The Mystery of Consciousness shows that there may be a limit to what science alone can achieve

The progress of science in the last 400 years is incredible. Who would have thought that we would be able to trace the history of our universe back to its origin 14 billion years ago? Science has extended and improved the quality of our lives, and the technology that is common in the modern world would have seemed like magic to our ancestors.

For all these reasons and more, science is rightly celebrated and revered. However, a healthy pro-science attitude is not the same as “scientism,” which is the view that the scientific method is the only way to determine truth. As the problem of consciousness unfolds, there may be a limit to what we can learn through science alone.

Perhaps the most elaborate form of scientism was the early 20th century movement known as logical positivism. Logical positivists subscribed to the “verification principle” according to which a sentence whose truth could not be verified by observation and experiment was either logically trivial or nonsensical nonsense. With this weapon they hoped to dismiss all metaphysical questions as not only false but nonsense.

Logical positivism is almost universally rejected by philosophers these days. First, logical positivism is inherently destructive, since the verification principle itself cannot be scientifically tested, so it can only be true if it is nonsensical. Indeed, something like this problem haunts all unqualified forms of scientism. There is no scientific experiment that we can use to prove that scientism is true; and therefore if scientism is true, then its truth cannot be established.

Despite all these profound problems, much of society assumes that scientism is true. Most people in the UK are completely unaware that “metaphysics” takes place in almost every philosophy department in the country. By metaphysics, philosophers do not mean anything ghostly or supernatural; this is just a technical term for a philosophical, as opposed to a scientific, inquiry into the nature of reality.

Truth without science

How is it possible to know reality without doing science? A distinguishing feature of philosophical theories is that they are “empirically equivalent”, meaning that you cannot decide between them by experiment.

Let's take the example of my field of research: the philosophy of consciousness. Some philosophers think that consciousness arises from physical processes in the brain – this is the “physicalist” view. Others think it's the other way around: consciousness is primary, and the physical world emerges from consciousness. A version of this is the “panpsychistic” view that consciousness goes all the way down to the fundamental building blocks of reality, the word being derived from the two Greek words pan (all) and psyche (soul or mind).

Still others think that both consciousness and the physical world are fundamental, but radically different – this is the “dualist” view. Crucially, you cannot distinguish between these views with experiment, because, for any scientific data, each view will interpret that data in its own way.

For example, suppose we discover scientifically that a certain form of brain activity is associated with the conscious experience of the organism. A physicalist will interpret this as a form of organization that transforms unconscious physical processes—such as electrical signals between brain cells—into conscious experience, while a panpsychist will interpret it as a form of organization that unites individual conscious particles into a larger awareness. System. Thus we find two very different philosophical interpretations of the same scientific data.

Image of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.

Are particles conscious?
D-VISIONS/Shutterstock

If we cannot determine by experiment which view is correct, how can we choose between them? In fact, the selection process is not so different from what we find in science. Being more attracted to experimental data, scientists also appeal to the theory's theoretical virtues, such as how simple, elegant, and unique it is.

Philosophers can also appeal to theoretical virtues in justifying their favored position. For example, considerations of simplicity seem to count against a dualistic theory of consciousness, which is less simple than its rivals insofar as it posits two kinds of grounding—physical matter and consciousness—while physicalism and panpsychism are equally simple in positing only one kind of grounding ( either physical matter or consciousness).

It could also be that some theories are incoherent, but in subtle ways that require careful analysis to detect. For example, I have argued that physicalist views of consciousness are incoherent (although – like much in philosophy – this is controversial).

There is no guarantee that these methods will produce a clear winner. It may be that there are multiple, coherent, and equally simple rival theories about certain philosophical questions, in which case we should be agnostic about which is correct. This in itself would constitute a significant philosophy regarding the limits of human knowledge.

Philosophy can be frustrating because there are so many disagreements. However, this is also true for many fields of science, such as history or economics. And there are also questions on which there is a modest consensus, for example, on the subject of free will.

The tendency to conflate philosophy with the growing anti-science movement undermines the united front against the real and harmful opposition to science found in climate change denial and anti-vaccination conspiracies.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot avoid philosophy. When we try to do that, all that happens is that we end up with a bad philosophy. The first line of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow boldly declared: “Philosophy is dead.” The book then went into some incredibly crude philosophical discussions about free will and objectivity.

If I had written a book with controversial claims about particle physics, it would have been rightfully ridiculous, as I had not been trained in the relevant skills, had not read the literature, and had no opinions of my own in this area of ​​peer review. And yet there are many examples of scientists without any philosophical training who publish very bad books on philosophical subjects without this affecting their credibility.

This might sound bitter. But I sincerely believe that society would be profoundly enriched if it became better informed about philosophy. I hope that one day we will move beyond this “scientific” period of history and realize the key role of both science and philosophy in the noble project of discovering reality.

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