Alan Roebuck and the material nature of consciousness

I’m grateful to Alan Roebuck’s continued contributions to our comments area, because he is providing us with such a wealth of material to work with.

For instance, consider this quote.

There is at least one non-physical thing that you know exists: Your consciousness. Don’t say “Consciousness is caused only by the functioning of brain cells.” Even if that were true, consciousness itself, the thing you experience, is obviously not brain cells, nor is it functioning of brain cells. Your consciousness does not have weight or a chemical makeup, so consciousness does not equal brain cells. And your consciousness cannot be measured in volts and amps, so consciousness does not equal brain cell activity. Your consciousness is an irreducible thing, and non-material.

So at least one non-material thing exists. (Technically, I’m claiming it’s a “substance,” that is, something that exists in and of itself, and not as a property of something else.) Therefore other non-material things may exist.

This is something we can work with. This is a claim that can be examined in the light of the real world and tested for consistency with objective fact. This is good stuff.

There are a couple of things about this that strike me as just a bit ironic. Notice first of all that Prof. Roebuck’s point seems to make some naive assumptions about what materialism ought to be. He seems to think that a materialist has to be dogmatically committed to the idea that only physical things, only things made out of matter, can be real. “Aha!” he thinks, “I’ll just cite an example of something real that is not made out of matter, and their whole house of cards will come tumbling down.”

And in fairness, I have actually met a few people who do indeed insist that only the things which are made of matter are real. But this is not materialism.  Materialism is belief in material reality, which consists not only of matter itself, but also of the properties and processes of matter. Matter has real properties, like mass, location, color, and so on, but these properties are not themselves made of matter. Space and time are not made of matter either, yet they are properties of the material universe, and as such are material properties.

Likewise matter undergoes certain processes which change its characteristics, and these processes are real processes. The actual process is not made of matter itself, but is a change in state over time. (In fact if you look at time as being merely one more dimension in which things exist, “process” is merely a type of property, a pattern that manifests itself along the time axis instead of along some other axis.)

The properties and processes of matter are what secular scientists study. There is no scientific bias against studying things that are not themselves made out of matter, and in fact one of the chief goals of science is to understand the properties and processes. Such things are the domain of materialistic science, because the properties and processes of matter are necessarily material properties and processes. “Material” does not mean “only what is made out of matter.”

The second ironic thing about his claim is that, of all the examples he could have picked, consciousness is one of the worst, as far as his argument is concerned. Consciousness is very obviously a material process, otherwise physical substances like ethanol would not be able to interfere with it. If it were a supernatural, immaterial “substance,” as in “something that exists in and of itself,” mere physical chemistry would not harm it. Yet we lose consciousness every time we fall asleep, or have too much to drink, or are anesthetized for surgery (as I can vouch from recent experience). Consciousness is something that very clearly comes and goes, depending on our level of physical brain function.

This, of course, is 100% what we would expect to find in a phenomenon that was a material property/process of brain matter, and it stands in stark contrast to what we ought to expect from an immaterial consciousness that existed in and of itself. Prof. Roebuck has a followup in a later comment, though.

If you cannot acknowledge that your own consciousness is real, that it is a substance, that it is not just an epiphenomenon, then there is no point in our continuing any conversation. Since your consciousness basically IS you, to deny the reality of your consciousness is to deny the reality of yourself.

However he himself immediately refutes his own claim in the very next paragraph.

If consciousness is a process, then it is the process by which we are made aware of ourselves. When we are unconscious, we may be unaware of ourselves, but our selves must still exist, because otherwise we would not exist. Either way, our selves, which obviously exist as substances and not as epiphenomena, are not material.

Consciousness does not exist when we are unconscious. That’s what “unconscious” means: no consciousness. So either he ought to say that we cease to exist when we are unconscious, or else he ought to admit that “self” and “consciousness” are not the same thing at all. Consciousness is an aspect of our material self, as is our material body. We continue to exist even when unconscious because of the physical continuity of our bodies and our biological brain processes, which maintain memories and personality and such even across episodes of unconsciousness.

Prof. Roebuck may wish to believe that the self exists as an immaterial substance in and of itself. The patterns we see in the real world evidence, however, are far more consistent with the conclusion that “self” is a perceptual artifact of material and biological processes occurring in the brain. Self, and consciousness, are real, but they are real precisely because they are material–not in the sense that they are made out of matter, but because they are the processes and properties of matter.

He continues in another comment.

The failure of materialism to produce a generally agreed upon mechanism or description of consciousness should point you to a reality that is difficult to impress upon those who don’t want to acknowledge it: matter cannot account for all of reality, therefore materialism is false.

It’s true that neither materialism nor anti-materialism have produced a generally agreed upon mechanism for consciousness, but in all fairness it should be conceded that materialistic science has made orders of magnitude more progress on that front than any of the anti-materialistists have. Anti-materialistic attempts at describing consciousness end up merely attributing consciousness to ineffable supernatural agencies, without being able to show any connection to those agencies or even to explain what those connections could be if we could observe them. This, of course, is mere superstition, not explanation.

Meanwhile, on the materialistic side, there is a huge body of scientific evidence for the material nature of consciousness–evidence that Prof. Roebuck appears to dismiss without reading. (Let’s see, what was his original complaint again?) He waves his hands and tries to cloud the issue, but fails. (The square brackets in the quote below are his.)

There is no reason (other than an assumption of materialism) to believe that consciousness is material. It is influenced by and correlated with material brain states, but it is not the same thing as material. We do not experience our conscious selves as being material. We cannot measure consciousness, and measurement is the sine qua non of a material property. [What would be the unit of consciousness, and how would you compare your consciousness with it to see how many units your consciousness contains?] And consciousness is not just a material process, because material processes also have physically measurable characteristics and consciousness cannot be measured.

Therefore it is unreasonable to insist that consciousness is ultimately nothing but material.

So he realizes and admits that there is a direct and measurable correlation between physical brain states and consciousness, yet he arbitrarily dismisses this as “not the same thing as material.” Yet this is exactly what we should be seeing if consciousness were a material process! And it stands in stark contrast to what we should be seeing if consciousness existed as something independent of physical brain states: if it’s truly independent, then our measurements ought to show this independence. And they don’t. But Prof. Roebuck dismisses it anyway.

From there, he seems to turn to an almost New Age-y woo about how “we do not experience our conscious selves as being material.” Say what? Speaking as someone who currently has umpteen stitches in his belly, I can assure you I’m very much experiencing my conscious self as being material! Them suckers is real, they’re in me, and I’m all too conscious of them. A rather important part of my conscious experience of self is an awareness of the full extent of myself throughout my whole body.

Then he turns to the rather bizarre idea that we cannot measure consciousness, which is sure to befuddle any geriatric nurse who may be reading, since they routinely assess level of consciousness on their patients. Granted, consciousness is a more complicated process than some, and does not lend itself to some kind of unit-based numbering system, but then again the flame of a candle is a material process, and we don’t use units of “flaminess” to measure the process either. We can measure the heat, and the brightness, but not the flame itself. Yet, notice, we do not conclude that “flame” must be an immaterial entity that exists in and of itself and therefore persists after the candle is blown out.

Likewise, and contrary to Prof. Roebuck, we routinely measure consciousness on a relative scale that ranges from “unconscious” through “confused” to “fully conscious and aware of self and surroundings.” Like I said, nurses do this sort of measurement all the time, using a standardized set of assessment tools. Even being able to tell the difference between “conscious” and “unconscious” is a form of measurement, albeit a binary one. And if you feigned unconsciousness, a EEG would betray your actual brain-wave activity, in measurable units.

I think Prof. Roebuck is just telling us how biased he is in favor of the idea that the conscious self must have independent existence, in order to survive physical death. He dismisses any evidence to the contrary, and declares that consciousness is “obviously” independent–despite lacking any verifiable, objective evidence of this–because this is what he wants to be true. He can try and put the shoe on the other foot, and make it sound like unbelievers are making assumptions and denying the evidence, but the shoe’s a much better fit for his own foot.

9 Responses to “Alan Roebuck and the material nature of consciousness”

  1. kurmujjin Says:

    Deacon,

    What about the idea that the material body/mind is a conduit for expression of being? In other words, might the way we measure consciousness (present or absent, whole impaired) be a symptom or effect of the ability of a body to express being as opposed to generating it? We seem to measure correlations, but not cause/effect.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi kurmujjin,

    I’ve heard this idea expressed in terms of the body being like a radio, and the soul, or consciousness, being the signal from the broadcasting station. But there are many problems with this proposal, including the fact that it is completely unnecessary. Consciousness is a phenomenon that extends throughout the animal kingdom, and is an extension of awareness, which is an extension of elementary stimulus-response mechanisms. While it’s a very complex extension of that chain of neurological processes, consciousness fits that pattern quite cleanly, and requires no additional, external agency in order to see how it might arise.

    Another problem is that if we did have an external source for consciousness, then by definition that external source would continue to function whether the receiver (i.e. the body) were functioning or not. We can thus differentiate between what’s part of the body and what’s part of the external source, simply by observing what continues to function during complete unconsciousness, and what does not.

    A simple review of the facts will show that perception, memory, thought, emotion, will, desire, bias, aptitudes–in short, all known mental and psychological function, belong to the “bodily phenomenon” category, leaving nothing for us to put down on the “external source” side. We can propose some external source for consciousness, but consciousness itself does not reside in that external source, it resides in the body. Indeed, no function that we can identify would reside in that external source. (Contrast this with Bible stories and other superstitious accounts where the external source is credited with having consciousness, perception, memory, personality, and will.)

    Again, supposing there were some external source for consciousness. What connection would it have with the physical body? How would it make that connection? And more importantly, WHY would it make any connection at all? If consciousness does not develop as an emergent property during physical neurological development, then where, when, and how would it begin? And why would its beginning be tied to the development of a physical body it’s allegedly independent of?

    The “external source” idea is a perfect example of a superstition: it tries to attribute an observed natural phenomenon to some magical, unverifiable source, even though no connection between the two can be documented or even described.

    • Tacroy Says:

      Also, evolution is amazingly good at leveraging pretty much any advantage it can grab. The process of turning sunlight and carbon and oxygen and hydrogen into sugar inside of chlorophyll is currently thought to involve kind of the same sort of quantum tunneling we use in modern solid state storage, for instance.

      If the brain was really only a radio receiver for the soul, then you would expect nature to have leveraged that like crazy – especially when you take into account the fact that brains are incredibly expensive in metabolic terms. Not only do you have to feed them a ridiculous amount of calories, they’re heavy and you have to spend your entire life dragging one around.

      Now just imagine for a moment – some ancient creature develops a means to tap in to the soul. This creature has some set of tissues that allow it to have consciousness using a supernatural source, which doesn’t need to be carried around and which doesn’t need feeding; presumably, all you need to do is provide enough power to the necessary tissues to talk to the soul in its supernatural realm, and it does the thinking for you.

      This new animal now has a significant evolutionary advantage over every other animal on the planet – it can think way more efficiently than the rest of them, and at near-zero cost (relatively speaking). We would expect that the genes of such an animal would inevitably outcompete everything else on the planet, leading to wide-spread adoption of the soul gene in, well, every niche.

      A side effect of this that we would expect to see is that every creature that thinks would do so with the same, minimal set of tissues – after all, if all you’re doing is talking to the soul and relaying its commands, you don’t need a massive chunk of flesh; all you’d need is the communication equipment, plus some means of relaying it around the body. We would expect to see, in every “ensouled” brain, a relatively simple system wherein inputs (senses) and outputs (motor control) are all hooked up directly to some sort of transceiver tissue, with all computation and “thinking” happening in the supernatural realm.

      Basically, it’s like this: if souls existed and the brain is nothing more than a way of talking to them, we would expect our brains to be nothing more than a little head-held radio we use to talk to the soul. Instead, when we peer into the brain, we find that in fact we’re carrying around an entire orchestra in there, and as far as we can tell nobody in the orchestra is carrying a radio.

      Also, I’m sure that nature would find all sorts of use for fun things like having multiple animals share the same soul – bees wouldn’t need to dance, after all, if they all literally shared the same mind.

  3. Alan Roebuck Says:

    Although I have been referring to consciousness, I am really referring to the soul. It is the human soul, properly speaking, that is a non-material substance. I chose to refer to consciousness because it is the most immediately obvious and personal aspect of the soul. Mind is one aspect of soul, and consciousness is one aspect of mind. And your mind [soul] IS you.

    Although consciousness may in some sense cease to exist when you are unconscious, it is absurd to say that you then cease to exist. Regardless of what happens when we are unconscious, materialism cannot account for the existence of the human mind. Since mind is a different sort of thing than matter, all the materialist can say is “Mind somehow automatically occurs when matter behaves in such-and-such a way, therefore mind is ultimately a result of matter” But this is an evasion. Mind [soul] is not a property of matter, or a result of matter.

    Mind is you. You cannot be reduced to matter. You are a substance—a thing that exists in and of itself, not as a property or aspect of something else. You are not like mass or velocity or heat or entropy or electric charge or magnetic field or any of the other aspects of matter that occur mindlessly according to (perhaps not yet discovered) natural law. If you cannot grasp this point by intuition (as all basic truths are), then there can be no real communication between us, at least on this issue.

    And there are many other things that obviously exist but cannot be accounted for under materialism. Mind is just the most personal and the most immediately obvious of these things.

    When I said to another commenter “You’re making it too complicated,” I really meant “You’re trying to evade reality.” The real existence of your mind is obvious to you, as it is obvious to everybody, and any philosophical term, argument or system that is used to question the mind’s real existence as a substance—i.e.as a thing in and of itself—is being used to evade reality, however clever or persuasive the argument may seem. And the evasion is philosophically based on materialism: the unwarranted assumption that mind as a substance cannot exist because matter is all that is real.

    You said,

    “Consciousness is very obviously a material process, otherwise physical substances like ethanol would not be able to interfere with it.”

    This is a major mistake. That the mind is affected by matter does not prove that it is nothing but matter. As an analogy, the condition of a car affects the way a driver drives, but the car is not the driver.

    Just for the record, I did say that mind is affected by matter. It is profoundly connected to matter. But it is not the same thing as matter or a material property or process.

    • jaredcormier Says:

      Although I have been referring to consciousness, I am really referring to the soul.

      We know…

      It is the human soul, properly speaking, that is a non-material substance. I chose to refer to consciousness because it is the most immediately obvious and personal aspect of the soul.

      But the physical nature of perception and “consciousness” is evidence against a non-material soul. That is: all aspects of our perception and behavior are clearly and definitively manifestations of neurochemical processes of the brain. Ergo, the ghost in the machine either a) doesn’t do anything or b) isn’t there to begin with…

      Mind is one aspect of soul, and consciousness is one aspect of mind. And your mind [soul] IS you.

      So, by mind, you mean memories, experiences, and the unique “you-ness” and by consciousness, you mean “perception.” Both of these are influenced by the underlying neurological architecture of the brain, the regulation of genes, the electrochemical signals, and the responses to these.

      Although consciousness may in some sense cease to exist when you are unconscious, it is absurd to say that you then cease to exist.

      I agree, but this is part of the underlying physiological changes involved in long term potentiation and neuroplastic changes. Experiences, memories, the “you-ness” of the mind, is a physical change in the brain. Perceptions may cause long term potentiation thresholds of individual neurons to change, altering the pathways for “long term” (I won’t go so far as to say “permanent” since there are generally multiple paths to the same outcome).

      Regardless of what happens when we are unconscious, materialism cannot account for the existence of the human mind.

      So, we account for perceptual consciousness, and now you switch to the “mind.” We account for the “mind” and you’ll say “soul.” Do you see the moving goalposts?

      Since mind is a different sort of thing than matter, all the materialist can say is “Mind somehow automatically occurs when matter behaves in such-and-such a way, therefore mind is ultimately a result of matter”

      You forgot the parts experiments involving individuals that have experienced trauma or tumors in specific regions of the brain which alter specific parts of their behaviors. You forgot about the parts about chemical alterations to self-perception, the parts about how neuroscience has peered into the minds of individuals, predicting what a person’s political, sexual, emotional, and even mathematical opinions are based upon fMRI scans. The “mathematical” part is, of course, in response to fMRIs being used to detect what number a person is thinking about.

      But this is an evasion. Mind [soul] is not a property of matter, or a result of matter.

      And we’re back to the “because you say so” part of the argument.

      Mind is you. You cannot be reduced to matter. You are a substance—a thing that exists in and of itself, not as a property or aspect of something else.

      So what you’re saying is that if I, or anyone, suffers some form of neurological trauma, altering his or her behavior (perhaps permanently, perhaps not) then said individual would then be a different person, or does the fact that the trauma altered that person make it the same person, just “damaged” in some way? Experiences alter one’s behavior, do experiences make the individual a different person?

      You are not like mass or velocity or heat or entropy or electric charge or magnetic field or any of the other aspects of matter that occur mindlessly according to (perhaps not yet discovered) natural law.

      You’re doing false dichotomy, straw man, and a reductio ad absurdum argument all in one, and while it may work for some that don’t have at least a cursory understanding of neurology, it won’t work here.

      If you cannot grasp this point by intuition (as all basic truths are),

      Like the Earth is flat, water doesn’t rise, the force of gravity is the same everywhere on Earth, etc?

      then there can be no real communication between us, at least on this issue.

      I dismiss the notion that intuition is a form of proof since it is wrong so many times. This may just be a result of my experiences with the subject and the subsequent neurological alterations associated with learning these things or it may be my soul. (Hint: it’s the first one)

      And there are many other things that obviously exist but cannot be accounted for under materialism.

      You’ve given me two supposed examples, neither of which are very good.

      Mind is just the most personal and the most immediately obvious of these things.

      “Immediately obvious” and “correct” are not synonymous.

      When I said to another commenter “You’re making it too complicated,” I really meant “You’re trying to evade reality.”

      Then why not say so? Reality isn’t simple, and evading reality isn’t necessarily a way to avoid simplicity.

      The real existence of your mind is obvious to you, as it is obvious to everybody, and any philosophical term, argument or system that is used to question the mind’s real existence as a substance—i.e.as a thing in and of itself—is being used to evade reality,

      I like my word soup with a bit more tomato sauce and paprika…

      however clever or persuasive the argument may seem. And the evasion is philosophically based on materialism: the unwarranted assumption that mind as a substance cannot exist because matter is all that is real.

      You said,

      “Consciousness is very obviously a material process, otherwise physical substances like ethanol would not be able to interfere with it.”

      This is a major mistake. That the mind is affected by matter does not prove that it is nothing but matter. As an analogy, the condition of a car affects the way a driver drives, but the car is not the driver.

      Yes, but we can always see the driver when we look, we can’t see a soul or the steering wheel, pedals, or gauge cluster, or the little radio the soul uses to control our body via remote. We’ve looked, it’s not there, just millions and millions of neurons interacting in very complex ways.

      Just for the record, I did say that mind is affected by matter. It is profoundly connected to matter.

      Yes, but you took the “brain as an antenna” angle, which I find it an interesting theological idea, but not really all that convincing; the foremost problem with this concept lies how signal propagation follows thoughts and not just actions.

      But it is not the same thing as matter or a material property or process.

      Any evidence for this? Any way to refute the numerous studies out there demonstrating the material basis of both perception and self?

      Please be specific; you’re trying to refute years of scientific studies here.

  4. Naked Ape Says:

    It seems rather obvious that ‘the mind’ is not the same thing as the brain.

    How do you know that the mind is not a material property or process of the brain?

    Do you have proof for this claim, or is it just a feeling that you have?

  5. Paul Says:

    Although I have been referring to consciousness, I am really referring to the soul.

    I know nothing of this “soul”. What is it? Seems to me you are asserting that a “soul” – whatever that is – exists and then using in your argument? That seems viciously circular (begging the question) to me.

  6. Brian M Says:

    Hey all…interesting discussion of “the mind” from a different perspective (i.e., the science fiction trope of minds downloadable into machines (Iain M. Banks’ “The Culture” novels’s conceit)

    (I crossreference your discussion there)

    http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=4761

  7. inquisitiveraven Says:

    Heck, religious experiences and out-of-body experiences can both be traced to particular parts of the brain.


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