9 February 2007:

Larissa MacFarquhar Profiles Pat and Paul Churchland

In The New Yorker this week (but not online), Larissa MacFarquhar profiles a remarkable couple of Canadians who divide their time between Vancouver and San Diego, Pat and Paul Churchland. The Churchlands have been married for nearly forty years, and spent much if not most of their waking hours in extended conversations about the nature of philosophy. When they were starting out, philosophy in the English-speaking world was pretty much a matter of zealous tidying, or rooting out the ambiguities and ambivalences and developing an understanding of language that would prevent misunderstandings. This seemed cloistral to the Churchlands. They came to believe that the terms that philosophers ought to be scrutinizing were the concepts that scientists, and neuroscientists in particular, were working with. Were these concepts coherent? How did they relate to other experimental concepts? The interplay of experiment and conceptual critique would eventually solve, in one way or another, such philosophical problems as "What is consciousness." They didn't expect to reach solutions anytime soon, however.

Paul and Pat Churchland believe that the mind-body problem will be solved not by philosophers but by neuroscientists, and that our present knowledge is so paltry that we would not understand the solution even if it were suddenly to present itself. "Suppose you're a medieval physicist wondering about the burning of wood," Pat likes to say in her classes. "You're Albertus Magnus, let's say. One night, a Martian comes down and whispers, 'Hey, Albertus, the burning of wood is really rapid oxidation!' What could he do? He knows no structural chemistry, he doesn't know what oxygen is, he doesn't know what an element is - he couldn't make any sense of it. And if some fine night that same omniscient Martian came down and said, 'Hey, Pat, consciousness is really blesjeakahgifdl!' I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience has is just not far enough along."

As all educated people ought to be understand, scientific discoveries can be made only from the vantage of intellectual armatures that are either strong enough to support new weight or brittle enough to shatter. Discoveries do not occur outside of context. Ms Churchland's point is that we don't have a context for a philosophy of neurons. We don't really know What exactly goes on in our minds when we're asked to state three wishes. We don't know quite how our minds make associations. What we know is a smattering of neuronal chemistry and a rough sense of which parts of the brain seem to handle which tasks. Everything else that we know is simply our impression of what it is like to have a brain. We've no idea whatsoever what a thought looks like, even schematically. The previous paragraph continues,

Philosophers have always thought about what it means to be made of flesh, but the introduction into the discipline of a wet, messy, complex and redundant collection of neuronal connections is relatively new. Nowadays, it seems obvious to many philosophers that if they are interested in the mind they should pay attention to neuroscience, but this was not at all obvious when Pat and Paul were starting out, and that it is so now is in some measure due to them.

The problem with explaining consciousness is that there may be no such thing. Not that consciousness is an illusion, but rather that it might be the byproduct of various brain processes, not all of which produce the same kind of consciousness. Consciousness belongs to what Paul Churchland calls "folk psychology." "Conscousness" is a word that speakers of English have found useful in talking about existence and behavior in morally neutral terms (the French conscience obviously makes this a bit more difficult). But it tells us nothing about the brain, not even that the brain is the seat of consciousness. We may assume that it is, but we do not know. Consciousness may turn out to be as nonexistent as the flatness of the earth or the rational superiority of males. All intelligent people are capable of advancing likely explanations for phenomena; science replaces explanation with observation. At the moment, we don't know how to look at thoughts. We don't even know what thoughts really are.

It's in our nature to reduce our ignorance to the answers to a handful of questions that we think we're capable of framing. We have learned, in the course of scientific development from Plato to Feynman, that it's very important to ask the right questions, for when Plato asked his students at the Academy to explain the motion of celestial bodies in terms of uniform circular motion, he sent astronomy off on a wild skitter that wouldn't be cured until Kepler, struggling with Tycho Brahe's mountains of data, decided to ask different questions. But we still think that understanding lies just over the hill of a few hard questions, even though history teaches us that beyond our questions there only lie further questions, ones that we can't conceive of until we answer the ones we're coping with. That's why we wouldn't understand the problem of consciousness if we stumbled on a time capsule from the future. This chill sense of our own ignorance is profoundly unpalatable to most smart people.

The Churchlands, not surprisingly, are a little further along the road of genuine self-awareness than the rest of us are.

One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. "She said, 'Paul, don't speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren't for my endogenous opiates I'd have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I'll be down in a minute'."

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