I was reminded of that story reading a brief piece by the atheistic materialist David Barash. He recounts an incident after a lecture when he was asked what he thought the hardest problem in science is:
I answered without hesitation: How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness.”What Barash is putting his finger on is the problem of understanding how chemical reactions in the brain could produce sensations like color, sound, fragrance, or taste. How does a mix of neurochemicals cause us to have the experience of red or sweet?
It’s a hard one indeed, so hard that despite an immense amount of research attention devoted to neurobiology, and despite great advances in our knowledge, I don’t believe we are significantly closer to bridging the gap between that which is physical, anatomical and electro-neurochemical, and what is subjectively experienced by all of us.
Another aspect of this problem is explaining how electrons flowing along neurons can generate meaning when we see a paragraph of text. How do the patterns of ink on paper create an understanding in the brain? No one knows, and no one can even suggest a way to find out. This is why this is called the "hard" problem of consciousness (as opposed to the easier problem of mapping the parts of the brain that "light up" when subjected to different types of physical stimuli).
To be sure, there are lots of other hard problems, such as the perennial one of reconciling quantum theory with relativity, whether life exists on other planets, how action can occur at a distance (gravity, the attraction of opposite charges), how cells differentiate, and so forth. But in these and other cases, I can at least envisage possible solutions, even though none of mine actually work.So what does this have to do with what's called the streetlight effect - i.e. continuing to look for an answer where it's easiest to look even though it seems pretty clear that the answer won't be found there? Well, in his next paragraph Barash describes his own "street light":
But the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can’t even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don’t even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run.
I write this as an utter and absolute, dyed-in-the-wool, scientifically oriented, hard-headed, empirically insistent, atheistically committed materialist, altogether certain that matter and energy rule the world, not mystical abracadabra. But I still can’t get any purchase on this “hard problem,” the very label being a notable understatement. Cogito ergo sum may well be the most famous phrase in Western thought, yet I am convinced that Descartes’ renowned dualism is nonsense, that mind arises from nothing more nor less than the actions of the brain. I am also nearly as confident that some day, we’ll understand how.Rather than entertain the possibility that his worldview is inadequate to give a satisfying description of the world Barash insists on looking under the streetlight of atheistic materialism for an explanation of consciousness. Maybe the answer doesn't lie elsewhere, but wouldn't it be wise to at least admit that it might? Wouldn't it be a step in the right direction to admit that his faith commitment to materialism is just that, an act of faith that all explanations are ultimately material explanations. It's not that materialism is an ersatz religion, it's that, for people like Barash, it is a religion.
It's intriguing that even scientists, who are supposed to be the most open-minded and most liberated of thinkers, are really imprisoned in their worldview and unable to imagine that the answers they seek are actually not to be found under that particular streetlight.