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Can Science Explain Consciousness?

by Philip Goff

It is sometimes said that consciousness is a mystery in the sense that we have no idea what it is. This is clearly not true. What could be better known to us than our own feelings and experiences? The mystery of consciousness is not what consciousness is, but why it is.

Neuroscience has made considerable progress in understanding the physical mechanisms in the brain underlying human mental functioning and associated behaviour. Modern brain imaging techniques have provided us with a rich body of correlations between physical processes in the brain and the experiences had by the person whose brain it is. We know, for example, that a person undergoing stimulation in her or his ventromedial hypothalamus feels hunger. The problem is that no one knows why these correlations hold. It seems perfectly conceivable that ventromedial hypothalamus stimulation could do its job in the brain without giving rise to any kind of feeling at all. No one has even the beginnings of an explanation of why some physical systems, such as the human brain, have experiences. This is the difficulty David Chalmers famously called ‘the hard problem of consciousness’.

Materialists hope that we will one day be able to explain consciousness in purely physical terms. But this project now has a long history of failure. The problem with materialist approaches to the hard problem is that they always end up avoiding the issue by redefining what we mean by ‘consciousness’. They start off by declaring that they are going to solve the hard problem, to explain experience; but somewhere along the way they start using the word ‘consciousness’ to refer not to experience but to some complex behavioural functioning associated with experience, such as the ability of a person to monitor their internal states or to process information about the environment. Explaining complex behaviours is an important scientific endeavour. But the hard problem of consciousness cannot be solved by changing the subject.

In spite of these difficulties, many scientists and philosophers maintain optimism that materialism will prevail, and that the Holy Grail of a purely physical explanation of consciousness is just around the corner. This hope is commonly supported with a bold narrative about the history of the physical sciences. At every point in this glorious history, it is claimed, philosophers have declared that certain phenomena are too special to be explained by physical science – light, chemistry, life – only to be subsequently proven wrong by the relentless march of scientific progress. There is therefore every reason, they say, to expect that consciousness will go the same way, despite the naysaying of philosophers.

Here’s a different way of thinking about it. Perhaps the most important move in the scientific revolution was Galileo’s declaration that mathematics is the language of natural science. But he felt able to declare this only after he had revolutionised the philosophical picture of the world. Before Galileo it was generally assumed that matter had sensory qualities: tomatoes were red, paprika was spicy, flowers were sweet-smelling. It’s hard to see how these sensory qualities could be captured in the abstract, austere vocabulary of mathematics. How could an equation capture the taste of spicy paprika? And if sensory qualities can’t be captured in a mathematical vocabulary, it seemed to follow that a mathematical vocabulary could never capture the complete nature of matter.

Galileo’s solution was to strip matter of its sensory qualities and put them in the soul (as we might put it, in the mind). The sweet smell isn’t really in the flowers, but in the soul (mind) of the person smelling them; the spicy taste isn’t really in the paprika, but in the soul of the person tasting it… Even colours for Galileo aren’t on the surfaces of the objects themselves, but in the soul of the person observing them. And if matter in itself has no sensory qualities, then it’s possible in principle to describe the material world in the purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. This was the birth of mathematical physics.

But of course Galileo didn’t deny the existence of the sensory qualities. Rather he took them to be residing in the soul, an entity outside of the material world and so outside of the domain of natural science. In other words, Galileo created physical science by putting consciousness outside of its domain of enquiry. If Galileo were to time travel to the present day and be told that scientific materialists are having a problem explaining consciousness in purely physical terms, he would no doubt reply, “Of course they do, I created physical science by taking consciousness out of the physical world!”

This does not in itself constitute an argument that there will never be a purely physical explanation of consciousness, but it does undermine arguments which appeal to the historical success of physical science in order to support the claims that the hard problem will one day be solved in materialist terms. The fact that physical science has done extremely well since consciousness was set outside of its domain of enquiry gives us no reason to think that materialism can adequately account for consciousness itself.

It is time we explored more radical alternatives. This does not mean giving up on science, it just means broadening our conception of what science is. This issue of Philosophy Now samples the work of four philosophers who specialise in consciousness (including myself). Each of us explores alternatives to conventional materialism. It is early days in the science of consciousness, and time will tell whether any of our approaches will bear fruit. But at the moment the spirit of free enquiry needed to make progress on consciousness is being hampered by an ideological insistence on the materialist paradigm – an ideological insistence not so dissimilar to that experienced by Galileo from the 17th century Catholic Church.

Dr Philip Goff is the guest editor of this issue.

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