Changing How the World Thinks

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A New Model of Consciousness

Do we need a new model to understand thought?

Daniel Stoljar

Do we need a radically new model to explain the place of consciousness in the material world?

The answer is yes, because both old models are failing.

Old model #1 is materialism – also known as physicalism – which says that consciousness is a function of organised matter. The problem with materialism is that on any known view of what matter is, consciousness is palpably not a function of it. This is the lesson of the famous set of arguments about matter and consciousness in philosophy: the superscientist Mary, philosophical zombies, the inverted spectrum, etc.

Old model #2 is dualism, which says (negatively) that consciousness is not a function of organised matter, and (positively) that consciousness is a basic element of nature something like time, space, gravity, or indeed matter itself. The problem with dualism is that it can’t explain how consciousness is integrated into the rest of nature in the way it palpably is. That is the lesson of another set of arguments in philosophy that are famous but not quite as famous: the exclusion argument, the nomological dangler argument etc.

So both old models fail, and we need a new one. What would it be like? Well, don’t ask: is consciousness a function of matter? Ask instead: what is matter such that consciousness is a function of it? If no known property of matter can answer this question, the natural inference is that some unknown property does. So the new model says there are unknown properties of matter that, perhaps together with known properties, account for consciousness.

You could say, if you like, that the new model is a non-standard version of materialism. Like materialism it says that consciousness is a function of organised matter, but unlike standard versions it offers no positive theory of what matter is. You could also say, if you like, that the new model is a non-standard version of dualism. Like dualism it says that no known property of matter accounts for consciousness, but unlike standard versions it does not say that consciousness is a basic element of nature. Perhaps the best thing to say is that the new model takes what is true from both standard materialism and standard dualism and jettisons the rest.

To accept the new model is not to say that the properties of matter will remain forever unknown to us as humans or to rational agents in general – it is not to say that we are cognitively closed with respect to these properties, in Colin McGinn’s well-known phrase. In general, you can say that something will remain forever unknown to us only if you also know two further things: what the limits of human knowledge are, and whether the thing in question falls outside those limits. But we know neither of those things, and that is why the new model predicts nothing about cognitive closure.

Some people start off by agreeing we need a new model but wind up not offering one – panpsychists, for example. They argue that to account for the relation of matter to consciousness, it must be that matter already contains (or is) consciousness in some fundamental way. Panpsychists present themselves as radical, and are sometimes dismissed for that reason. But from the point of view of the new model, the key problem with panpsychism is that it is too conservative, not too radical. Panpsychists offer unusual and perhaps implausible arrangements of known elements. But what we need are unknown elements, not known ones.

As against the new model, you might deny outright that there are any unknown properties of matter, at least in the relevant sense. “Consciousness is a function of brain activity,” you might say, “and we already know that brains are made of neurons. Hence consciousness must be explained by the interaction of neurons.” But this line of thought confuses constituents of matter with features of matter. It may be true that brains are made up of neurons, but what the properties of neurons are (and what the properties of properties of neurons are) is still a matter of speculation. In any case, if consciousness is a function of neurons and no known property of neurons explains it, there must be some unknown property of neurons that does so.

You might also accept that there are unknown properties of matter, but deny that acknowledging their existence alters the situation: “Unknown properties bear deep theoretical similarities to the properties we already know about, and so the dualism-materialism issue will persist in a recognisable form.” But this view hasn’t fully absorbed the key point of the new model. The prediction of the model is precisely that the known is no guide to the unknown and so there is no deep theoretical similarity here. You can deny that if you like but doing so is just to deny the new model without offering an argument for doing so.

Finally, you might object (in an exasperated tone of voice!) that speculations about unknown properties are useless. “Back in the real world, you need to build a theory and building theories requires known parts to build them from.” But this objection confuses different questions you could ask about consciousness. True enough, if you want to know exactly what the relation is between matter and consciousness, the new model is no help; indeed, the model itself predicts that you can’t (now) answer that question.

But many of the most interesting questions about consciousness can be pursued without answering that question. What is it that makes a mental state conscious? Are you always aware of your conscious states? How do those states interact with other psychological features? How do they evolve over time? What is their epistemological and rational role? In what ways, if any, are they valuable? What neural and computational structures are associated with them? There is nothing in the new model that says you can’t answer these questions. On the contrary, they have often seemed so hard precisely because they are entangled with metaphysical debates about dualism and materialism. If we get over that debate in the way the new model suggests, we will be likely to make more progress not less on these very real questions about consciousness.

Image credit: Derrick Tyson

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kyoung21b 4 April 2017

It seems like this model could lead to something a little different than materialism in that we might learn that there are terminal unknowns but that we could bound them in a useful way. That would never make a pure materialist happy.
That there are properties of matter we don't yet know seems trivial, e.g. we don't "know" the properties ascribed to string theory as an attempt at a complete materialist theory, as we haven't been able to confirm that it is in fact an adequate and complete description.
Though even more vague than what is proposed here (not a defect - that's the state we're in) I always preferred Spinoza's starting point, i.e. that consciousness and material properties are complementary views of something more fundamental. Though it's not a whole lot different than what's proposed here it seems to emphasize that consciousness and material properties have equal status and that considering either more fundamental than the other might be mistaken.

Mario Imagimario 22 May 2016

The philosopher Nisargadatta Maharaj could add some interesting insights to the conSciousnes discussion. To him, there are two different aspects: one is conSciousness that needs or implies an object or a relation between subject and object and Science that is the self percecption per se. His master work is avaiable to the english reading people as "I Am That". Sure a must read!

GeneToy 12 January 2016

I don't understand why we need to look for a new, unknown property of matter to explain consciousness. Why isn't consciousness itself a property of matter? In particular, why isn't it a property of neurons? Poking particular neurons yields predictable changes in consciousness.

Might there be more progress in looking for a functional definition of consciousness? What is consciousness for? Why has it been naturally selected? This does not seem obvious to me. How is it an advantage over physiologic processes that are controlled without consciousness? Also, what advantage does it have over computers that control complex processes without consciousness?

natcurland 5 April 2015

This is B.S. The 'new' model is simply another version of the rational 'we don't know yet, so let's keep doing the science and see what happens', i.e. the scientific method. This is simply a restatement of the materialistic argument. The last paragraph is right on but to call this 'new' is B.S.