Our local U. of Washington psychology professor and Darwin advocate David P. Barash comes from the “My Back Hurts Therefore It Wasn’t Designed” school of evolutionary thought, as he wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed a few years back (“Does God Have Back Problems Too?“). It’s a nice surprise, then, to find him confessing what he regards as the seeming impossibility of imagining a material explanation for the “hardest problem in science.”
Which is? “How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call ‘the hard problem of consciousness.'” Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Barash concedes that to say the problem is “hard” considerably understates the problem. He writes as “an utter and absolute, dyed-in-the-wool, scientifically oriented, hard-headed, empirically insistent, atheistically committed materialist, altogether certain that matter and energy rule the world, not mystical abracadabra.” Yet:
It’s a hard one indeed, so hard that despite an immense amount of research attention devoted to neurobiology, and despite great advances in our knowledge, I don’t believe we are significantly closer to bridging the gap between that which is physical, anatomical and electro-neurochemical, and what is subjectively experienced by all of us … or at least by me. (I dunno about you!)
To be sure, there are lots of other hard problems, such as the perennial one of reconciling quantum theory with relativity, whether life exists on other planets, how action can occur at a distance (gravity, the attraction of opposite charges), how cells differentiate, and so forth. But in these and other cases, I can at least envisage possible solutions, even though none of mine actually work.
But the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can’t even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don’t even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run. Let’s say that a particular cerebral nucleus was found, existing only in conscious creatures. Would that solve it? Or maybe a specific molecule, synthesized only in the heat of subjective mental functioning, increasing in quantity in proportion as sensations are increasingly vivid, disappearing with unconsciousness, and present in diminished quantity from human to hippo to herring to hemlock tree. Or maybe a kind of reverberating electrical circuit. I’d be utterly fascinated by any of these findings, or any of an immense number of easily imagined alternatives. But satisfied? Not one bit.
Barash can get away with saying this, but we congratulate him for doing so all the same. Our friend James Le Fanu said it already, however, with his characteristic elegance in his wonderful book Why Us? ENV’s David Klinghoffer summarized in our review:
[P]hysical explanations of how [the brain] gives rise to the mind consistently explode upon takeoff. The brain is no computer, where every operation can be traced to physically describable events: “Neither the findings of the PET scanner nor Professor [Eric] Kandel’s scientific explanations can begin to account for the power of memory to retain…visual images over decades and retrieve them at will, any more than they can account for remembering the words of a familiar hymn or recalling a telephone number.”
That’s just for starters. The brain-computer analogy utterly fails to clarify how “just a few thousand genes might instruct the arrangement of those billions of neurons with their ‘hardwired’ faculties of language and mathematics.”
And a good thing that is, too. Because if the mind really did reside entirely in the brain, if the mind were genuinely reducible to the brain, that would mean the end of free will — a computer ultimately can do only what it’s programmed to do (in this case, programmed by a mindless nature) — and that in turn would spell the end of moral responsibility.
Of course Barash says he’s confident that a solution will be found, and that would have to be so, since he’s also said that science compels us to reject a belief in free will: “There can be no such thing as free will for the committed scientist.”
We’ve long thought that the issue of whether men and women are free and thus morally responsible is the real nub of all the issues that divide materialists from theists.