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?

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