Neuroscience has given rise to one of the most absurd and pathetic versions of reductionism ever seen, one that purports to “explain” one of the most complex realities we know — the subjective experience of consciousness — simply by pointing to physical phenomena that seem to accompany it. It’s like saying that cheese tastes good because it’s made of atoms. Far be it from me, of course, to disparage the idea that cheese is made of atoms or that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it seems like this approach not only doesn’t answer, but actively blocks the asking of the most important and interesting question: how did the observed complex phenomenon arise out of the physical process?
The attempt to “explain” subjective experience by reference to the physical processes of neurons and hormones consists essentially in trying to explain what we already basically know (I feel sad) by what we can never directly experience (my hormones are acting up). In many cases, the “explanation” is simply a translation of typical descriptions of subjective experience into the terms of neuroscience. A great example of this is a New Yorker profile of the Churchlands from a few years ago, which portrayed them doing just that in their everyday life. Instead of saying that they were exhausted from work, they would describe the chemical process at work. It struck me as pathetic and sad that they would think further information was being added in this process.
People were able to learn a lot of interesting things about matter without knowing that the level of chemistry was grounded in the level of sub-atomic particles — indeed, without knowing what “atoms” were at all. They were able to learn a lot about evolution without knowing about the genetic vehicle, and in fact scientists still don’t really know precisely how genes give rise to traits. It’d be insane to say, “Well, now that we know about quarks, all the questions of chemistry are answered,” or, “Now that we know about genes, there’s no need to study actual animals anymore.” Doubtless more information about the “lower” or more “foundational” level would contribute to the study of the “higher” or “phenomenal” level, but not if the study of the lower level leads you to believe the study of the higher level is already redundant.
It is probably the case that an account of the connective tissue between the brain and the subject — the “dream-work,” if you will — is going to have to be much more speculative than most contemporary philosophers would really be comfortable with. It would probably look a lot more like Freud’s metapsychological writings or Beyond the Pleasure Principle than like a work of “proper” science or philosophy. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin. But unless people are willing to do that kind of work, it seems to me that just bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.