Neuroscience readies for a showdown over consciousness ideas


INTRO: Some problems in science are so hard, we don’t really know what meaningful questions to ask about them — or whether they are even truly solvable by science. Consciousness is one of those: Some researchers think it is an illusion; others say it pervades everything. Some hope to see it reduced to the underlying biology of neurons firing; others say that it is an irreducibly holistic phenomenon.

The question of what kinds of physical systems are conscious “is one of the deepest, most fascinating problems in all of science,” wrote the computer scientist Scott Aaronson of the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t know of any philosophical reason why [it] should be inherently unsolvable” — but “humans seem nowhere close to solving it.”

Now a new project currently under review hopes to close in on some answers. It proposes to draw up a suite of experiments that will expose theories of consciousness to a merciless spotlight, in the hope of ruling out at least some of them. If all is approved and goes according to plan, the experiments could start this autumn. The initial aim is for the advocates of two leading theories to agree on a protocol that would put predictions of their ideas to the test. Similar scrutiny of other theories will then follow.

Whether or not this project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, narrows the options for how consciousness arises, it hopes to establish a new way to do science for difficult, contentious problems. Instead of each camp championing its own view and demolishing others, researchers will collaborate and agree to publish in advance how discriminating experiments might be conducted — and then respect the outcomes.

Dawid Potgieter, a senior program officer at the Templeton World Charity Foundation who is coordinating the endeavor, says that this is just the beginning of a sustained effort to winnow down theories of consciousness. He plans to set up several more of these “structured adversarial collaborations” over the next five years. He is realistic about the prospects. “I don’t think we are going to come to a single theory that tells us everything about consciousness,” he said. “But if it were to take a hundred years to solve the mystery of consciousness, I hope we can cut it down to fifty.”

Sounds like academics just presuming a problem solvable to prolong their own jobs.

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