Elizabeth Dawber has described the current progress on neuroscience research regarding the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Dawber’s research tries to shed light on a very difficult problem in science. She writes that, perhaps, science will advance to the point where one of the following three theories will be shown to be the best reflection of reality. According to this philosophy, new mysterianism, commonly known simply as ‘mysterianism,’ is a philosophical position that proposes that the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness cannot be resolved by humans. Specifically, the unsolvable problem is how to explain “qualia.” MRI is one tool that may shed more light on the hard problem.
With the help of MRI, we can tell where the brain activity appears when we are sad or happy. Neurotransmitters (chemicals) can be artificially introduced to produce emotions or stimulate parts of the brain to produce these neurotransmitters. This leads to the suggestion that there are interactions between neurons and their connections which underlie consciousness. It is still not clear how the interactions of these brain parts lead to consciousness but this theory is based on observation of the correlation between emotions and the activities of the brain.
This theory holds that, if the brain does not produce consciousness, then there must be an agent, external to the physical brain, that interacts with the brain to produce conscious experience. This approach infers that consciousness and the physical body are separate entities. Dualists claim that, when someone experiences enlightenment or psychedelic trips or mediation, such experiences indicate that there must be another realm beyond the physical world. Dualism suggests that we live in two worlds, one physical and the other non-physical.
Panpsychism claims that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the physical world and varies in particles depending on the complexity of the organism. In panpsychism, every material thing, however small, has an element of individual consciousness. Even those things that are not normally considered to be ‘living’ have some element of consciousness. Panpsychism attributes ‘more’ consciousness to more complex physical entities. Thus, humans are ‘more’ conscious than dogs, dogs are more conscious than their associated fleas and fleas are more conscious than the viruses they carry. Panpsychism attempts to “explain away” the phenomenon of consciousness.
The principle of Occam’s Razor (attributed to William of Occam) purports that, when attempting to explain any phenomena, no more assumptions should be applied than are necessary. In recognition of this principle, I would favour physicalism as it is the most simple and logical explanation. Physicalism leads to the conclusion that the material brain creates consciousness. I hope that further research will conclusively confirm that physicalism offers the best path toward an understanding of consciousness.
Dualism must first demonstrate that a supernatural, non-physical realm must exist, in order for the philosophy to make sense. Sadly, scientific evidence focuses on physical evidence. Humans have yet to devise any sort of technology that might demonstrate the existence of non-physical phenomena. Even an MRI machine that can identify minute interactions in living brains ultimately uses material forms of evidence.
The part of panpsychism that I like, is its view that consciousness is a fundamental feature of all life in the physical world. Dogs and fleas are self-aware, as many animals are. The lowly earthworm, if prodded with a sharp needle (in laboratory conditions; don’t try this at home), react. Panpsychists use this as evidence that consciousness, awareness, even bacteria act in ways that suit their environment. Even plants, as reported lately in Scientific American, have developed intriguing insect defending mechanisms, some by wrinkling their leaves so they are harder to walk on while others exchange gases to protect the plant from pathogens. Brassica, the genus of plants that includes cabbage and mustard, kill of patches of their own leaves where butterflies have laid eggs. Some kind of simple consciousness or awareness might be at play here. The problem with panpsychism is determining the ‘cut-off’ between entities that exhibit consciousness and those that do not. Where do we draw the line?
The purpose of consciousness and awareness, in all living matter, is to connect associate living entities with all other life forms on earth, or perhaps in the universe, enabling life to develop and survive. Since the ‘higher’ consciousness and awareness depends on material brains, individual consciousness dies with the death of the original organism. This conclusion is obvious to me. But the question of what is meant by reference to ‘higher’ and ‘more’ complex organisms remains.