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..

4 thoughts on “The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded”

  1. I was attracted to your site by your comment on Aeon and was comforted in that your viewpoint paralleled to a high degree. One thing about consciousness which you worked around was that it is the product of the basic life force which is unique in the general dynamics of the energy functions in this universe in that it has intent. Living individuals, whatever form they take , are a collection of processes which demand the preservation of the mechanics of staying alive and generating more of itself. This is why I am somewhat uneasy over the standard search for life elsewhere in the universe which demands absolutely similar conditions for alien life as exist on this rather unique planet. It seems to me that this basic life function set has a very good possibility to exist in extraterrestrial environments thas has little or no relationship to water and oxygen.
    I am not a scientist but graduated Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1943 and was stuck with a scientific attitude ever since, although my unsympathetic attitudes towards mathematics prevented me from following a life in science. But although I am more oriented towards graphic art and language the problem of consciousness has bugged me all my life and within the last few years I ave come to some conclusions out of the study of my own internal mental dynamics which are very close to your own analysis.
    Throughout your presentation you continuously are extremely cautious of being neutral towards theology but as an atheist from the age of about 4, I am not so kind as, with politics in general, the hierarchical constructions of religions seem to me more oriented towards control of a submissive populace rather than an honest exploration of what this universe might be like, As you admit, much of theology is beyond the area of proving anything definitely but, in general, it does seem to me to be rather unimaginative, naïve, and clumsily based on human psychology of a most peculiar inclination.
    My operative procedure in understanding consciousness is based on the concept that what we call consciousness is part of the operative living matrix of a life form that demands persistence and reproduction. The brain itself is gifted with a long genetic experience hardened into formulas that prevent obvious mistakes but the human brain especially has a flexibility immensely beyond that of the average jellyfish or drosophila melanogaster so that it does not complete its development until it is around 20 years old. The thing starts in darkness with various identified sense inputs to permit it to construct a rational understanding of what exists outside in what may be labeled reality. But each viable life form has a different set of sense inputs specifically designed through evolution to permit its success and the internal model of reality of each life form must be radically different specific to its sense capabilities to conform to its necessities. I am guessing that if consciousness exists in each different life form that consciousness must confront the limited model of the outside world properly to ensure existence. The human model is probably quite similar within each human out of inherited genetics but the internal models of each other species is a quite different slice of the massive possibilities presented from the total universe, I see each consciousness in the role of a simplistic representation of the dynamics of the brain much as a chess piece is a simplistic representation of a player on the chess board in that game. In like manner, living each life for each creature is a matter of playing with the rules possible for each attempts at success but the game boards for each form of life differ radically, That human consciousnesses pride themselves that they are sort of the captain of their ship is the foolishness many of us presume but it has been proven scientifically that our consciousnesses probably partake of an element of control but the total control dynamic lies elsewhere in the marvelous mystery of the entire nervous system which includes, not only the brain, but a large nervous node in the digestive system plus whatever the microbiome might contribute.
    There is another important point that seems to be neglected in brain function. Currently the digital philosophies liken the brain to a computer with similar dynamics but there are vast differences in computer and brain information compilation and storage . Data within a computer is something of a fixed informational crystal with a rather rigid possibility of presentation. When sense input is sent to the storage system of the brain it passes through various processing centers where a good deal is tossed away as irrelevant and that which is saved is flavored with various types of aspects and judgments insofaras importance and danger and pleasure etc are involved and since it is stored within a complex of living cells the information has a life of its own and reaches out in multitudes of directions to other cellular informational complexes to attach to generalities of various types. These informational complexes probably are in continuous formational flux which may be a form of basic thinking so that, over time, all sorts of unconscious changes occur which makes the brain nothing like a standard computer.
    These are only simple primary thoughts by someone with no profound scientific integration in the field, but I do seem to touch on areas that I have not seen elsewhere investigated or discussed.
    If you find my observations interesting, I have a blog at and some of my work at

  2. It is speculation to ascribe consciousness to atoms, plants, simple life forms, etc. Reacting to stimuli can be automatic. In any case, if evidence can be presented for panpsychism, a Nobel Prize would likely result.

    1. So at risk of repeating what’s in this article, what I’m describing here is a philosophical standpoint, one that I cannot prove, but one that might have a practical value if it helps someone approach a problem differently.

      The multiverse, pilot wave theory, information theory etc, are all also speculation. None of them can be a true description of reality, only a way of understanding reality that might prove useful depending on how closely they match experimental outcomes. And these ideas seem to have a very short shelf life in modern science (whatever happened to String theory?). We are not prepared to consider our consciousness as a minor point of understanding in a living universe, because it undermines our status as the most important species to have evolved.

      And yes, reacting to stimuli can be automatic. But for example, no brained physarum polycephalum does far more than just react – it can navigate mazes, appears to have some perception of time, and given a clockface of foodstuffs, will regularly go towards the one with the best combination of proteins and carbohydrates. That’s far more intelligent behaviour than mere reaction.

      Does it have a complex inner world? Probably not. But it acts in it’s own self interest, so how do we know it doesn’t have some tiny perception of itself? All we can really know of consciousness is either our own first person experience, or the observed behaviours of entities we believe have something like consciousness. Which means we should entertain the possibility that awareness is more commonplace than just being a radically emerging product of the human brain.

      In fact as I argue here, our consciousness has similarities to a legacy computer system – it’s a highly mediated interaction with the world that may in fact be less, not more, than the sum of its parts. It may be human consciousness exists because it has to mediate, slow down and limit interaction with the world, in order for us to function.

  3. 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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