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Stop saying "science doesn't understand consciousness"

By: Mike Gashler

Would it be honest to say "Science doesn't know the shape of the Earth"? Well, at some technical level this is certainly true. After all, we don't yet have the shape of the Earth mapped down to the millimeter level.

If we ever did map the shape of the Earth down to the millimeter level, the model would be invalidated as soon as someone made a footprint, kicked a rock, or overturned a shovel-full of dirt somewhere. So no, we don't completely understand the shape of the Earth. ...therefore, as far as we know, the Earth just might be flat! (Right?)

Figure 1: This is a Photoshop-job. The Earth is not flat.

No! We have an overwhelming amount of evidence directing our knowledge about the general shape of the Earth. ...and it's approximately round, not flat. Of course, some smart-alec will always say, "actually it's an oblate spheroid". And that's more-true, but it still doesn't tell the whole truth about the shape of the Earth. The whole truth is not yet known, but plenty of it is certainly available. We don't have to know the shape of the Earth at the millimeter level to know that the flat Earth hypothesis is wrong. And to say, "science doesn't know know the shape of the Earth", gives dignity to ignorance.

As with the flat-Earth nonsense, there is a dominating reason people keep saying, "science doesn't understand consciousness". And we have allowed them to repeat this technically-true lie so many times that much of the general public has started to imagine that science has absolutely no idea what causes consciousness. And that blatant misrepresentation of reality is why the statement has grown to become an outright lie. Science really knows a great deal about consciousness.

Let's just briefly mention a few major points of discussion on topic:

  • There is a whole branch of science called neuroscience. Neuroscientists spend their lives studying the brain. No, they don't just sit around publishing baseless hypotheses. They do actual experiments and obtain actual results. And these experiments have led to a large body of verifiable knowledge about how the brain works.
  • Brain activity is directly measurable. I happen to have an electro-encephalograpy device in my lab. (I am not a neuroscientist, but I build brain-inspired computer models. And yes, they work.) My students have collected lots of data by monitoring the brain activity of 25 other students. This is real stuff. We can really discern unspoken thoughts that occur in peoples' heads.
  • Neuroscientists can (and do) analyze the activations of individual neurons. And they respond deterministically to the input stimulus they receive. This contradicts the hypothesis that the brain is a complex control-paddle for a supernatural spirit that controls the body. If that hypothesis were valid, then we would find neurons that behave as if they had minds of their own.
  • The hypothesis that spirits direct our bodies with small and gentle influences that fall under the radar of science's detection doesn't stand up to scrutiny either. Our brains have approximately 100 billion neurons for a reason: Your individual identity is a complex matter, and it takes a lot of information to form your mind. If hypothetical spirits only provided a tiny amount of information, then the majority of your identity would still be in your brain--the organ that rapidly decomposes when you die.
  • Numerous consciousness-altering phenomena are well-studied and well-understood. For example, you are not conscious when you sleep. This is not a great mystery to science. Sleep reduces the activity of neurons in specific regions of the brain that perform specific and known roles in your consciousness. Many mind-altering drugs also affect consciousness. Anesthesiologists don't just screw around with recreational drugs. They have real knowledge about which parts of your mind can be shut down to suppress consciousness without killing you.
  • Computer models already perform many of the components of consciousness. Contrary to the supposition that subjective experiences are a mystery, unsupervised learning methods create subjective representations of their observations. And reinforcement learning agents sometimes exhibit a great number of the behaviors that we point to in conscious creatures. Genuine cognition does occur in artificial intelligence, and the only real factor stopping us from calling them "conscious" is the fact that this term is too squishy to defend formally. But it is just as (and arguably even more) fallacious to say that artificially intelligent machines are not conscious.
  • Anecdotal near-death experiences and miracle stories have an abysmal record of turning out to be better-explained by confirmation bias and/or a strong desire for the story-teller to be persuasive. In general, it should be a big red flag when people try to cite rumors or conspiracy theories to dismiss entire branches of well-studied science. But despite a very long history and a huge number of people with strong motivations to prove their religious positions, no supernatural hypothesis has successfully established itself as a valid position for scientists to investigate.

The strongest defense that people have when they say "science doesn't understand consciousness" is to point out that consciousness itself is not a well-defined term. In that sense it would also be correct to say, "science doesn't understand smoopy-warble-dingey-ness either". But consciousness is not a nonsense concept that conveys no real meaning. It is a real thing that you and I do in our minds.

...and here's the clincher: To every extent that consciousness is formally defined, science has found those functions in the brain, and has reproduced them in artificial machines too.

So if anyone tells you that science doesn't understand consciousness, you can safely tell them that is a lie. Sure, science doesn't know the answers to questions that people cannot quite figure out how to ask. Sure, science doesn't know how to build machines that are human-like in every extent. But it's getting darn close. And it has exceeded human abilities in many respects. It knows a great deal about consciousness. And it is absolutely clear at this point that consciousness is the product of the brain, and not of supernatural spirits. So please, stop bending over to accommodate superstitious nonsense when you talk about what science does not yet know.