(Or "I Have No Idea Where I Am Standing")
(I started writing this about a month ago,I guess. There was an on going debate on Twitter which started with Pat Churchland calling Philip Goff's some comment on metaphysics of neuroscience the stupidest idea she had ever heard and then turned into a panpsychist vs physicalist 'debate'.)
There has been a “debate” going on between Physicalists and Panpsychists for the last few days. I have had my inconsequential part in it and want to share several points.
There is this point I am going to call naive-physicalism, where people think that if we know enough about brain - it's structure, function, processes inside, etc.- we will be able to understand consciousness: We will know where brain generates consciousness, we will know we experience what when brain does X and that is that. There is nothing more to it, "if you put atoms in the arrangement of the brain and make it work this way it generates consciousness". Okay, but why don't the other arrangements do that? Is it the arrangement of the atoms/molecules/neurons that result in consciousness? Is it the processes? Why those processes (and those arrangements)? Why that organ? Why not my liver? Does my liver has consciousness? How can we know that? After we have a complete understanding of the brain, can we have a test for consciousness? Or are we just going to say that "that's the arrangement that has consciousness, all other possible arrangements don't matter"?
Let's say we accept birds, mammals and reptiles have consciousness and nothing else has it. Are we going to search for shared similar structures among these animals? What if we can't find any?
I don't argue that if we go and study brain enough we will not know a lot of things about human consciousness. We will. We are going to, but that's what it is going to be: Knowledge about mechanisms generating human consciousness, which is very important and valuable in itself. It will be a very beautiful time when we have tons of knowledge about consciousness. It will be very nice to say "When you use this ultra high precision TMS on this place in brain you can turn off the perception of red", "Oh yes, these 65 neurons firing together is Middle C, and when you turn them off *turns them off* you won't hear anything", beautiful times.
However, will we know why that system is red, why the other system is middle C? Will we know why middle C is middle C? I doubt that. Because, I doubt the experience is something that you can extract from observation. We will need a thorough explanation for why that system generates that and how. This is where physicalists seem to fail. Of course there are two solutions which would save Physicalism, one I thought of -but probably not original- and one from physicalists:
1- We will know a huge lot of the systems involved in consciousness and then some genius will come and provide a very elegant, mathematically beautiful solution and we will look at it and say "I don't understand it, but people who understand it say it works, so this is how conscious experience arises from neuronal activity", like Relativity.
2- We will know a huge lot of the systems involved and it will go the way of Élan vital/ Phlogiston, it will be explained away somehow through the systems involved.
In my opinion, the first is still a possibility, Universe is a weird place, but I believe the second one is a bit of a wishful thinking. Yet, I may be wrong. I think that conscious experience is not going to be explained away like fire or life. Explaining the fact that a piece of meat has conscious experience is probably not like discovering oxygen or realizing "oh, life's just self assembling machines all the way down".
At least that's my take on it, and after reading myself I realize I really do assume one cannot understand -in the sense of explaining the "why"*- the subjective from the objective, but if someone argues that it is doable and has some concrete ideas, instead of just saying "it is the systems themselves and that's it", I would like to hear it.
*: I would like to say the difference of "why" is the difference between a possible theory of quantum gravitation and Newton's theory of gravitation: The first explains the mechanisms and "how" it happens in a lower lever, which is ,I presume, the "why" of it, yet Newton's theory just shows how things happen and cannot explain the underlying mechanisms.