Week 1. Subjective vs. Objective : Is it possible to study consciousness objectively?
Hunjae Lee (VCC Lab)
Yes, it is. Why not? First of all, this is not that good question to ask if something is possible to study or not. It depends on you. And I am an individual who decide to study it. But it’s not my excuse to support this point of view. In this class, objectivity is also not a big problem since it brings on another controversy that applies to various field of research from psychology to social science. Simply, defining operational definition of consciousness in specific research and reasoning quantitative methods with some statistical limitations are adequate opinion in usual. After changing the question to “What is unique characteristic (or difficulty) of consciousness in studying it scientifically?”, it is more worth to contemplate. More specifically speaking, “Can we fully explain consciousness with reductive method or supervenience?”.
Charlmers suggested that the difficulty of studying consciousness can be divided into two category, easy problems and hard one. According to him, consciousness is too ambiguous term so most of neuroscientists are full of confidence with striking achievement, solving “easy” problems in the recent few decades. The easy problems of consciousness include physical processes and mechanisms our experiencing consciousness, such as the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environment stimuli, the integration of information by cognitive system, the difference between wakefulness and sleep, and so on.(Charlmers, 1995). Nowadays, there could be no doubt about finishing easy problems by cognitive scientists in the near future. Almost every scholar including philosophers agree this. Therefore, we can study consciousness and it would be analyzed in this way. It is merely a question of time and effort with developing new technology.
However, remaining hard problem is really challenging issue. it is about whys rather than how. Why neural activity relates to consciousness? Are movements of chemicals and electricity in our brains the same to consciousness?, if yes, then why? Furthermore, consciousness cannot be observed objectively in some aspect, the problem of “Qualia” (Nagel, 1974). One can never know other’s feeling even if they watch same things. The word, “red” expressing color can be same among people but it doesn’t guarantee same quality of experience.
The importance of those hard problems lies on the final consequence or purpose of studying consciousness. If neuroscientists successfully solve the problems, a lot of fields in philosophy including epistemology, ontology that have been developed since they born can be completed. So philosophers are doing thought experiments to prove that consciousness never be reductively explained and logically supervened on physical basis. Now at least in the field of philosophy they are succeed. It means we can never solve the hard problems in these scientific methods of studying consciousness. Concerning hard problems, It is no use study it objectively if no one can refute their thought experiment.
Then, is there no gap to push into the hard problem? I can only tell the hopeful expectation now. While this may seem like easy words, philosophers are responsible for hard problems rather than cognitive scientists. In fact some philosopher like Daniel Dennett argues that hard problems will be solved naturally after finishing all, enormous easy problems. And in the given article, Charlmers give an idea that considering a consciousness experience as fundamental feature, irreducible to anything more basic.(Charlmers, 1995). Hopefully, there would be new approach about hard problems because many philosophers are being interested in cognitive science and there will be new evidence available from incoming researches.
Not only philosophers but also scientists have many things to do. I think who believe that the consciousness is possible to study objectively are in a better position than who oppose it. I don’t know that they can make real experiment after examining philosophers’ thought experiments someday. And it is strongly needed to set the new goal of studying consciousness. Up to now researches are more concerning about relatively simple questions, like in specific circumstances whether we aware certain stimuli or not. As time goes by, if there are many studies about quality or equality of consciousness among different individuals, the answer of this essay would be changed.
Crick, F., & Koch, C (2006). What are the Neuronal Correlates of Consciousness? Hemmen & Sejnowski (2006). 23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience Chapter 23
Chalmers, D. J. (1995). The puzzle of conscious experience. Scientific American, 273, 80-86.
Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat?Philosophyical Review, 83, 435-450.