The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded


I hope this post does not read as someone attempting to tell scientists they have it all wrong, that I have the truth and am on a mission to force them to see what I see. I am wary of evangelists, be they religious, political or scientific. Evangelists tend to preach to the converted. They play on a sense of identity and often win supporters with persuasive personality rather than the strength of their argument. It’s a major flaw of human psychology that reason is often hampered by a sense of self and a sense of identity, as mentioned in my post on the Monty Hall problem.

My ‘mission’ such as it is, is to de-mythologise consciousness and raise what I see as logical flaws in sciences’ current account of the consciousness gap. I have included the measurement problem and advances in understanding animal consciousness because considered together a basic awareness in all energy and matter is a logical starting point.

I believe there are three main reasons why consciousness being included as a building block of the Universe is problematic for scientists:

  1. The word consciousness is very hard to define and has strong historic and cultural connotations, because philosophical discussion and scientific study has traditionally been centred on human consciousness, and largely separated from the consciousness found in other species.
  2. Use of the word consciousness outside of the context of neuroscience or psychology suggests a religious or New Age interpretation, which then makes the discussion unscientific.
  3. Up until now the physicalist/materialist understanding – which implies a consciousness threshold – worked well enough.

The need for a revision to current physicalism/materialism comes down to this deductive argument:

  1. Consciousness is a known property of humans and other animals, all of which are composed of the same matter and energy found in the apparently non-conscious physical world around us.
  2. There is a ‘consciousness gap’ because we currently have no adequate explanation of how unconscious matter becomes the consciousness of a human being, a Water Buffalo or a Bumble Bee, or what happens to that same consciousness when the physical body dies.
  3. One logical non-dualist explanation is that same consciousness (‘proto-consciousness’, ‘base-awareness’ or any other label we choose) which is present in the brain, in the cells, in the elements, in the atomic and subatomic world and is therefore a basic property of the Universe along with matter and energy. This provides a possible interpretation for the measurement problem – providing we pay due attention to that black hole of reason, solipsism.
  4. Just as there is a law of conservation of energy and matter there could also be a law of conservation of consciousness, and such a law would not indicate one way or another the existence of a soul or intelligent creator any more than the existence of energy and matter could.
  5. The hunter-gatherer brain trying to examine consciousness is like looking into a infinite mirror image, so this interpretation also comes with the ever-present disclaimer; consciousness, whatever that is.

As stated in this previous post I am not claiming to have the answer to the measurement problem. It is rather another possible interpretation, one with a practical value. In that post I also suggested using the word ‘tendency’ as being available to describe the lack of certainty of interactions in a Universe with base consciousness at the smallest level. Tendency is a touchy-feely, behavioural term, that expresses the probability of something happening when consciousness may play a part in the outcome. So if what I’ve described above really must be assigned a label I would suggest either “True-illusion” or “Tendency” physicalism/materialism. I’m wary of including the word panpsychism, as it has its own connotation. However my position could also be labelled “Panpsychic Physicalism”, or perhaps the equally catchy “Materialist Panpsychism”.

Perhaps human beings are so centred on our own importance we have misunderstood what consciousness actually is. Returning to my original definition – an entity having some awareness of its environment and potential for some not entirely predictable reaction to the circumstances in which it finds itself – is really only saying we inhabit a living Universe. That is hardly a surprising concept as we ourselves are a product of a natural world which is quite obviously living and composed of atoms.

Our human consciousness, our awareness is only one of many accumulations of consciousness in a living Universe, while being inseparable from it. The difficulty in describing this is choosing a form of words to overcome the strangeness for many of basic awareness being both at a microscopic and macroscopic level, which to me is a logical necessity and something I have long found very matter-of-fact.


1. Without taking sides, I should say I disagree with the third part of David Chalmers p-zombie thought experiment. I cannot conceive of an exact copy of our world containing philosophical zombies, if made from energy and matter as our world is. Consciousness, whatever that is, being a basic building block of the Universe inseparable from energy and matter as I have described, makes such a zombie world inconceivable to me. ..return to text..

2. The behaviour of living beings is theoretically predictable as our brains and bodies follow Newtonian laws. I have included unpredictability in my definition of consciousness because it quickly differentiates living consciousness from say, a programmed robot. But also in practice living beings are not predictable. I have doubts predictability can be guaranteed in theory as quantum biology shows there is interaction between the fundamentally unpredictable quantum world and predictable Newtonian world. But as with A.I. the ultimate predictability or otherwise of our world is a separate debate. ..return to text..

3. A survey of 149 working physicists reported in the New Scientist (7 Jan 2017, P11) asked which interpretation of quantum mechanics scientists favoured. Around half of respondents either believed they didn’t fully understand the interpretations, or the interpretations are closer to philosophy and not relevant to their work. ..return to text..

4. For many scientists consciousness is defined by the higher brain functions found in the cerebral cortex, subjective experience, abstract thinking, theory of mind etc. What often goes with that is a tendency to regard (even mythologise) human experience as having a certain ‘X-factor’ within the animal kingdom. I subscribe to the more pragmatic view of philosophers like Daniel Dennet, in that these higher functions are the products of evolution and something consciousness does rather than what it is..return to text..

5. The 2015 study is interesting although has yet to be repeated Even so these tiny creatures have behaviours long regarded as requiring a large complex brain. Ants can select the best tool for collecting honey and when teaching the route to food, the teacher will wait for the student to signal it is ready to continue the lesson. ..return to text..

6. True illusion is also the reason I consider qualia a neurological issue. Qualia is the bit of consciousness for which we can find neural correlates. There is a limit to what can be gained here because we’re looking at a subject (our conciousness) / object (the extenal world) relationship and asking ‘where does this experience go?’ as if looking for a viewer in their own private mental cinema. This separation between subject and object is just something the hunter-gatherer brain does, it is part of the true illusion of human existence, and as such has limited ability for revealing deeper truths about the nature of consciousness...return to text..

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1 thought on “The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded”

  1. Recently I have observed a family member, my father, succumb to the prion disease CJD. During the progression of this disease I watched his level of self awareness dissolve over a period of just a few weeks. As his brain deteriorated, at first he could not identify common objects, then he was unable to communicate or understand communication and in the final stages he appeared as an infant, could not feed himself and was bewildered by everything around him.

    This experience caused me to completely rethink my understanding of consciousness and I no longer believe it is something inside us. I believe it is something our “healthy” body and mind produces. Similar to how a flashlight produces light. The light is not inside the flashlight it is only emitted from it when activated. As in the case of my father, having his consciousness completely dissolve about two weeks before his body actually died, it appears to me that our concept of self, our identity, is really a product of what we are, not a physical property of what we are, therefore it only only exists while we are alive and biologically functioning correctly. I can see how in typical scenarios where the body deteriorates before the mind, it appears that the sense of self is the last thing to go, therefore “leaves” the body as some entity or life force. But I feel this is really a misinterpretation of what is being observed.

    I just wanted to share this point of view as I have not found much discussion regarding the understanding of consciousness this way or others that have reported similar experiences.

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