Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hard Problem of Consciousness

Philosopher/cognitive scientist David J. Chalmers formulated an expression to characterize our quest for knowledge of consciousness. In 1996 he called it “the hard problem.” The term has since become associated with the scientific subject of consciousness. Consciousness is indeed a “hard” problem. Chalmers claimed that “Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind….There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.” Understanding consciousness does not yield to the usual methods of science, analysts claim.

Many students discover the study of the phenomenon of human consciousness is esoteric—a subject for specialists. Non-scientists read definitions such as “consciousness is self-awareness” or “consciousness is the brain basis of subjective experience, cognition, wakefulness, alertness, and attention.” They nod approval, then go about their “subjective conscious experience.” We wonder whether a classroom teacher would ask students for a definition or explanation of consciousness on a science test. Many scientists specializing in systems biology may be stumped.

Scientists frequently search for “reductive” explanations in their study of the phenomena of science. This means searching for explanations in terms of causes which produce observed effects. Cause and effect is part of a reductionist explanation for ongoing events whether we prepare our meals, drive down the street in our automobiles, or attend an athletic contest. 

Human consciousness is a completely different story. It occurs within a highly interconnected neural information processing system in our brain. Does this information help us answer the “hard problem?” No, it does not. But it focuses our attention on the great unknown: What is consciousness? After reading volumes on the subject, I yield to the uncertainty of the experts. We don’t really know how to appropriately define consciousness. Our lack of knowledge, however, does not prevent scientists from researching humanity’s famous “hard problem” or producing relevant observations on the subject.

The human brain is an interface between the mental and material world. The conscious being is controlled by chemical and electrical impulses, the material basis of the conscious mind. These effects and impulses comprise the boundary between the mental and material world. Millions of words and thousands of books and commentaries have been produced without a satisfactory reductive explanation of what consciousness really is. Consciousness is clothed in mystery.

A website search for lists of scientific mysteries almost invariably includes the subject of consciousness. Another topic appearing on such lists is the origin of life. Both topics are mysterious and so far unanswerable. Science professionals will continue their search for naturalistic explanations of consciousness and the origin of life because finding naturalistic explanations is the self-defined mission of scientists. Naturalistic explanations are desirable. The Creator has produced a universe in which secondary processes occur “naturally” but are supported by God’s continuous sustaining power at the same time. Each phenomenon does not demand a supernatural, transcendent miracle. On a mundane level our life is filled with situations where natural processes sustain our life’s needs. A high level miracle is not needed, for instance, when our auto mechanic makes needed repairs on our vehicle. Auto repairs have easy reductionist explanations but there are no reductionist explanations for consciousness.

Our previous blog post on Emergence of Consciousness discussed consciousness having its origin and sustenance in a divine miracle:

A favorite scripture verse comes to mind. We do not present this verse as a “proof-text.” However, the thoughts expressed may be relevant as we contemplate mysteries such as the origin of life and the origin of consciousness: “In him we live, and move, and have our being…” Acts 17:28 (ESV). “In him we live…” could refer to the origin of life in a divine miraculous act; “…and move” may relate to physical causes and effects; and finally “…and have our being” could speak of the divine, sustaining, miracle power of God present with us from moment to moment—our conscious being.

Many in the science profession would discount supernaturalism in their study of consciousness because most scientists tolerate only naturalistic explanations for any phenomena. The subject of consciousness may never yield to a naturalistic explanation. Our blog has allowed for supernatural explanations for some phenomena where evidence points in that direction.