How the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience (i.e., what is it like to be a bird or dog or whatever) has been labeled as ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Science journaloist Michael Hanlon writes that claims to be making progress on solving this using the latest developments in neuroscience, computation, and evolutionary science have proved to be premature.
For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.
Despite such obstacles, the idea is taking root that consciousness isn’t really mysterious at all; complicated, yes, and far from fully understood, but in the end just another biological process that, with a bit more prodding and poking, will soon go the way of DNA, evolution, the circulation of blood, and the biochemistry of photosynthesis.
Committed materialists believe that consciousness arises as the result of purely physical processes — neurones and synapses and so forth. But there are further divisions within this camp.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today. I do not think that the evolutionary ‘explanations’ for consciousness that are currently doing the rounds are going to get us anywhere. These explanations do not address the hard problem itself, but merely the ‘easy’ problems that orbit it like a swarm of planets around a star. The hard problem’s fascination is that it has, to date, completely and utterly defeated science. Nothing else is like it. We know how genes work, we have (probably) found the Higgs Boson; but we understand the weather on Jupiter better than we understand what is going on in our own heads. This is remarkable.
This interview discusses the question with a neuroscientist who explains what is meant by an extended mind.
In this interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the PBS series Closer to Truth, the UK philosopher, writer and retired neuroscientist Raymond Tallis offers his nuanced view of the extended mind thesis, proposed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998. Their paper ‘The Extended Mind’ shifted the bedrock of modern philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, and eventually became the most cited philosophy paper of the decade. Its thesis was that our consciousnesses are constantly integrating and being moulded by outside objects, including other people, in ways that suggest that the mind extends far beyond the confines of the skull, or even the skin. Somewhat controversial upon its publication, the paper’s central idea gained greater popular traction as innovations in technologies such as medical implants and smart devices seemed to narrow the gap between human cognition and external objects. Two decades on from the paper’s publication, Tallis finds much to admire and to critique in its central contention, embracing the notion that our minds are in no way constrained to the brain, while rejecting the idea that devices such as smartphones open up novel pathways for understanding consciousness.
I did not find Tallis’s argument’s persuasive and it seemed like the interviewer Kuhn, although working hard to understand what Tallis was saying, shared my skepticism. While it is undoubtedly true that the workings of our mind and consciousness manifest themselves through their interaction with the external world, and that new technologies can change the way that we interact, that does not mean that those external entities are parts of our mind and consciousness, as Tallis seems to be suggesting, unless I am reading him incorrectly.
As one might expect from my above comments, I am a materialist. It seems to me to be a perfectly sound basis for understanding the world. That does not mean that we have materialist explanations for everything as yet. One of the things that I find hard to understand is how people can think that there exists something, whether it be a soul, mind, consciousness, or whatever, that is somehow disconnected from the brain and can operate independently of it. Hence the idea that it is somehow extended and can exist outside of the brain puzzles me though some philosophers take this idea seriously. To me it has always seemed somewhat obvious that what we call the mind and consciousness are embodied in the brain and have no existence outside of it. It dies when we die. Just because we have not worked it out completely does not mean that there is something mysteriously different going on,
Physicist Adam Frank argues that the well-known interpretation problems of quantum mechanics undermines the current confidence in the materialist position.
Today, though, it is hard to reconcile that confidence with the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics. Newtonian mechanics might be fine for explaining the activity of the brain. It can handle things such as blood flow through capillaries and chemical diffusion across synapses, but the ground of materialism becomes far more shaky when we attempt to grapple with the more profound mystery of the mind, meaning the weirdness of being an experiencing subject. In this domain, there is no avoiding the scientific and philosophical complications that come with quantum mechanics.
Rather than sweeping away the mystery of mind by attributing it to the mechanisms of matter, we can begin to move forward by acknowledging where the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics leave us. It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?
Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of.
To be quite honest, I do not understand the point that Frank is making. Yes, we have not as yet solved the problem of consciousness and it is clear that finding a solution is not going to be easy. Whenever there is a difficult problem in science that has withstood solution for a long time, scientists tend to loosen and vary the assumptions used to address the problem. But to posit that this difficulty is a sign that consciousness has non-materialist elements does not seem to be warranted.