List of arguments against physicalism about consciousness

Many have a strong intuition that consciousness cannot be a brain process, but what are the arguments for this claim? I’m listing every one I can think of below. If you know any others, please let me know in the comments this could be a useful quick-and-dirty resource for people thinking about the topic. For some I list the names most associated with the arguments. If I have made any mistakes in phrasing, or attribution, please let me know.

Note when I say it is a list of arguments that consciousness cannot be a ‘brain process’ I really just mean arguments against physicalist/naturalistic theory of consciousness. Obviously there exists naturalistic theories that are anti-brain such  as some versions of functionalism and computationalism. I posed it in a neurocentric way because this is philosophy of brains.com.

While some of the arguments are pretty bad (e.g., number 4),  I have heard every one of them from real people who were intelligent enough to be arguing about the relationship between consciousness and the brain. That is, they weren’t dummies.

Arguments that physicalism about consciousness is wrong
1. It is impossible to imagine how mere neuronal tissue could produce conscious experience (Huxely)
2. Failures of supervenience, such as zombies and inverted spectra, are conceivable (Chalmers, Locke, etc).
3. Mary learns something (Jackson).
4. Brains have mass, volume, and other physical properties, but experiences do not.
5. Paranormal phenomena (near death experiences, ghosts, ESP)
are real, and involve consciousness implemented in a nonphysical
substrate.
6.  If shrunken so I can stroll around your brain and look about, I will observe neuronal processes, not experiences (Leibniz).
7. The soul is the seat of consciousness, and the soul is not physical.
8. Conscious experiences have intrinsic qualities, but science can only tell us about relational qualities (Russell, Rosenberg).
9. Consciousness cannot be observed; there will never be a consciousness detector that can tell you if a given creature is conscious.
10. Conscious experiences are not simply the movement of molecules, consciousness is more than mass in motion (Mill, Ward).

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40 Comments

  1. Richard Brown

    Someone once said the following to me:

    I can have a pain in my foot, but I can’t have a brain process in my foot, so pain isn’t a brain process.

    Here is another one from Jack Back

    11. We pick out conscious experience by a distinctively mental property

    12. Consciousness without body is conceivable (akin to zombies, but ghost are technically different)

    and perhaps,

    13. material and formal causation neglect efficient and final cause (from Aristotle)

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  2. Henry Harrison

    What about the argument that consciousness is not a brain process in the sense that is located exclusively in the brain, but rather that it arises from the interaction of brain, body, and environment? Still physicalism (maybe), but not “a brain process.”

    Maybe not a popular view, but surely it’s a view you’ve seen before.

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  3. Eric Thomson

    Yes good point, I should have said I was using “brain process” as a stand-in for any naturalistic/physicalist/materialist theory, and I have updated the original post to clarify this.

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  4. Eric Thomson

    On number 12, that’s what I was getting at with number 5 with my mention of ghosts and near death experiences.

    I don’t understand number 11, and am not clear on how number 13 is an argument about consciousness per se.

    The pain in foot one is cute I have never seen that before!

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  5. Hi Eric:
    With regard to #8, I might suggest a slight revision. Speaking of relational qualities isn’t quite right– one is contrasting intrinsic qualitiative properties with extrinsic or relational properties.

    The idea that it is our common sense conception of matter or ‘the physical’ which is incomplete or wrong can account for the intuitions behind alot of your list I think.

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  6. Eric Thomson

    Steve: I was using ‘qualities’ as synonymous with ‘properties’.

    As for your second para, I’m not convinced that you have pinpointed the root of the arguments, but perhaps if you could expand I’ll be convinced. I think the root is that many people think conscious experiences are obviously just different from mass in motion (my number 10 I think is the root intuition).

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  7. Mike

    This is a cool list to try to make.

    I don’t have an argument to add at this moment, but I’d point out that most or all of these only apply if one defines “physical” to exclude “mental.” If you allow some kind of panpsychist physicalism then I think these arguments would allow physicalism to be true. I don’t think that is usually allowed by what people call physicalism, but it seems to me that that assumption should be made explicit–but normally it’s not.

    I think this point could be one version of what Steve Esser was getting at.

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  8. Eric Thomson

    Yes good point Mike, I was definitely making that assumption! Perhaps that’s what Steve meant, that would make sense. But if that is the case, then he is implicitly antinaturalistic (as I have admittedly narrowly defined it), perhaps for one of the reasons already mentioned or a new reason that he might add to the list. My hunch is that Steve knows more about this than I do, his site is a really useful resource.

    More on ‘naturalism.’ Chalmers is explicit that he views his panpsychist-leaning theories as naturalistic (experience is a fundamental natural property like charge or mass that we should be able to study and incorporate into science) but not physicalistic in the narrow sense that present physics does not have experience as one of its basic properties. Often people will say his view is anti ‘materialism’ but for some reason I don’t like to call myself a ‘materialist’ because it seems so 18th century like I think everything is a tiny little brick.

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  9. Right – I’m questioning the idea that physical should be defined as excluding anything that might have to do with the mental.

    So I agree with your point Eric that many people think conscious experiences are obviously just different from mass in motion. But assuming they are wrong, why are they wrong? The idea behind the insight you attribute to Rosenberg, which is most commonly traced to Russell, is that it is the idea that matter is “mass in motion” that is the bigger part of the problem, rather than a misconception about the character of conscious experience.

    Now, we know the physical world isn’t made of little bricks, but what is it? Mass, charge, etc. are relational properties revealed by interactions. They are described formally or quantitatively. We don’t have good reason to think these descriptions are complete (it could be falling into a reification fallacy to take them as complete). In addition to the properties described by physical theory, concrete natural events or processes could have an intrinsic character which, when put together in the right way, constitutes conscious experience.

    To Mike’s description of this as panpsychist, you could interpret the position that way, or you could take a “neutral monist” position (as did Russell).

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  10. Eric Thomson

    Steve thanks for the reply. Is it fair to say you are posing a variant of Rosenberg/Russel argument against physicalism? (Obviously this is just to narrowly focus on listbuilding for now, not the content of your argument: I will have to think more about your argument before I respond).

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  11. Richard Brown

    Re 12 v 5: 5 is the claim that this actually happens, whereas 12 is merely the claim that it is conceivable and so possible, these are different. 

    re 11: It is supposed to be Max Black not Jack Black!!! But at any rate, the point is supposed to be that when we introspect our conscious experience of, say, a pain we pick it out via a distinctive mental property and so even if all there is are physical substance there must be some non-physical properties….of course this argument turns, as someone already pointed out, on ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ being mutually exclusive terms. 
    re 13: Issues about consciousness were not at the forefront in Aristotle’s day, but it is supposed to be an argument that the mind cannot be physical, and so a fortiori is about consciousness…
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  12. Eric Thomson

    I will likely be able to respond later tonight, but as a preparation Steve I have a simple question that would help me understand what you are arguing. Is there anything special about picking out consciousness as supporting
    your argument, or could you just as easily have picked digestion or
    respiration to make your point?

    In explaining human digestion, for instance, I would mention the small intestine with certain intrinsic features: it’s shape, it is filled with enzymes of a certain type, the structure of its walls that allows nutrients to be pulled out. The muscles in its wall contract a certain way to produce peristalsis. It is filled with enzymes and food of such-and-such variety. All of this, with many properties some intrinsic some relational/functional helps us explain digestion.

    So, can you run your argument on that? Or are brains/consciousness special?

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  13. While it’s questionable whether Descartes subscribes to the following sort of argument, it is sometimes attributed to him, and perhaps worth mentioning:

    1. My consciousness has the property of being known for certain to exist (not even a powerful demon can deceive me about whether I’m conscious right now).
    2. Nothing physical has the property of being known for certain to exist (a powerful demon can easily deceive me about the existence of physical things).
    Therefore, my consciousness is identical to nothing physical.

    And here’s one that sometimes gets attributed to Brentanno
    All conscious states exhibit intentionality. Nothing physical exhibits intentionality. Consciousness is nonphysical.

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  14. Good question – I’m not sure. The argument is usually run on consciousness vs. physics with I guess an assumption that all the other natural phenomena (including their apparent intrinsic features) supervene on physics.

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  15. Eric Thomson

    OK. Then my concern is that the argument is so general that it isn’t a critique of physicalist theories of consciousness, but physicalist views of everything (even physics, as physics doesn’t tell us the intrinsic properties of an electron, but its relational properties within a mathematical framework). It isn’t clear that this is an argument from consciousness per se, but a more general concern about physics that can be extended to anything that depends on the physical, such as digestion or consciousness.

    I’d rather address this argument as it pertains to digestion or electrons, than consciousness, because the latter is already controversial so why add two sets of complicated problems together when one of them is inessential to the other?

    Or, if you want to say that consciousness is somehow specially subject to this criticism I’d have to see a good argument that it is relevantly different from digestion, respiration, electrons, etc..

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  16. OK. You’re right that there is a sense in which the argument is a general critique of our notion of the physical. (I’m not sure if this is a “concern”—-it might be a strength). Physics only characterizes extrinsic properties and therefore you can’t make a complete ontology out of physical theory. So maybe this can motivate an argument that biology can’t be reduced to physics, for instance. I hadn’t thought about that.

    (The electron is a different case: I think Rosenberg would argue that the extrinsic, mathematically characterized properties of mass, spin and charge need to be “carried” by intrinsic or categorical properties – they can’t stand on their own).

    Here’s a reason to bring consciousness into it especially. All science begins with conscious experience (observations). And experience is the thing that clearly and directly acquaints us with intrinsic properties. Therefore consciousness offers the clearest reason to think such properties are part of the natural world in addition to the properties described by formal physical theories.

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  17. I would like to also mention that I was educated further on this topic by Richard Brown’s 2009 Online Consciousness Conference which had a segment on “Russellian Physicalism” led by a Barbara Montero paper.

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  18. Eric Thomson

    Mark: I’d like to eventually work through them, but right now I’m just trying to see if there’s anything out there I haven’t encountered before. I thought people here might know.

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  19. Brandon N Towl

    The following argument is from Chalmers:

    1) Neuroscience (cog psych, etc.) can provide explanations for a phenomenon given that the phenomenon in question is functionalizable.

    2) Qualitative experience is not functionalizable.

    3) Therefore, qualitative experience cannot be fully explained by neuroscience (cog psych, etc.)

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  20. check out the books “the waning of materialism” and “challenges to physicalism” for a bunch of others. here are a few from the first book that aren’t on your list (though some are mentioned by others above):

    (i) arguments from the conceivability/possibility of disembodiment (descartes, kripke); (ii) the property dualism argument (max black, stephen white), (iii) the argument from intentionalism (adam pautz), (iv) arguments from personal identity (martine nida-rumelin, richard swinburne); (v) arguments from the unity or simplicity of consciousness (barnett, hasker); (vi) arguments from mental causation (tim o’connor).

    on the original list, 9 and 10 above don’t look like arguments so probably shouldn’t be on the list; and i’m not sure that 1 has ever been given as a serious argument rather than help up as an argument caricature by opponents.

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  21. Eric Thomson

    Thanks David. If someone could give a brief sympathetic exposition of any of those, that would be really helpful. I still don’t understand this ‘property dualism argument’ from Black (more on that below). Also, what is this book ‘Challenges to physicalism’ I couldn’t find it at Amazon or google?

    Numbers 1 and 10 are quite common intuitions that directly throw suspicion on physicalism, and I run into them in practice fairly frequently. On number 1, consider Huxely’s famous: ‘How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes
    about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as
    unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.’ Rather than a caricature, I take number 1 to be a relatively austere version of Huxely’s claim (which I have seen in endless permutations over the years).

    Number 10 I run into a lot in some guise or another online quite frequently, but I was thinking of James Ward’s Gifford Lectures when I wrote it: he peppered it with things like:
    ” If only matter in motion can set matter in motion it is plain that mind, which ex hypothesi is not matter in motion, cannot do it” (that’s from lecture XII, entitled ‘The Conscious Automaton Theory.’)

    Like I said, it is a list of arguments I’ve seen in practice, not necessarily good arguments (not even necessarily sound or non question-begging: I think a couple of them are question-begging, in fact).

    It would be useful to have a clear description of:
    1) property dualism argument [richard brown described it above, but still I don’t understand it more on that below]
    2) argument(s) from personal identity
    3) argument from intentionalism
    4) argument from unity/simplicity of consciousness
    5) argument from mental causation (also related to Kim’s arguments?)

    Property dualism argument: Richard explicated as:
    ‘when we introspect our conscious experience of, say, a pain we pick it
    out via a distinctive mental property and so even if all there is are
    physical substance there must be some non-physical properties.’

    That helps some, but I’m still not completely clear. Say my friend experiences a pain in his toe, tells me about it. The claim is not that he is picking it out via some unique neuronal channel that only he has access to. Rather, the claim is that he has access to a unique property of the pain that is different from properties of the corresponding brain state.

    That seems clearly question-begging, though. Let me try to express it more sympathetically.

    Consider analogy with clark kent/superman. They are the same, but we identify them based on different superficial properties. Hence, if brain/pain are in an analogous situation,  then they should have different properties by which we identify them. But if pain has unique properties by which we identify it, then it has properties over and above those of the brain. Hence, pain cannot be solely a property of a brain.

     
    Putting it that way makes it seem less obviously weak. (Note I stole the clark kent/superman bit from Block’s article on black).

    Anyway, this is really useful, also thanks to Pete Mandik I hadn’t even thought of good ol’ Brentano!!!

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  22. Eric Thomson

    On unity argument from Hasker, Victor Reppert has an exposition here that is very sympathetic. Basically Hasker argues that brains are not the right kinds of things that can sustain the unity of consciousness because brain states are just a ‘system of parts’ rather than a true unity. That’s definitely not on the list, thanks David (I have seen that used to support quantum views of mind, but had forgotten that Hasker uses it against naturalistic theories more generally).

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  23. Mike

    I haven’t read the original, but I think this argument has force—but only as applied to a classical brain. That is, quantum mechanical systems (and we live in one) require a holistic description, and allow for genuinely holistic dynamics; whereas any classical system can be understood as a set of parts interacting only with their neighbors.

    So I’m saying that (although Reppert didn’t intend it this way) this unity argument is only an argument against a classical brain, not an argument against physicalism, because we do have a physical theory that allows for non-trivial holism, as in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen/Aspect non-locality experiments.

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  24. I changed number 9 to its more general formulation that ‘consciousness is unobservable’ instead of the species, that ‘there can be no consciousness detector’ (the latter, for some reason, I have been hearing more lately). This is used to argue that if it were a natural process, it would be observable, etc..

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  25. Mike

    It’s sweet of you to allow me that much!

    I mistakenly attributed the unity argument to Reppert. I guess it’s Hasker’s. There are similar arguments from the physicist Henry Stapp and others.

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  26. jack weldon

    There is more and more ‘physical’ evidence that the mind/brain is not a place but part of a field (see global synchrony)the perhaps some other artifacts of the field being other mind/brains (see group tempo). Activities and/or processes
    and their presumptions cannot be ignored. On the other hand we can say that the hippocampus does this or that,
    or the entorhinal cortex or theta/gamma coupling but the real question to begin with is ‘what is the mind/brain’?
    So, it is sort of like working towards the middle from both ends of the spectrum. We can fiddle with concepts
    that have absolutely no basis in observed phenomena (science, for instance) or we can argue from the other
    pole without any consideration of the products of the pure intellect and imagination (philosophy, experience etc). Neither can or ever will stand alone. But work modestly and deliberately, with audacious imagination in concert with rigorous fidelity to fact. Proceed towards the middle simultaneously from both ends continuously seeking a dynamic synthesis (‘truth’) through mutual nullification and validation. The conjunction of the imagination and enterprise is real. The problem with the physicalist viewpoint is that it treats the imagination/intellect as a poor stepchild and not as a real variable because it is not Quantifiable. See Bohr/Einstein and particle/wave.. Kind of like measuring life by only those things we can count.

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  27. I forgot one I see all the time:
    Science tells us only about the objective world, but consciousness is subjective (usually they draw on Nagel for this).

    Oh, and its grammatically-oriented variant:
    Science only tells us about the third person point of view while consciousness is first-person.

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  28. Ryan

    J.J. Smart has a nice list of arguments related to this issue in his classic “Sensations and Brain Processes”. Some are similar in nature to ones in your list. But here’s one that isn’t:

    “Sensations are private, brain processes are public. If I sincerely say, “I see a yellowish-orange after-image” and I am not making a verbal mistake, then I cannot be wrong. But I can be wrong about a brain-process. The scientist looking into my brain might have an illusion. Moreover, it makes sense to say that two or more people are observing the same brain-process but not that two or more people are reporting the same experience.”

    Well, actually it’s somewhat similar to (9). But Smart has 7 more that might be useful to look at.

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  29. Joshua Stern

    1. It is impossible to imagine how mere neuronal tissue could produce conscious experience (Huxely)

    My imagination has no problem with it.

    2. Failures of supervenience, such as zombies and inverted spectra, are conceivable (Chalmers, Locke, etc).

    I can conceive that red is blue, so what.

    The good news is that I can conceive that 2 + 2 = 4, so at least
    *some* of my conceptions work out.

    3. Mary learns something (Jackson).

    So what? I learn something every time I fire up a newly
    written computer program. I daresay even Mozart learned something
    the first time the orchestra actually played his pieces. Yet
    there is nothing to the program that changes just because I
    learn something further about its consequences.

    4. Brains have mass, volume, and other physical properties, but experiences do not.

    Baseball players have mass but the game does not. So what, we have named
    an aggregate which we can recognize as encompassing the physical substrate,
    or not. There is no ghostly “game” that exists outside of what is on the field.

    5. Paranormal phenomena (near death experiences, ghosts, ESP) are real, and involve consciousness implemented in a nonphysical substrate.

    Not worthy of serious response.

    6. If shrunken so I can stroll around your brain and look about, I will observe neuronal processes, not experiences (Leibniz).

    If shrunken and walking around my computer screen you will see pixels and not a swimsuit model,
    and that’s your loss.

    7. The soul is the seat of consciousness, and the soul is not physical.

    A claim and not an argument.

    8. Conscious experiences have intrinsic qualities, but science can only tell us about relational qualities (Russell, Rosenberg).

    What an odd assertion!

    9. Consciousness cannot be observed; there will never be a consciousness detector that can tell you if a given creature is conscious.

    If it can’t be observed, can anything said about it be either true or false?

    10. Conscious experiences are not simply the movement of molecules, consciousness is more than mass in motion (Ward).

    Is this a claim that you can have consciousness without atoms and motion?

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  30. Eric Thomson

    Thanks Ryan I’ll check it out.

    That reminds me I forgot to include the semantic argument (which I posted about recently!):
    Talk of experiences has different meaning than talk about brain states (Ryle). People talked about experiences for millennia without knowing anything about brains or neurons. The verification criteria are different.

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  31. chucomsen

    As we proceed deeper and wider both the processes of the brain and mind, and their descriptions, become indistinguishable; that is, factuality devolves into reality, the static becomes dynamic. All that remains to be identified or pondered is the source of that dynamic reality.

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  32. AnduinX

    Argument #1: There is no neural correlate for consciousness.

    “One of the goals of neuroscience is to correlate mental states with biophysical states, systems and processes in the brain. This effort has only partly been successful. For example, we can correlate the capacity of speech to the Wernicke and Broca areas. We can correlate motor action to the motor cortex, vision to the optical nerve and the visual cortex, certain feelings such as arousal, pleasure, and excitement to neurotransmitters.
    However, the search for the neural correlate of consciousness has come up empty. Decades of research did not produce what was originally envisioned by neuroscientists – the correlate or substrate of phenomenal consciousness.”

    “There is no causal explanation that leads from brain states to qualia. There are no neural correlates for thought, beliefs, and ideas. In fact, most neuroscientists have given up the search for the neural correlate of conscious experience. They feel that it is the wrong approach. The absence of a neural correlate suggests that consciousness does not originate or reside in the brain at all.”

    Argument #2: Terminal Lucidity conflicts with materialism

    Terminal lucidity is a phenomenon where people with afflictions of the brain temporarily transcend their affliction as they near death.

    In the most impressive cases, people with severe brain damage, who can’t remember the names and faces of loved ones or even hold a conversation enter a lucid state where they are able to remember and converse just like their old self again. The kicker is the brain damage supposedly responsible for their mental affliction is still very much there at this moment.

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580392,00.html

    Argument #3: Severe hydrocephalus

    There are cases of severe hydrocephalus where people have a small sliver of a fraction of the brain mass of a normal person with seemingly no cognitive deficits.

    One notable case, which was published in the peer reviewed journal the lancet centered around a students with an honors degree in math who had an IQ of 127, and ‘virtually no brain’.

    http://flatrock.org.nz/topics/science/is_the_brain_really_necessary.htm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lorber

    Argument #4: Single-celled organisms can find mates, have sex, find food, avoid predators, and learn all without a brain.

    http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jan/071

    Argument #5: Veridical perception during NDEs in case studies yields highly accurate results.

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  33. Eric Thomson

    Thanks AnduinX, some of those are new.

    #1 seems new. Where is that quote from? I think Logothetis, Koch, and others would beg to differ.
    #3 Good one (note that specific case is controversial, but these types of cases are good)
    #4 is good too, though not antimaterialistic as much as antineurocentric.
    #2 and 5 are special cases of my #5, though it is good to have specific arguments like that.

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