The prevailing view among scientists is that consciousness is an emerging property or epiphenomenon of matter, especially our brain. This is sometimes colloquially said as “the mind is what the brain does”. But a sizable minority of scientists, including neuroscientists, believe there is evidence that consciousness cannot be explained by matter, but must itself play some sort of fundamental role.
While researching for this post, I found that this is a pretty active topic recently. I found a good article in New Scientist magazine on this very subject. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, but you can read it for free if you sign up for a free trial account. That article discusses that not only philosophers and some neuroscientists, but also physicists think that consciousness somehow plays a fundamental role. There are also some recent relevant books. All this makes the discussion a bit tedious. The main point of this post is that I don’t think there is enough scientific evidence to conclude one way or the other, but that materialism and some of the alternatives to it discussed below are all plausible. You can read on for the details or skip to the conclusion…
In examining these kinds of arguments it is important to distinguish between science, which acquires knowledge by following the scientific method, and the philosophy of materialism (philosophers also sometimes use the term ‘physical realism’, but I stick with materialism ).
But there is nothing in the scientific method that explicitly says that we should exclude anything but matter from our theories. I have discussed the scientific method here. Basically, the approach is to collect data through observations or experiments. Theories are hypotheses that try to explain the data. There is a rule of thumb called “Ockham’s Razor” that if we have more than one hypothesis explaining the data, we should prefer the most economical or “thrifty” hypothesis (with the fewest assumptions). Introducing supernatural entities is considered a violation of this principle, and this cartoon shows that scientists are not comfortable with that:
Back to materialism, how good is it at explaining everything we observe in the universe, especially consciousness? And are there plausible alternative candidates? There is, in fact, a bewildering array of alternatives to materialism in philosophy, including dualism, pantheism, panentheism, panpsychism, and various forms of idealism.
The 2019 book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, by philosopher Philip Goff, goes into detail on this topic. He discusses the areas where materialism cannot explain consciousness. He also discusses the most frequently cited alternative, dualism (of mind and matter), and points out its shortcomings. Finally, he argues that panpsychism, the theory that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter, is a good explanation for the role that consciousness plays. Panpsychism claims that consciousness is present even in subatomic particles, but that it does not appear as conscious experience until matter is combined in more complex states, such as in the brains of living organisms. He does admit that the question of how consciousness in simple things like atoms combines to create conscious experience in more complex things like brains has been called the “combination problem.” Whether or not you are convinced of the plausibility of panpsychism, this is a very readable account of the question of explaining consciousness.
Another recent proposal is a specific form of idealism that seems plausible, discussed in the interesting book The Idea of the World by philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. Kastrup also argues why materialism and alternatives such as dualism are not satisfactory. He is also not convinced of panpsychism because of the combination problem mentioned above.
Materialism seems like the most logical basis for exploring the universe and everything in it: there is an objective reality “out there”, which we perceive with our senses, composed of matter. Everything is made of matter, including our brain, and our mind is just the action of our brain. But there are some specific areas that are hard to explain.
The first is what philosopher David Chalmers  called the “hard problem of consciousness”: subjectively it feels like something to be conscious people. How does this arise from purely material effects such as the interaction of neurons?
There are also phenomena that seem to indicate consciousness beyond the brain, such as “psi” (or “esp”), near-death experiences, and apparent occurrences of accurate past life memory. These are discussed in The Idea of the World and are also taken seriously by some neuroscientists [2,3]†
Bernardo Kastrup argues in his book that materialism cannot explain all of them. He proposes an alternative model, namely that some kind of “universal consciousness” is the primary entity that exists, and that matter arises from it. He even speculates that consciousness may be the “field” in quantum field theory. Conscious beings such as humans and other higher animals filter this universal consciousness into what they perceive through their senses as their individual consciousness. A simple example: sound occurs in a wide frequency range, but humans can only perceive it in a narrower range of about 20 to 20,000 Hz.
Bernardo argues that this is a more “frugal” explanation than materialism, especially when the latter tries to add additional assumptions to explain the problem area discussed above.
As for filtering universal consciousness into individual consciousness, this reminds me of an argument often made by neuroscientists that I find unconvincing. They argue that consciousness must arise from the matter of the brain, because it is affected when the brain is damaged. But if you make the analogy with a radio, if you damage the radio’s circuitry, the music the radio plays is compromised. But it does not originate in the radio, it is processed by the radio and amplified by external electromagnetic waves.
I found Bernardo Kastrup’s arguments convincing, and I think it is a viable alternative that is not easily rejected. I believe there is not enough evidence yet to decide whether materialism or an alternative like Kastrup’s is valid.
I am a big fan of science, my career was in a branch of applied science and I think science is the best way to understand physical phenomena. I’m not so sure it fully explains consciousness at this point, especially if we insist on materialism. It is true that discoveries may be made in the future as to how materialism explains the challenges discussed above. But the situation reminds me a bit of the second half of the nineteenth century, when the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin said that physics explained everything except a few “dark clouds on the horizon.” Understanding those dark clouds led to two revolutions in physics in the twentieth century: relativity and quantum mechanics. Perhaps understanding consciousness will lead to further revolutions in our understanding.
If there is any kind of universal consciousness, it would be equivalent to the cosmic consciousness which eternal philosophy claims underlies all religions. This means that various belief systems, from materialism to spiritual beliefs, are plausible. Some of these help us become better people and some don’t, which will be the subject of my next corner philosophical post.
Chalmers, D, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press, 1996. Woollacott, M, Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015. Grosso, M, et al, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006
Published by BionicOldGuy
I am a mechanical engineer born in 1953, Ph. D, Stanford, 1980. I have been in the mechanical CAE field for decades. I also have a lifelong interest in outdoor activities and fitness. I had both hips replaced and a heart valve replacement due to a genetic condition. This blog describes my adventures to stay active despite these bumps in the road. View all posts from BionicOldGuy
Published April 2, 20221 April 2022
This post Materialism, and Alternatives – BionicOldGuy was original published at “https://bionicoldguy.home.blog/2022/04/02/amateur-philosophers-corner-science-materialism-and-alternatives/”