Why There Can’t Be a Natural Science of Consciousness.
Cognitive neuroscientists and science-obsessed philosophers of mind frequently claim that they’re “going to unravel the mystery of consciousness” via natural science one of these days.[i]
But it just ain’t going to happen.
Andrew has many excellent students who care more about real philosophy than about getting bank-able grades.
One of them wrote to him recently to ask about his take on “the problem of consciousness,” and here’s how that reply went.
Just to repeat your question:
I am definitely a scientific minded person, so before this class I had a very physicalist mindset. Basically my question is how you can be so sure that consciousness cannot be described by science?
I think it’s important to start off by noting that nothing the phenomenologist or existentialist thinks (or that I think) conflicts with what natural science says.
However, natural scientists sometimes stray outside of the realm of science, or philosophers sometimes take natural science to be making claims outside of the realm of science, and this is when conflicts appear to occur.
Said a different way, natural science makes coherent, cogent claims within Domain Y, but sometimes natural scientists or science-obsessed philosophers think that natural science make coherent, cogent claims within Domain X (even though they’re wrong), but Domain X is the specific domain of philosophy, and therefore it is philosophers, as philosophers, and not natural scientists or even science-obsessed philosophers, who can coherently and cogently make claims and answer questions within Domain X.
In the same way that existentialists and phenomenologists, as such, shouldn’t be making claims about the atomic weight of specific elements, e.g., then existentialists and phenomenologists (and I) will say that natural scientists, as natural scientists, shouldn’t pretend to be making coherent, cogent claims about consciousness or freedom.
Here is the central argument for why natural science has nothing at all that’s coherent or cogent to say about consciousness or freedom:
- The phenomena of consciousness all include facts and/or properties of egocentrically-centered subjectivity, unique individuality, agentive intentionality, freedom, concreteness, and caring/desiring/passion.
- Natural science investigates all and only facts and/or properties that are strictly objective, universal, naturally mechanized, non-agentive, abstract, and affectless.
- Egocentrically-centered subjectivity, unique individuality, agentive intentionality, freedom, concreteness, and caring/desire/passion are irreducible to what is strictly objective, universal, naturally mechanized, non-agentive, abstract, and affectless.
- If a way of investigating something investigates facts and/or properties X and facts and/or properties X are irreducible to facts and/or properties Y, then that latter way of investigating cannot be used to investigate or explain facts and/or properties X.
- Natural science cannot be coherently or cogently used to investigate or explain the phenomena–i.e., the facts and/or properties–of consciousness or freedom.
The point isn’t that natural science is useless, so this doctrine isn’t in any way anti-science: on the contrary, it’s about recognizing the inherent limits of natural science, and also about rejecting the scientistic thesis that natural science (+/- formal science for that matter) has unlimited explanatory power and scope, even in principle.
It’s just that consciousness or freedom is not the sort of thing that can be adequately investigated by natural science, although natural science can adequately investigate all sorts of other things: namely, all and only the facts and/or properties in the world that are strictly objective, universal, naturally mechanized, non-agentive, abstract, and affectless.
Now almost all scientistic philosophers and scientistic scientists–people who think that natural science answers all questions, and thus has unlimited explanatory power and –pull one or another of two moves in response to the argument I just sketched:
(i) They insist that the “mystery” of egocentrically-centered subjectivity, unique individuality, agentive intentionality, freedom, concreteness, and caring/desiring/passion can be “made sense of” in some way in terms of what is strictly objective, universal, naturally mechanized, non-agentive, abstract, and affectless, perhaps by means of some amazing, miraculous future development of natural science.
(ii) They simply deny that consciousness actually consists of facts and/or properties of egocentrically-centered subjectivity, unique individuality, agentive intentionality, freedom, concreteness, and caring/desiring/passion.
But both of these strategies fail.
Claim (i) fails because it is not possible to “make sense of” something solely in terms of that to which it is irreducible.
You’ll notice that all attempts to do this involve hand-waving or just a failure to explain what is really going on.
Consciousness is said to “arise out of” or “emerge from” the merely physical, and what in the world this really means is left entirely unexplained, except by more hand-waving and the wholly question-begging claim that, oh by the way, egocentrically-centered subjectivity, unique individuality, agentive intentionality, freedom, concreteness, and caring/desiring/passion just are or just can be strictly determined by what is strictly objective, universal, naturally mechanized, non-agentive, abstract, and affectless.
Claim (ii) fails because it denies the self-evidently obvious manifest facts and/or properties of consciousness, the properties right in front of our experiential eyes.
Daniel Dennett is the public media poster-boy amongst many philosophers who take the (ii)-tack, claiming that consciousness is actually an illusion, and that therefore we should explanatorily “eliminate” the very idea of consciousness.
The fact that something can be an illusion only if it is an illusion for some creature like us that’s conscious, and so consciousness would have to be an illusion for consciousness, never seems to faze Dennett.
But note that even if (i) or (ii) were not impossible, then we would inevitably have more reason to hold on to the self-evident evidence that consciousness manifestly presents to us of itself, than we would have to reject that evidence in favor of some reductionist or eliminativist picture, because the most persuasive evidence will always be the manifestly self-evident evidence of consciousness.
In order to attempt to use scientific evidence, e.g., to deny the existence of consciousness, we would have to use consciousness-facts and/or consciousness-properties.
So in order to appeal to philosophical evidence for denying our own consciousness and freedom, we would have to freely use our own consciousness.
We would therefore always end up being smacked in the face with the very thing we are trying to explain away.
Therefore, the whole point of phenomenologists’ and existentialists’ arguments about the inherent explanatory limits of the natural scientces is to take evidence seriously and not merely pretend to take evidence seriously by over-extending natural science—which is only one of many different kinds of human inquiry—into domains in which it does not apply.
[i] See, e.g., C. Koch, “What Is Consciousness?,” Scientific American 318, 6 (June 2018): 60-64, also available online at URL = <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-consciousness/>.