Nov 14 2012

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

""){ ?> By James Kent


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

  • By Paul McEnery, November 14, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    Solid work, James.

    Or, as a philosopher might put it: The Consciousness Problem dissolves the moment you realize you’ve been nouning a verb. There is no “consciousness”, but only “being conscious of …”.

  • By Scotty Danger Olson, November 14, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    “I take the word ‘consciousness’ to be essentially synonymous with ‘awareness’. (although perhaps ‘awareness’ is just a little more passive than what I mean by ‘consciousness’), whereas ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ have further connections which are a good deal less clearly definable at present. We shall be having enough trouble with coming to terms with ‘consciousness’ as it stands , so I hope that the reader will forgive me if I leave the further problems of ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ essentially alone!”

    -Roger Penrose, ‘Emperor’s New Mind’, p.525

  • By Craig Knaak, November 14, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

    Why are the people who only believe in little c almost always kind of jerks… crass and slightly rude… While the people who believe in big C seem to be real cool interesting people?


  • By René Milan, November 16, 2012 @ 4:15 am

    While you’re right in principle, your “do you finally get it”-style regurgitating of your one great insight is boring and annoying.
    “consciousness built on neural spikes” is not a proven fact.
    And the bullshit factor in a statement like “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.” is about the same as that in saying that “consciousness is eternal, immutable”.
    You’re hurting your own valid argument by sloppy writing (thinking?)

  • By Udaybhanu Chitrakar, November 16, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    God will not be required if every phenomenon in this universe can be ultimately explained without invoking any kind of God. As physical science has not yet finished its job, so we are not yet in a position to declare that there is no God. There is at least one phenomenon in this universe that will forever defy natural explanation, and for which supernatural explanation will be needed. And it is this: any entity placed within space and time cannot naturally have any lack of space of time if it is not artificially deprived of them. But we find that light lacks both space and time although it is not in any way artificially deprived of them, because as per relativity theory both space and time become non-existent for it. This can never be explained in a natural way, and here, and here only, we will need God.

    For further reading please see:
    i) Who will tell us how space and time are non-existent for light?
    ii) The Necessity of God & the Uncreated Whole

  • By René Milan, November 17, 2012 @ 4:35 am

    While you’re right in principle, your proof is somewhat repetitive and tedious.
    “consciousness built on neural spikes” is a tentative and certainly quite incomplete characterisation of the infrastructure from which “consciousness” emerges.
    And the bullshit factor in a statement like “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.” is about the same as that in saying that “consciousness is eternal, immutable”.
    Unfortunately you’re hurting your own valid argument by sloppy writing (thinking?)

  • By Paisley Circus, November 18, 2012 @ 4:58 am

    James, thank you for your voice of reason (thank you, also, for PIT!). However, you’re being a bit harsh and overly dismissive of radical possibilities and the importance of wild philosophies in the history of scientific advancement…

    Our response:

  • By Neil Hepburn, November 18, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    Agree with everything in this blog. But I think it’s still an unresolved question as to whether or not consciousness can be modeled in the classical world or if quantum effects are required.

    For example, until recently, it was assumed by most quantum physicists that the quantum mechanics didn’t really have much impact on the classical world. Then it was discovered that quantum mechanics is part of the photosynthesis process (see:

    For me, this begs the question: Given enough computing power can I build a conscious computer?
    At one time I would have said “definitely!” But I’m not so sure anymore.

    All that notwithstanding, Penrose (and anybody who invokes Quantum mechanics) is just exploiting quantum “spookiness” for their own means.

  • By Peter Stanbury, November 19, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    A neuroscientist studying consciousness has to use the very thing he is studying…consciousness…in order to make any observation of it. Thus the real problem of consciousness is the fallacy of there being any genuine ‘third party’ perspective on it.

    This is precisely what gives rise to what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. Just exactly what will one reduce a conscious experience TO ? What component of the actual experience of red, for example, is even remotely like anything in physics that it could be reduced to ?

    A dualist position seems crazy only because we mistakenly believe that we have some handle on an ‘external world’ via a third party perspective. We can go look at someone else’s brain and say ‘ Ah, look, its all just neurons’. But…our perception of neurons is something that has to pass through the very thing we are studying…consciousness. In this case our own.

    That is a point all too often forgotten by just about every commentator on consciousness. The very ‘external world’ that we seek to study the consciousness of others in, is itself moulded…to what degree we have no real idea…by our own consciousness.

  • By Giulio Prisco, November 20, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    What I don’t like in Kent’s critique is: one, the unnecessarily rude tone. I don’t think “bullshit” is a productive term in a scientific discussion. Two, the strawman. Hameroff and Penrose don’t say “Consciousness is a mysterious metaphysical force that animates matter.” They are just saying that perhaps consciousness, as a physical phenomenon, may turn out to depend strongly on quantum physics, and may be difficult to understand completely. Three, a certain ultra-rationalist and “militant atheist” bias. “[They are] looking for the invisible mind, or a God, or a soul” is not a scientific argument, but gossip. Science is about finding useful models of how the universe actually works, regardless of personal philosophical preferences.

  • By Samuel H. Kenyon, January 2, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    I like this article a lot, except for one thing:

    You are insulting a lot of philosophers by associating them with quantum consciousness and other swindles.

    In fact, are there ANY philosophers who would agree with the article you linked to?

    Anyway, great post…mostly.

  • By Dianne Lawrence, January 23, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    It’s a miracle that consciousness exists at all. That we have infinite faculty, creative expression that equals creation itself, intuition that feeds us accurate information despite appearances or lack of material evidence, ability to peer into the microcosm and out into the cosmos. That we have self awareness, a capacity to change our programming, to heal ourselves. He dismisses evidence about mystical experience as delusion chicanery despite endless, articulate, reasoned and insightful descriptions of these experiences by men and women with as much if not more intellectual integrity as he claims to have. “There are more things in heaven and earth, James, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  • By Ive seen the afterlife through synthetic compounds, January 28, 2013 @ 7:38 am

    Go to the woods on a warm summer day. Before you venture out, eat some LSD, as it opens the minds third eye to a state of awareness that is capable of remembering experiences of extreme emotion in the brain, whereas a person without imbibing a substance such as this would blackout and forget the experience. Then, after it begins to hit you, pack a pipe of marijuana and gently melt some DMT on top of it. Take three hits from this pipe. A sentient being of pure energy that is the consciousness of all living beings will come to you and explain what happens after the death of the body to you. It is the shortcut to what the buddhists would term “enlightenment.” The being of pure energy will explain to you how the energy within you has existed forever and how you are merely here as a human being to observe the world through your conscious so that you may bring this knowledge back to the consciousness of the earth upon the death of your body’s shell. We are all part of one consciousness whether you choose to believe it or not and we are here merely to observe and bring information of the universe back to this consciousness upon death. The earth is all knowing, yet it’s knowledge has been gained from the observations of third party shells, since it has no senses of its own rather that the ability to pass it’s energy into living beings so that they may observe the world for it. We are merely extensions of the Earth’s consciousness, and this is our job as human beings, in much the same way that it is the job of all other living beings. To say that there is no “Consciousness” is very foolish indeed, just because the weight of this consciousness can not be seen or measured outside the bounds of your own perpetual imagination. I have personally seen the energy that exists within everything and everyone, and I truly hope that others may experience this great mystery of the universe so that they may truly see the light as well. This being spoke to me in a force of complete undeniable truth, and was the greatest eye-opener of my life, as well as what I “chased” through psychadelic drugs through nearly two decades of my life. The answer is out there if you seek it out my friend, just a friendly word of advice before you refer to something as bullshit.

  • By Sander, March 7, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

    Sorry, but who are these “philosophers” you are referring to? All serious academic philosophers would agree with you (minus the ranting). Who are these people who are trying to sell us Big C “Consciousness”, aside from Penrose (if indeed he is)?

  • By jhog, March 11, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    So philosophy is lame …interesting philosophy.
    Did you use your consciousness to come to this conclusion or something else?

  • By Jog, March 16, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    The study of consciousness, it just like what taste tastes like.

  • By lisaloo, April 2, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    Of course the presence of awareness is regulated organically. And when your brain ceases to function the presence of awareness will cease. But define the crucial terms. I define “spirit,” “soul evil one” and “body” separately according to the revelation of terms as defined by the creator of the neurons. Awareness ‘sleeps’ when our bodies die. Spirit ise “who” we have power over, and soul is an eternal tangible commodity which can be given by us, or taken by a force more powerful than you. So you either give your soul to Christ because he paid the price required to free your eternal soul from the evil one who currently owns all souls who have sinned, or you accept your eternal fate. Period. All the rest is stupid speculation.

  • By tom jennings, April 22, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

    SPOT fucking ON (tho a bit of a rant, lol).

    in fact there is a solid basis for consciousness fully embedded in body & brain: embodied cognition, as described by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book PHILOSOPHY IN THE FLESH. review and part of chapter 1 here:

    it’s a solid framework. he is a bit too mechanistic, i think, in some finer points (as pointed out by the NY TIMES reviewer) but it’s a hell of a better, solid, basis for a usable, testable philosophy.

  • By Sam, June 25, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    The author appears to have a presupposition he works from and also injects into his worldview… There cannot be a Supreme Being, God, the Great “CM” (Conscious Mind), etc. He exercises just as much faith in his belief as those he attacks.

  • By hactseabiz, August 16, 2013 @ 12:12 am

    Kent, once again, coming off as a dickhead

  • By ooopoo, August 18, 2013 @ 1:03 am

    Hey mister synthetic compounds, you do realise who James kent is right?

  • By Barrow, November 16, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    Quote – 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. End Quote

    Yes, and most people understand the term “abstract”, with either an uppercase “A” or lowercase “a”, to mean something that is removed from something else, lacking physical or concrete existence – which so happens to be the very definition of consciousness against which the author otherwise tried to argue against in his article.

    And the description of consciousness as a “crude, biological process.” Really?

    So crude that it can’t be seen, touched, objectively proven or replicated but something that ultimately allows for that special perception of “self” (however you personally deem that perception to have arisen) and something that most top scientists, at the very least, afford to be an “emergent” property of the brain – albeit a completely unexplained mechanism and one that can only be subjectively self described and/or interpreted from one individual to another (scientists included).

    Suffice to say, science’s attempt to objectively analyse and explain consciousness is inherently problematic. To describe or assume consciousness as an emergent property and then go on to try and explain consciousness by describing every other known process of the brain BUT consciousness itself is next to no explanation at all.

    As to the author’s obvious misrepresentation of Penrose’s exact position on this – all I can say is – well researched.

    Finally, as to the chicken or egg argument regarding consciousness and matter. If matter preceded consciousness, what drove the matter to evolve into the living species and organised matter that we have today?

    The Theory of Evolution is merely an observation of the so called natural selection process (interpret “natural” as you will).

    But what drove that natural selection process? There appears to be no logical reason for it aside from our own, self identified and “natural” understanding of the drive to survive.

    It isn’t illogical to suppose that consciousness preceded all else and drove all matter to ultimately evolve into what it is today. even if that consciousness originally existed in its most fundamental form within the most fundamental building blocks of matter.

  • By colono, December 8, 2013 @ 8:18 am

    It appears that you conflate consciousness generally with the particular content (or structure) of consciousness that is dominant in your own time and culture. That’s not so strange, most people are unable to see beyond the paradigm that has been created around them – that’s the real big swindle performed by an elite on top of a hierarchy that those in the lower realms will do whatever encessary to deny the existence of – and thus they tend to think that what is given to them (through, say, the scientific acts of measuring, counting and weighing, the repressive acts of coding social relation in the letter of the law, the history of wars and patriarchs, and other related cultural mechanisms, such as God-like creatures, currently in the form of celebrities) is all that is there. Full stop.

    However, there is much more for the taking. Consciousness is a bit more than the weepingly little content and/or structure that Euro-American culture’s higher echelons have defined for their followers. It was there long before anyone removed the earth from the centre of the universe, before al-KhwārizmÄ«, before Parmednides, and it will still be here and there when the industrial mode of production has swallowed its own tail. It’s as if you’ve come along to the peeling of an onion session and out of the blue – hardly introducing yourself to the band of peeling – and arrogantly declares that “this very layer of the onion is all of the onion”.

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