Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?
...the unfinished business of quantum mechanics levels the playing field. The high ground of materialism deflates when followed to its quantum mechanical roots, because it then demands the acceptance of metaphysical possibilities that seem no more ‘reasonable’ than other alternatives. Some consciousness researchers might think that they are being hard-nosed and concrete when they appeal to the authority of physics. When pressed on this issue, though, we physicists are often left looking at our feet, smiling sheepishly and mumbling something about ‘it’s complicated’. We know that matter remains mysterious just as mind remains mysterious, and we don’t know what the connections between those mysteries should be. Classifying consciousness as a material problem is tantamount to saying that consciousness, too, remains fundamentally unexplained. (comment from me: Unexplained like our ability to fly airplanes?)
Rather than sweeping away the mystery of mind by attributing it to the mechanisms of matter, we can begin to move forward by acknowledging where the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics leave us. It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?
Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.
While the materialists might continue to wish for the high ground of sobriety and hard-headedness, they should remember the American poet Richard Wilbur’s warning:
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.