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It’s Becoming Clearer That the Mind Is Not the Brain

The “science of consciousness” not only has no workable materialist theory but it’s unclear what such a theory should look like or explain

Not surprisingly, given that philosopher David Chalmers won the famous wager with neuroscientist Christof Koch last month, the topic of consciousness has been in the news a lot. In 25 years of research, no one has found a specific consciousness circuit, spot, wave, or whatever in the brain. Consciousness is still the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.”

At Vox, Oshan Jarow, a writer who knows the field, tells us that the bet has been renewed for another 25 years and offers an interpretation of why scientists haven’t “cracked” consciousness so far: “we still lack a definitive, falsifiable explanation. We even lack consensus on whether one may ever exist.”

Eventually, in this view, the field might coalesce around a unified theory and the first true paradigm of consciousness science would begin. This is the view Koch continues to hold (despite being down a case of fine Portuguese wine). He doubled down at the recent ASSC conference, renewing the bet on the same 25-year horizon. Chalmers, too, reports plenty of progress, telling Nature that the problem of consciousness “has gradually been transmuting into, if not a ‘scientific’ mystery, at least one that we can get a partial grip on scientifically.”

But there’s no guarantee that some critical mass of correlations between brain states and feelings can ever tell us how or why consciousness happens. Chalmers suspects that at the conclusion of their renewed bet in 2048, despite all the surrounding progress of insight that’s sure to unfold, the mystery may remain as perplexing as ever.

Oshan Jarow, “Why scientists haven’t cracked consciousness,Vox, Jun 30, 2023.

The fundamental problem is not only that the science of consciousness has no theory, as Jarow says, but it’s unclear what such a theory should look like or explain.

black blank cup or mug mockup on black surface

AI expert Riccardo Manzotti offers an “ingeniously simple” solution to the problem: There is no problem — at least, not according to his Mind – Object Identity Theory (MOI) :

The hypothesis is simple: there is a world of physical objects that take place relative to your body – the laptop, the mug, and all the rest. There is no inside and no outside. There is no here and no there. There is just your existence, you, as one would expect in a physical world. Your ‘conscious experience’ of the laptop and the mug is nothing other than the laptop and the mug as they take place relative to your body. So what is your experience? It is the subset of physical objects taking place relative to your body. The mind is identical with the (relative) object. Hence the name of Mind-Object Identity. –

Riccardo Manzotti, “There is No Problem of Consciousness,” IAI.TV, February 2, 2023

He stresses that his theory is entirely compatible with physicalism: “MOI concurs that you and I are entirely physical; what we call consciousness is outside the head, yes, but part of the physical world.” And that recognition dissolves all the conundrums, in his view:

What about the many problems that consciousness studies is so replete with – intentionality, aboutness, first-person perspective, reflexivity, self-consciousness? How does MOI deal with them? While I cannot address them individually here, I can hint at a general strategy. They are all pseudo-problems created to deal with the false premise I aimed at at the beginning, namely the separation between subject and object. They play the same role as the epicycles played to hold geocentrism. Once the false premise is put aside, they will follow. –

Riccardo Manzotti, “There is no problem of consciousness,” IAI.TV, February 2, 2023

From Manzotti’s perspective, to solve Chalmers’ venerable “Hard Problem,” we must get used to the idea that our conscious experience of the laptop and the mug is “nothing other than the laptop and the mug as they take place relative to your body” and all the problems vanish.

It’s no wonder that Christof Koch’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) was at issue in the famous wager and MOI wasn’t.

But MOI is not the only theory that asks us to simply ignore what we know about our own consciousness in order to resolve the philosophy of science problem. Neuroscientists Peter L. Halligan and David A. Oakley ask, “Is it time to give up on consciousness as ‘the ghost in the machine’? as if giving up on the problem amounted to resolving it.

Similarly, philosopher David Papineau tells us, consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something” and “The only reason that many people feel there’s a problem is that they can’t stop thinking in dualist terms.”

But, of course, there is a reason why people can’t stop thinking about the problem in dualist terms. If our brain processes “feel like” something, then those processes are both observed and felt. But by whom? By a part of us that is not the processes themselves. The dualism Papineau decries is what we can experience in any given waking moment: our minds observing our brains and bodies. So dualism is not going away because it can’t.

Ultrasonic transducer on the blue background

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor suggests a way out: Robert Epstein’s view of the brain as a transducer rather than a computer:

A successful understanding of the mind–brain relationship will necessarily involve understanding the brain as a transduction device in one way or another. Such an understanding could prove enormously fruitful and can help us move beyond the current materialist framework in which neuroscience is practiced, which has has held us so far back in our understanding of the mind and the brain. The brain is obviously material but it is just as obvious that the mind has immaterial abilities.

We accept that the ear is a transducer for sound to hearing and the eye is a transducer for light to vision. It is reasonable to infer that the brain is a transducer for thought to body. Transduction theory is a plausible approach to understanding the connection between the mind and the brain. It should be taken seriously by neuroscientists and philosophers of the mind.

Michael Egnor, “A neuroscience theory that actually helps explain the brain,” Mind Matters, August 30, 2021

But, as Egnor notes, that is a dualist theory. On that view, the mind is not simply the buzz of the brain. It monitors the brain.

That raises a question: If a dualist approach seems more natural and less, well, crackpot than materialist theories on offer, to what extent is materialism getting in the way of science?

You may also wish to read: The philosopher wins: There’s no consciousness spot in the brain. After a 25-year search, dualist philosopher David Chalmers won the bet with neuroscientist Christof Koch, whose consciousness theory has panpsychist overtones. As dualist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor notes, human consciousness is immaterial by nature. Is the Koch-Chalmers bet a language game aimed at avoiding that fact?

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

It’s Becoming Clearer That the Mind Is Not the Brain