That science has difficulty explaining consciousness seems, in many circles, to be a definite truth. Even those that claim that science will one day explain consciousness do not seem to have any idea how this will be done.
The chief problem science seems to have with consciousness is that, despite our certain knowledge that we have conscious experiences, we do not need to postulate the existence of consciousness when researching how the brain (which we know to be associated with our human consciousness) works. The scientific story for our actions is that we sense things due to our sense organs, which then send neural signals through a complicated and changing network of neurons, which then leads to our actions of bodily movements, talking, and so on.
Nowhere in this story does one need to talk about or postulate consciousness. This leads to all sort of difficulties understanding something we know to exist, yet science seems to not touch.
In this essay I will argue that the reason why science seems to have such difficulty with consciousness is due to the causal nature of consciousness coupled with the causal structure of science. Physics (the most basic of the sciences) seems to have two categories of causal entities in it: physical laws and things which follow physical laws (i.e. measurable quantities like mass, charge, time, etc).
Simply put, consciousness is implicitly thought (by everyone) to be some sort of measurable quantity. However, we can’t seem to measure it, and thus problems ensue in understanding it. The other option, never explored, is that consciousness might be more like a physical law of nature. If this is assumed, the problems science has with consciousness seem predictable and understandable. Indeed many problems go away, and a seemingly less confusing theory of consciousness comes forth that agrees with much of our intuition on consciousness. This essay will try to make this distinction and possibility more clear.
That consciousness is implicitly thought to be akin to some sort of measurable quantity seems evident with a cursory examination of the major schools of thought on consciousness. For instance, take materialism, the doctrine that consciousness is ultimately “physical.” Obviously, consciousness is thought to be a measurable quantity here, perhaps like an electric field or something. Or take panpsychism, the doctrine that mind is fundamental feature of the world that exists throughout the universe. Here, again, it seems that we are to assume that the mind is akin to something measurable, pervading the whole universe, it does not seem to mean that mind is something like a physical law. Or take dualism, where it is supposed there is a physical realm and a mental realm. In this mental realm, thoughts supposedly exist, floating around or something. Again, it seems to be assumed that thoughts are like bodies, hence measurable quantities, in this realm. Finally, take emergentism, where it is assumed that consciousness “emerges” from the complicated action of the brain, just as macroscopic phenomenon, like liquidity, emerge from microscopic phenomenon of atoms binding and colliding in space. This also seems to assume that consciousness is some sort of measurable quantity.
Can we be sure that none of these theories of mind treat thoughts and consciousness as something akin to a physical law? Yes, we probably can, since nobody has ever come out and said so before as they advocate for one of these theories.
Whatever consciousness is, it has a component that seems to cause things to happen. It does not appear to be causally inert at all. It is a determining thing – a thing which determines other events. I decide to water my garden tomorrow. I remember this decision the next day, and water my garden. Everyday experiences like this lead to an unshakable belief (among most of us) that our conscious decisions have some sort of a causal role. What this causal role is, is not clear, but there is some sort of causal role, it seems certain.
It is difficult to incorporate this causal nature of consciousness into science, simply because this sort of causal nature (that consciousness provides) seems to come under the category of a physical law when properly looked at with the lens of science. Hence we should categorize the effects of consciousness like we categorize the effect of a physical law. We don’t recognize this, and assume that consciousness is like a measurable quantity, and hence are having a difficult time incorporating consciousness into science.
The Causal Structure of Physics
The causal structure of physics (the most basic of the sciences) is simple. There are physical laws (rules), then there are things which follow the rules (physical laws). Physical laws are things like conservation of energy or momentum, or Snell’s law, or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, etc.
Then there are the things which follow these rules (physical laws), such as mass, time, length, displacement, momentum, energy, forces, number of atoms, etc. These things which follow the rules are measurable quantities. Some of these measurable quantities, like position and time, are directly measurable through devices, hence are fundamentally measurable. Other quantities, like energy, are constructed though a two or more fundamental measurements. These measurable quantities change over time (or change over other variables than time, like position), and how they change is calculable (or at least partially calculable) through mathematical descriptions of physical laws.
Both physical laws and measurable quantities have a causal nature to them in the causal structure of physics. Measurable quantities like forces cause events to happen in the sense that one value of a force can cause a box to move or not, if it can overcome the force of static friction on the box. The distance from the Earth will affect the rate at which an object will fall to the Earth. And so on. So there is some sort of causal nature to the things which follow the rules.
There is also some sort of causal nature to the rules (physical laws). Strictly speaking, it seems wrong to say that a physical law, like conservation of momentum, causes anything. Conservation of momentum is a mathematical description of some sort of process in reality, and a mathematical description does not cause anything. However, there is something (some process) in reality which makes it so that the mathematical description called conservation of momentum works. There is something in reality behind the conservation of momentum. Whatever this “process” is, this process has a causal nature as well. For without this “process,” momentum would not be conserved.
What sort of causal nature does each thing (whatever is behind the laws of nature, or a measurable quantity) have? It is difficult to articulate, however, physical laws seem to make future values of measurable quantities come out in a certain way, rather than another. Snell’s law is based on refraction of light, and whatever is behind refraction of light makes the angles which light enters or comes out of some substance come out the way they do. Light rays come out related to the sine of the angle, not the tangent of the angle. Hence there is something in reality making the light come out of a substance the way it does. Our name for this is Snell’s law.
In contrast, values of measurable quantities seem to to something different. They are the inputs into the physical laws. Forces and distances can be said to cause things to happen, surely, however, they can’t be properly said to be the things in nature which makes measurable quantities come out the way they do. That role seems to be given to what we call physical laws.
This procedure as categorizing everything as either measurable quantities or physical laws has been, of course, enormously successful. With it, our science has progressed to explain much of reality, the only holdout being consciousness and things related to consciousness, like love, politics, beauty, and such things.
Thus consciousness, whatever it is, when investigated by science, is either categorized as a physical law or a measurable quantity. The consensus appears to be that consciousness, whatever it is, must be a measurable quantity. The massive difficulty that then ensues is that we can’t measure it. Hence difficulties in explaining consciousness with science.
I am no great scholar, but it seems to me that the other possibility, that consciousness is akin to a physical law, is never considered nor investigated. However, when one assumes that the effects of consciousness are similar to the effects of whatever is behind a physical law, then all the difficulties that science has with consciousness make a lot of sense.
If consciousness were somehow part of the laws of nature, then what would one expect to happen? For one thing, we would not be able to measure consciousness as a quantity like mass or time, or length. This is exactly what seems to have happened. It seems a truism that if we were to shrink people so that they were very small, and these people were to walk around a human brain, they would never see or measure a thought go by. They would measure electrical impulses, but the relation of the impulses to thoughts would be unclear.
We do not measure the conservation of energy with physical instruments. Rather, it is something we came up with as an explanation after (or before) looking at many observations of energy over time. It works very well, of course, but it is not a measurable quantity, just like consciousness does not appear to be a measurable quantity. Conservation of energy does however, accurately describe an important aspect of reality.
Another thing one would expect to happen is that consciousness would not be needed to explain anything. If consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature, and one deliberately goes about excluding this possibility, then one goes about trying to explain how humans and animals process information and subsequently perform actions, what sort of explanation are you going to end up with? It will be a story (a correct one, of course) about how measurable quantities involving nerves and diffusing ions, and so on, obey physical laws and send signals all about and through a complicated network. Through this, decisions are made.
This story is undoubtedly correct, and helpful to understanding our own nature, but it sheds no light on why these neural signals are producing consciousness (if “producing” is the right way to phrase it, and it probably isn’t). Since we are assuming that there are all these measurable quantities in our brains following the laws of physics, and we are not acknowledging the possibility that these laws of nature are, in some way, the same thing as consciousness (and this idea is true), then of course consciousness will never be mentioned in this story. The word will never come up, even though it is somehow “embedded” in our description of physical laws.
Consciousness will not be needed in this explanation. Then, since nobody is considering the possibility that consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature, consciousness will seem a great mystery.
These two predictions seem borne out by the current puzzlement over consciousness, indeed the puzzlement that has been there for many years. That alone is suggestive that this essay is on the right track. Nevertheless, the suggestion that consciousness is, in some way, part of the laws of nature, needs some explanation. What could this statement even mean? Further, what reason do we have to give up on the idea that science can somehow measure consciousness as a measurable quantity?
I will answer the first question first.
How Consciousness Might be Part of the laws of nature
The only way that I can see how consciousness might be part of the laws of nature would be to formulate the following hypothesis: every time a particle of matter (like an electron) changes state, a calculation must be made, and this “calculation” involves a moment of consciousness, a qualia. Also, whenever a molecule (a collection of bonded atoms) changes state, a qualia for this interaction would occur as well. Basically, whenever a wavefunction for an object “collapses”, a qualia is produced (or used?) in order for nature to “calculate” what will happen next.
Thus, in this conception of reality, there are innumerable qualia occurring all the time, in every piece of matter, as particles in matter change state. It is like there are little “souls” popping up everywhere, all the time, that quickly die forever. The vast majority of these qualia are not much like the qualia that we humans experience, however there are a few that occur in living cells that make up the sort of experiences that humans and animals have. The difference between these few particle interactions in living cells that constitute animal experiences and the vast majority of other particle interactions (including many in living cells) is that some particle interactions in living cells can access memories, a sense of self, and sense data from outside and inside the organism.
It is usually assumed that particles interact and change state “automatically,” with no need for a “calculation”, much less a moment of consciousness. However, what if this is not necessarily true? What if a calculation is needed? There should be no contradiction to the laws of nature if a calculation is needed. Hence the idea in this theory is to assume that a calculation involving qualia is needed, and to see where it leads.
The details of how this all might work I explain in my other essay that explores this idea. The idea is just introduced here to show how it might be possible that consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature. In this scheme, consciousness is, in a sense, everywhere. It is a similar idea to panpsychism, but also a little different (because in this theory consciousness is akin to a physical law rather than a measurable quantity) at the same time.
This idea gives consciousness a role in nature – it is the thing which calculates in nature. It is a sort of “calculation mechanism”, if it can be said that when nature “figures out” what to do next, it “calculates”. It might be that this sort of calculation is not much like our conception of a computer calculation. Consciousness is the means by which nature figures out what to do next. It is a determining thing, it helps determine what will happen. It has a causal role in nature in this view.
This potentially solves the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1995) in a “functional” sense. The hard problem of consciousness asks why do experiences – moments of consciousness (qualia), exist at all? What we know of nature from science doesn’t seem to to require consciousness, we don’t need it when we figure out how the brain processes signals. So why is consciousness there? What does it do? Why don’t we not have conscious experiences?
Here the answer to the hard problem is that consciousness is needed by nature in order to “figure out” what to do next. This gives it a role in nature, and answers the hard problem by what consciousness does – answers it in a “functional” sense. Why do we have conscious experiences? Because that is how nature figures out what to do next for some molecular processes in our brains that access past states, a sense of self, and sense data from the organism (as well, nature needs to figure out what to do next for all particle interactions everywhere).
The other way to answer the hard problem of consciousness is in a comparative sense. That is, figure out what consciousness is in comparison to other things, like space, mass, charge, electric fields, etc. This hypothesis also provides an answer to this question, but it is less clear and has to be reasoned out. If it is true that consciousness is a calculation mechanism, then, since we can’t see it or detect this mechanism, it must be an “immaterial” calculation mechanism, whatever “immaterial” means. It must permeate all space somehow, as well. If I were to speculate, it might be related to the knowledge a particle has about the entire rest of the universe (the qualia represents this information), and thus the contact that the particle’s wavefunction has with the rest of the particles in the universe, but this is just speculation. As before, consciousness is, in a sense, part of the laws of nature.
This hypothesis, right or wrong, at least shows how, not only the hard problem of consciousness might be answered, but also what it means to say that consciousness is akin to a physical law. With that clarified, let us see if we can find some reason in favor of this idea.
The Causal Nature of Consciousness
As above, a physical law (or whatever is behind it) plays the causal role in nature of a determining thing that makes things come out in a certain way, rather than another. Events proceed over time in such a way that momentum is conserved, not sometimes conserved, or partially conserved.
What do we know about the apparent physical effects of consciousness? All we know is that we make decisions, and much of the time bodily actions (physical movements) are taken due to these decisions. Thus the effect of consciousness can also be said to be a determining thing that makes events come out in a certain way, rather than another. If I decide to water my garden today instead of tomorrow, that makes events come out in a certain way, rather than another.
This parallel is another reason to think consciousness is more akin to a physical law than a measurable quantity.
Interestingly, this makes consciousness a determining thing, and seems consistent with a version of free will where what we do may be predictable and even inevitable, yet still free. My decision to water my garden might be inevitable, but it still has to be done, and is still the cause of my action. This is just like how two billiard balls bounce off each other in a way that conserves momentum. How the balls bounce off is inevitable, yet it is still caused by whatever is behind the law of conservation of momentum. Inevitability does not rob things of causality. If you can predict what the conservation of momentum will do, and it is inevitable, that does not rob it of causality. Your correct prediction does not make balls bounce a certain way, whatever is behind the conservation of momentum does. If my decision to water my garden is inevitable, that does not mean it is not caused by my consciousness (a.k.a. me).
This discussion does not conclusively show that consciousness is more akin to a physical law than a measurable quantity, however, it does show that such a thought is possible, and perhaps a better model than what is usually assumed.
To conclude, if one assumes consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature, the difficulties science has explaining consciousness seem predictable. Further, the causal nature of consciousness seems to place consciousness as something that makes things come out in a certain way over time, rather than place it as measurable quantity.
Chalmers, D. (1995) Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3):200-19, 1