#3 Post of 2015 – Why Can’t Science Explain Consciousness?

It is not uncommon these days to hear something like the following: “Science has explained just about everything else in the world, so it is inevitable that science will explain the mind and consciousness.” This kind of comment always makes me roll my eyes because the people who make this comment are making a colossal error, but an error that can be hard to see.

Philosopher Ed Feser gives a brilliant analogy that makes the error more obvious. He calls it the “lump under the rug” fallacy.

Suppose the wood floors of your house are filthy and that the dirt is pretty evenly spread throughout the house.  Suppose also that there is a rug in one of the hallways.  You thoroughly sweep out one of the bedrooms and form a nice little pile of dirt at the doorway.  It occurs to you that you could effectively “get rid” of this pile by sweeping it under the nearby rug in the hallway, so you do so.  The lump under the rug thereby formed is barely noticeable, so you are pleased.

You proceed to sweep the rest of the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, etc., and in each case you sweep the resulting piles under the same rug.  When you’re done, however, the lump under the rug has become quite large and something of an eyesore.  Someone asks you how you are going to get rid of it.  “Easy!” you answer.  “The same way I got rid of the dirt everywhere else!  After all, the ‘sweep it under the rug’ method has worked everywhere else in the house.  How could this little rug in the hallway be the one place where it wouldn’t work?  What are the odds of that?”

What is wrong with using the “sweep it under the rug” method to get rid of the dirt under the rug?

Naturally, the same method will not work in this case, and it is precisely because it worked everywhere else that it cannot work in this case.  You can get rid of dirt outside the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You cannot get of the dirt under the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You will only make a fool of yourself if you try, especially if you confidently insist that the method must work here because it has worked so well elsewhere.

So what does the “sweep it under the rug” method have to do with the issue of whether science will explain the mind and consciousness some day?

Now, the “Science has explained everything else, so how could the human mind be the one exception?” move is, of course, standard scientistic and materialist shtick.  But it is no less fallacious than our imagined “lump under the rug” argument.

Here’s why.  Keep in mind that Descartes, Newton, and the other founders of modern science essentially stipulated that nothing that would not fit their exclusively quantitative or “mathematicized” conception of matter would be allowed to count as part of a “scientific” explanation.  Now to common sense, the world is filled with irreducibly qualitative features — colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold — and with purposes and meanings.  None of this can be analyzed in quantitative terms.

To be sure, you can re-define color in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths, sound in terms of compression waves, heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, etc.  But that doesn’t capture what common sense means by color, sound, heat, cold, etc. — the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, the way heat feels, etc.  So, Descartes and Co. decided to treat these irreducibly qualitative features as projections of the mind.

The redness we see in a “Stop” sign, as common sense understands redness, does not actually exist in the sign itself but only as the quale of our conscious visual experience of the sign; the heat we attribute to the bathwater, as common sense understands heat, does not exist in the water itself but only in the “raw feel” that the high mean molecular kinetic energy of the water causes us to experience; meanings and purposes do not exist in external material objects but only in our minds, and we project these onto the world; and so forth.  Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.

In short, the scientific method “explains everything else” in the world in something like the way the “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt — by taking the irreducibly qualitative and teleological features of the world, which don’t fit the quantitative methods of science, and sweeping them under the rug of the mind.  And just as the literal “sweep it under the rug” method generates under the rug a bigger and bigger pile of dirt which cannot in principle be gotten rid of using the “sweep it under the rug” method, so too does modern science’s method of treating irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features as mere projections of the mind generate in the mind a bigger and bigger “pile” of features which cannot be explained using the same method.

And there you have it. The very way science does its work is to exclude the qualitative features of reality as experienced by human consciousness. To lump the phenomena of consciousness in with the phenomena of gravity, cellular division, and star formation, is to try to get rid of the dirt under the rug by sweeping the dirt under the rug! It won’t work, ever.

  • Andrew R

    “The very way science does its work is to exclude the qualitative features of reality as experienced by human consciousness”

    But who is to say we won’t find a way of including those features? While some things may forever be beyond the realms of scientific investigation, it seems hubristic to point to a hard problem – in fact THE ‘hard problem’ – and claim it can never be understood.

    “To lump the phenomena of consciousness in with the phenomena of gravity, cellular division, and star formation”

    Who says that’s what scientists investigating consciousness are actually doing? Has Feser talked to leaders in the field to discuss their methods?

  • Just curious. Do you dispute that “the very way science does its work is to exclude the qualitative features of reality as experienced by human consciousness”? Is Feser wrong about that? If so, tell me why he is wrong.

  • Andrew R

    I don’t know, Bill – I’m not an expert on the study of human consciousness, so I can’t confirm or deny Feser’s assertion. But I would like to know if Feser has talked to the experts about their methods, the ‘very way’ they do their work. Is this based on the assumption of a philosopher, or does it have authority?

  • Feser is definitely informed about the methods being used to “solve” the problem of consciousness. He has written many blog posts on the topic and, indeed, an entire book on the philosophy of mind.

  • Andrew R

    So he’s talked to the scientists involved? Any idea what their reply is to his complaint?

  • I don’t know, but most scientists are poor philosophers, so I would guess that his critique mostly goes over their heads.

  • Andrew R

    What, like Daniel Dennett? I doubt it.

  • Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist.

    Philosophy of science is a meta-scientific field of study. Philosophers of science study the methods and practice of science, while most scientists don’t. Scientists typically just use the methods of science without thinking about them in a critical manner.

  • DeltaGravity

    An interesting analogy. Some philosophers would also claim that arguing science will inevitably (someday) explain the mind and the conscious commits the fallacy of arguing to the future.

    My Chair of Philosophy department told us in class that the mystery of consciousness keeps him up at night! We argued for days about some of the more prominent members of the neuro-sciences who are positing that natural determination plays a large part in the decisions we make versus conscious free-will. Good, good stuff.

    The other interesting thing is that I’ve yet to come across any single statement universally accepted as to providing an exact definition of what the mind is, let alone consciousness. How is science to explain what it cannot yet define? (One could almost take up collecting defintions of consciousness as a hobby)

    And the problem of consciousness becomes more complex when attempting to give a definitive answer as to how, exactly, does one define a – person. Terry Schiavo certainly lost that round and her case still comes up from time to time in discussion forums I’ve visited.

    I am still looking for a concrete scientific definition of – life, other than a comparison to non-life.

    Interesting stuff.
    Thank you for your site and service.

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  • im-skeptical

    A better analogy is that we have a rug with many lumps under it (which we can call “god did it”). We begin removing them one at a time by sweeping the material from underneath out the door. Now we have cleaned most of those lumps successfully, but there are still a few remaining. I have absolutely no doubt that the cleaning method that has worked so well to this point will continue to work until we have finally eradicated the last “god did it”.