In “Free Will: Weighing Truth and Experience: Do our beliefs matter?” (Psychology Today, March 22, 2012), neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman writes,
Given a materialist view of the universe, it makes no sense to talk about consciousness or experience at all. We have absolutely no idea what it is about the three pounds of mush between our ears that allows it to perform this trick of being conscious. If you damage one spot in visual cortex, a person will cease to see motion. If you damage another spot, they may lose the ability to see things in the right side of their visual field. But we have no idea why those regions cause us to have conscious experience of motion or the right side of the visual field in the first place. Knowing that an engine can’t run without a particular part is not the same as knowing why it can run because of that part.
I am a neuroscientist and so 99% of the time I behave like a materialist, acknowledging that the mind is real but fully dependent on the brain. But we don’t actually know this. We really don’t. We assume our sense of will is a causal result of the neurochemical processes in our brain, but this is a leap of faith. Perhaps the brain is something like a complex radio receiver that integrates consciousness signals that float around in some form. Perhaps one part of visual cortex is important for decoding the bandwidth that contains motion consciousness and another part of the brain is critical to decoding the bandwith that contains our will. So damage to brain regions may alter our ability to express certain kinds of conscious experience rather than being the causal source of consciousness itself.
I don’t actually believe the radio metaphor of the brain, but I think something like it could account for all of our findings. Its unfalsifiable which is a big no-no in science. But so is the materialist view—its also unfalsifiable. We simply don’t know how to reverse engineer consciousness. Saying that the complexity of the brain explains why we are conscious is just an article of faith—it doesn’t explain anything. We don’t know why our brains are associated with conscious experience and nothing else in the universe besides brains seems to be. Maybe rocks have consciousness but no way of showing this. I don’t believe this—but again, I can’t prove its false.
He hopes that recognizing this will make materialists a bit more humble, but hey, ain’t gonna happen. Historically, materialism does not usually prompt humility, but rather, demands for power over others.
See also: A materialist account of the human mind that allows for free will?
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose
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