Consciousness and the limits of Science

Let me begin by nailing my colours to the mast. I count myself a materialist, in the sense that I take consciousness to be a species of brain activity. Having said that, however, it seems to me evident that no description of brain activity of the relevant kind, couched in the currently available languages of physics, physiology, or functional or computational roles, is remotely capable of capturing what is distinctive about consciousness. So glaring, indeed, are the shortcomings of all the reductive programmes currently on offer, that I cannot believe that anyone with a philosophical training, looking dispassionately at these programmes, would take any of them seriously for a moment, were in not for a deep-seated conviction that current physical science has essentially got reality taped, and accordingly, something along the lines of what the reductionists are offering must be correct. To that extent the very existence of consciousness seems to me to be a standing demonstration of the explanatory limitations of contemporary physical science.

Michael Lockwood, philosophy professor and fellow of Green College, Oxford, in his article Consciousness and the quantum worlds. In Q. Smith and A. Jokric (eds.), Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives, 447–467. Oxford: Clarendon (2003).

2 replies
  1. Simon
    Simon says:

    I think that Lockwood is making a mistake here. He has confused “descriptions of brain activity” with “what is distinctive about consciousness”.

    On the one hand there is the mere description of what makes consciousness, and there is every reason to expect that materialism/naturalism will refine its description of that stuff between our ears and what it is doing.
    On the other hand there is the qualia. What it feels like to love; what it feels like to hear sound; the experience of touch etc. And it seems to me that it is silly to expect naturalism – a model – to be able to explain these qualia. Expecting our model of the brain to show us what love feels like seems to me not unlike expecting our present model of gravity to give us a better model of gravity. Our model of gravity is not alive and so can’t do this of course! So too with our model of the brain.

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