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Reviews — From the May 2017 issue

Head-Scratcher

Can neuroscience finally explain consciousness?

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Discussed in this essay:

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett. W. W. Norton. 496 pages. $28.95.

Consciousness Explained, by Daniel C. Dennett. Back Bay Books. 528 pages. $18.

The great dream of the modern scientific age is a total synthesis of human knowledge. The behavior of living organisms — including such complex human behavior as political organization and culture making — will be explained in biological terms, biology explained in chemical terms, chemistry explained in physical terms, and physics, finally, explained in terms of a handful of immutable laws governing matter. The baroque structures into which this matter is capable of configuring itself might require us to adopt a chemical or a biological or even an anthropological stance at different moments, but these interpretative frameworks do not introduce new evidence into the picture. A biologist can’t rely on some mysterious élan vital to do explanatory work, just as an anthropologist can’t account for a tribal burial rite by asserting the existence of ancestral spirits. The physical facts are all the facts.

A scientist studying a model of a human brain, 1960 © akg-images/ullstein bild

A scientist studying a model of a human brain, 1960 © akg-images/ullstein bild

This project has been remarkably successful, particularly in the century and a half since Charles Darwin bequeathed us the concept of evolution through random variation and natural selection, which began as a biological theory but has since been applied to every field of human knowledge. Only one category of facts has so far resisted assimilation into this scheme: mental facts. The trouble can be framed in many ways, but it ultimately comes down to the difficulty of explaining subjective experience in objective, material terms.

That human consciousness might not be subject to the same laws that govern the physical order was for a long time considered a feature of the grand synthesis rather than a bug. The whole undertaking was kicked off by René Descartes’s strict separation of the thinking thing — the res cogitans — from the body that contained it: the soul belonged to an immaterial realm of mental substance, the body to the brute mechanical world. The latter could be studied empirically, the former only through introspection. Descartes was notoriously vague on how mental and physical substances might interact, but whatever its metaphysical justification, Cartesian dualism had its uses, especially during an era in which encroaching on the religious domain could be dangerous for scientists. Even today, it survives in concepts such as Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria,” the idea that science and religion concern themselves with essentially different questions and thus don’t have to be reconciled. The scientific worldview, however, is epistemically greedy. It wants to provide a comprehensive picture of reality, and no picture that leaves out something as fundamental as human experience itself is complete enough to be really satisfying.

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