Science, Knowledge and Consciousness

by Mark English

A number of factors are pushing me to do a bit of intellectual stocktaking; to review and assess what I have been saying over the last few years.

One trigger for this process is the closing down of Google+ where I had, since 2016, posted quite a lot of material. I recently had to go through my G+ posts (and associated comments) in order to identify material that I wanted to copy and save.

I am uncertain which sites (other than The Electric Agora, which I expect to continue writing for) or platforms I will focus on in the future. (1) With respect to writing, I get a certain amount of pleasure crafting posts but my main concerns have always been for clarity and truth, for getting things right, or at least for avoiding egregious errors within the general framework I have set for myself. (Formal disciplinary boundaries I have always been wary of.)

Each of our individual perspectives is limited, of course. Individuals have different interests, different areas of expertise and different levels of knowledge. But we can always refine and deepen our way of seeing things. My method is to articulate a point of view as clearly as possible. If there are flaws, they should become evident. The process works best, of course, when the claims are made publicly and are subject to informed commentary.

Speaking in general terms, my default position could well be characterized as scientistic (though the term can be used in various ways). At any rate, I have the conviction that we learn about the world by observation, reasoning and experiment. Intuitions are essential in practical life, but intuitions need to be tested if they are to be used as a basis for adding to our body of shared, theoretical knowledge and understanding. The various sciences and rigorous scholarly disciplines have developed their own specific methods for testing intuitions, for filtering out wrongheaded or fruitless ideas. This filtering process is crucial in the quest for knowledge. An “anything goes” approach just doesn’t work.

This quest for knowledge does not encompass all of life, of course. Most people are not concerned with it. And, crucially, the values we live by – though they may be studied scientifically – cannot be derived or justified in a fundamental way by the methods of science. Certain principles or values may be identified as having certain social consequences but beyond that science has little to say on these matters.

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to many talks by and interviews with various thinkers (amongst them Christof Koch, Alex Rosenberg, Terrence Deacon, Carlo Rovelli and Alexander Vilenkin) with a view to setting some kind of direction for my own future activities. Nothing has crystallized, but I thought it might be worthwhile to set down a few notes and observations.

First, I was struck by the fact that many of the people I listened to had explicit religious, quasi-religious or otherwise non-scientific convictions that were clearly motivating their intellectual activities. The philosopher Owen Flanagan, for example, who conducted an interview with his colleague Alex Rosenberg, explicitly embraces Buddhism (while rejecting the doctrine of reincarnation). (2)

Flanagan was intent on distinguishing his own kind of naturalism from that of Rosenberg. He referred to the Paul Simon song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” to emphasize the multiple ways naturalism is understood by philosophers.

This is one of the things that seems to characterize philosophy in a more general sense, and I don’t know that it is a positive feature. Everyone seems to have their own unique take on naturalism, or physicalism, or nominalism, or realism. I am inclined to agree with Karl Popper that far too much philosophical activity is devoted to this kind of semantic hair-splitting. The problem (as Paul Horwich has pointed out) is that most philosophical words do not stand and cannot be made to stand for precise concepts. There is an inherent vagueness about them that needs to be recognized and accepted.

In various talks and interviews Christof Koch, a physicist-turned-neuroscientist who collaborated closely with the very skeptical and reductionistic Francis Crick, has also talked positively about Buddhism, and about his dealings with Tibetan Buddhists – and indeed with the Dalai Lama.

John Horgan recently interviewed Koch on (3) In the course of the discussion (about 47 minutes in) Horgan gives his personal interpretation of changes in Koch’s research direction. He suggests that as a result of a religious crisis (Koch was raised as a Catholic, went to a Jesuit high school and identified as a Catholic through much of his adult life) Koch had “really gone off the deep end” in embracing Giulio Tononi’s theory of consciousness known as Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Koch deals with these comments in a surprisingly good-humored way. But he strongly defends his scientific integrity and distances himself from Horgan’s at times half-baked and airy-fairy-sounding mysterianism. Horgan was particularly interested in Koch’s views on David Chalmers’ ideas on consciousness. Koch’s initial response was to say that they were “baloney.” Note however that Koch is sympathetic to panpsychism.

On the face of it, IIT seems less plausible than the more widely accepted Global Workspace Theory but I haven’t made a study of the matter. I tend towards the view that strictly scientific, step-by-step approaches will in the end explain and demystify sentience and consciousness. Sure, it is possible that scientific developments in the study of consciousness and information may end up overturning current assumptions concerning the way the world works and the nature of physical reality (perhaps validating to some extent certain traditional philosophical positions). But let’s be guided by the science on these matters.

Carlo Rovelli and Alexander Vilenkin are both well-known and respected theoretical physicists who have addressed a wider audience. Rovelli believes that time is not a fundamental property of nature but arises due to thermodynamic processes. Our sense of the flow of time does not reflect a broader reality: it is perspectival. (4) Rovelli is interested in the historical conflicts between science and religion and apparently sees scope for some kind of reconciliation based on a rejection of dogmatism. Likewise he sees scope for unifying scientific and humanities-based perspectives on the world. He is explicitly critical of what he sees as artificial and unnecessarily restrictive discipline boundaries, particularly within the humanities.

Alexander Vilenkin, a cosmologist interested in the early universe, endorses a form of Platonism. (5) For him the laws of physics are more than mere descriptions and have some kind of real existence. He is also sympathetic to mathematical Platonism (though he rejects Max Tegmark’s extreme position on this). Vilenkin was born and raised and completed his first degree in the Soviet Union but ran into trouble with the authorities. He did his graduate studies and made his career in the United States.

Alex Rosenberg is clearly not a Platonist. Nor is he religious. But he is very political.

Rosenberg is one of the few contemporary philosophers who wear their scientism as a badge of honor. Unfortunately he has a habit of stating his views very provocatively, a practice that generates more heat than light. I have read some of his work, and I recently listened to a few extended interviews. (See, for example, reference 2 for the interview conducted by Owen Flanagan.) In some of these interviews he has been rather too eager, in my opinion, to push his own political narratives and opinions.

Rosenberg believes that his views on human agency and intentionality are supportive of his (explicitly left-wing) political views on justice and wealth redistribution. It would be better, in my opinion, if he stuck to the view (which he claims to hold) that science cannot determine or justify our values. The argument that if we lack free will (as Rosenberg believes) then nobody deserves anything is contentious enough. But to go further and claim that this justifies a particular form of wealth redistribution just looks like special pleading to me.

Rosenberg appears to have similar views to mine on historical narratives, though his single-minded (negative) emphasis on the theory of mind does not enhance his case. I agree with him that the facts of history (“the dots”, as he puts it) may be discovered and rigorously described, but value-based narratives (“connecting the dots”) inevitably go far beyond the scope of strict scholarship.

His views on intentionality seem to me to be too heavily based in 19th and 20th philosophical approaches (which, paradoxically, were rooted in dualism), rather than on science. And when he draws on science – regarding the way the brains of rats deal with questions of space and location, for example – he appears to overstate what the scientific findings in fact demonstrate. To me, it seems eminently reasonable to call the encoded knowledge that an animal has of its position in a particular environment a representation. Such a representation may not be structured like a map or a picture, but, however it is structured, it can still be seen to be accurate or inaccurate; that is, it can be judged in terms of content, and so reasonably seen as a belief or at least an implicit belief.

I am sympathetic to the view that introspection misleads us, that the drivers of our behavior are not what they seem and that research in cognitive neuroscience, social psychology and linguistics is gradually undermining (and will continue to undermine) many of our intuitive judgments. But these changes happen in slow and subtle ways. Rosenberg’s talk about “mere illusion” and so on grossly oversimplifies the issues. Sure, the theory of mind (i.e. the basic, intuitive assumptions we make from a very early age about beliefs and desires) has its limitations. But without it language would never have developed, and it remains essential for normal learning and social interaction. Nor is it a scientific theory in the normal sense of that term.

I won’t try to make the case here but I have the sense that Rosenberg fails fully to appreciate the significance of symbolic systems, both constructed and natural. What started me thinking along these lines was a comment he made in passing about Gödel’s Theorem during a discussion with Sean Carroll recorded late last year. The comment showed a striking lack of understanding of what Gödel had demonstrated. (6)

Formal and other constructed systems as well as natural language are obviously encoded in individual brains, but they transcend individual brains both in terms of their origins and in terms of the way they work. The crucial point is that they arise within particular socio-cultural contexts and can only continue to exist within a socio-cultural matrix of some kind. But Rosenberg insists on talking about “chunks of matter” and about the (a priori?) impossibility within his preferred ontology of one chunk of matter being “about” another. This seems to me a blinkered approach.

As a counterpoint to Rosenberg’s narrow fixations, the work of Terrence Deacon comes to mind. Deacon emphasizes the way the development of symbolic modes of thought over the last two million years has driven brain development and demonstrates the virtues of a broad, interdisciplinary approach to questions of language, information and human cognition. He sees language as a kind of technology which draws on both procedural and episodic memory. Like Christof Koch, Deacon started out as a physicist but has spent most of his career dealing with human cognition. He draws on a wide range of thinkers (including C.S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure). (7)

Alex Rosenberg embodies, as I see it, a strangely limited and out-of-date view of science. If I were a conspiracy theorist I might be tempted to think that his overt support for scientism is carefully devised to discredit the position.


  1. In April last year I started a WordPress site but my two Blogger sites, Conservative Tendency and Language, Life and Logic (started respectively nine and seven years ago), have – despite my neglecting them for long periods of time – outperformed the new one. Consequently, for the time being at least, Language, Life and Logic will be my main personal site.
  2. (Owen Flanagan talks with Alex Rosenberg.)
  3. (John Horgan talks with Christof Koch.)
  4. (Public lecture by Carlo Rovelli on the physics and philosophy of time.)
  5. (Video clip of Alexander Vilenkin discussing how a universe might arise from nothing in which he alludes to his commitment to a form of Platonism concerning the laws of physics.)
  6. (Rosenberg’s false claim about Gödel’s Theorem is made at about the 42 minute mark; Carroll corrects him a minute later.)
  7. I may talk about Deacon’s work in a future post.


17 responses to “Science, Knowledge and Consciousness”

  1. Mark, this is really good stuff. That I disagree with some of it is beside the point. It gives a nice survey of your “orientation,” for lack of a better word, and that is most welcome. Yours is an interesting and distinctive point of view. And I appreciate your intellectual honesty. You could easily make common cause with a guy like Rosenberg, but instead are unflinchingly straight-up — and correct — about his significant shortcomings as a thinker.

    A few specific points:

    1. Re: “other than The Electric Agora, which I expect to continue writing for,” all I can say is “Yay!!”

    2. Funny you should mention both Flanagan and Rosenberg. Massimo, Skye Cleary, and I have a book coming out on Penguin/RandomHouse on “philosophies of life,” in which Flanagan is featured on Buddhism. Rosenberg was also supposed to be in the book, but pulled out noisily, because he refused to be edited. Here’s the notice in Publisher’s Weekly.

    3. Finally, this is exactly right: “Formal and other constructed systems as well as natural language are obviously encoded in individual brains, but they transcend individual brains both in terms of their origins and in terms of the way they work. The crucial point is that they arise within particular socio-cultural contexts and can only continue to exist within a socio-cultural matrix of some kind. “

  2. You wrote, “At any rate, I have the conviction that we learn about the world by observation, reasoning and experiment.”

    Where does reason come from? How do you know that ‘A is A’ is true?

  3. ontologicalrealist

    I am alluding here to basic kinds of reasoning (inductive, deductive, etc.). Obviously direct observation/perception only takes you so far. Even birds and animals reason in a practical way (counting, for example, to keep track of prey). I see science (and mathematics) as building on these basic processes and activities.

    Sure, once you have mathematics and formal logic, all sorts of metaphysical questions come up (about the nature of mathematics or the status of different logical systems, etc.). But for scientific enquiry to proceed it is — more often than not — unnecessary to come to conclusions on such matters. (On the truth or plausibility of mathematical Platonism, for example.)

    Also (and this is crucial to the way I think about these matters) there is an intimate relationship between logic and natural language. Basic principles of logic are built into natural language such that mastering them is a prerequisite for normal speech and communication.

  4. davidlduffy

    A great read.

    Personally, I dislike having to troll through hours of video, especially since I don’t necessarily believe that people always think that well on the fly. So Rosenberg on intentionality in this paper:
    comes across as following a principled argument, which as he finishes up eliminating intention is left with just as severe problems with truth and meaning – of theories such as intention eliminativism itself as well as representational content generally.

    Which segues to Deacon. Deacon seems to think the current interest by physicists in information misses the point wrt life and mind, since they concentrate on energy costs/constraints of computation (eg Landauer limits) rather than the referential content itself. But Deacon’s interest in generalizing thermodynamics is paralleled by many recent papers eg (a thesis of one of Renner’s students)
    which has chapters on stuff like “A framework for subjective knowledge in resource theories [of quantum mechanics]”.
    And when you see IIT not just as a theory of consciousness but as an attempt to quantify complexity of dynamic systems, we come back to traditional concerns of cybernetics (requisite variety etc).

    Anyway, back to the mice…

  5. Mark,
    I agree with Dan’s remark here.

    I do have one important caveat here. “I agree with him (Rosenberg) that the facts of history (“the dots”, as he puts it) may be discovered and rigorously described, but value-based narratives (“connecting the dots”) inevitably go far beyond the scope of strict scholarship.” The modern study of history begins with implicitly political agendas. Hume and Voltaire clearly have axes to grind. I think narrative, however tainted with bias, is the only way we make sense of history. Simple listing of “facts” tell us nothing. ‘On January 30, 1649, Charles the First was executed.’ – All right, so what, who cares? Who is this Charles tyhe First and why does he matter to us?

    I find the whole notion that history is a ‘human science’ to be perfectly absurd. I much prefer competing narratives of history that implicate the importance of historical formations to the present day. Of course I expect proper research in original documents or previous opinion. but primarily I expect a strong narrative that connects the past with the present. Otherwise, what good is it, and why should anyone care?

    I could be wrong, but I suspect you want there to be a ‘fact’ of history. There is no such thing. Historical evidence and documents must always be interpreted.

    There are no ‘dots,’ no atomic facts of history. There is only the sludge filled stream of events which we order to our perceived needs in the present.

  6. ej

    “I could be wrong, but I suspect you want there to be a ‘fact’ of history. There is no such thing. Historical evidence and documents must always be interpreted.”

    Of course they must, but ‘interpret’ has many meanings: there exist very different kinds and levels of interpretation. The sorts of narratives to which you allude (“the sludge filled stream of events which we order to our perceived needs in the present”) are not concerned with knowledge in the sense I am using the term.

    I prefer to focus on primary sources, on understanding the evidence which has come down to us. This is a holistic process. You immerse yourself in a particular period. And inevitably it involves the creation of ad hoc narratives because this is how our brains work. But it matters to me that we distinguish the sorts of narratives to which you refer from the (broadly) scientific quest for knowledge and understanding.

  7. alandtapper1950

    Thanks Mark, this sort of survey is valuable to me at least. I wouldn’t otherwise know about these authors. Deacon sounds of particular interest.

    You’re the only person I know who wears the label “scientistic” with pride! I puzzle about what it means.


  8. ‘Scientism’ typically is construed as the view that all questions that are worth asking are ultimately scientific questions. Massimo and I did a dialogue on it on my program over at MeaningofLife.TV. When i at my computer i will link to it.

  9. Here you go, Alan. My dialogue with Massimo on Scientism.

  10. alandtapper1950

    Thanks. Off the top of my head I see scientism as having three components.

    1. The only questions worth asking are empirical questions.

    2. Religion and metaphysics cannot be dealt with empirically and so are not valid disciplines.

    3. Morality is important but is essentially a matter of preferences and emotions, not reason.

    I’ll watch your program and see how close I got.

  11. alandtapper1950

    Regarding what to call a “scientismist”, I suggest “positivist”. Not sure if Mark would call himself a positivist.

  12. Alan

    Only empirical questions? Mathematics and logic are not empirical but are often incorporated into so-called scientistic points of view.

    Off the top of *my* head, here are a few more thoughts.

    In the OP I noted that the term ‘scientistic’ is used in different ways. In the Kaufman/Pigliucci dialogue which Dan linked to, reference was made to a Scientia Salon article which specified 26 different meanings.

    As I understand it, ‘scientism’ referred originally to the (obviously) inappropriate use of scientific (or science-like or pseudoscientific) methods, e.g. the application of such methods to areas like normative ethics. I strongly reject scientism in this sense.

    I have also emphasized the pitfalls of polysemy. So often philosophical discourse involves imperceptibly sliding from one meaning of a term to another. I talked about the essential vagueness of most philosophical terms and criticized the tendency of philosophers to imagine that philosophical terms can be made precise in the way scientific or mathematical terms can be made precise. This tendency can in fact be seen as a form of scientism (which I do not endorse).

    But the term has come to be applied to the views of those whose only sin is to have a high regard for science and who question the worth and validity of certain kinds of discourse (like theology, for example). Massimo talks about the way religious thinkers insist on “other ways of knowing” and use the term ‘scientistic’ to label those who reject these purported ways of knowing.

    I talked in the OP about the place of intuitions (important in practical life and for theoretical conjectures, but they need to be tested using rigorous scientific or scholarly methods if they are to be incorporated into our body of scientific and scholarly-historical knowledge). If this view is scientism, I happily embrace the label. But, given the confusion it causes, we would probably be better off without the term.

  13. alandtapper1950

    Thanks Mark, good comments. You’re right, “empiricism” is too narrow for your sort of view. Massimo and Dan took “scientism” to be equivalent to physicalist reductionism, which would mislead as much as my reference to empiricism.

  14. I completely disagree. I think we got scientism pretty much right. And it is not equivalent with physicalistic reductionism. It entails it.

  15. alandtapper1950

    I was surprised that your discussion went straight to physicalism and reductionism. So I failed to pick up the preceding step, from which physicalist reduction is entailed. I would agree that there should be a preceding level of argument, an epistemological level. Otherwise one can’t derive points 2 and 3 of my 3-part summary, or anything like them.

  16. We actually did an earlier dialogue that sort of served as a part one, but it was before the creation of the MOLTV channel, which our program inaugurated. If you go to the main BloggingHeads site and search for my name you will find it.