The Martians Explain Consciousness

This is one of the smartest, most perceptive things I’ve read about consciousness and our understanding of it, and I just had to pass it along.

“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 blesjeakahgjfdl!’ I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience is just not far enough along.”

This has stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s a quote from a New Yorker article by Larissa
MacFarquhar (2/12/2007) , called “Two Heads,” about philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, who were among the first modern-day philosophers to argue that philosophers needed to pay attention to science — and in particular to neuroscience — to understand how we think and why we think that way. (I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while, but I kept waiting for the New Yorker to get their shit together and put the article on their website; but all they have is this abstract. Dummies.)

Anyway. The reason I love this passage so much is… well, a lot of reasons. I love how humbling it is. I love how simple and obvious the analogy is, and at the same time how completely it fucks with my head.

But mostly I love that it said what I was trying to get at in my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — but so much more cleverly and succinctly.

This is what I’m getting at when I gas on about how the fact that life is full of mysteries doesn’t mean the answers to those mysteries are metaphysical. But this passage really gets across the overwhelming, awestruck quality of all the things we don’t know, will never know, can’t know. It’s not just that there are things we don’t understand. It’s that there are things that we don’t even have the basic tools to understand. There are things that we — you and me and everyone alive today on this planet — will never understand, or even come close to understanding. There are things that we — the human race — may not understand for hundreds of years, and may indeed never know. Big, important things, like consciousness and free will and the origins of space-time.

Just like the medieval scientist couldn’t have understood about fire.

And even if an explanation somehow appeared to us — an accurate, rational, completely scientific/ naturalistic explanation — it might not even make sense.

I keep trying to come up with some perfect, pithy way to conclude this. But honestly, all I can come up with is: Woo. Freaky.

The Martians Explain Consciousness
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5 thoughts on “The Martians Explain Consciousness

  1. 2

    “we don’t actually know if there are things we’ll never know. we could find out upon death.”
    True. Theoretically, almost anything could happen to us upon death, including finding out all the things we don’t know. It’s pretty hard to prove otherwise — death and dead people are kind of ornery that way. Do think that this scenario might happen, or that it’s likely or plausible? And if so, what makes you think that?

  2. 3

    This reminds me of an analogy in “Hyperspace” by Michio Kaku. He explains higher dimensions by imagining a world of fish living in a pond. They have their fish politicians, fish teachers, fish janitors, etc. Whole little fish world. One day it starts to rain. The fish scientists look up at the surface of the water and see round shapes (or however rain looks from underwater). They study it and come up with theories about the shapes and how and why they are formed. They make predictive models and generally form an understanding about the nature of rain. Of course, they have no concept of a thundercloud, or the actual origins of rain. We’re like those fish.

  3. 5

    I have been searching the internet looking for the answer to a simple question.. On which day did god create the international date line?? Now obviously the answer is that there needn’t be on for when he created the earth, it was flat and held up by pillars of water, therefore when the sun went down then came back up again 12 hours later, it was the morning of the 2nd day, well, technically the 4th day, since he didn’t create the sun till the 3rd day, but these are minor technicalities I suppose, given that so many find it so easy to believe in the bible even though it says the earth is flat and supported by more water. So I guess that’s my question, what is a believers rationalization to the obvious first fallacy (that being to the foundation to the bible itself) that the earth is flat and the fourth morning is the fourth morning everywhere?

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