Consciousness: it’s all theology in the end. Or philosophy, if the distinction matters. Beyond a certain point it is, at any rate; when we start asking about the nature of consciousness, about what it really is. That, in bald summary, seems to be the view of Robert A. Burton in a resigned Nautilus piece. Burton is a neurologist, and he describes how Wilder Penfield first provided really hard and detailed evidence of close, specific correlations between neural and mental events, by showing that direct stimulation of neurons could evoke all kinds of memories, feelings, and other vivid mental experiences. Yet even Penfield, at the close of his career did not think the mind, the spirit of man, could yet be fully explained by science, or would be any time soon; in the end we each had to adopt personal assumptions or beliefs about that.

That is more or less the conclusion Burton has come to. Of course he understands the great achievements of neuroscience, but in the end the Hard Problem, which he seems to interpret rather widely, defeats analysis and remains a matter for theology or philosophy, in which we merely adopt the outlook most congenial to us. You may feel that’s a little dismissive in relation to both fields, but I suppose we see his point. It will be no surprise that Burton dislikes Dennett’s sceptical outlook and dismissal of religion. He accuses him of falling into a certain circularity: Dennett claims consciousness is an illusion, but illusions, after all, require consciousness.

We can’t, of course, dismiss the issues of consciousness and selfhood as completely irrelevant to normal life; they bear directly on such matters as personal responsibility, moral rights, and who should be kept alive. But I think Burton could well argue that the way we deal with these issues in practice tends to vindicate his outlook; what we often see when these things are debated is a clash between differing sets of assumptions rather than a skilful forensic duel of competing reasoning.

Another line of argument that would tend to support Burton is the one that says worries about consciousness are largely confined to modern Western culture. I don’t know enough for my own opinion to be worth anything, but I’ve been told that in classical Indian and Chinese thought the issue of consciousness just never really arises, although both traditions have long and complex philosophical traditions. Indeed, much the same could be said about Ancient Greek philosophy, I think; there’s a good deal of philosophy of mind, but consciousness as we know it just doesn’t really present itself as a puzzle. Socrates never professed ignorance about what consciousness was.

A common view would be that it’s only after Descartes that the issue as we know it starts to take shape, because of his dualism; a distinction between body and spirit that certainly has its roots in the theological (and philosophical) traditions of Western Christianity. I myself would argue that the modern topic of consciousness didn’t really take shape until Turing raised the real possibility of digital computers; consciousness was recruited to play the role of the thing computers haven’t got, and our views on it have been shaped by that perspective over the last fifty years in particular. I’ve argued before that although Locke gives what might be the first recognisable version of the Hard Problem, with an inverted spectrum thought experiment, he actually doesn’t care about it much and only mentions it as a secondary argument about matters that to him, seemed more important.

I think it is true in some respects that as William James said, consciousness is the last remnant of the vanishing soul. Certainly, when people deny the reality of the self, it often seems to me that their main purpose is to deny the reality of the soul. But I still believe that Burton’s view cedes too much to relativism – as I think Fodor once said, I hate relativism. We got into this business – even the theologians – because we wanted the truth, and we’re not going to be fobbed off with that stuff! Scientists may become impatient when no agreed answer is forthcoming after a couple of centuries, but I cling to the idea that there is a truth if the matter about personhood, freedom, and consciousness. I recognise that there is in this, ironically, a tinge of an act of faith, but I don’t care.

Unfortunately, as always things are probably more complicated than that. Could freedom of the will, say, be a culturally relative matter? All my instincts say no, but if people don’t believe themselves to be free, doesn’t that in fact impose some limits on how free they really are? If I absolutely do not believe I’m able to touch the sacred statue, then although the inability may be purely psychological, couldn’t it be real? It seems there are at least some fuzzy edges. Could I abolish myself by ceasing to believe in my own existence? In a way you could say that is in caricature form what Buddhists believe (though they think that correctly understood, my existence was a delusion anyway). That’s too much for me, and not only because of the sort of circularity mentioned above; I think it’s much too pessimistic to give up on a good objective accounts of agency and selfhood.

There may never be a single clear answer that commands universal agreement on these issues, but then there has never been, and never will be, complete agreement about the correct form of human government; but we have surely come on a bit in the last thousand years. To abandon hope of similar gradual consensual progress on consciousness might be to neglect our civic duty. It follows that by reading and thinking about this, you are performing a humane and important task. Well done!

[Next week I return from a long holiday; I’ll leave you to judge whether I make more or less sense.]


  1. 1. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    The central fault line in the philosophy of mind does seem to depend on how attached you are to the idea of an immortal soul. It’s almost never explicitly discussed, but it seems to drive much of the debate.

    The point about Turing is, I think, an insightful one. We’ve long used other technologies to helps us physically, but computers allow us to supplement the mind. From the beginning, the strong implication has been that our minds are themselves information processing machinery. It seems to threaten the last bastions of our uniqueness left after Copernicus and Darwin.

    On the self and free will, if we deny the existence of higher order structures, then nothing like trees, chairs, or traffic exist, only elementary particles, and even those might not exist if we discover they’re composed of lower level entities. But the structure of patterns of atoms, molecules, and higher order constructs matter.

    Saying something like the self doesn’t exist because it is composed of constituent components, denies the value of its structure and organization, and I don’t think that’s productive. Nor does it seem productive to deny that social responsibility is a useful feedback mechanism for systems with certain degrees of freedom.

  2. 2. john davey says:


    Its tempting, when things get complex, to give up. There are a few physicists (not as many as is claimed by the belivers lobby), who, excited by hubris and the fanaticism and propaganda of 20th century physics, turn to God as the answer for their ‘failures’, for the simple reason that they haven’t been able to make progress. I mean, if they can’t find an answer, and they think they are as clever as they are, what other human stands a chance ? And if it doesn’t make any logical sense to them, and they are oh-so-clever, what other answer could there be but a big man in the sky?

    But that’s ego, that’s not science.

    The point about the fixation of the the alleged ‘problem of consciousness’ being lodged in contemporary western philosophy is well made. Most of all, consciousness can’t be predicted by physics, and with its endless machine of propagandists and divinators, the physics propaganda machine has decided it must be an issue. It just doesnt make sense and the reason it doesn’t is that physics is an unchallengeable activity that – in the new concept of the mathematical angelic – doesn’t even seem to count as a human activity any more. Its from the gods, the mathematical ones.

    This is the ‘crisis of faith’ that really matters. Not faith in God, but the post-newtonian faith in physics. All science is based on belief, that’s nothing new. A rational science would point out that if physics doesn’t predict consciousness, then either it’s wrong or incomplete. That’s not acceptable to the physics priests who demand the (literal) sacrifice of the evidence in from of ones eyes.


  3. 3. arnold says:

    The ways of intuition verses consciousness and philosophy of mind…
    …Have we chosen to have sensation, emotion, mentation, conscientiousness and self-consciousness…
    Are these Traits-their-Causality for “the work of Being here now” in the transformation of self…

  4. 4. Jochen says:

    Well, I’m coming round to believing that the Buddhists might not be that far off: the context that forces the question upon us also makes its answer impossible; and if we could leave that context (the discursive, model-based thinking about the world), the question simply wouldn’t make sense any more.

    Ripping out a page from Scott Bakker’s playbook (sorry), we might imagine a race of beings, the Horlogians, who employ for explanation a special faculty, the horlogos. Essentially, a horlogical explanation of some phenomenon consists in building a clockwork model of it: thus, they consider themselves to have understood the movement of planets upon building a sufficiently detailed orrery.

    Let’s furthermore assume that their clockwork-building abilities eventually become so refined that they can find a horlogical explanation for just about any natural phenomenon. It’s not out of the question that they might succumb to the temptation of a certain kind of ontological arrogance: because their clockwork models seem to capture reality so accurately, they reason that it must be the case that underneath it all, the world itself must be just one huge, complicated clockwork (call that the Horlogical Universe Hypothesis, or HUH for short). (Although some might be puzzled by the aptness of their models, writing articles musing about the unreasonable effectiveness of horlogic in the natural sciences, and the like.)

    So far, so good. But eventually, they’re bound to notice that there’s a property to all of their models that becomes really hard to explain, if there’s nothing but clockworks that make up the universe: clockworks, in order to do their work, need to be wound up. So, who or what wound up the universe? It’s easy to see that you can’t just use another clockwork for that purpose—you just end up with a (hopefully very familiar) regress, because who or what wound that one up?

    (Although there will be those among the Horlogians who will keep up hope—perhaps a really really complicated set of clockworks, interlocking and mutually winding and unwinding, won’t need to be wound up. Sure, for all of the clockworks we can actually envision, we find we need to wind them up—but of course, those are basically just really simple ones. Who’s to say that more of the same won’t yield something different, if there’s just enough of it?)

    Of course, the answer to their question cannot be found by means of horlogy: it’s because of their clockwork modeling that the question comes up in the first place; rejecting clockwork models entails that the question becomes insensible, because it’s only the mistaken idea that their ability to model things in a certain way has implications for the things thus modeled that makes the question arise. The real answer is, the world isn’t a clockwork, and thus, doesn’t need to be wound up. (It’s here that the analogy becomes somewhat imperfect, since there still is a question about the ‘first mover’ within any sort of model of the universe—but that question still only pertains to the model, not to the universe.)

    I think we’re in the same situation. Our ability to model the world and thus, reason about it, is intrinsically computational—computation being effectively nothing but modeling a system in a certain way (or using a certain system as a model of something else, another system in a simulation, or a more abstract formal structure in more ordinary computational practice). Hence, we see the world as computational, because we see it through our models of it; but the world itself isn’t computational, it’s just that we have no access to the world as it is.

    Thus, questions arise that can’t be solved within the only way we have to grasp the world; but they’re not problems of the world, but of our way of grasping it. So we’re deadlocked: we can’t answer the question, because our very means of answering questions is the only reason the question appears in the first place.

  5. 5. Jorge says:

    From the article (2017):
    “We have no control over the mental sensations that color our thoughts. No one can will the joy of an a-ha! moment.”

    From Schopenhauer (1839):
    “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

    So much for philosophical progress. *sigh*

    Although, I would like to point out that soon technology will allow us to will what we will. I’m sure that will work out well. (

  6. 6. zarzuelazen says:

    Consciousness does seem to be the last refuge of the mystics. A strong religious ideology and wishful thinking basically drives the ‘mystery’.

    There’s no ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Consciousness is an *abstract* property, and this is what is causing confusion. But science can handle abstract properties. The fact a property is abstract doesn’t mean it’s non-physical.

    Energy, information and fields are all examples of abstract properties that are none-the-less physical.

    Is there a ‘hard problem of energy’ because you can’t explain why the capacity to do work is associated with motion? Is there is a ‘hard problem of information’ because you can’t explain why logic gates in circuits are associated with math? Is there a ‘hard problem of fields’? Answer to all three: of course not!

    Consciousness is a symbolic language for dealing with the flow of time. And it is also a thermodynamic property – entropy dissipation, the physical flow of time itself.

    Two basic components then: time perception and time coordination. In terms of time perception, consciousness combines low-level sensory data with high-level abstractions to generate rolling narratives (our own internal virtual reality) that predict what will happen next.

    In terms of time co-ordination, consciousness integrates multiple patterns of events in time, forming a temporal fractal whereby patterns of events on a large scale look the same as patterns of events on smaller scales (scale-independence).

    To summarize: consciousness is the flow of time (temporal perception and temporal coordination).

  7. 7. Tom Clark says:

    “Just as some physicists believe we will one day have a Theory of Everything, many cognitive scientists believe that consciousness, like any physical property, can be unraveled. Overlooked in this optimism is the ultimate barrier: The nature of consciousness is in the mind of the beholder, not in the eye of the observer.”

    This gets at the possibility that scientific physicalism may not have the resources to explain consciousness, since consciousness may not be aptly described or understood as a physical, objective property available to intersubjective observation. It might more aptly be understood as that individual-level set of qualitative representations that, along with concepts and numbers, participate in characterizing the physical, public world (everyday objects usually have color, mass, quantity, and are conceptually classifiable). The basic mistake is to go looking for the representational terms (qualia, concepts, numbers) in the physical world they participate in representing, that is, to suppose qualia have to be physical and objective to be real.

    Everyone gets that it’s a mistake to go looking for the concept CAT, or the number 2, out there in the external world that they help to characterize. Yet no one doubts their reality as terms of representation, and no one is out to eliminate them as spooky, supernatural, non-physical substances or what not. The same is, or should be true, of qualia: like concepts and numbers, they aren’t physical, or located anywhere (you won’t find them in the brain, only their neural correlates), yet they are a perfectly real, private and qualitative representational vocabulary with which we as individuals model the world. We don’t have to eliminate them as fictions or illusions in order to be good naturalists. Rather, it’s a project for the science of representation to tell the story of why qualitative representations, available only to the system, accompany only certain sorts of processes that the system itself instantiates.

  8. 8. zarzuelazen says:


    Mathematical objects like the number ‘4’ are indeed embedded in the physical world in my view. They’re abstractions of the theory of computation. Computation is a physical processes and math concepts are built up on top of the computational models.

    As I pointed out , physicalism can deal with abstract concepts: examples include energy, information and fields. Consciousness is in exactly the same category: it’s an abstraction, but entirely explicable in physical terms.

    The argument that consciousness is private holds no water for me, because it’s entirely circular logic – simply declaring by fiat the mysterian position.

  9. 9. Tom Clark says:

    Zarzuelazen, seems to me that abstractions and mathematical concepts like the number 4 are part of the representational apparatus we use to characterize the physical world, but are not themselves to be found in that world. Computational processes are physically instantiated goings-on that can be observed, but the mathematical models describing computation aren’t observed, but instead are compact conceptual descriptions (representations) of what’s observed, thus are not themselves physical. Likewise, qualia are the basic qualitative terms in which the physical world appears to us as individual world-representing systems, but they won’t be found in the world that they participate in representing: we don’t observe anyone’s experience, including our own. Rather, experience is a first-person, untranscendable representational reality in terms of which the world (a *represented* reality) appears to each of us.

    If, as you say, consciousness is an abstraction that can be explained in physical terms, it seems to me that explanation has to respect the basic characteristics of that abstraction (if indeed it is an abstraction), namely the qualitative and subjective aspects of experience. To ask that these characteristics be explained isn’t circular logic, or to indulge in mysterianism (indeed, I think there are promising avenues of explanation having to do with representation) but simply to acknowledge the nature of the explanandum.

  10. 10. cervantes says:

    On the contrary, I would say that classical Indian thought is obsessed with consciousness; and that crossed the mountains to India when (in myth at least) Bodidharma went to China. However, the interest is not in trying to explain why it exists, or what physical processes give rise to it. Its existence is taken for granted, but the problematic is its relationship to the world “out there,” which is typically considered a kind of illusion. Not that there isn’t something actually existing “out there,” but that our perception of it is distorted. Sidharta Gautama (Buddha) had a complicated understanding of consciousness. He thought that the self is an illusion, but on the other hand the components that give rise to the illusion have a certain ontological standing. In Hindu philosophy, the self is a kind of bedrock of existence, but the individual self is a temporary wave in the vast ocean of cosmic consciousness. Anyway, classical Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) philosophy is largely concerned with the nature of consciousness. You have been told wrong.

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