, willing, experiencing some emotion, creating a work of art, etc." The 'hard problem', he notes, "is to find out what consciousness actually is and how it is caused."

The 'orthodox' position of most mind science researchers and theorists is that the brain generates consciousness bio-chemically, even though no specific neural correlate (a related area of the brain, or a 'nerve center') has been found for the phenomenon of conscious itself. This 'materialist' view of the origination of consciousness "is encouraged by the fact that it is possible to trace, with increasing precision, the neural correlates of conscious episodes," Hick observes.

Yet, despite a plethora of data detailing what areas of the brain are associated with which conscious (and/or unconscious) experiences, Hick notes that it is a mistake in logic to assume that the vast body of correlations speaks at all to the question of causation. Moreover, he points to a growing number of neuroscientists and contemporary philosophers of the mind who hold to a contrarian view, even if they reject the admissibility of introspective and subjective evidence into the question of just 'what' consciousness is on scientific grounds.

Hick, himself, is critical of both camps; but he is particularly so in respect of those dogmatic scientists and philosophers that insist that the almost 1:1 correlation of brain activity and conscious experience is proof that the former causes the latter.
"The question, Hick observes, "is how a conscious experience can be identical with a physical event in the brain, as distinguished from being precisely correlated with it; and to assume that the correlation constitutes identity simply begs that question. The belief that they are identical is not an experimentally established fact or the conclusion of a logically cogent argument but an affirmation of naturalistic faith. . . ."

"(W)ithin the parameters of normal science," he notes, "there is no possible observation or experiment that could ever decisively contradict mind- brain identity if it is false, and accordingly it is not a scientific hypothesis. In moving from examples of two apparently different physical objects or events being the same object or event differently described to the idea that brain and consciousness are related in the same way, we have moved from a scientific hypothesis to a theory that is in principle unfalsifiable."
There is no way short of introducing the scientifically dubious claims of parapsychology to prove that the materialist/rationalist school is wrong, Hick notes. (The ability to demonstrate that a theory is wrong, being one of the tests that all truly "scientific" theories must meet in order for them to be considered as being truly "scientific.") And, since "there is no way in which the idea that an electro-chemical event and a moment of consciousness are identical is falsifiable if false," Hick cannot help but conclude that "(t)he identity thesis is a theory stemming from a presupposed naturalistic philosophy, (and is) not (therefore) a scientific hypothesis."

Not that this resolves the chicken-egg question of whether consciousness or bio-chemistry is the first factor in the causal chain that forms, and informs, our conscious experience. It is equally impossible, again short of reliance on subjective parapsychology, Hick notes, to demonstrate the separate existence of consciousness, in and of itself.

Therefore, he concludes, "there is, surely, more than just a gap that a more complete knowledge of the brain may one day bridge, because no knowledge of the workings of the neural networks, however complete, can convert correlation into identity." Rather, "in spite of being so widely assumed within our culture, that mind-brain identity is a scientifically established fact, Hick states, "its status is that of an article of naturalistic faith." And it is, thus, exceedingly difficult, he points out, for philosophy "to avoid the conclusion at which so many neuroscientists have arrived, namely, that the nature of consciousness is a mystery."

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with Hick pretty strongly. I think the position that minds are nothing more than what brains do is not just defensible, but has great advantages over the alternative. I've written on my position here:


    Basically, I think philosophical zombies are impossible.