“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Consciousness of Science, post at PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula

Link to Pharyngula

…To believe self-consciousness can be accounted for in purely neurochemical terms is simply a category mistake. Empirical science presupposes self-consciousness, otherwise scientific reasoning would not be possible. Science cannot explain self-consciousness mechanistically without calling into question its own privileged epistemic status. Natural science attempting to explain consciousness in terms of brain mechanisms is much like trying to explain rainbows in terms of atmospheric water droplets. It reflects a lack of philosophical understanding of the phenomenon in question. The rainbow is not located in the sky, it emerges out of the relationship between light, certain kinds of eyes, and certain kinds of skies. I think consciousness is similar. It’s a mistake to try to locate it inside the skull. It is emergent, not just out of neurons, but out of space-time as a whole. If we deny the cosmic context of consciousness, i fail to see how we can avoid a dualism between the human mind and the rest of the natural universe. Contrary to a paper linked above about the challenges for any future science of consciousness, philosophers are growing increasingly aware of the hidden assumptions of dualist and materialist metaphysics that bias genuinely scientific research into its nature. Yes, consciousness is natural, but it is unlike any other natural phenomenon in that it is also noumenal. That is, consciousness can become an object to itself, as when we introspect or correlate mental states to fMRI readings, etc., but it also always remains the subject underlying these experiences. Consciousness is not just phenomenal, it is also transcendental (or noumenal). I think there are many limitations to Kant’s philosophical compromise between science and religion, or knowledge and morality, but whenever I participate in discussions on Pharyngula, I find myself having to repeat his arguments. This isn’t because I find his conclusions satisfying, but it is because I recognize that he defined the problems and laid out the territory. The problem with this message board (from my perspective) is that most of you are unwilling to give anything but a minor supporting role to philosophy as regards natural science. In other words, you’re all positivists. The video of Dawkins above is a great example of what happens when a scientist is blind to their philosophical assumptions, and forgetful of the cultural history of Western science. I might be interested in responding to any responses I get to this post, but I’m well aware it is an exercise in futility for both sides. I’ll just do what I usually do, which is recommend a few books (Bruno Latour’s “Science in Action” and Donna Haraway’s “Modest Witness”). They put science in it’s true cultural and historical context. If you’re especially brave (and patient enough to consider views that are probably radically different than your own), you might even read my paper on how re-situating science within culture is a necessary step before any solution to our social and ecological crises are possible: https://matthewsegall.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/








5 responses to “Consciousness of Science, post at PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula”

  1. JHayden Avatar

    …and yet the rainbow IS comprised of light and water droplets. How you interpret it philosophically or aesthetically doesn’t change that. There are emergent properties that are measurable by science and emergent properties that are (so far) immeasurable by science.
    To assume that consciousness, by virtue of being emergent, is therefore “transcendent”, is precisely the kind of woo Dawkins and Myers so frequently protest against. Everything at some point in time is “transcendent”, that is to say it transcends our ability to understand it though observation and experimentation. In short, with all due respect, I believe the fallacy is yours, and it presents itself as the Argument from Ignorance. Please know that I am certainly not calling you ignorant in a pejorative sense, but only in the sense that you do not fully (or even slightly) understand the workings of the human mind. Neither do I. Nobody does. We’re at the tip of the iceberg in our study of this extraordinary grey mass. I hope that in coming decades (centuries?) we may be able to understand the true inner workings of the human brain, through fMRI and other technologies, down to the quantum level.
    Until then, I personally would tend not to simply sweep the concept under the transcendental rug. To do so, would be very…Platonic.
    But there’s the crux of it (and the futility of arguing about it which you mentioned).
    You can stay in the cave, stare at the shadows, and THINK about the Universe, or you can go outside and take a look. I (along with PZ and Richard, presumably) would prefer to do the latter.
    Best Regards.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      “The rainbow IS composed of water droplets.” I picked a rainbow because it is a great example of the perceiver’s participation in constructing what is perceived. If there were not an eye, there may be light, but there would be no rainbow. The rainbow isn’t simply located at any particular point in physical space. You can say it is composed of water droplets, but which droplets? Depending on where I am standing, the sun’s light will pass through a different set of droplets. Is the rainbow you see standing 10 feet to my left the same rainbow? It isn’t made of the same water drops…

      It’s not that I don’t think consciousness ought to be studied scientifically/empirically, but there are very sound philosophical reasons that come out of phenomenological inquiry which suggest to me that you could only ever find brain-stuff and brain-process with fMRI scans; never will you find awareness or thinking. I don’t think our kind of consciousness can exist without a brain, but nor is the brain itself sufficient to produce consciousness. Rather, consciousness appears to be emergent from the brain, the body, and the surrounding environment (which includes language and culture, etc.). Like the rainbow, it can’t be simply located anywhere.

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Also, I did not say consciousness was transcendent, I said it was transcendental. That means that awareness is the underlying condition that makes scientific examination of things in the world possible.

      1. JHayden Avatar

        You’ve lost me. I’m not sure how the addition of an “al” really changes the meaning. We could call it “transcendentallyishness” or even “the trizzy to dizzy” if your not into the whole brevity thing. Either way, it’s the rug under which we often sweep the (as yet) unknown.
        Back to the rainbow. A storm has just ended, the sun comes out and you look off into the distance and you see a rainbow. As beautiful and profound as you may find this experience, the experience itself absolutely pales in comparison to the ridiculous complexity of the “rainbow” itself. The gazillion water droplets which happen to be at the appropriate angle between you and the sun (at each of the gazillion little moments in time which you may be observing it) along with the Megazillion individual photons which produce the image of the “rainbow” for you. Step one foot to the left and it’s a completely different rainbow. You may simply stay where you are and wait a tenth of a picosecond and it will be a vastly different rainbow still.
        In short, the experience of a rainbow utterly PALES in comparison to the remarkable complexity of the physics of the event itself. Bearing this in mind, how is it accurate to label your personal experience of the rainbow as somehow greater, more profound, or transcendier than the exquisite structure and composition of the event itself?
        We know the human brain is vastly complex. Why is it so hard to believe that our consciousness may EASILY arise from such a complex instrument (right along with love, hate, envy, sympathy, disdain, etc.)? Perhaps because we would like to think that how we are greater than the sum of our parts? That we are of Cosmic Significance?
        Consciousness IS an emergent property of the human brain. So what? Hair is an emergent property of my dog. This in no way means her hair transcendificates her (I know, I’m pushing it. Pardon my cheek).
        Your statement that we will “only ever find brain-stuff and brain-process with fMRI scans; never will you find awareness or thinking.” is false. Using fMRI, we have seen thought processes taking place in real time. SPECIFIC thought processes (relating to hunger, sexual desire, fear, and numerous other specific, laboratory controlled stimuli). The mapping of the human brain is an ongoing endeavor, with advances made daily. With each advance, the scientific body of knowledge grows, our Universe becomes clearer, and the magisteria of religion, the supernatural and, I’m afraid also philosophy, continue to shrink.
        Best Regards,

  2. Matthew David Segall Avatar


    There is an important distinction between transcendent and transcendental. I know Kant isn’t the most exciting read, but it may be worthwhile for anyone hoping to understand science and the form of knowledge it gives us about the world. I’m not myself a Kantian, but when faced with a materialist argument like yours, I can’t do better than his “transcendental” critique. Consciousness is definitely not transcendent for Kant, since our experience is necessarily conditioned by space, time, causality, and a number of other basic categories like substance, quantity, etc. Consciousness is irrevocably in the world as part of the world. Consciousness is necessarily situated in a particular place and so has a point of view on things, a perspective. Kant does, however, argue rather convincingly that consciousness is transcendental, and the -al makes all the difference in the world. It is transcendental because, without someone there to experience the world, it would make no sense to speak of a world at all. Worldliness (of the type familiar to humans) always already implies consciousness. We know only the world that our mind and senses reveal to us. Any talk of a world in itself is necessarily also a world for us.
    Thinking is undoubtedly related to the brain, but our experience of a brain as an object will never be identical to our experience of our own brain as ourselves. There is a gap here that Kant enforces with precise observation and logical reflection. Dismiss it if you wish, but i think in 20 or 30 years, the reductionistic paradigm in neuroscience will have gone the way of phrenology. Kant’s arguments will remain forceful.

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