Can neuroscience explain consciousness?

Consciousness – n. the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself. 

Some philosophers are convinced that there are phenomena that science can never explain. One example of this is consciousness – a distinguishing feature of thinking, feeling creatures such as ourselves and other higher mammals. Much research into the nature of consciousness has been done by neuroscientists, psychologists and others. But despite all the new scientific findings, a number of recent philosophers claim that there is something intrinsically mysterious about the phenomena of consciousness that no amount of scientific investigation can eliminate.

Is consciousness scientifically inexplicable? 

What are the grounds for this view? Their basic argument is that conscious experiences are fundamentally unlike anything else in the world in that they have a ‘subjective’ aspect.  Consider for example the experience of watching a sad movie. This is an experience that will have a distinctive ‘feel’ to it and while neuroscience may one day explain the complex goings-on in the brain that produce our feeling of sadness – it cannot explain why watching a sad move feels the way it does. These philosophers argue that the scientific study of the brain can at most tell us which brain processes are correlated with which consciousness experiences and while scientific information is interesting and valuable it does not tell us why experience with a distinctive subjective feel (such as sadness) should result from the purely physical going on in the brain.  Many people believe this to be the case also.

Science – the art of the possible 

This argument is compelling but it is controversial and is not endorsed by all philosophers, let alone neuroscientists. Indeed, in response to this argument the philosopher Daniel Dennett published a book in 1991 defiantly titled Consciousness Explained. Most neuroscientists would sometimes accuse those philosophers who argue that consciousness must always elude scientific explanation of being dogmatic and having a lack of imagination and predict that in the not-too-distant future neuroscience will deliver a radically different type of brain science, with radically different explanatory techniques what will explain why our experiences feel the way they do.

Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible

Unfortunately there is a 2000-year-long tradition of philosophers trying to tell scientists what is and is not possible and later scientific development have often proved the philosophers wrong. Only time will tell whether the same fate awaits those who argue that consciousness must always elude scientific explanation.

My money is on the neuroscientists with this one!


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