Can the atoms of your brain read and understand these words? Can they feel emotions, experience anger, disappointment, frustration, pride, etc? Can they see the world the way you do, and know that it was different yesterday, and will be again tomorrow? Can they put themselves in someone else’s shoes, or imagine all the things you can possibly imagine?
Of course not. Those abilities and countless others like them are unique to our conscious interface with the world.
And yet scientists are convinced that lump of fat inside your head makes your ever changing mind, thoughts, ideas, desires, memories, passions, aspirations and the rest. The problem is, they don’t know how brains could do all of this, or even what consciousness is.
The hard problem.
Trying to figure out ways that brains might create conscious experiences is known in the philosophy of mind business as ‘the hard problem’. The biggest reason why it’s so hard is that all scientific thinking is based on the premise that the only stuff that exists is physical matter in all its states and forms. This materialist kind of thinking says that we and our conscious minds are reducible to fundamental particles of matter, along with everything else in the known universe. (The notion isn’t actually that brain atoms ‘are conscious’, but that they’re capable of somehow generating consciousness.)
The hard problem is so complex that if we confine ourselves to materialist-reductionist thinking, it could stay hard indefinitely. On the other hand, were we to introduce a less dogmatic, non-reductionist approach, new possibilities might arise. But there’s something in the way.
Occasionally someone makes a brave attempt to push the envelope and is accused of intellectual heresy by the self-appointed guardians of materialism, who fear we might breach the membrane separating our safe material reality and maybe fall off the edge of the world. The materialist dinosaurs are scared because more enlightened inquiry threatens to lead us into the forbidden realm of metaphysics where lurk ghosts, time travel, and the strange goings-on of the quantum world in which paradoxes aptly illustrate the way our understanding of reality can’t simply be an open and shut, black and white matter.
The keepers of materialism have no pre-ordained claim to absolute truth, nor even to knowing what’s around the next bend. Yet they’re ever ready to cite the plainly ridiculous ideas of Creationist belief and intelligent design (and maybe even remind us of the Roman Catholic church’s old claim that the Earth was the center of the cosmos) just to discredit opposition to equally dogmatic reductionist ideas.
We really don’t need complex and highly authoritative-sounding arguments detailing the finer points of evolutionary theory to prove that life works regardless of any outside interference from some old guy in the clouds. Some critical introspection might be useful though.
Smart, but in a stupid way.
Clever as we think we are, the scope of our ability to reason is limited by our origins and our circumstances. We’re here in the guise of mere genetic organisms and occasionally need to be reminded that our version of ‘reality’ comes in little boxes that get gradually bigger as our knowledge expands. We must constantly try to see beyond what already exists within our preconceived notions of reality, because limited as we are, we know tomorrow’s reality will be different for our ever-developing consciousness.
As genetic organisms we’re also fiendishly complex; regardless of our intellectual dexterity, our personal view is subject to psychological factors that sometimes inhibit a truly open minded approach. We mightn’t actually want to reason in ways that we’re perfectly capable of because of outdated intellectual baggage. Procedural doctrine can close off avenues of thought that might otherwise lead to new insights into even the hardest problems.
None of us is fully protected from these traditionally enshrined limiters, or the urge to sometimes use existing knowledge to stifle new thought. This is hardly different from permitting religion to do our thinking.
An open mind.
None of us is born with a closed mind; whether we choose science or religion, our mind only becomes narrowed by experience. In either case it often seems as if we’re walking backwards into the future, only seeing how things were.
In science we’re caught up in a view of reality where cause and effect, linear time, entropy and the other conventions of science are practically sacrosanct. Of course this is how the material universe works, and not only at classical scales. Even at the quantum scale we feel an irresistible urge to make interpretations based on a reality we already know. Yet the reality we know is almost certainly only one aspect of a bigger, more comprehensive reality.
Visionary ideas emerge not from doggedly building on what we already know, but from forcing our mind open to ideas that often seem counterintuitive. Just because our brain is biomachinery doesn’t mean our conscious mind has to work the same way. It’s for us as consciousness to train our brain to work the way we ‘think’ it should.
Consciousness itself is all that sets us apart from materialism and the biological machinery of evolution, and only by setting us apart does it allow us to ponder the most perplexing question of all: what are we? Whatever some of us might think to the contrary, we have no satisfactory answers.
There’s just too big a gap between what brains are made from and how they work, and what consciousness is made from and how it works, for these two utterly different phenomena to have any appreciable causal connection. Everything points to consciousness and matter as two fundamentally different but equally natural – though not necessarily equally real – phenomena. But what does real mean?