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 '18 at 22:19
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    Please summarize the Guardian article to help focus answers. – Mark Andrews Dec 11 '18 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'. – PeterJ Dec 12 '18 at 11:17
  • @PhilipKlöcking should this question get the "sensitive" warning? – Yechiam Weiss Dec 13 '18 at 14:18
  • @YechiamWeiss - I'd say definitely.it should. Correction to previous comment - It was Pepperel not Varella who made that comment. – PeterJ Dec 14 '18 at 11:09

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 '18 at 17:10
  • This approach presumes the current accepted definition for "science", which is to say, "ontological materialism". – elliot svensson Dec 13 '18 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 '18 at 20:13
  • @Dcleve - Is not all empiricism first-person? – PeterJ Dec 14 '18 at 11:06
  • @PeterJ -- yes, all empiricism starts with first person data. – Dcleve Dec 14 '18 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.

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    This approach is contingent on redefining "science"! – elliot svensson Dec 13 '18 at 17:14
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    @elliotsvensson - Quite so, I wish we would. – PeterJ Dec 14 '18 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 '18 at 15:59

[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 '18 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, – PeterJ Dec 14 '18 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". – Yechiam Weiss Dec 14 '18 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 '18 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. . – PeterJ Dec 15 '18 at 10:58

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.


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