The Hardest Problem in Science?
A nice thing about guest lecturing at another university is that for a change, one is treated as a genuine sage. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, or it might seriously undermine that most elusive of all personal assets: genuine modesty. In any event, my well-deserved modesty (see Churchill’s apt description of his political rival, Clement Atlee) was being challenged one day, not too long ago, when an earnest audience member asked me—ME, of all people!—what was the most difficult unsolved problem in science.
I answered without hesitation: How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness.”
It’s a hard one indeed, so hard that despite an immense amount of research attention devoted to neurobiology, and despite great advances in our knowledge, I don’t believe we are significantly closer to bridging the gap between that which is physical, anatomical and electro-neurochemical, and what is subjectively experienced by all of us … or at least by me. (I dunno about you!)
I vividly remember deciding as a child that I would be the first to solve this mind/body problem and figure out how the brain actually functions. After all, it’s the brain that does the thinking and experiencing, so how difficult could it be to ask that brain simply to look at itself and report back to my mind? Sure enough, while lying in bed one night, eyes tightly closed, concentrating intensely, I was treated to a clear image of nerve cells, complete with dendrites, axons, etc., the whole neuronal megilluh doing its thing … whereupon I realized that I was recalling a photograph of brain cells from a biology textbook! (Shades of James Thurber’s wonderful story, “University Days,” in which the author recounts his difficulty in biology class seeing anything through a microscope, until one day, he finally saw, he really and truly saw something (!), whereupon he began furiously drawing it … until his lab instructor pointed out it was simply the reflection of his own eye in the ocular lens.)
To be sure, there are lots of other hard problems, such as the perennial one of reconciling quantum theory with relativity, whether life exists on other planets, how action can occur at a distance (gravity, the attraction of opposite charges), how cells differentiate, and so forth. But in these and other cases, I can at least envisage possible solutions, even though none of mine actually work.
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