It’s a common sentiment, even among many staunch materialists, that we will never understand consciousness. It’s one I held to some degree until a few years ago. But the more I’ve read about neuroscience, the more convinced I’ve become that we will eventually understand it, at least at an objective level.
That’s actually an important distinction to make here. Many discussions of consciousness inevitably include pondering of the hard problem, the problem of understanding how subjective experience, what it’s like to be a conscious being, arises from physical systems. I suspect we’ll never solve the hard problem, at least not to the satisfaction of those troubled by it. It will remain a conundrum for philosophers, no matter what kind of progress is eventually made in neuroscience or artificial intelligence.
But I don’t think it’s reasonable to require that science solve it. Science gave up looking for ultimate understandings centuries ago in favor of settling for pragmatic ones. It was one of the first steps in the evolution from natural philosophy to modern science. The approach, that it is better to settle for what can be understood rather than hold out for a perfect and perhaps unattainable understanding, has been an amazingly fruitful one.
Consider also that the entire history of science has been a demonstration that reality doesn’t match our subjective experience. Subjectively, the earth is stationary and the center of the universe, but we’ve known for centuries that, objectively, it very much isn’t. Subjectively, humanity is very different from animals, but we’ve known since Darwin that, humanity is just another animal species, albeit the alpha of alpha predators.
The objective facts in these areas have taken us farther from our subjective experience. We have nothing to indicate that the mind will be different. Any expectation that a scientific understanding of the mind will explain our subjective experience, why red is red, etc, is doomed, I fear, to be a frustrated one.
Sometimes along with that is any expectation that an understanding of the mind will somehow show our subjective experience is more real than objective reality. It’s an expectation that there is still something different about us, something that makes us special, that separates us from the rest of nature, that vitalism in some form or another is still true. It’s a sentiment that ignores the lessons of Copernicus and Darwin.
I fear that this is what motivates a lot of very intelligent people to speculate that consciousness operates using some form of unknown and unknowable physics. One of the most common is to posit exotic quantum mechanics. Of course, the mind depends on quantum mechanics, just as every other physical system in the universe. But proponents of quantum consciousness often make an assertion that it uses an exotic and unknown aspect of quantum physics.
The problem is that there is zero scientific evidence for anything like this exotic physics. Speculation in this area continues because we don’t yet understand consciousness, and some people conclude that this means there must be some new aspect of reality that we’re not seeing yet. While this lack of understanding remains true, there’s nothing in mainstream neuroscience to indicate that we will need a new physics to understand the mind.
This isn’t to say that the mind may not use certain quantum phenomena such as entanglement. After all, plants appear to use it in photosynthesis, and birds in detecting the earth’s magnetic field. But while biology uses these phenomena, the phenomena themselves still operate according to the scientific understanding of how they work. The mind using them would be, at most, complications to understanding, not an insurmountable barrier.
But the data most strongly indicate that consciousness arises from neural circuitry. This circuitry is profoundly complicated, but it operates according to well known physical laws involving chemistry and electricity. Understanding how the mind arises from it is largely understanding how information is processed in the brain’s neural network.
Because of this, while there are lots of theories of consciousness, I think it’s the ones by neuroscientists, the people actually studying the brain, which are likely to be closest to the truth. (A quick note here: neurosurgeons, such as Ben Carson or Eben Alexander, are generally not neuroscientists.) These theories seem to agree that information integration is crucial. Some stop at integration and declare any integrated information system to have some level of consciousness, leading to a form of philosophical panpsychism. But I think the better theories see integration as necessary but not sufficient.
My long time readers know that I’m a fan of Michael Graziano‘s Attention Schema Theory, but there are other similar theories out there. Many of them posit that consciousness is basically a feedback system, allowing the brain to perceive some aspects of its own internal state. These theories give a data processing explanation for our sense of internal experience, one that doesn’t require anything mystical. These explanations are far less extraordinary than those requiring exotic physics. We shouldn’t accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence, particularly when far less extraordinary theories explain the facts.
Of course, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. Until those gaps are closed, we can’t completely rule out exotic physics or magic, just as we can’t completely rule out that UFOs are extraterrestrials, that bigfoot is roaming the forests of North America, or that ghosts are haunting old decrepit houses. But we can note that there is zero actual evidence for any of these things.
None of this is to say that there aren’t aspects of reality that we may never understand. It’s possible that we’ll never figure out a way to understand singularities at the center of black holes, whether there are other universes, or what actually happens during quantum decoherence. But unlike these problems, which exist in realms we may never be able to observe, the brain shows no sign of being fundamentally beyond careful observation.
Yes, understanding the brain will be hard, very hard. But even though there are many people who don’t want the mind to be understood, neuroscientists will continue making progress, year by year, decade by decade. The gaps will shrink, eventually closing off the notions that depend on them.
I suspect that even when science does achieve an understanding of how consciousness and the mind arise from the brain, there will be many people who refuse to accept it. It will be the same fights that heliocentrism and evolution once endured. Many will look at the explanations and insist that their consciousness, their inner experience, simply can’t come from that. But as I said above, we shouldn’t judge a scientific theory on whether it solves this hard problem.