Materialist Neuroscience and the ‘Hard Problem’ of Consciousness

Michael Egnor

Materialist neurologist Dr. Steven Novella recently took Deepak Chopra to task for Chopra’s support for mind-body dualism. Chopra, a respected physician and professor of medicine who has written and lectured extensively on spirituality in medicine, had pointed out the numerous problems raised by a dogmatic materialist understanding of the mind-brain problem. Materialists believe that the mind in a sense doesn’t exist as a separate entity; it’s merely a state of the brain, caused entirely by neurons and neurochemistry. Novella states:

Deepak … plays the “false controversy” gambit. He wants us to keep an open mind “until the argument is resolved.” But there is actually nothing left unresolved. Deepak has presented no mysteries that cannot comfortably be explained within the completely material paradigm of neuroscience. His “invisible will” is nothing more than a trick of semantics – not an established phenomenon; not a genuine mystery to be solved. He says the material paradigm is “untenable” but has presented nothing that makes it so. [emphasis mine]

Is there genuinely “nothing left unresolved’ in our understanding of the mind-body problem? Are there “no mysteries that cannot comfortably be explained within the completely material paradigm of neuroscience?” The truth is that there remain enormous mysteries, and virtually nothing about these mysteries is resolved. The mind-body problem is perhaps the most active and contentious area of modern philosophy, and there is very little “resolved”. Of the many issues raised by philosophers, perhaps the most important is the “hard problem of consciousness” formulated by philosopher David Chalmers.
Chalmers divides the problems of consciousness into the “easy problems” and the “hard problem”. The easy problems are the sort treated routinely by neuroscientists. These are problems such as ‘what is the neuroanatomical correlate of arousal?’ or ‘which neurotransmitters are associated with depression?’ Of course, these questions are not easy in a scientific sense, but they are tractable by the methods of science, which are, for the most part, methodologically materialistic.
The “hard problem” of consciousness is another matter entirely. The hard problem is this: why are we subjects, and not just objects? Why do we have subjective experiences? Descriptions of neurophysiology are all third-person — neurons do this, serotonin does that. Yet consciousness is experienced in the first person — ‘I,’ not ‘it.’ How is the ‘third person’ matter in our brains related to our actual first person experiences? The easy problems of consciousness relate to objective phenomena — neurotransmitters and action potentials. The hard problem of consciousness is qualitatively different — it’s the problem of subjectivity. As Chalmers explains, the hard problem “persist[s] even when the performance of all the relevant functions [e.g. neurochemistry] is explained.”
How could physical processes give rise to an inner mental life? What is the scientific link between matter and self-awareness? Materialist neuroscience offers no explanation for the subjectivity of our existence, and it’s difficult to see how objective phenomena ever could provide a satisfactory explanation for subjective mental experience. How can subjective experience be explained completely by investigation of brain tissue and neurochemicals?
Hence dualism. Dualism is and always has been an effort to come to grips with the quite real and most intractable problem in understanding the mind: the fact that we experience it in the first person. Dualism accommodates first person experience as well as the profound differences between mind and matter. It is consistent with many religious traditions, and with the way that the vast majority of people understand themselves. Many of the greatest scientists and philosophers have been dualists, from Plato, Aquinas, and Descartes to pioneering neurophysiologist and Nobel Laurate C.S. Sherrington, pioneering epilepsy neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist John Eccles, and philosopher of science Karl Popper. Indeed, dualism has plenty of problems of its own, and dualists are honest about the problems. For example, how do the mind and brain actually interact? How can mind ‘substance’ interact with matter ‘substance’ without violating conservation laws in physics? Dualists acknowledge these problems. Materialists, on the other hand, dismiss the real problems, and, like Dr. Novella, blithely assure us that they have, or will have, all the answers. It’s just chemical-meat marinade, so trust them, and don’t ask so many questions.
Dr. Novella’s silly assertion that “there is nothing left unresolved” is promissory materialism, not real science or even respectable philosophy. It’s just materialist dogma. Neuroscience has been an effective method for sorting out some of the easy problems of the mind. Yet unlike dualism, materialist monism fails to even address, let along solve, the hard problem of the mind: why we are subjects, and not just objects.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.