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How Can Consciousness Be a Material Thing?

Maybe it can’t. But materialist philosophers face starkly limited choices in how to view consciousness

All the evidence would seem to be against the idea that your childhood memories of the pancakes on Saturday morning are a physical thing. The view that consciousness, in general, is a material thing is a conclusion derived from materialism (often called “naturalism”), not from evidence.

Recently, quoting an article at Chronicle of Higher Education, I referred to consciousness as a “bizarre” field of study. Here’s why, recapped: Human consciousness is easy to experience but hard to grasp (the hard problem of consciousness). People say and think unusual things about consciousness. For example, they may think that our coffee mugs are conscious because otherwise, there would be something special about us, which is not possible in a material world.

Another — much more widely held — view is that our consciousness, which we think defines us as selves, is simply the feedback from our complex nervous systems. Our consciousness evolved slowly from the more limited consciousness of lower life forms because it helps us pass on our genes. This “feedback” view does not, of course, require us to believe that coffee mugs are conscious because they do not have complex systems and do not reproduce themselves.

This “Darwinian” view of consciousness leads slowly but surely toward discounting consciousness as insignificant:

Complex and intelligent design in living things are not assumed to be driven by conscious processes. Instead they are thought to come from adaptive processes which accrued through natural selection.

If we are indeed “subjects of unconscious authoring” then continuing to characterise psychological states in terms of being conscious and non-conscious is unhelpful. It constrains the theoretical understanding of psychological processes. Furthermore, if all psychological processes and their products rely on non-conscious systems, then the idea that the brain has automatic and controlled processes needs a rethink too. It might be better to describe them as differences on a continuum of non-conscious processing, rather than alternative systems.

Such a proposal does not dispense with the common sense reality of one’s personal qualitative experience, nor with the previous findings of cognitive neuroscience. However, it offers an opportunity to reduce some of the confusion that comes with use of the terms “consciousness” and “contents of consciousness”. Both of which continue to imply that consciousness has a functional role in distinguishing psychological processes. Peter Halligan and David A Oakley, Hon Professor of Neuropsychology, Cardiff University and Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCL “What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?” at The Conversation

Notice that the authors above arrive at the point of saying, in a roundabout way, that consciousness does not have a “functional role” in psychological processes.

Despite the science-based terminology employed, theories of consciousness are much too vague to be science. For example, one cognitive scientist offers hopefully,

Fortunately, there are new theories of how consciousness could emerge as a property of large numbers of individual neurons even though it is not a property of individual neurons. Stanislas Dehaene thinks that emergence comes from the broadcast of information across brain areas, whereas I argue in my new book Brain-Mind that the key properties are patterns of firing of neurons, binding of these patterns into more complex patterns, and competition among the resulting patterns. Paul Thagard, “When Did Consciousness Begin?” at Psychology Today

Although these ideas are interesting, they would certainly be difficult to test. If we already believe in emergence or Darwinism (“competition among the resulting patterns”), we will find the new ideas compatible with our existing beliefs but we won’t be any wiser about consciousness.

Now, at this point, naturalists (materialists) tend to go in one of two directions: Either consciousness has no actual existence, as philosopher Daniel Dennett would say (and we will consider his view later), or it is a material substance, as analytical philosopher Galen Strawson would say.

On Strawson’s view, our childhood memories of pancakes on Saturday, for example, are—and must be—”wholly physical.” He explains,

Naturalism states that everything that concretely exists is entirely natural; nothing supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists. Given that we know that conscious experience exists, we must as naturalists suppose that it’s wholly natural. And given that we’re specifically materialist or physicalist naturalists (as almost all naturalists are), we must take it that conscious experience is wholly material or physical. And so we should, because it’s beyond reasonable doubt that experience—what W.V. Quine called “experience in all its richness… the heady luxuriance of experience” of color and sound and smell—is wholly a matter of neural goings-on: wholly natural and wholly physical …

He takes philosophers like Dennett to task for thinking that consciousness might be immaterial (because it has no actual existence):

The situation grows stranger when one reflects that almost all their materialist forebears, stretching back over 2,000 years to Leucippus and Democritus, completely reject the view that experience can’t be physical, and hold instead (as all serious materialists must) that experience is wholly physical. Russell made the key observation in 1927: “We do not know enough of the intrinsic character of events outside us to say whether it does or does not differ from that of ‘mental’ events”—whose nature we do know. He never wavered from this point. In 1948, he noted that physics simply can’t tell us “whether the physical world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” In 1956, he remarked that “we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” But the Deniers weren’t listening, and they still aren’t. Galen Strawson, “The Consciousness Deniers” at New York Review of Books (March 13, 2018)

MAX TEGMARK, Professor of Physics

Max Tegmark

One well-known physicist, Max Tegmark, has tried to flesh out the idea that consciousness could be a state of matter. He calls it “perceptronium”:

The hypothesis was first put forward in 2014 by cosmologist and theoretical physicist Max Tegmark from MIT, who proposed that there’s a state of matter – just like a solid, liquid, or gas – in which atoms are arranged to process information and give rise to subjectivity, and ultimately, consciousness…

Just as there are certain conditions under which various states of matter – such as steam, water, and ice – can arise, so too can various forms of consciousness, he argues.

Figuring out what it takes to produce these various states of consciousness according to observable and measurable conditions could help us get a grip on what it actually is, and what that means for a human, a monkey, a flea, or a supercomputer. BEC CREW, “This Physicist Says Consciousness Could Be a New State of Matter” at ScienceAlert (2016)

Strange as it might be to think of consciousness as material and thoughts as things, a materialist is committed to such a view, as Galen Strawson says. Unless, of course, the materialist chooses to make the case that consciousness does not really exist, which we will discuss shortly.

Note: Tegmark’s 2014 paper, “Consciousness as a State of Matter,” (Chaos, Solitons & Fractals) is open access. Tegmark has also offered some thoughts as to how AI could take over and run the world.

See also: Consciousness Studies Is a “Bizarre” Field of Science

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug


How AI could run the world. Its killer apps, in physicist Max Tegmark’s tale, include a tsunami of “message” films

How Can Consciousness Be a Material Thing?