In philosophy, the task of describing first-person consciousness and where it comes from is referred to as the “hard problem.” A favored explanation for consciousness relies on the concept of emergence which suggests that a higher-level phenomenon arises from a mixture of lower-level ones. In this case, consciousness is what you get when you place 100 billion neurons with their 100 trillion connections into a body made from another 37 trillion cells. Like a flock of birds diving and dodging as one, consciousness results when brain and body cells all “go in one direction” moment to moment. George Johnson summarizes emergence and other perspectives on consciousness in a recent New York Times article.
Johnson starts the article by comparing drug and talk therapies for depression suggesting that the efficacy of both shine a light on the two-way street that is the brain and mind.
Depression can be treated in two radically different ways: by altering the brain with chemicals, or by altering the mind by talking to a therapist. But we still can’t explain how mind arises from matter or how, in turn, mind acts on the brain.
What does all of this mean for understanding consciousness? Damned if I can make heads or tails of it, but I ultimately come down on the side that says we will never understand consciousness. It is not called the hard problem for nothing and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that understanding my own consciousness does not necessarily provide me with an understanding of your consciousness or you of yours. Does this open the door to talk of a soul? I suppose so, but such talk is just a bad explanation that avoids the hard work of creating real understanding.
I wish those studying consciousness lots of luck. Studying the brain is not an easy road and it is marked with more than a few pseudoscientific potholes, even for those with the best of intentions as this article from the Center for Inquiry reminds us.
The science of the mind, and the neuroscientific connections between minds and madness, should be a focus of great study despite its halting success and relative failure to date. But we need to be cautious about our expectations, or believing headlines or research programs that overplay their hands, claiming successes based upon what appear to be flawed models and faulty methods and tools.
Neuroscientists and philosophers working on these problems might want to invest in some drugs or talk therapy lest their minds (or is it brains?) get too depressed in their pursuits.