Would We Give Up Naturalism to Solve the Hard Problem of Consciousness?

Denyse O'Leary

Boldly putting aside Darwin’s "horrid doubt" about the naturalist view of the mind, researchers decided to embrace naturalism. That meant, of course, addressing what philosopher David Chalmers has called "the hard problem" of consciousness.

Science-Fictions-square.gifDecades later, they have not discovered anything that reduces basic, overlapping concepts such as consciousness, the mind, the self, or free will to naturalistic explanations. There are those, like philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who simply assert such explanations as fact. Yet there is no serious scientific theory of consciousness now, and none on the horizon.

When we are conscious, we are both observers and observed. Greg Peterson suggests, "It is as if we were trying to look both in and out of the window at the same time."1 But lack of objectivity is only one difficulty. Consciousness cannot be observed directly. There is no single center of consciousness in the brain. Nor is it a mechanism of the brain.

Research has taught a few things, of course. Self-talk, for example, was found to take up a quarter of conscious experience. We have also detected consciousness in patients in a vegetative state (using an Alfred Hitchcock movie — which demonstrated, among other things, that some of his films really can (well, almost) wake the dead).

But the difficulties are formidable, even if naturalist approaches can solve them. For one thing, as neurobiologist Nicholas Spitzer explains, the neuroscience is fairly new"

"We have a hundred billion neurons in each human brain … Right now, the best we can do is to record the electrical activity of maybe a few hundred of those neurons."

Evolution hasn’t turned out to be much help. Human and monkey brains are more similar than expected, which only makes the gap harder to account for.

Characteristically, popular science media have often told a story at odds with the state of the research. Science writer Michael Lemonick announced in Time (1995), " … consciousness is somehow a by-product of the simultaneous, high-frequency firing of neurons in different parts of the brain. It’s the meshing of these frequencies that generates consciousness … just as the tones from individual instruments produce the rich, complex and seamless sound of a symphony orchestra."2 Actually, Francis Crick and Christof Koch, who put forward that concept, considered it highly speculative. And Crick prudently hedged his bets anyway by saying that Darwinian evolution did not equip our brains for such tasks as understanding consciousness.3

One result is that there are many theories of consciousness. Here are a few that have made the news recently:

One model, self-organized criticality, has survived its pioneer, Per Bak (1948-2002):

The brain is an incredibly complex machine. Each of its tens of billions of neurons is connected to thousands of others, and their interactions give rise to the emergent process we call "thinking." According to Bak, the electrical activity of brain cells shift back and forth between calm periods and avalanches — just like the grains of sand in his sand pile — so that the brain is always balanced precariously right at that the critical point.

About that, critics have said things like "a good scientific theory must be more than elegant and beautiful," and besides, it is "ridiculously broad."

Even more ambitious, Christof Koch is now championing a new approach, a panpsychism in which consciousness arises out of complex systems. As Wired tells it:

All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the Internet could be. That’s just the way the universe works.

Okay, so humans, earthworms, and maybe even the Internet are conscious. How does such a model help?

There is also a "quiet revolution" going on in theoretical physics: "A new way of thinking about consciousness is sweeping through science like wildfire": Consciousness is a state of matter. Cosmologist Max Tegmark defines it as: "the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware," and suggests the term "perceptronium."

Meanwhile, LiveScience tells us, "Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness," offering a list of current competing theories. But not an exciting new breakthrough.

The fact that this stuff sounds unserious shouldn’t blind us to a key cultural outcome of its dominance: Alternative medicine proponent Deepak Chopra was ridiculed at Forbes for saying "Consciousness may exist in photons, which seem to be the carrier of all information in the universe." Yet great physicists have said similar things. Max Planck said "I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness." And Koch, remember, thinks the Internet may be conscious. But are he or Max Tegmark ("perceptronium") so easily ridiculed in the same places?

The standard is probably this: Koch and Tegmark are assumed to be naturalists and Chopra certainly doesn’t sound like one. Irrespective of the state of the evidence, actual or perceived naturalism distinguishes the genius from the fool.

One does, however (as noted earlier), see the beginnings of pushback. The Scientist recently featured a cautiously favorable review of a new book trashing the idea that current neuroscience is close to "reading minds." Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by psychiatrist Sally Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, explains why we should properly be skeptical of pop media claims about the power of fMRI imaging.

What we are seeing is probably not a retreat from materialism. It is rather a recognition that, facing a hard problem, we need more rigor, less hype. Along those lines, an interesting letter in Physics Today offers,

Surely, not only the question of the origin of life, which Keith Schofield raised in his letter (Physics Today, August 2012, page 12), but questions of consciousness and of free will may be beyond the bounds of science. For instance, what measuring devices, other than human beings themselves, can we use to detect human consciousness? Clearly, purely physical data cannot penetrate the mystery that is the human mind.

Perhaps we need to start with careful thought about "the bounds of science." Do we really want evidence-based answers if they do not support naturalism? What if they are correct but defined as outside the bounds of science? That question might come up a lot in the future.

Editor’s note: Here is the "Science Fictions" series (the human mind) to date at your fingertips (the human mind).


(1) Greg Peterson"God on the Brain: The Neurobiology of Faith", Christian Century, January 27, 1999. A review of The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet by James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright (Pilgrim 1999).

(2) Michael D. Lemonick "Glimpses of the Mind," Time Magazine (July 17, 1995)

(3) Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Simon and Schuster Touchstone, 1995), p. 262.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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