This article explores one episode in the history of science that continues to pit philosophers against scientists today: the debate about consciousness. David Chalmers and other philosophers view consciousness as a hard problem and universal feature, incapable of understanding through physical (and scientific) means. Scientists critique this view, asking how non-physical mental facilities produce physical sensations such as pain. Instead, scientists such as Christof Koch, look to brain mapping to explain consciousness, opening up the possibility of a wide variety of phenomena containing consciousness.
As the article notes, this issue dates back to Descartes' theory of Cartesian dualism in the 17th century. Since that time, science has largely ignored the issue of consciousness, returning to it only as neuroscience grew more sophisticated. Debates evolved about the relationship between objective processes and subjective experiences, leading some scholars, such as Colin McGinn, to claim that the brain in its current state of development will never be able to explain consciousness. On the other hand, Particia Churchland argues that '[t]he history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon was utterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it,' but eventually more research and collaboration between philosophers and scientists led to solutions and explanations.
As the author concludes, '[y]et there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.'
Questions like these, which straddle the border between science and philosophy, make some experts openly angry. They have caused others to argue that conscious sensations, such as pain, don’t really exist...or, alternatively, that plants and trees must also be conscious. The Hard Problem has prompted arguments in serious journals about what is going on in the mind of a zombie...Some argue that the problem marks the boundary not just of what we currently know, but of what science could ever explain. On the other hand, in recent years, a handful of neuroscientists have come to believe that it may finally be about to be solved – but only if we are willing to accept the profoundly unsettling conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become conscious, too.