Can Science Explain Consciousness?

Sunday, April 19, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 15, 2007

What is it

Humans are conscious, billiard balls are not, and computers aren't either.  But all three are just collections of molecules, aren't they?  What is consciousness, and does it go beyond what science can explain?  John and Ken probe the limits of scientific accounts of consciousness with Joseph Levine UMass Amherst, author of Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by defining consciousness and questioning whether consciousness is anything different from the other functions of the brain, like vision, memory, decision-making, or emotions. John thinks there is something special about consciousness, that there will always be a gap between what science can explain and what conscious experience is like. Ken remains skeptical, but John continues to describe what he feels is a fundamental gap through some wild examples from film and literature.

Ken introduces Joseph Levine, Professor of Philosophy at UMass-Amherst, and John wonders how we could tell if a robot that cleaned our house was conscious--at what point do we draw the line between the conscious and unconscious? Joseph Levine thinks it would be near impossible to draw that line, and uses other robotic examples from Terminator to illustrate his point. Ken pushes for a  further explanation of what "pain" really is, and whether it is the feeling of pain or a system for detecting damage--is there a difference between "detecting damage" and "being hurt"? Joseph Levine discusses the different levels of discourse that deal with these subjects, from ones that only use everyday notions to describe consciousness, to those that discuss everything in terms of outward behavior. Levine believes that a lot depends on how we decide to discuss consciousness, because different ways of talking lead to different conclusions.

John and Joseph Levine discuss the different constructions that have been used by philosophers to describe consciousness. What do we feel when we feel things? Are all of our conscious experiences the same--do you feel conscious the same way I feel conscious? Is it even possible to describe these types of feelings using our language? These questions have been written about for centuries, and John, Ken, and Joseph try their best to parse and discuss possible answers to them. Ken brings up the important difference between the two realms of discourse: science is from a third-person-objective standpoint, whereas feelings and consciousness are necessarily described in very individual, subjective terms. Is this where the explanatory gap originates? Joseph Levine thinks it is more complicated than that, and uses color vision as an example for illustrating his views.

John, Ken, and Joseph Levine discuss consciousness with callers, who wonder about the consciousness of animals, robots in science fiction, and how science can give a suitable scientific explanation of consciousness to laymen untrained in scientific matters.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:26): Zoe Corneli delves into the conscious and unconscious through scientific evidence and Shakespearean soliloquies.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 53:56): Ian Shoales speeds through some of the main concepts surrounding the philosophy of consciousness and some wild possibilities for robotic consciousness and our human future.

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Joseph Levine, Professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts Amherst


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