The Problem With Trying to do Science with Common Sense ‘Things’ – A Response to Max Tegmark’s Recent Article on Consciousness (New Scientist, April issue)

The Problem With Trying to do Science with Common Sense ‘Things’

A Commentary on the Desire for a Physical Account of Consciousness



In an older article I discussed the difference between bodies, which are ‘things’ in the biological realm of experience, and ‘things’ in other areas. Of course the problematic ambiguities are not simply between ‘things’ in scientific areas of experience and activity and ‘bodies’ in animal experience, and the tendency of scientists to want their ‘things’ to be satisfying to themselves, as ‘bodies’ are satisfyingly real to their animal experience. The more complex forms of nonsense appear when ‘things’ in one area, such as common sense experience, are used to ‘explain’ other ‘things’ that also have an ambiguous being as both ‘things’ within the sciences and ‘things’ to pragmatic common sense.


A handy example is the following article in the latest edition of New Scientist, written by Max Tegmark: ‘


The fourth state of matter: Consciousness


Tegmark’s basic desire (it really doesn’t even qualify as a hypothesis, much less a theory, because what’s being thought is too indeterminate to have specific implications) is to create a scientific notion of consciousness, something that has not been developed in any reasonable way within the sciences, and to define it physically, since that’s what sciences does, or at least it must seem that way to someone as unacquainted with science as Tegmark obviously is. He has to assume that such a scientific notion is at least possible, otherwise writing about it in a supposedly scientific publication would be ridiculous in the first place, and worse, probably wouldn’t be paid for. The attempt at a ‘scientific’ notion of consciousness, then, begins with an unwarranted reduction to matter, because, obviously, everything physical is material, and vice versa.


Tegmark begins with the most obvious characterizations of matter when common sense uses the term, i.e. that it can be in different ‘states’, such as solid, liquid and gas. In a pragmatic way, we posit some sort of unchangeable substrate that, while any given material may have no apparent properties in common with itself in a different ‘state’, it somehow remains indescribably describable as the same material.


Never mind that philosophical attempts for thousands of years have tried to come up with a physicalist notion of consciousness without accomplishing anything other than making otherwise accomplished thinkers look ridiculous (a prime example is the Cartesian notion that consciousness, as the anima or soul, is attached to the body at the pineal gland). Never mind, either, that since ‘spirit’, another word for what Tegmark is trying to define, already means breath, and therefore implies a ‘state’ of matter already contained in the three possible in the common sense usage, i.e. a gas. Beyond jokes about the gaseous invertebrate, is the common sense notion of material ‘states’ relevant to the scientific notion of matter at all?


In chemistry, or at least in high school level chemistry, to a large degree notion of material states is not hugely different from the common sense notion. While a chemist has a different understanding than the common sense understanding of what a ‘state’ might mean, for practical purposes of manipulating chemicals the common sense notion is close enough . An advanced chemist, however, using molecular bindings would have to context switch for ‘material state’ to mean anything resembling the common sense notion. In physics there is no ambiguity at all – what common sense calls ‘material states’ have nothing whatsoever to do with what a physicist means by ‘material states’, in fact, what common sense intends by ‘matter’ is largely meaningless in a physicist’s context.


What is matter to a physicist? The answer to that isn’t an easy thing to convey, partly because physicists do without a notion of matter that can be employed imaginatively with ease, and work with a mathematical notion that, pressed to express it in natural language, most would likely have difficulty, and it wouldn’t make sense at all to common sense. Heisenberg and Wheeler did attempt to draw the ontological implications (what quantum mechanics says about what and how matter is) of quantum mechanics and the standard model of particle physics developed out of quantum mechanics, respectively. The core of each is found in the following two statements.



In the end Plato was right, the most basic forms of matter are not anything we would consider ‘material’, they’re ideas.” – Heisenberg


It from bit, as in a computer bit of information, binary on or off. Matter at its most basic is information and nothing else.” – Wheeler


While these statements have an obvious similarity in a certain sense, they do not correspond in any apparent way to the common sense notion of matter. The similarity is that both descriptions appear to be describing specifically not what we think of as matter, as “stuff” “out there”, but appear to be describing what we would expect to find not “out there in reality” but within the common sense notion of consciousness. ‘Ideas’ and ‘information’ are, for common sense at least, elements of thought, and thought is the distinguishing ability of consciousness. How can consciousness be defined in terms of matter, if matter is defined in terms of abilities that appear to be abilities of consciousness?


What ‘state’ implies in either notion is also completely non-obvious. If we go back to the common sense meaning and pick one of the material states, say liquid, we find that saying some ‘thing’ (by which we generally mean a body “out there now real”) is experienced as a type of thing that behaves in particular ways, such as self-leveling in a still container, feeling ‘wet’ to the touch, etc., that are common to any materieal that is in a liquid ‘state’. Bits and ideas aren’t wet, nor can we fill a jug with them and pour them back out later. But then neither are they solid, we don’t bump into or trip over them (except in the metaphorical sense, which is the bulk of Tegmark’s actual thought activity in his article ). Maybe they seem more like gases? After all they’re a bit ethereal … But then ether turned out not to exist. Describing something as “like something that doesn’t exist” doesn’t give us much to go on.


So according to Tegmark there’s some kind of ‘fourth state’, and consciousness is matter in that fourth state. No science posits a fourth state, which throws a bit of a wrench into Tegmark’s argument, but what makes it intrinsically a non-starter is that no science posits material ‘states’ as saying anything meaningful about matter in the first place. Tegmark is trying to create a scientific notion of consciousness (after all, we all have an implicit common sense understanding of it) but he is attempting to do so by defining it in terms that have no relevance scientifically. The resulting confusion, not surprisingly, is similar to Descartes’s confusion, when he tried to account for consciousness as though it were a “body out there” in some way. The difficulty is not that physicalist descriptions don’t work because the “soul” is somehow “higher” and more “mysterious” than that, it’s that physicalist explanations have no relevance in a scientific context. Physicalism, like every other -ism, is a belief system. While plenty of belief systems do get mixed up in actual scientific activity, they are never anything but a hindrance to the sciences. They are part of the complex interplay of ideologies that give our shared social and political reality a tenuous scaffolding by which we interpret phenomenally complex topics such as human and societal behavior without any need for science.


So, after this detour, what is Tegmark actually doing?


Consciousness is a “hard problem”, as he quotes ad nauseum, only because he’s expecting a type of solution that cannot, by definition, exist for this type of problem. If we look at the type of solution Tegmark is looking for (the means by which he flails around trying to find it is not really all that important) we can see that it has certain features:


  • it’s explanatory, which simultaneously means explaining from origin, and explaining via temporally sequenced causality – I.,e., cause then effect

  • it accounts-for consciousness in an exact way, which makes it measurable

  • it’s reductive, i.e. the unique aspects of consciousness can be accounted for without requiring anything not required to account-for the very simplest ‘bodies’ ‘out there’


The problem with the notion of explanation is that temporally sequenced cause then effect only applies in discussing efficient causality. Explanation from origin can only make use of efficient causality if a causa efficiens is posited. Since any such being would then be the creator of consciousness, we’re no longer dealing with scientific accounting-for, but religious accounting-for. Origin always means telos, or goal, no matter how much reductionists may try to hide the fact. The myth that Darwin did away with teleology is just that, by his own statements he found one means by which teleology works, which far from doing away with teleology both assumes it and strengthens its claims. (this is the reason Darwin’s book was called “On the Origin of Species”, not ‘on the forerunners of particular species’, or ‘on the trigger of species differentiation’, although those two titles, along with ‘on the cause of species extinction’, would constitute the sum of Neo-Darwinism, but the origin or goal of species itself, the reason nature differentiates itself from itself through its history).


The common sense notion of consciousness, which is still all we have to work with despite Tegmark’s article, would probably, if gone into at all, somewhere note that consciousness and its contents are not exact, nor are they measurable in any meaningful sense of the term. Thoughts, memories, perceptions, any of the contents of consciousness are subject to misremembering, dissembling, inaccuracy, etc. In certain cases it might be very useful to be able to measure the contents, for instance, to know how much pain someone is in and what is therefore an appropriate treatment, however there is no way to do so, not simply within the constraints of current practice, but due to the nature of consciousness itself.


Being a “hard problem”, a simple solution is unlikely to suffice. The history of science is for the most part a history of simple ideas failing to account for apparently simple phenomena. Occasionally there is a successful simple way of understanding something that initially seemed complex, however we have a term for those things, chaotic systems, and they exhibit specific characteristics, none of which are associated with consciousness.


We did note though, just a moment ago, that we know certain things can or cannot be posited of consciousness due to its nature. But by the word “nature”, we are referring to at least the entry point to what Tegmark is seeking. Before we can proffer an explanation of anything, we have to have a reasonable description of it, to know and be able to share what it is we’re attempting to explain in the first place.


We have plenty of descriptions, in fact, to work with. The history of literature, philosophy, and science itself as intellectual, conscious activity are part of that description. The difficulty is not obtaining detailed description, nor is the problem, in a general way, validating what is contained in those descriptions and the observations that gave rise to them. Of course, a person’s consciousness isn’t observable to another in the way that a ‘body’ is, not even indirectly, the way the behavior of ‘things’ in particle physics are validated by confirming a predicted effect on an observable body. But we don’t need that kind of external verification because there is nothing mediating our observation that we need to ensure doesn’t affect the observation. Consciousness, in the sense Tegmark is using it, is not even ‘simple’ consciousness, but the specifically reflexive, self-aware consciousness of an individual living in contemporary society. We all have valid experience of that, or nothing on these pages would have meant anything, and being unable to find any bodily use for it, we would have moved on long ago.


Of course, none of the vaunted techniques of the natural sciences appears tobe particularly useful in looking at the proper topic, the reflexive, self-aware consciousness that makes ethical judgment and abstract thought, and therefore science itself, possible for us as beings. We can describe the basic necessary features for consciousness to be an ethical, philosophic or scientific consciousness, to be a social and political consciousness (which other higher animals also possess). We can look historically and anthropologically at the necessary features of society without initiation into which, many of those features would not come into being in each individual, and the traits of those individuals necessary to create and maintain such a society. The interplay of the social construct of a ‘person’, together with the way that various aspects of that society depend on specifics of that construct, and how each both sustains and simultaneously must change the other, is a fascinating topic, but not one suited for a chemistry lab. Tegmark’s problem, outside of a lack of rigor to any of his thinking, is that he is looking for a scientific solution to a problem science can’t ask, because all of science is itself only a small part of the question.







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