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The Hardest Problem in Science?

Neurons

A nice thing about guest lecturing at another university is that for a change, one is treated as a genuine sage. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, or it might seriously undermine that most elusive of all personal assets: genuine modesty. In any event, my well-deserved modesty (see Churchill’s apt description of his political rival, Clement Atlee) was being challenged one day, not too long ago, when an earnest audience member asked me—ME, of all people!—what was the most difficult unsolved problem in science.

I answered without hesitation: How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness.”

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!)

I vividly remember deciding as a child that I would be the first to solve this mind/body problem and figure out how the brain actually functions. After all, it’s the brain that does the thinking and experiencing, so how difficult could it be to ask that brain simply to look at itself and report back to my mind? Sure enough, while lying in bed one night, eyes tightly closed, concentrating intensely, I was treated to a clear image of nerve cells, complete with dendrites, axons, etc., the whole neuronal megilluh doing its thing … whereupon I realized that I was recalling a photograph of brain cells from a biology textbook! (Shades of James Thurber’s wonderful story, “University Days,” in which the author recounts his difficulty in biology class seeing anything through a microscope, until one day, he finally saw, he really and truly saw something (!), whereupon he began furiously drawing it … until his lab instructor pointed out it was simply the reflection of his own eye in the ocular lens.)

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.

I write this 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. But I still can’t get any purchase on this “hard problem,” the very label being a notable understatement.

Cogito ergo sum may well be the most famous phrase in Western thought, yet I am convinced that Descartes’ renowned dualism is nonsense, that mind arises from nothing more nor less than the actions of the brain. I am also nearly as confident that some day, we’ll understand how. But in the meanwhile, I can’t help appreciating Ambrose Bierce’s reformulation: cogito cogito ergo cogito sum—“I think I think therefore I think I am,” which Bierce noted might actually be as close to truth as philosophers, at least, have ever gotten.

I can hardly wait for scientists to get closer. Now that would give us all something to be deservedly immodest about.

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