Nov 14 2012

The Great Consciousness Swindle: Why Philosophers Will Never Find Consciousness, And Why They Secretly Don’t Want To


As someone who writes regularly on aspects of the brain and consciousness, I have recently received a large amount of correspondence from people wondering what I think about a news article linking consciousness to quantum gravity in cellular microtubules, and how this model could offer “proof” of the soul’s ability to survive outside the body through some kind of nonlocal quantum hocus-pocus.[1] Even though this theory is presented purely as an exercise in theoretical mathematics, because it was suggested by Roger Penrose, a lauded and respected mathematician and philosopher, many people have jumped to the conclusion that this theory is not only correct, but that it somehow “proves” that consciousness is eternal, immutable, and can travel in and out of the body like a soul. My personal take on the theory is that it is garbage disguised as science, and not only is it wrong, it perpetuates a myth of consciousness that philosophers have been using to mislead gullible believers for centuries.

What is the myth of consciousness that Penrose is perpetuating? The central myth of this theory is that consciousness is a “thing”, and that consciousness “exists” in some “place” that we can’t  see. I call this the “invisible mind” model of consciousness, and the invisible mind model basically says, “Consciousness is so ineffable and mysterious that no material description is sufficient to define its boundaries. Therefore, we must assume that consciousness is an immaterial or ‘phantom’ presence we can’t locate or measure, trapped somewhere inside the organic machinery of the body.” This model is also known as Dualism, which claims that in addition to the material body there is also an immaterial “mind”, “spirit”, or “soul” that inhabits the host. The greatest feature of Dualism, as far as I can tell, is that Dualism claims the mind and spirit are immaterial and invisible, and therefore can never be accurately measured or described. And here is where the great swindle takes place. If I can convince you that something invisible exists, like an “invisible mind”, but I also say it is immaterial and can never be measured, then I have just made myself an expert in something that does not actually exist, but also cannot be disproven. In academia this is called “philosophy”, but in laymans terms this is called “bullshit”. I do not have a degree in philosophy, but I have a PhD in bullshit, and I can always smell it a mile away, and this theory of consciousness smells like bullshit to me.

The great Consciousness swindle, and the myth that Penrose and his ilk keep perpetuating, is the assumption that “Consciousness,” with a capital C, is so complex and mysterious that stupid blind neuroscientists can never explain it all with their crude, classical, materialistic descriptions. This, of course, is a complete intellectual fallacy. Scientists who study the brain understand that “consciousness,” with a lowercase c, is not a “thing” with a “location”, but is instead the abstract process of being self-aware, or a relative measurement of general self-awareness. When you talk about consciousness with a lowercase c, then it becomes easy to see that consciousness is not mysterious at all, it is a description of our everyday waking life. For humans, consciousness comes online when we wake up and goes through peaks and valleys throughout the day. Consciousness gets hungry, tired, bored, excited, aroused, irritated, distracted, and so on, until we go back to sleep and consciousness disappears and we become “unconscious”. Then consciousness comes back online in a very limited “secure test environment” for a few seconds at a time while we dream, then it disappears again. And when we wake up the cycle resets and consciousness starts a new day. The system of consciousness is mediated by many areas and functions of the brain, and when one area of the brain is damaged the area of consciousness mediated by that area of the brain is also damaged. Consciousness is material, it is a material thing that relies on material neurons and material fuel and material stimulus to work correctly. We only think it is invisible because it is inside the head, but having looked in a few heads I can tell you for a fact it is not invisible in there. There is actual stuff happening in the brain as it twitches with activity, and that stuff is consciousness.

This materialistic description of consciousness simple, it is testable, you can see it in action. It is not mysterious and ineffable, it is functional and it works. How do we know this is the correct description of consciousness? When something goes wrong with your ability to think, do you go to a philosopher to tell you that your Consciousness is mysterious and invisible and cannot be measured? Does it help if he tells you that Consciousness is a function of quantum gravity in microtubules, or that your consciousness is a fundamental force of the universe that predates life? What if your doctor tells you that Consciousness flows through you like air or water, or that everything is Consciousness? Does that help you fix your brain to think better and manage your daily life? No, that doesn’t help at all, that is just some smoke blown up your ass by fake gurus who want to sell books. When you really have a problem with your consciousness you don’t go see a philosopher, you go see a neuroscientist who can diagnose you and fix the problem, because the neuroscientist generally understands how the brain works. The philosopher only understands bullshit about invisible minds, and that bullshit may be fascinating, but it will never fix your brain or help you understand how consciousness actually works.

So why the swindle? What is going on here? Why would someone want to convince you, me, and everyone in the world that an invisible mind exists? The obvious answer, to me, is that it is an easy way to sell books and publish papers without doing any actual research, because the thing that “Consciousness” researchers claim to be experts on is conveniently invisible. But beyond that, why would so many people willingly accept this non-description of invisible mind as “truth” when it is clearly a shell game far beyond the level of rational testability? I think the swindle reduces itself to the fact that humans have an inflated view of themselves, and also tend to invent invisible forces to explain things they don’t understand. Consciousness with a capital C is one of these mythical invisible forces that makes humans feel special about themselves, and if you claim to be an “expert” in this invisible force you never have to do any research or produce any results. But once Consciousness with a capital C is defined as a crude biological process that can be measured in waves of self-awareness that fluctuate throughout the day, all the philosophers who rely on Consciousness being a mystical primal force of the universe are out of work. They need to go back to talking about the soul or invent another invisible force to chase, because as of this article, the Big C Consciousness racket is officially over. I am calling bullshit on anyone who steps into this field from now on.

How do I know that the Consciousness swindle is a racket, for sure? What is my proof? In the logical deconstruction of the Dualistic definition of the variable [Consciousness] : “[Consciousness] is a mysterious metaphysical force that animates matter, and all animated matter is imbued with [Consciousness]”. Now take this same definition and substitute the words “God”, “demon”, “magic”, “spirit”, or “soul” in the place of Consciousness and see if the argument of the invisible mind changes. It does not. Let’s go back to the Penrose conjecture and say, “The mysterious force of [Consciousness] is mediated by quantum gravity in microtubules.” Now substitute the word Consciousness with the array of alternatives I described above. Does the argument change? No. Now substitute the words “hyperdimensional alien telepathy” or “quantum spirit beetles” or “psychoplasm” or “morphic field” or “subatomic pink elephant semen” for “Consciousness”. Now substitute all those words when talking about an invisible mind hidden in the body, or an invisible penetrating force that informs all organism-level intelligence. Does the Dualistic argument change one bit when we change the essential word of the argument to gibberish? The argument does not change. That is because if you are arguing for the existence of something immaterial that is invisible and cannot be measured, you have not really defined what you are looking for, and can insert literally any nonsense word or concept into the argument and it is the same fundamental argument. This is the core of the Consciousness swindle, and you can tell it is the same old swindle because the word  “consciousness” can be substituted for “God” or “soul” and it still means, “Something I claim is mysterious and invisible that cannot be measured that only I understand.” To me, this is the classical definition of bullshit.

When it comes to “consciousness” there is a lot of bullshit out there, and when bullshit comes from a respected scientist or MD and is picked up by the media, it is sometimes hard to tell how badly the bullshit smells. But when it comes to “theories of consciousness,” the proof is in the neuroscience. Modern neuroscience has neatly defined all the major brain functions and primary locations of the functions that mediate consciousness. Most of the “mystery” of consciousness has been taken out of the “consciousness is mysterious” argument. So if any argument begins with the presumption that consciousness is “mysterious” or that consciousness “has not been properly located or defined,” then that is immediately a bullshit theory. Any theory of consciousness that begins with the “mystery” assumption is not really looking for “consciousness”, it is looking for the invisible mind, or a God, or a soul, or is looking for a way to sell books to people who do not understand the brain. Philosophers would rather believe “consciousness” is a “mysterious animating force” because it sounds cooler that way and it gives them something interesting to bullshit about. And for the people who buy into these theories of invisible mind, they are always happy to believe in mysterious invisible forces until something goes wrong with their own mind, and then they go running to a psychotherapist or a neurosurgeon like Sanjay Gupta fix their “consciousness” like it was a car engine to be tweaked and tuned. That’s because consciousness is like the humming of a car engine, and a good neuroscientist can diagnose operational issues of the mind just by testing and measuring. Neuroscience can’t fix all problems with consciousness, but it can fix many of them, and it can measure and diagnose almost all of them, which is way more than any trendy quantum theory of consciousness can ever hope to achieve. Because this is the simple truth: Any theory that purports to understand consciousness, but does not support the crude operational model of self-awareness built on a substrate of neural spikes in a synaptic neural network, is bullshit. Because the consciousness built on neural spikes in a synaptic network is our everyday consciousness. It can be modeled, measured, diagnosed, operated on, tested, damaged, and corrected. The other definition of Consciousness, with a big C, does not meet these tests, and does not help anybody understand anything at all. And what does that smell like to me? You guessed it.


James Kent is the author of Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason