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Some philosophers worry that neuroscience will make painfulness disappear. Broadly, the objection is that if a science reduces a macro phenomenon to a micro phenomenon, then the macro phenomenon is not real or disappears (e.g., Searle, 1992). Using this conception of ‘reduction’, it is then reasoned that because it is observably obvious that a pain is real, it cannot be reduced to neuroscience. This misunderstanding trades on an idiosyncratic understanding of reduction, where it is expected that in science, reductions make macro phenomenon disappear. This expectation is confused.

Temperature was reduced to mean molecular kinetic energy, as recounted above, but no person expects that temperature therefore ceased to be real or became scientifically disrespectable or redundant. Visible light was reduced to electromagnetic radiation, but light did not disappear. Instead, scientists understand more about the real nature of light than they did before 1873. Light is real, no doubt; and so is temperature. Some expectations about the nature of temperature and light did change, and scientific progress does occasionally require rethinking what was believed about phenomenon. In certain instances, previously respectable properties and substances sometimes did prove to be unreal. The caloric theory of heat did not survive rigorous experimental testing; caloric fluid thus proved to be unreal. While no one expects that painfulness will cease to be real or become scientifically disrespectable if it is successfully explained by neuroscience, everyone believes that debilitating chronic pain will be controlled and eventually disappear as a result of scientific reduction. But this belief may turn out to be quite wrong. Simple prudence suggests that we wait and see.

Thus, the reduction of a macro phenomenon means only that there is an explanation of the phenomenon. Scientific explanations of phenomenon do not typically make them disappear. As neuroscience matures, the future of current conceptions of painfulness and sensory experience generally will rely on the empirical facts, and the enduring accuracy of current macro level theories (Churchland, 1993).

Churchland, P.M. (1993). Evaluating our self-conception. Mind and Language, 8, 211-222.
Searle, J.R. (1992). The Rediscovery of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever” – A Personal View.

The problem of consciousness – its fundamental nature – is thought to be a hard problem; in fact, a really, really hard problem. Possibly the hardest of all!

Some philosophers (e.g., Colin McGinn, Zeno Vendler, David Chalmers) argue that a science of consciousness is impossible given the poverty of what is currently known and not known about consciousness.  Science is clearly overreaching itself, the philosophers wisely aver.

However – can it be told how hard consciousness is, as a problem, when not a lot of science is available on it? How is the difficulty or tractability of a problem judged?

The composition of stars was thought to be a really hard problem: you get burnt as soon as you try to obtain a sample. However, it turned out that this problem was readily solvable with the discovery of spectral analysis.

Explaining the perihelion of Mercury was also thought to be readily solvable; however, it required Einstein’s scientific revolution in physics to solve it. Thus, the initial estimate of the difficulty of this problem was quite wrong.

When not much is known about a problem, it is impossible to judge how difficult or tractable the problem is. Thus, personal convictions or feelings of certainty should be avoided, and replaced by scientifically informed judgements. This conclusion may lack glamour, but that is all that can be grinded out when ignorance is a premise. 

Is consciousness a problem amenable to scientific explanation? Well, as above, it is hard to tell, given what is currently known about consciousness at the level of the brain. 

What is the next step? Simple: do science. 

Just get on with it.

This does not imply that armchair theorising has nothing of value to contribute to the problem of consciousness. Quite the contrary. But, factually informed philosophizing can be sensitive to the empirical dimension of a problem, and that includes learning lessons from the history of science. This seems to me to make philosophy all the more wiser. Surely a good thing. 

Why turn your back on the relevant data?

Philosophers sometimes assume that there is a logically valid inference from ‘Consciousness cannot now be explained’ to ‘Consciousness can never be explained’ if the premise ‘It cannot be imagined how consciousness could ever be explained’ is added.

But – adding that premise is merely a psychological fact about the philosopher.

When ignorance is a premise, nothing meaningful follows.

‘Consciousness is mysterious’ – this is a fact about us and what we currently know, not about the nature of consciousness. It is not a property of the problem of the nature of consciousness.

‘We cannot now explain consciousness’ – this does not mean that we can never explain it, even if we can’t imagine how we could explain it. We have to wait and see what neuroscience turns up.

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Simon van Rysewyk

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