Studying Subjectivity Scientifically: The Hard Problem Solved?

Warren Kinston 1. January 2014 10:00

subjectivity consciousness science cognition

The scientific culture of the 20th century had a phobia of subjectivity and anything to do with the mind. Not unreasonably, because scientists saw how subjective intrusions disrupt thinking and investigating.

For much of the last century, psychology divided into two battling camps. On the one side were psychoanalytic sympathizers who aligned with Freud's discoveries but not his scientific bent. On the other side were scientific behaviourists who ruled that the mind was non-existent or irrelevant and impossible to study with empirical methods. Most natural scientists were sceptical  that the social sciences were scientific, and reacted negatively to references to consciousness, the unconscious, or non-physical entities.

However, as the century drew to a close, attitudes shifted. In the context of developments within neuroscience, we see cognition, language use and consciousness itself becoming legitimate objects of scientific study. Acceptance within the science community was marked by the prestigious Nature Publishing Co (est.1869) introducing the Scientific American Mind in 2004 as a companion journal to its long-running Scientific American. Given that Our Unconscious Mind is the cover story of the Jan-2014 issue of the Scientific American, it seems that Freud won.

Consciousness is the current focus of much scientific debate and research. The difficulty perceived by many is that the products or elements of consciousness are essentially complicated and ultimately unreachable subjective experiences. Focusing on their neurophysiological, behavioural or social correlates simply misses the point. This is what noted Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, calls the hard problem of consciousness (or see his 2 min video). If subjectivity and consciousness elements are different for everyone, how can we ever do studies, get agreement and derive laws?

But this is a pseudo-problem. Natural science was faced with the identical problem and overcame it.

Consider something objective like motion. Let's look at actual examples: leaves moving in a breeze, a mosquito zig-zagging, a swinging pendulum, a rock bouncing down a bumpy mountainside, a golf ball in flight, the sun moving across the sky, eddies in a stream, crystals growing irregularly. Every movement is so different. So how can laws of motion be found here?

The answer is not controlled experiments as you might think: that is only possible after a prior step. The prior step involves simplifying, by removing all contingent and irrelevant features. So the scientist must first abstract and identify what exists in common in these myriad different situations: i.e. spatial displacement in relation to time. Only after such successful abstraction, can regularities be found. Of course applying those laws in natural settings may be tricky—students in physics labs at school have to explain why their controlled experimental tests invariably deviate from the supposed natural laws.

Scientists feel vindicated if their laws work well enough in specific practical applications, even if many instances of motion still cannot be modeled or predicted. All models and laws are wrong: but some are useful. So it was with Newton's laws of motion. With an understanding of relativity, it now seems that time may not exist or at least cannot be separated from space. That's the science game for you. Reality is messy. Truth recedes just as you grasp it.

Still, when it comes to evolving replicable sharable knowledge, science is the only game in town. So we have to do exactly the same thing in our world of subjective awareness. The first step is not to be bothered by numerous messy and unique instances. Instead we simplify these instances, abstracting and identifying elements that exist in common. We can do this by recognizing that any consciousness element has a function. We then discriminate properties of that element and look for relationships with other elements. We replicate and get other observers to check.

In this process much idiosyncratic subjective quality is necessarily ignored. So the elements and empirical regularities found may be rather difficult for an untrained observer to notice. No matter: we continue to apply and test findings, see if they help in practice, and slowly extend our investigations. We accept without discomfiture that many aspects will remain too difficult to comprehend adequately. We also anticipate that current understandings will change or even be over-turned.

If regularities are complicated or require mathematics, which is inevitable as more is learned, the layperson feels lost and starts to wonder about the validity of these notions. In this context, a scientist-newcomer is no different from a lay-person.

Still, having got conviction about the "what" of consciousness, the scientific mentality starts asking "why?" of its regularities and structure. Conjectures emerge and get tested. Those that pass tests are retained—until they fail and get modified or replaced. As this process develops, the distance to the lay-person's understanding increases further. We have entered the realm of dedicated research, using arcane terminology, and making reference to a large corpus of taken-for-granted knowledge.

This is where the THEE Online Project has now reached. Visit the Architecture Room if you wish to be bamboozled.

But why is the function of consciousness ignored or viewed as a "hard" problem? My speculation is that scientists have blinded themselves by ripping consciousness out of its proper context. The evolutionary function of consciousness is surely to enable long-term endeavours in a tricky social environment. Simple or complex but habitual activities (e.g. driving to work) are typically performed unconsciously; other efforts require explicit awareness of numerous elements. Consciousness as studied in the lab or within an MRI machine is a million miles away from such genuine endeavour. Just follow a brief, standard, easy protocol in return for a small guaranteed payment—if only life were so easy!

Happy New Year for 2014.



Tags: , , , ,

My Investigations

Previous Blogs

Tag Cloud

About the Author

Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

More about the THEE-Online Project

Subscribe to RSS to know when new THEE frameworks are posted.

Register for the TOP Newsletter, currently about quarterly.

Visitor Map