History Module: When the History of Science Sheds Light on the Philosophy of Mind
Philosophers of mind frequently invoke metaphors from the history of science. For instance, to show how the phenomenal aspect of things could be an original characteristic of matter, property dualists invoke the discovery of electromagnetism in the 19th century. They say that scientists would have liked to be able to describe this phenomenon using known elements, but ultimately had to acknowledge that it was a new characteristic of nature.
Materialist philosophers also support their position by referring to the way that 19th-century physicists addressed the phenomenon of temperature. To account for this phenomenon, instead of citing some new component of reality (like electromagnetism), these physicists turned to simpler mechanical entities—molecules—and defined temperature as a measure of the average kinetic energy of all the molecules in an object. Thus temperature continued to exist for ordinary people, but physicists now knew that it represented average molecular agitation. The materialists apply this same logic to consciousness: conscious states do exist, but not as something above and beyond physical brain activity.
Another parallel that materialists often draw is to compare today’s debates about consciousness with the early-20th-century debates about the essence of life. At that time, the vitalists asserted that living organisms possessed a special innner force known as energy, or by the French term élan vital (“vital impetus” or “vital force”), that gave them the properties of being alive. The materialists opposed this view, arguing that the laws of physics and chemistry would suffice to explain the characteristics of living organisms. As it turned out, the mechanisms of life could in fact be described in terms of molecular interactions, without recourse to any vital force whatsoever. Since the early 1990s, many neurobiological models of consciousness have been proposed in an attempt to similarly reduce the phenomenon of consciousness to material terms, but we still cannot say with certainty that these efforts will succeed once we know more about how the brain functions.
That said, the question “What is consciousness?” may eventually fade into the background once we have distinguished its various components, in somewhat the same way that the question “What is life?” comes up less and less often as biologists empirically discover its detailed molecular mechanisms.
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