Is it a question that science may answer? This article became the root of my thinking. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/mar/01/consciousness-eight-questions-science

  • It is a question science can answer.. and in fact is very close to answering.
    – Richard
    Dec 10, 2018 at 22:19
  • 2
    Please summarize the Guardian article to help focus answers. Dec 11, 2018 at 3:52
  • I'll add a comment to replace my answer. Of course empirical science cannot tell us what consciousness is. It cannot even find it. One neuroscientist (Varella) comments that searching for consciousness in the brain is like 'searching for gravity by digging into the Earth'.
    – user20253
    Dec 12, 2018 at 11:17
  • @PhilipKlöcking should this question get the "sensitive" warning? Dec 13, 2018 at 14:18
  • @YechiamWeiss - I'd say definitely.it should. Correction to previous comment - It was Pepperel not Varella who made that comment.
    – user20253
    Dec 14, 2018 at 11:09

5 Answers 5


There are famous arguments in the literature to the effect that the answer is an emphatic "no".

If by consciousness you mean something like a private, qualitative and intentional "first-person" experience, something that is not really communicable, then it would seem that no public and objective "third-person" description will ever account for it, simply because of missing conceptual or linguistic resources. Another way to say this is that science describes relational, nomological, extrinsic aspects of the world, but not its intrinsic nature, because the former are the only objectivable aspects.

The famous arguments to that effect are:

  • Nagel's contention that no physiological description of a bat's sensory organs will ever tell you "what it's like to be a bat", what it feels like to perceive by echolocation,
  • Jackson's thought experiment where Mary, a neuroscientist raised in a colourless environment, sees red for the first time and "learns" something even though she knew exactly what would happen in her brain, and
  • Chalmers's claim that physical states exactly like our bodies', including all neuronal states, and thus indistinguishable from the outside but lacking the qualitative experience inside, such "zombie" states are perfectly conceivable, which means that no physical description can ever account for qualitative experience.

These arguments have been widely discussed and they do not convince everyone (Dennett calls them "intuition pumps") but it seems reasonable to assume that the problem of consciousness has a strong metaphysical component that is not up for direct empirical enquiry. Presumably, the role of neuroscience is limited to telling us about the "neural correlates" of consciousness (what kinds of neuronal structures or processes do instantiate conscious states) but an explanatory gap remains, and it can only be filled by metaphysical assumptions. This doesn't mean that neuroscience tells us nothing informative about consciousness, but that its scope is fundamentally limited.

Having said that, making a positive point for an intrinsic limitation of scientific explanations in this domain runs into deep epistemological, semantic and methodological issues that are at the core of philosophy. This is why this debate is not yet settled.

  • Are the examples you cite actually a rationale against science investigating first person experience? I have always taken them as an argument against a purely 3rd person empiricism. They show that functionalism or behaviorism is not able to understand consciousness, as they leave out the key characteristics of consciousness. But science/empiricism can be and is applied to the first person -- we have an entire science field, psychology, which is a first person field.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 12, 2018 at 17:10
  • This approach presumes the current accepted definition for "science", which is to say, "ontological materialism". Dec 13, 2018 at 17:16
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    @elliot svensson , Science does not presume an ontology. It instead applies a methodology: exploration, speculation, guided exploration, hypothesis, test, revision, retest, etc. See Karl Popper. Science can be materialist, dualist, idealist, or any ontology. That is how the peculiarities of Quantum behavior can basically refute materialism.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 13, 2018 at 20:13
  • @Dcleve - Is not all empiricism first-person?
    – user20253
    Dec 14, 2018 at 11:06
  • @PeterJ -- yes, all empiricism starts with first person data.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 14, 2018 at 14:36

The short answer to your question is an emphatic "yes". This was a change in perspective, as for ~50 years in the middle of the 20th century science (and philosophy) tended to avoid questions about consciousness.

However, the last two decades of the 20th century saw an increasing interest both among philosophers and scientists in understanding ourselves, and in particular our consciousness. And this project has continued to grow in the 21st century. A key advocate for this effort was Francis Crick, who set out to inspire and recruit a generation of neurologists to try to crack this last mystery. He outlined his own views in The Astonishing Hypothesis: http://www.consciousentities.com/crick.htm

Crick, and many of his inspirees, ASSUME neuro reductionism. And therefore treat "scientific study" as == "neurological characterization". The author of your Guardian piece is a materialist reductionist as well.

However, the achievemetns of the neuro-reductionist project have not been nearly as successful as Crick and his initial inspirees hoped. One of the reasons is a logic problem, with the Guardian article mentions only obiquely.

  • IF nero reductionism is true
  • THEN all causation attributed to consciousness is fully explainable in purely neurological terms
  • THEREFORE the apparent causation for "conscious" events is basically illusory
  • AND THEN consciousness is an illusion or an epiphenomenon

But the author (and most other people who intimately experience it) is not willing to accept consciousness is an epiphenomenon. However, as he is not willing to give up on reductionism, he explicitly declares a limited goal of exploring mechanisms of consciousness, and has given up on understanding why it exists at all.

A significant number of consciousness researchers have abandoned neuro reductionism. Christof Koch, Crick's own primary collaborator is among them. He is now an advocate of Integrated Information Theory, which is an architectural and organizational approach to consciousness, as opposed to a neuro-reductionist one. IIT, Global Workspace Theory, and Higher Order Processing, among others, are IT inspired approaches to investigating consciousness, that equate consciousness to running a particualr algorithm, rather than having a particular set of neurons. This is Algortithmic Identity Theory, rather than Neural Identity Theory. Koch is also willing to consider either pan-psychism, or property emergence, rather than material reductionism, as alternative ontologies.

Another major area of science thinking in investigating consciousness is to revive idealism. Here is a recent collection of thinking about experimental data relative to consciousness, and how it supports an idealist ontology: https://www.bernardokastrup.com/2015/03/review-of-beyond-physicalism.html

So, while "YES -- science can study consciousness", your linked author's approach is already looking to be at best useful but not relevatory, and there are at least two other major scientific paradigms being deployed to engage in this investigation.

  • 2
    This approach is contingent on redefining "science"! Dec 13, 2018 at 17:14
  • 1
    @elliotsvensson - Quite so, I wish we would.
    – user20253
    Dec 14, 2018 at 11:05
  • @elliot svensson, I just detailed three different scientific paradigms that are being used today to investigte consciousness. No "redefinition" is needed.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 15, 2018 at 15:59

Consciousness is the only aspect of reality that is not verifiably vanishable. Even blackouts are only verifiably black-ins, with a last moment of blackness being recalled before coming-to.

As I wrote in an essay for the Journal of Consciousness Studies, there is a legitimate science of correlation between brain states and consciousness, but no science of consciousness itself.


  • Nice article. I share your view. The method can be scientific but the ontology cannot be materialism. Ontology is for metaphysicians. Quite why materialism is seen as uniquely scientific or even necessary to science is a mystery. Why would a physicist feel it necessary to adopt a dogmatic ontology, and how can this be good science? It looks like misunderstanding of science. .
    – user20253
    Nov 25, 2019 at 13:02

[I'm not trying to cause trouble here but cannot discover why my first answer was deleted. So, here it is again with a couple of tweaks. If it is to be deleted I'd appreciate some advice as to what is wrong with it.]

'What is consciousness?' is not a question empirical science can answer. This is a matter of logic and should be obvious from a literature review. Consciousness is not an empirical phenomenon. There is no accounting for the idea that consciousness may be studied empirically since it is obviously not the case. It seems to arise from wishful thinking and a suspension of logical reasoning.

If by 'science' we mean empirical science then the phrase 'scientific consciousness studies' is an oxymoron. I am not the first person to point this out. This problem reveals itself in the literature which may be observed to be a morass of sophistry going nowhere.

The layman may learn a lot about the current scientific mind-set from a study of scientific consciousness studies as well as much about brains, cognition and behaviour, but nothing about consciousness. Its existence and definition remain a matter of debate because, inevitably, it is not studied by the empirical sciences, which must be content with observing brains, cognition and behaviour.

This is not a matter of opinion. Consciousness, experience and awareness are not empirical phenomena. This is a fact. The study of consciousness is not merely the study of behaviour, brains or neural correlates just as the study of fire is not merely the study of smoke. The existence and nature of consciousness cannot be learned from empirical research for this cannot even establish its existence. I'm not sure why anyone would think otherwise.

You might like to check out two old articles for the Journal of Consciousness Studies by David Chalmers, 'Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness' and 'Moving on from...'. They are not a solution to anything but they do at least describe the mountain to be climbed by those who want to reduce the non-empirical to the empirical.

A further problem is that even if consciousness were an empirical phenomenon science would be unable to tell you what it is. Physics does not address the question of what things are for this is the territory of metaphysics. Science cannot tell you what matter is so it would be optimistic to hope it can do better with consciousness. It's a question of 'horses for courses'. Each approach has value within its domain but is limited to that domain.

One can no more hope to find consciousness by digging into the brain than one can find gravity by digging into the earth’s centre’.

Robert Peperell ‘Between phenomenology and neuroscience’ A report of the ‘Towards a Science of Consciousness’ Conference, Prague, July 2003) From JCS Vol 10 No 11 2003 p 87

  • PeterJ could you provide the logical reasoning as to why consciousness is not empirical, rather than asserting it? I assume you do not accept first person empiricism. But first person empiricism is critical in psychology -- all its data relies upon the first person. Also, how do you figure out where you are when you wake up, other than 1st person empiricism? Here is the dalai lama advocating for it: lionsroar.com/first-person-science-march-2012
    – Dcleve
    Dec 13, 2018 at 20:23
  • @Dcleve - Are you saying, contrary to Descartes, that consciousness is 'res extensa'? I'm not sure what reasoning I could give for consciousness being non-empirical when it so obviously is. I would ask how we would detect it with our physical senses. Surely nobody argues this is possible,
    – user20253
    Dec 14, 2018 at 10:20
  • @PeterJ of course there are arguments for physically sensing consciousness - positivistic take on the "hard problem" that claims neuroscience is how we physically examine "consciousness". Dec 14, 2018 at 13:24
  • @peterJ why would you limit detection to physical senses? The physical is an indirect inference, and the vast bulk of "senses" are not experinced directly, but are massivley post-processed. When you read "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat", and see how bits of consciousness are lost in various patients, how can you say anything other than "we can't investigate consciousness scientifically" is explicitly falsified?
    – Dcleve
    Dec 14, 2018 at 14:34
  • @Dcleve - Empiricism is the idea that all knowledge is derived from the physical senses. Our knowledge of consciousness is not empirical. I am not limiting anything but noting that empiricism is a limited method of detection and cannot detect consciousness. .
    – user20253
    Dec 15, 2018 at 10:58

In short, Consciousness is our collective experience of sensing time & space. This is my personal definition. It may appear elusive until we understand it properly. Now, I will elaborate on the definition. The mechanism of an 'experience' is processing of the information in the brain. By 'sensing time & space', I meant sensing passage of time with respect to our body or that we are indeed moving through time in a single direction (by movement here I meant we know our body can occupy only an instant along time axis & that is changing in a single direction) & sensing that we as a 'modified mass' has a spatial extent as well as we (or our body parts) can move through space (or basically manipulate space in some way atleast weakly). I refer 'modified mass' here to any mass having constituents inside it such that they work together so as to give the emergent phenomenon of life i.e. any mass with life. Because I have included 'movement' into the definition, one might argue -so what about plants? They are life forms too. In the course of life of a plant its 'body parts' like the roots or the stem do change positions by growing though the plant as a whole is stationary fixed to the ground. Thus plants are conscious to some extent. I attribute consciousness only to living beings or any mass with life; not non-living things though.

So why consciousness? I understand it as follows. All living things have mass. Any mass (whether living or non-living) occupy space as well as move through time. I have searched a lot about the definition of mass in physics. What I could understand is that it is a property of matter by which it moves through time & occupies space. By 'matter' I meant 'any 'stuff' in the universe that can interact atleast weakly with similar 'stuff' '.Now, any mass has a 'frame of reference'. By latter I meant a personal way of describing a phenomenon occurring with regards to time & space. One such phenomenon is called as motion. So what is motion? According to me, motion can never occur in a world with dimensions that are purely spatial. It can occur only if there is atleast 1 spatial & atleast 1 temporal dimension. Also motion is something that occurs for a mass or an energy packet (eg: photon) (as perceived by another mass). A mass can never say whether it itself is really moving or not. Only other masses can say whether the mass is moving or not relative to them. So motion is relative. Its also because of non existence of an absolute reference frame in our real universe. So coming back to the concept of frame of reference, in order to have it, the 'thing' has to move through time as well as occupy space. Because it mandates the 'thing' to have mass, its possible only for a mass. A photon (an energy packet of light) because it is massless has no frame of reference. Thus if we were to hypothetically explain to a photon what is space & time, it could never understand it! Thus a photon can never understand the concept of motion. A photon experiences no time or space. The latter sentence is in fact wrong in some sense & correct in some sense. And that's this- Because photon has no frame of reference we cant really talk about photon 'experiencing' 'anything'. But I said so just for the sake of understanding it easily. So would a photon be conscious? No. So coming back to the fact that any mass has a frame of reference- If the mass is a modified mass ( meaning it has intrinsic mechanisms that work together to generate life) , it will have a mechanism to sense time & space too for it to appropriately function. And this is consciousness. So consciousness is a part of the definition of life. All living beings are conscious. Non-living mass too move through time & occupy space (because they are too 'mass'). But they don't have that intrinsic mechanism to sense whether they are moving through time or whether they are occupying indeed a space. Hence they don't have consciousness. So you can now use the definition of consciousness to define a living being or life. A living being is a mass with consciousness. And life is the worldline of a living being in the 4 dimensional spacetime. By worldline I meant the entire path of a living being from its birth till its death in the higher dimensional world of 4 dimensions( ie spacetime).

Note: I have mentioned frequently here 'moving along time' though 'motion of a mass' is how position changes with respect to time for the mass. I used 'moving along time' just for the sake of understanding things easily. We don't usually use the inverse of speed to explain things. I understand that all of our life maybe predetermined i.e. our worldline maybe already present in the 4 dimensional world as a solid block. But then what is then exactly causing us to feel as if we are moving through time? Or that as if we are having a plane of 'now'? I think its our mass. The notion of motion of mass in space with respect to time is more familiar than the reverse. Hence I used 'moving through time' here to understand things more easily.

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