Consciousness and the Limits of Science

 
 

Is consciousness amenable to scientific inquiry, or is it beyond the scope of Science? Emmet Feerick investigates.

 

Imagine being a rock. What is it like? For the mentally sound, this is an impossible feat. This is not just because rocks don’t think or feel; they lack something more fundamental than that. Now imagine being a dog, or an owl. While this is not exactly easy, you can imagine trading places with them, and experiencing the world from their point of view. The distinguishing feature here is the presence of consciousness. We have it, dogs have it, but rocks don’t.

Consciousness has been a mystery since at least as far back as ancient Greece, with Aristotle’s formulation of what we now call the mind-body problem. This problem centres around the fact that the universe seems to consist of two types of things: the mental and the physical. For scientists and philosophers, the challenge is to reconcile these two aspects of the world. What is the relationship between mind and body? How can something immaterial, like mind, interact with something material, like body? If somebody asks you to point to consciousness, where do you point?

“How can something immaterial, like mind, interact with something material, like body?”

In the last few decades, scientists have answered this question by pointing to the brain. Aided by modern brain imaging techniques, research into consciousness has progressed tremendously in recent years. It has yielded some of what are called the “neural correlates” of conscious states. Using brain imaging, we can “see” fear, or anger, or relaxation in the brain. More than just being able to see states of consciousness like these, we can now see the “signature” of consciousness itself. This signature consists of brain waves within a certain frequency range, and longer-lasting neural activity resulting from novel stimuli, such as when an unexpected tone is heard within a series of similar tones.

Despite this progress, an issue remains. Suppose that at some point in the future, we have discovered the exact signature of consciousness, and have uncovered all of its correlates. Suppose we can look at a live brain scan and say not just “this person is remembering some event,” but “this person is remembering blowing out the candles on the caterpillar cake at their 12th birthday party.” Given enough scientific knowledge, such precision is at present conceivable. Yet the problem is this: Does this get us any closer to understanding what consciousness is? Does linking every state of the brain to a state of the mind tell us what kind of thing the mind is?

A paper published in Nature in February of last year, found three neurons which encircled a mouse brain, and branch extensively, enabling a vast amount of connections to be made. From this discovery, the suggestion has been made that these three giant neurons are responsible for consciousness.

This discovery however does not provide a satisfying answer to the question of what consciousness is. It seems that even a completed science of the mind would fail to answer such a question. There is something “other” about consciousness. Consciousness may arise from the physical brain, but it is not identical to it (though some philosophers disagree on this point). Science appears not to be designed to answer this type of question.

“Consciousness may arise from the physical brain, but it is not identical to it.”

As Noam Chomsky points out though, this limitation of Science may be a feature, and not a bug. The founder of modern Science, Isaac Newton, is often credited with showing the universe to be a kind of massive machine. In this view, it is thought that by discovering the mechanical laws governing it, we may come to understand the universe. This, as Chomsky has indicated, is exactly the opposite of what Newton showed. The mechanical philosophy of the day was in fact (reluctantly) overthrown by Newton. The philosophy was mistaken, Newton contended, in assuming that the universe operated by contact-action; the idea that two objects must touch each other in order to interact. Rather, he said, there was abundant evidence that contact was not required for action – moons orbiting planets, and apples falling from trees, for example. Thus was introduced the notion of forces; action without direct contact.

Newton was derided by his colleagues for apparently returning to the “occult” mysterianism of the pre-mechanistic era. The idea that the universe operated on mechanical principles was so appealing because it meant that the universe could be made intelligible. We can understand the world if it works like a machine, because our intuition takes contact to be a prerequisite for influence.

Yet here was Newton, saying that there were invisible forces controlling matter; something he himself admitted was absurd. Despite this, it was an absurdity to which he felt committed. The reality of forces would have to be accepted and incorporated into our science, whether they made intuitive sense or not. The scientific standards of intelligibility had thus been lowered. When we do science now, we no longer seek to understand the world, but to understand theories of the world.

“When we do science now, we no longer seek to understand the world, but to understand theories of the world.”

This distinction has been the basis of the science of the last 300 years, an endeavour which has been so successful that scientists today have forgotten that it exists. What is now referred to as “body” is not something intelligible to our common sense, but a useful theory.

For Science to understand consciousness, a further reduction of the standards of intelligibility may once again be required; one which includes those aspects of the world we call “mental.” Such change is unlikely to give us an intuitively satisfactory account of the mind-body relationship, but as with the science of the last 300 years, it may yield unthinkable promise.

 

 

 

 

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