Materialism of the Gaps
If the tools of science cannot detect a state of consciousness, does this mean consciousness does not exist? B. Alan Wallace examines the gap in scientific understanding.
Virtually all cognitive scientists today assume that consciousness and all subjectively experienced mental processes are functions of the brain, and are therefore emergent properties or functions of matter. This is the mainstream scientific view of consciousness, and those who reject this hypothesis are commonly viewed by many scientists as being in the grip of a metaphysical bias or religious faith.
To evaluate this scientific perspective, let’s first review some simple, uncontested facts: Scientists have (1) no consensual definition of consciousness, (2) no means of measuring it or its neural correlates, and (3) an incomplete knowledge of the necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness. The fact that no state of consciousness – in fact, no subjectively experienced mental phenomenon of any kind – is detectable using the instruments of science means that, strictly speaking, there is no scientific, empirical evidence for the existence of consciousness or the mind. The only experiential evidence we have for the existence of mental phenomena consists of reports based on first-person, introspective observations of one’s own mental states. But such first-person accounts are not objective, they are not subject to third-person corroboration, and they are generally presented by people with no formal training in observing or reporting on their own mental processes. Yet without such anecdotal evidence for the existence of mental phenomena, scientists would have no knowledge of the mental correlates of the neural and behavioral processes that they study with such precision and sophistication. In other words, the whole edifice of scientific knowledge of mental processes that arise in dependence upon brain functions is based on evidence that is anecdotal and unscientific.
Ironically, scientists’ metacognitive awareness of their own thought processes is itself nonobjective and therefore unscientific. But without such reflexive awareness, it is hard to imagine that scientific knowledge would progress at all.