Consciousness: The relationship with the current physicalist worldview

This is part four in a series on consciousness

Last week, I discussed how to justify any restrictive theory of consciousness (that is, any theory which says consciousness is not universal). I concluded that even if you try to ground your restrictive theory in your own phenomenology (or first hand experience), you still cannot do so without holding the intuition: things that aren’t similar to you aren’t conscious. I shall call this the “similarity intuition,” or simply “the intuition” in this post.

Put in argument form, here is a way you might try to avoid relying on the intuition.

  1. Consciousness requires X
  2. X doesn’t occur in things not similar to me
  3. Therefore, things that aren’t similar to me aren’t conscious

Now you rely on (1) instead of the intuition. But you still need a way to believe X is required. This could be done phenomenologically.

  1. My consciousness has certain essential properties that I can discover phenomenologically
  2. These properties are essential to any other consciousness
  3. These conscious properties can be mapped on to certain properties X, which are present in certain physical systems 
  4. Therefore, if X isn’t present in something, it is non-conscious

This argument appears to sidestep the intuition, but relies on it nonetheless. First, in (2) it assumes that properties essential to your consciousness are present in any consciousness. In other words, all consciousness must be similar to your consciousness; at least in so far as it has certain properties. 

The similarity intuition is more clearly present in premise (3). Any restrictive mapping of phenomenological property to a physical or mathematical system will require an intrinsically self-centered approach. This is because it consists of humans mapping their experience to their brain states. In order to justify this mapping, one has to rely on the intuition that other less restrictive mappings don’t describe consciousness. In other words, things not sufficiently similar to me (where phenomenological states are mapped to a physical system dissimilar to me) are not conscious.

One could argue more easily against the second main claim I introduced in last week’s post. Here, I linked the current physicalist worldview to this similarity intuition in a circular, self-justifying relationship. One could argue that physicalism is compatible with panpsychism, an expansive view of consciousness that sometimes describes consciousness as a physical property common to all particles or physical systems.

Moreover, some might claim that physicalism needn’t weigh in on the debate over exactly where consciousness exists at all. Simply put, the more dissimilar a physical system is from a human being, the less we know about whether it is non-conscious or conscious. 

If this were all that people claimed I would have less of a problem. But most physicalists do not only argue that there isn’t epistemic justification for believing that things dissimilar to us are or are not conscious. They don’t sit in a state of agnosticism about this. They believe that such things are, in fact, non-conscious (eg. rocks, plants, waterfalls, etc.). 

My claim is that there is an obvious connection between the common scientific-physicalist worldview, conceptualizing the world as clockwork, and the belief that most of the world is non-conscious. Furthermore, the similarity intuition is both justified by this worldview, and helps maintain it.

Some actual clockwork

I want to say here that science continues to be the best way we have for explaining much of the world. In countless ways it has made our lives easier to live. But it is also true that the questions scientists are asking do not try to answer what I am talking about. They usually ignore consciousness, and for good reason. Treating things in the world as clockwork puts us in a frame of mind to start making hypotheses, mapping out relations between cause and effect, and making predictions. This is an eminently useful endeavor. 

But success in treating objects in the world as clockwork should not permanently cloud our judgements about whether, at the ground level, everything in the universe actually is determined. And it certainly should not prompt us to permanently believe that consciousness is present only in systems similar to us; at least not without proper justification.

My attempt in this series on (non-)consciousness was to push back against a common dogma and identify a common intuition justifying physicalism. I don’t know how many readers I have convinced of this, but I hope to have at least pushed the conversation forward a little bit.


Alexander Pasch