Tom Jonard's Irreducibility of Consciousness Page

One of the ways we seek to understand the world using science is through reduction.  Waves are reducible to the massed motions of molecules.  The the large scale characteristics of matter are reducible to chemistry.  Chemistry is reducible to atomic physics.  The whole is the sum of its parts and science is a process whereby we pull the world apart in order to understand how it goes together.

Will such a program work with the mind?

If science could tell me which of my neurons were firing when I thought of a cup of hot chocolate would it have explained my thought?  Such an explanation is not a difficult eventuality to imagine perhaps even coming to fruition in the not too distant future.  If I compare the map or image or other representation of my brain's operation with my thought of a cup of hot chocolate however I find that they are two different things.  The former representation of brain process is not the same as the latter experience of the thought.

This is not a new observation but goes back to Spinoza who I believe said that if one could see the inner workings of the brain they would in no way resemble the experienced processes of thought.  We have come further along in being able to envision how the brain works but the dilemma remains the same.  The firing of neurons and synapses in their wonderful electro-chemical dance is still nothing at all like a thought experienced first hand.  The best that we can seem to hope for is observation of correlation between specific brain function and thoughts.

The situation is made even curiouser when we realize that thinking about our neurons firing is itself another thought and not the one their description may be meant to represent.  If I wished to know exactly what my brain was doing when I thought of the cup of hot chocolate I'd have to have someone record it for my later study.  To concurrently see what brain processes accompany a given thought would not be possible.  Rather we can only see what our brain was doing when we thought something else.

Correlation is another explanatory tool of science.  It is in fact the central feature of empiricism and the key to our understanding of cause and effect in the physical world.  So an explanation of the mind and consciousness based on correlation of physical and mental events would not be a mere correlation.  In fact it is probably all that we will be able to do to resolve this hard problem but it will I think be enough.  Nevertheless while I think that this will be the form that a scientific understanding of the conscious mind will take I do not see therein a resolution of the Irreducibility of consciousness.

The conscious mind is unique among all the phenomenon we study in science in that we have both an interior and an exterior view of it.  For a long time in the history of the Philosophy of Mind we were deluded into thinking that our interior view of the mind provided special insight into its workings.  Science dispelled that illusion.  Now I think we are well on the way to explaining mental processes on a scientific basis.  And I also suspect we are on our way to deluding ourselves again into thinking that the explanations we will arrive at are complete.

Science excels at explaining external, physical phenomenon.  The brain and neurological phenomenon fall into this explanatory realm of science.  Science has also excelled by replacing subjective explanations of the world with objective ones.  We no longer rely on special revelation either from gods or other people to understand how the world works.  Rather observation carefully (structured at least so as to not fool ourselves) and repitition thereof is sufficient to know the world.  In this sense science is objective -- feelings and opinions do not enter in.

However our internal experience of the mind is and can only be subjective.  Here we are not seeking the root of common experience but the root of subjectivity itself.  It seems likely that correlates between brain function and neurological phenomenon will be developed sufficiently to provide an objective explanation of the latter.  However I don't see how we can reduce interior and private mental experience  to these.  We may come to believe the coming explanation of our thinking and feeling.  We may come to understand it.  But in the end I think there is nothing to prevent a conscious mind from saying, "That's interesting, but that's not me".

Knowing what brain processes accompany thoughts and feelings we would achieve an objective understanding of the conscious mind but the experience of consciousness might well remain untouched and intact.  In this way the subjective, interior and private phenomena of the conscious mind may simply continue to elude science.

Created December 23, 2002, 
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard