The prevailing view among scientists is that consciousness is an emergent property or epiphenomenon of matter, specifically our brains. This is sometimes colloquially stated as “minds are what brains do”. But a significant minority of scientists, including neuroscientists, believe that there is evidence that consciousness cannot be explained by matter but itself must play some sort of fundamental role.
In researching for this post I discovered this is a pretty active topic recently. I found a good article precisely on this topic in New Scientist magazine. Unfortunately, it is 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 physicists are considering consciousness somehow playing a fundamental role. There are also several recent relevant books. All of this makes the discussion a bit lengthy. 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 either read on for the details or skip ahead to the conclusion…
In examining this type of reasoning 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’ll stick to materialism).
But there’s nothing in the scientific method that explicitly says we are to exclude anything besides matter from our theories. I reviewed the scientific method here. Basically, the approach is to collect data by 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 are to prefer the one that is the most economical or “parsimonious” one (that has the least assumptions). Introducing supernatural entities is considered to violate 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, and specifically consciousness? And are there any plausible alternative candidates? There are actually a mind-boggling 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, examines this topic in detail. He discusses the areas where materialism falls short of explaining consciousness. He also reviews the most commonly 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 of the role consciousness plays. Panpsychism claims that consciousness is even present in subatomic particles, but that it doesn’t show up as conscious experience until matter is combined in more complex states such as in the brains of living organisms. He does admit the question is raised as to how consciousness in simple things like atoms combines to create conscious experience in more complex things like brains, referred to as the “combination problem”. Whether or not you are convinced of the plausibility of panpsychism, this is a highly readable account of the issue 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 like dualism are not satisfactory. He is also not convinced about panpsychism because of the combination problem mentioned above.
Materialism seems like the most common-sense basis for investigating the universe and everything in it: There is an objective reality “out there”, that we perceive with our senses, composed of matter. Everything is made of matter, including our brains, and our minds are just the action of our brains. But there are some specific areas it has trouble explaining.
The first is what philosopher David Chalmers  called the “hard problem of consciousness”: It subjectively “feels like” something to be conscious humans. How does this arise from purely material effects such as the interaction of neurons?
Also, there are phenomena that seem to indicate consciousness extending beyond the brain, such as “psi” (or “esp”), near-death experiences, and apparent incidents of accurate recollection of past lives. These are discussed in The Idea of the World, and are also being taken seriously by some neuroscientists [2,3].
Bernardo Kastrup argues in his book that materialism is unable to explain all of these. He proposes an alternative model, that some sort of “universal consciousness” is the primary entity in existence, and that matter emanates 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 as their individual consciousness through their senses. As a simple example, sound occurs in a wide range of frequencies, but humans can only perceive it in a smaller range of about 20 to 20,000 Hz.
Bernardo argues that this is a more “parsimonious” explanation than materialism, especially when the latter tries to add extra assumptions to explain the problems area discussed above.
On the subject of filtering universal consciousness into individual consciousness, this reminds me of an argument often made by neuroscientists that I do not find convincing. They claim consciousness must arise from the matter of the brain, because it is compromised when the brain is damaged. But making the analogy with a radio, the music the radio plays is compromised if you damage the circuitry of the radio. But it does not arise in the radio, it is processed and amplified by the radio from external electromagnetic waves.
I found Bernardo Kastrup’s arguments to be compelling, and I think it is a viable alternative that is not easily dismissed. I don’t believe there is 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 currently fully explains consciousness, especially if we insist on materialism. It is true that future discoveries may be made about how materialism explains the challenges discussed above. But the situation reminds me a bit of the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin said physics explained everything, except for a couple of “dark clouds on the horizon”. Understanding those dark clouds led to two revolutions in physics in the twentieth century: relativity and quantum mechanics. Maybe understanding consciousness will lead to further revolutions in our understanding.
If some sort of universal consciousness exists, it would be equivalent to the cosmic consciousness which the Perennial Philosophy argues underlies all religions. This means that various belief systems, from materialism to spiritual beliefs, are plausible. Some of these help us to become better human beings and some do not, which will be the subject of my next philosopher’s corner 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