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.