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How Can We Study Consciousness Scientifically?

Tam Hunt offers some ideas at Scientific American but his dismissal of objectivity is cause for concern. There is a better way.

At Scientific American, psychologist Tam Hunt offers some thoughts on “How to Make the Study of Consciousness Scientifically Tractable.” It’s an important question, not only because it implies the need for a scientific methodology appropriate to mental phenomena, but also because it makes clear that the materialist paradigm by which much of science is practised is woefully inadequate.

Hunt has much to say that is useful so I would urge you to take a look at his whole essay. For example, he quotes Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961), who (unlike so many scientists today) was philosophically literate. In his 1958 book, Mind and Matter, he talked about the “principle of objectivation”:

By [the principle of objectivation] I mean… a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world… Science must be made anew. Care is needed.

Hunt defines “objectivation” for us:

Behaviorists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their human or animal subjects thought, intended or wanted, and focused instead entirely on behavior. They thought that because thoughts in other peoples’ heads, or in animals, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior.

Tam Hunt, “How can we study consciousness scientifically?” at Scientific American

Where do we go with this? How can we move on from objectivation—an approach that all reasonable scientists and philosophers see as inadequate to rigorously describe consciousness—to a more adequate scientific approach?

Hunt suggests:

We are retreating from the notion of only “objective” science being legitimate. We are now developing a new set of standards to replace “objectivity.” These new standards are based on the notion of intersubjective confirmation. This fancy term just means that we recognize that all “objective” data are data that we can discuss and decide as a community of scientists whether to regard as accurate and relevant and thus “true.” Truth is intersubjective, not objective. There is no “view from nowhere.” There is always a somewhere, a perspective, a subject.

Tam Hunt, “How can we study consciousness scientifically?” at Scientific American

This is a minefield. Hunt is right that the scientific study of consciousness using merely third-person objective data is flawed—it is the idiotic flaw of behaviorism—but the notion that “objective” data needs scare quotes opens the door to a Derrida-like deconstruction of our knowledge of the natural world that is every bit as idiotic and dangerous as the crude materialist objectification of consciousness.

Consciousness is not wholly material. But it is equally true that matter is not wholly mental. The world is not merely our own mental construct. There is a real world, independent of our minds, and we have access to it. If there is not such a world and/or we do not have access to it, then none of us (Hunt included) can claim to know truth of any sort.

This metaphysical fallacy, that our perception and understanding of the world is only an image projected by our mind, figured prominently in 17th century philosopher John Locke’s philosophy of mind. It undermines much neuroscience today, rendering genuine knowledge of any sort impossible, including knowledge of itself.

The denial that we have some genuine and direct knowledge of reality is self-refuting, because if it is true, then we can’t know that it is true. It is gibberish if unexamined, and if understood and still asserted, it is insane.

The best approach to this dilemma—the dilemma that both subjective experience and objective existence are real and that our subjective experience corresponds to objective reality—is that of Thomas Aquinas (1274–1323) who revived Aristotle’s philosophy for medieval universities. In the Thomistic view, following Aristotle. (384–322 B.C.E.), the fundamental reality is form. When we perceive and understand reality, we grasp the form of reality through our minds. It is this intake of form into the mind—this information about the real world—that makes it possible for us to have subjective experience about objective reality. It is the basis for intentionality—the power of thought to be about something.

Hunt is on the right track in expressing his concerns. He rightly denies the ability of materialist pseudoscience to understand the mind. But he runs the danger of subjectivizing science to the point that we can claim to know nothing about reality as it actually is. That is an egregious error as well. St. Thomas shows us the way past it.


Here are some of Michael Egnor’s discussions of theories of consciousness:

Why eliminative materialism cannot be a good theory of the mind. Thinking that the mind is simply the brain, no more and no less, involves a hopeless contradiction. How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? That means propositions don’t exist and that means, in turn, that you don’t have a proposition.

Why the mind cannot just emerge from the brain. The mind cannot emerge from the brain if the two have no qualities in common. In his continuing discussion with Robert J. Marks, Michael Egnor argues that emergence of the mind from the brain is not possible because no properties of the mind have any overlap with the properties of brain. Thought and matter are not similar in any way. Matter has extension in space and mass; thoughts have no extension in space and no mass.

and

The mind’s reality is consistent with neuroscience. A neglected “dualist” theory offers some insights. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor thinks that the explanation of the relationship of the mind to the brain that best fits today’s neuroscience is that certain powers, particularly the intellect and will, are not generated by matter but are immaterial. However, other properties of the mind, like perception, memory and imagination are physical, generated by brain matter.


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

How Can We Study Consciousness Scientifically?