Physics is for wimps

Matt Springer may not have been throwing down the gauntlet in his Oct. 21 post, but I’m picking it up. In a well-written and well-reasoned short essay, he lays out just what is so difficult about the study of consciousness:

PZ Myers, as is his wont, recently wrote here that after his death he will have ceased to be. In other words, his experience of consciousness will have ended forever. Can we test this?

He goes on to describe some possible ways you might test the hypothesis. It turns out it is very difficult.

[PZ Myers] could die and then make the observation as to whether or not he still existed. If he still did he’d be surprised, but at least he’d be able to observe that he was still somehow existing. If he didn’t still exist, he’s not around to make the observation of his nonexistence. So personal experimentation can’t verify his prediction.

Springer goes through some possible ways one might use neuroscience to test the hypothesis. None of them are very good either. In the end, he concludes:

Where am I going with this? Nowhere, that’s the point. Clean experimental testability is why I like physics.

Now, I like physics, too. I almost majored in it. But I like cognitive science more for precisely this reason: developing the right experiment doesn’t just take knowing the literature or being able to build precision machinery, though both help. What distinguishes the geniuses in our field is their ability to design an experiment to test something nobody ever thought was testable. (After that, the engineering skill comes in.)

Hands thrown up.

Many people threw up their hands at answering basic questions like how many types of light receptors do we have in our eyes or how fast does a signal travel down a nerve cell (“instantanously” was one popular hypothesis) until Hermann von Helmholtz designed ingenious behavioral experiments long before the technology was available to answer those questions (and likely before anyone knew such technology would be available).

However, while Helmholtz pioneered brilliants methods for understanding the way the adult mind works, he declared it impossible to ever know what a baby was thinking. His methods wouldn’t work with babies, and he couldn’t think of any others. A hundred years later, however, researchers like Susan Carey, Liz Spelke and others pioneered new techniques to probe the minds of babes. Spelke managed to prove babies only a few months old have basic aspects of object perception in place. But Spelke herself despaired of ever testing certain aspects of object perception in newborns, until a different set of researchers (Valenza, Leo, Gava & Simion, 2006) devised an ingenious experiment that ultimately proved we are born with the ability to perceive objects (not just a blooming, buzzing confusion).

“I study dead people, everywhere.”

I’m not saying I know how to test whether dead people are conscious. I’m still stumped by much easier puzzles. But a difficult question is a challenge, not a reason to avoid the subject.

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