A physicist's philosophy
Rapid advances in neuroscience have allowed us to look with ever-greater sophistication into the workings of the brain. This has inevitably led to an increasing focus on the mind. The more we understand how the brain works, we reason, the closer we should come to understanding what makes us conscious, sentient beings.
It is an approach that has led many scientists to move into an area traditionally occupied by the philosophers. The latest to join the discussion is physicist Michio Kaku, the co-founder of string theory, who we profile in the current issueof COSMOS.
There is no doubt that Kaku is the possessor of a first-rate mind indeed, but he makes clear it is one of a physicist and not of a philosopher, even if “quantum mechanics is perhaps the most philosophical of all sciences”.
As Kaku says, we can thank physicists (along with engineers and neuroscientists) for the development of the new brain-probing tools. But he believes physics has more to bring to the question of mind than that. The mind is, to him, a physics problem from top to bottom with little room for philosophical speculation.
But the distinction between the two disciplines may not be as great as Kaku believes. For decades now philosophers have believed that the mysteries of the mind will eventually succumb to a completely scientistic approach. But many question whether physics has the conceptual resources to ever provide a full account of the mind.
The battleground now is over consciousness. While philosophers generally hold that the mind’s ability to have thoughts and desires about the world can be explained in terms of information processing within neural networks, no one, they say, has the least idea where even to start to make a link between the firing of neurons and the experience of having a mind. While Kaku dismisses the question, believing it will become as irrelevant as the conundrum “what is life?” that dominated biology for decades, we are not sure philosophers will readily see it his way.
We should welcome this fusion of two great traditions of thought. Philosophy has become the richer for the infusion of some scientific rigour. The question is, will scientists now find they need some of the philosopher’s nuance to explain consciousness? Or will Kaku, who has asked us to believe that our universe is only one among many, prove that the answer has been physics all along?