Is It Possible For Science To Explain Consciousness
Is it possible for science to explain consciousness?

Just read this article:

It talks about a book by Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, in which he argues that consciousness cannot be reduced to physical states of the brain.

The writer of the article disagrees with Nagel that consciousness is 'more than physical', saying that:

"Reducing the spectacular aspects of the mind to another reality that is not understandable, not physical and not observable other than by our own introspection and intuition does not solve any of the issues, it makes them worse. It is, however, precisely that magic trick which has been used by dualists for years..."

(Nagel apparently also argues that there is no evolutionary explanation of why we are conscious. This seems quite interesting but not particularly relevant to my topic - perhaps I am wrong about this and it is highly relevant, in which case I'll take a closer look...)

I wouldn't. I'd read "The View From Nowhere" instead. Jason

The main distinction seemed to come from two different theories of consciousness: one in which the conscious mind is 'physical' (or arises from purely physical processes) and one in which there is a sort of dualism separating the mind and body.

Important not to lump being physical with arising from physical processes. Jason

If consciousness lies beyond physical phenomena, this would make the idea of a scientific explanation a lot more troublesome...(I won't say impossible because I need to think a lot more about this.)

If consciousness is purely physical, then this would seem to support the possibility, not necessarily of accurate, but at least of relevant, scientific explanations. Right. That would be great. The problem is that it's tempting to explain the wrong thing, or rather, in Chalmers' terms, to explain the easy thing while thinking you've explained the hard thing. Jason

If so, what would a 'good' explanation look like?

In regards to your last comment (above) about the easy vs. hard problems of consciousness, I'm beginning to think that the hard problem of consciousness goes entirely beyond what science, or indeed any discipline, can tell us. It basically says that what we're looking for is a sort of 'experiential understanding', which surely can only be gained from experience itself (which in this case seems impossible).

So my thoughts on what a 'good' scientific explanation of consciousness would look like are restricted to the 'easy' problem of consciousness - good explanations in this case should follow the same sorts of criteria we look for in scientific theories in general (e.g. good agreement with evidence, simplicity, elegance, agreement with other establishes theories, etc.).

Whilst this doesn't give us an answer to the hard problem of consciousness, I don't think that exploring the easy problem is entirely irrelevant. For example, whilst we can never experience what it is like to be a bat, we can conceivably come up with scientific principles suggesting that there is something it is like to be a bat. We can also perhaps get a sense of whether it is likely based on physical evidence, that being a bat is very different to being a human.

An example is the scientific study of the sensory organs of animals. Based on scientific theories and evidence, we make the knowledge claim that bees see lightwaves in the UV region of the spectrum. Whilst this doesn't allow us to 'experience' the bees' UV vision, we get a hint of how 'what it is like to be a bee' might resemble and differ from 'what it is like to be a human'. We can even try to guess how it might be to experience this UV vision - whilst some might argue that this is as hopeless as trying to experience the consciousness of a round of cheese, it might be that in some cases, hybridising aspects of our own consciousness can get us a little closer to understanding foreign experiences.

This doesn't seem like a very satisfactory response to the hard problem of consciousness (it's definitely not an answer to the problem!), but given that it is a problem that may be impossible to solve completely, it may be a case in which all we can look for are some solid guidelines to steer our understanding.

Note that above I've really only been talking about a scientific approach to understanding consciousness - many philosophically-based theories have also been proposed. I plan to look at what a 'good' theory might look like in these cases too.