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What is it like to be a bat—both the mammal and the baseball kinds?

What can science tell us? I want to take a few posts to explore scientific limitations (and yes there are some) and consider why those limitations should never be set in stone. And why we as LDS need not be threatened by the materialist assumptions used in science. My example comes from something, held by some philosophers of mind, as not being amenable to scientific explanation: Consciousness.

What do we know about consciousness scientifically? There are two problems in the scientific study of consciousness. Philosopher David Chalmers has divided the problem of consciousness into two kind—the easy problem and the ‘Hard Problem.’ The easy problems are those that we think are solvable with the scientific method. These are currently being pursued by brain science. Problems such as: How does the brain process sound and color? How are memories stored? What parts of the brain are used in logic, language, and learning? All of these are actively being pursued and are thought to be amenable to discovery by researchers. What we have discovered about consciousness and the brain is breathtaking.

Consciousness does not seem to occur in just one area of the brain. When researchers look at brain activity, the entire brain seems to be involved in generation consciousness. Work using brain imaging as shown that the brain is a marvelously complex instrument that contains some regions specialized for handling certain tasks and with some tasks using vast areas of brain resources.

Take vision for example. There are neurons that specialize in detecting edges or colors. Others that work on detecting everything from motion to faces. This information is sent to other areas of the brain for further processing and combining. There have been over thirty brain modules for processing vision. However, we are not aware of exactly what these modules are all doing in combination. At the end of all this complex processing we have the visual experience that we are so familiar with. The sight of that rose outside your window is the result of processing in your brain that would make the most powerful supercomputers look like an abacus.

Even so, sorting out this kind of basic brain processing is considered part of the easy problem. Such problems are easy because they are thought to be solvable, even if we haven’t managed to solve them yet. With these kinds of problems, we believe that with just a little more human insight, dogged determination, a well stocked laboratory, and copious funding, we can eventually solve these perplexing questions about how the brain works. Someday there will be a scientific paper detailing these aspects of brain functioning that will fit snugly in our corpus of brain science.

Consciousness, on the other hand, seems to be the hard problem because we don’t even know how to approach the problem. Why should the processing of the brain create experience? Why does the subjectivity we are so familiar with bubble up from all this complexity? A sense of the hardness of the hard problem can be glimpsed in the following thought experiment.

Philosopher Peter Jackson invites us to consider a neurobiologist of the future named Mary. Mary knows everything there is to know about red color processing in the brain. She can tell you exactly what happens from the time that light enters the eye, until you see red in your mind’s eye. She can produce not only an explanation of every neuron in the brain’s role in red color vision, she understands how they relate together to form the large coherent picture of sight. However, Mary is colorblind. She has never seen red. Jackson then asks the question, If Mary’s color vision is restored, does she know anything new about seeing red? Most of us would answer that of course she does. However, this introduces the Hard problem that I mentioned above. We’ve agreed that Mary has learned everything there is to know about the brain’s processing of the color red. And yet despite knowing everything that science can give us, there is still something that Mary did not know about the color red: its experience.

The truth of the matter is that our consciousness arises from our brain in such a way as we have yet to give a good scientific account of how or why it happens. Consciousness does not occur in one part of the brain. There is no place in the brain that researchers can point to and say, “Ah! Here’s the seat of consciousness!” No. It seems that the whole brain is involved. How you experience consciousness also is profoundly mysterious. Look at the unique aspects of consciousness. It is undivided. It’s a whole unit. Can you find different parts of your consciousness? Can you say, ‘This thought is coming from the left part of my consciousness a little to the right of that thought?’ No. It’s a unified experience. You only have one.

Our conscious experience of the world does not seem to be amenable to scientific explanation. Consciousness seems uniquely impenetrable and inexplicable from the scientific method. We can’t even tell who has it and who does not. Is a bee conscious? Some people think they are. How about a mouse? A dog? A dolphin? A chimpanzee? Some scientists draw the line at a certain level of brain development, say at mammals. Others claim that animals and babies have no conscious experience. But the truth of the matter is everyone’s just guessing. Science has yet to come up with a method to detect if anyone or anything thing is having a conscious experience. There is simply no test you can perform to identify it. David Chalmers thinks thermostats might be conscious. Can you prove him wrong? So getting at it has no foothold for science. But there it is, in you and me, and happening, as far as we know, in every member of our species. There is something that it is like to be you, as philosopher Nagle pointed out. There is presumably nothing it is like to be a chair, but there is something it is like to be you. Nagle then posits the question, What is it like to be a bat? (He meant the flying mammal kind, although the consciousness of a baseball bat is a way understudied area of research). What is it like? It all rests on weather a bat is conscious or not.

Next time we’ll explore why science should never give up on materialist explanations—even if you don’t thing one is possible.

Lastly we’ll speculate wildly on brain/spirit connections and explore why we don’t need to be threatened if there is a ‘God Module’ (a part of the brain used in processing spiritual experiences) and how its existence or nonexistence is irrelevant to the things that frame our most valuable spiritual commitments.

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9 comments to What is it like to be a bat—both the mammal and the baseball kinds?

  • Coincidentally, I’ve just been looking over your consciousness paper again. I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts on this.

  • Cap

    Great Post! I am looking forward to the next posts that cover this issue. I have been reading, and thinking about the implications of consciousness with LDS thought. (You’re paper was included). This subject makes me curious. Thanks for the great post!

  • David

    Are you promoting intelligent design here? (Our consciousness is irreducibly complex, not amenable to scientific explanation, etc.)

  • SteveP

    Heavens no! It’s not that it’s complex that’s the problem, it’s as Jackson pointed out above, there is no way to get at subjectivity. There is no way to even know if another person is conscious because subjectivity is personal. Not that it can’t be studied, but it will always rely on first person reports. Science cannot know what it’s like to be me, even if they understood everything about the brain. This isn’t a complexity issue per se. It’s just that first person experience not be gotten at except by the first person. In the example above, by stipulation, Mary knows everything there is to know scientifically about seeing the color red, yet is still missing some knowledge about the experience of seeing the color. That’s why its called the hard problem. There does not seem to be a way to scientifically even approach it. This is different than ID which postulates that there are barriers to evolution because there are jumps (they think) that evolution can’t get around. But consciousness is a different kind of problem. Mary still doesn’t know something even when she knows everything science can provide about the brain’s processing. No reason to invoke ID. There are atheist philosophers who argue about the Hard Problem. This has nothing to do with postulating an intelligent designer to end-run complexity.

  • ID folks are apparently moving into neuroscience territory. (Link)

    I’m hoping that at some point in the series you can address whether you would view these folks as corrosive on neuroscience as on evolution, and why.

  • The Right Trousers

    Corrosive? That’s too harsh.

    They have a good point, and as a de facto statistician, it warms the cockles of my sadistic heart to hear someone talk about what is essentially sample complexity. Irreducible! they say. Smoothness! say the biologists. Nonergodic! they shout. Smoothness! say the biologists.

    And then the biologists are forced to consider exactly how much smoothness they’re positing, and also ponder over how much the trillions of hideously correlated samples we’ve got from Earth’s random walk really say about evolution *in general* (i.e. off-planet, off-timeline). In short, they’ve got to better *quantify* their *qualitative* reasoning, and that’s always a good thing.

    You only say it’s corrosive because you vehemently disagree. Me, I like to watch the wrastlin’.

  • SteveP, I want to alert you to a recent paper. True, consciousness probably involves many areas of the cortex, but in order for general anesthetics to work effectively they need to block processing in the posterior parietal cortex (not the anterior parietal where the somatosensory cortex is located). Evidently, this posterior region is critical for normal levels of consciousness. See: Alkire et al. (2008). Consciousness and anesthesia, Science 322: 876-880 (a November issue). Evidently, our interests coincide in terms of cognitive neuroscience and evolution.

    Also, as a side-note: I was a little surprised to read positive comments about evolution from the Backyard Professor. See his recent blogs.

  • SteveP

    S. Faux. Thanks for the headsup on the Science paper and the Backyard Professor site. It’s always nice to find allies!

    Jared, I think they even was sillier in their brain views than in ID (if that is possible). Their idea that you can to scientific research on non-material aspects of the brain seems to mis-understand science pretty deeply. So I think their whole agenda is all part of thier attempt to get fundamentalism taught in the schools.

    #6 I couldn’t follow what you were arguing.

  • b

    I don’t think the problem is just that consciousness is subjective- there are respected literatures on many subjective psychological components of consciousness (e.g., emotion, metacognition). There’s something bigger, scarier, more fundamentally different about consciousness above and beyond those types of components than “just” subjectiveness. This seems to be implicit in the reasoning that posits consciousness as a Hard Question.

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