Q.409 Materialism and Consciousness

Q: Regarding Gaudapada Karika 4.28, what is the best argument you are aware of against the materialist position that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon?   In particular do you think it is inherently illogical to say that consciousness can arise from the inert?

More generally, is it the position of Vedanta that the materialist position is inherently illogical/impossible or simply that it is incorrect because it is contrary to scripture?

A (Dennis): Schopenhauer said that Materialism is “the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself.” And this really sums up my own view of the situation with respect to Science and its so-called ‘hard problem’. Science is forever trying to discover how consciousness can ‘arise’ from matter and never even considers the possibility that matter might actually be name and form of Consciousness. I.e. Consciousness does not arise from matter, matter (as it were) arises from Consciousness. They view the topic ‘back to front’ because they ignore the significance of the observer. And this is despite their past realisation that the observer cannot be ignored in quantum mechanics, for example.

The term used in the scriptures for the materialist is lokAyata (worldly wise) or Charvaka, after the philosopher of that name who is associated with these beliefs. (They have also been called mAmsa-mImAMsaka-s or ‘flesh philosophers’ because of their belief that we should aim to maximise pleasure in life.) The beliefs are also associated with the god bRRihaspatI and Shankara has sarcastically used this term in a derogatory sense to refer to ‘intellectuals’ who play the role of disputant in his commentaries.

As I think I mentioned in the book, the principal location in which Shankara refutes the arguments of the materialists is Brahma Sutra bhAShya 3.3.53-54. And I believe I have presented the essence of these points in the book. I think I commented that the arguments were not desperately convincing! But it is certainly not that materialism is rejected because it disagrees with scriptures. Indeed, I don’t think scriptures really mention it – it is not worthy of consideration!

I think that the problem with modern science is partly that they have failed to define their terms accurately and partly that they have made mistaken assumptions. They have taken this flawed starting point as axiomatic and endeavored to build their theories from there. Needless to say, they inevitably end with mistaken conclusions also! I have written an article for a (Western) philosophy magazine on this topic. Unfortunately, it has still not been published (they have not covered the topic of consciousness since I wrote it). At some point I will have to decide whether simply to post it to AV regardless.

As I indicated in my initial response, I threw the question open to the other bloggers. Unfortunately, there was not a very enthusiastic response. Martin was the only one to respond with anything concrete. His contribution follows:

A (Martin):

Paul King: ‘… scientists may begin to consider that explaining consciousness will require a paradigm shift outside of normal science …  In the end, the truth about consciousness in other minds will come down to a consensus view based on subjective assessment, which is what the “Turing Test” captures so elegantly. Scientific methods will be able to measure along increasingly sophisticated dimensions, but what will be measured will be specifically defined metrics, not consciousness.’

Tom McFarlane: ‘The fundamental issue here is that subjective consciousness can not in principle be objectified. It is essentially ineffable.’

Science and Nonduality: “Some neuroscientists and philosophers speculate that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain. ‘Emergence’ happens when a higher-level property arises from complex interactions of lower-level entities. For instance, the fractal patterns of snowflakes are emergent properties of complex interactions of water molecules. But to merely state that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain is rather a cop-out than an explanation. In all known cases of emergence, we can deduce the emergent property from the characteristics of the lower-level entities that give rise to it. For instance, we can deduce the fractal shape of snowflakes from the characteristics of water molecules. We can even accurately simulate the formation of snowflakes in a computer. However, we cannot – not even in principle – deduce what it feels to see red, to be disappointed or to love someone from the mass, charge or momentum of material particles making up the brain.

As such, to consider consciousness an emergent property of brains is either an appeal to magic or the mere labeling of an unknown. In both cases, precisely nothing is actually explained – See more at: The Cognitive Short-Circuit of ‘Artificial Consciousness’  |  Science and Nonduality

[Consciousness – whatever it may intrinsically be – is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure. It is the one undeniable empirical fact of existence. After all, what can we really know that isn’t experienced in some form, even if only through instrumentation or the reports of others? If something is fundamentally beyond all forms of experience, direct or indirect, it might as well not exist. Because all knowledge resides in consciousness, we cannot know what is supposedly outside consciousness; we can only infer it through our capacity for abstraction. – See more at: http://www.scienceandnonduality.]

Paul King:  ‘As to what the magic is that makes the brain conscious, this is still the subject of ongoing research, and what has been found so far can fill whole libraries of neuroscience books. The magic lies in the specific complex layered circuit structure, the biochemical mechanics that allow the circuits to function, the networks in which they are organized, and the dynamic feedback signaling traveling across the 1 quadrillion synapses of the brain.

There are 1 million times as many synapses in the brain as there are transistors in an Intel CPU and they work in different and more complex ways.

MG: I agree that it’s a labeling of the unknown [meaning consciousness as an emergent property of the brain?] But it’s also an application of Occam’s razor…
AM: Consciousness is not a hypothesis for physicalists or brain scientists to work out in their efforts at confirmation or falsification. It is the most immediate and irrefutable fact of human experience, and thus not in need of Ockham’s razor for assistance. It is, logically and epistemologically, even prior to the Cartesian cogito. As Roy Smith has written here, in Quora:

‘I think the general public needs to know that the classical and quantum models of consciousness are not the only “models” out there. Since neither the quantum views nor the emergent brain view of the material classicists have any complete evidence to speak of, we should adopt a practical, day-to-day model of consciousness to sustain us in the interim. Since the only thing we can ever really know is our own subjective experience, perhaps we should be enriching our own inner experience. Perhaps exploring meditation, the humanities such as philosophy, the arts, etc., can help round out our subjective understanding…’