Question Marks and Hard Problems

Steve Ruis in a post at Class Warfare Blog has brought to my attention an article, Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God? by Michael Shermer in Scientific American.  The answer to the questions from Shermer in short is “no”. Ruis seems to think we will understand all three and that we already have good starts on them. Much depends on exactly what we mean when we say we understand or explain something.

Shermer begins with the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, the problem of whether we can we ever really explain qualia of the internal experience we have as conscious beings. The free will paradox is that we think of ourselves as autonomous beings, able to make decisions and choices, yet we know from science that in the classical, non-quantum world, we live in a deterministic universe. Do we really have free will? God, as supernatural creator of the universe, can never be proven to exist since by definition [S]He lies outside the bounds of nature and outside the province of science.

Shermer aligns himself with the Mysterians, a term originally used by Owen Flanagan inspired by the sixties rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians. While mysterianism is most closely associated with the hard problem of consciousness, more generally applied, it asserts we can never really understand the working of nature. Colin McGinn of this school has suggested, “It may be that nothing in nature is fully intelligible to us.”

Ruis’ approach to the questions is more pragmatic and scientific. He asks what does it take to prove something or say we understand it. The answer is different for different audiences. “The problem is not the issues themselves completely (labeled as “final mysteries” by Shermer), but involves the attitudes of the audiences receiving the conclusions,” he writes.

What proof would compel an atheist to accept the existence of God? What proof would cause  a non-atheist to stop believing in God’s existence?

What would constitute an explanation for the hard-problem of consciousness? If we could trace the “red of a rose” from the color sensitive cones of the eye through the neural pathways to the visual and cerebral context, have we explained the red? I think perhaps the “hard-problemers” would still argue we haven’t explained the red. Perhaps we haven’t, but in the sense they want proof, we never have explained anything. Has physics really explained gravity? Physics can measure gravity and predict things about it but has it ever explained intrinsically what it is or why it exists?

Shermer’s three questions are really closely related. God is an answer the question of why is there something rather than nothing. Consciousness is what allows us to recognize there is something. Free will is either an illusion or fact produced by consciousness. The three may be less meaningful as philosophical questions than as pointers, like Zen koans,  to some underlying reality we might never explain or understand.

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