Back in 2003 in the beginning of my more committed study of philosophy I was astonished by the confidence of Patricia Churchland and her husband in arguing for the physically reductionist approach to consciousness due to discoveries made by neuroscientists about the brain structure and function.
Even at that time I could not agree with her reductionist ideas. My only argument then was qualia.
Sometime later I came across the ideas of Chalmers who makes a distinction between the hard and the easy problems.
In Chalmers’ understanding, neuroscientists’ discoveries about the brain although wonderful are on their way to solve only the easy problems of consciousness.
Compared to the hard problem of consciousness, it is easy to catalogue brain areas and to create charts and maps indicating which brain cells will be activated in response to a given situation or object.
In addition to Chalmer’s distinction of hard and easy problems, the experiments accomplished over the easy problems also deserve some consideration.
I propose a mental experiment in order to illustrate what may be a shortcoming of the reductionist approaches such as Patricia Churchland’s.
In this experiment someone asks you to reply yes or no to a question. If you mean yes, you must raise your hand, otherwise you should stand still.
Your answer was yes so you raised your hand. The act of raising your hand certainly is not your choice-making process. It just stands for what you have decided seconds before. So far, so good. I think nobody would disagree with that.
The same reasoning may be applied to a brain cell. When you answer yes or no to the question one or the other area in the brain is activated. Is this activation the very process of choice or is it just like raising your hand?
How can anyone say if the brain cell activation is cause or effect? Every reductionist theory these neuroscientists dare to elaborate has to go back to that unsolvable question.
After the collection of data by our senses ‘something’ has to decide between possible answers or the process is rigged? What trigger our choice?
Due to such difficulties in answering this basic question I believe that neuroscientists should refrain from trying to export to philosophical speculative theories – which of course they are also entitled to pursue – the authority they have as scientists. Neuroscientists who assume one of the answers and present this assumption as scientific information are just shedding more confusion in the ambiguous possibilities.
The hard problem of consciousness is not the object of neurosciences, a point of view Churchland seems not to share. But Churchland’s version of materialism has received serious criticisms labeling it as a self-refuting theory.
Whatever may be, the chicken or the egg, if one day neuroscientists manage to control people’s choices I would evidently rethink the distinction of hard and easy problems. For the time being their evidence and logic cannot control my opinion.