Using “Consciousness” in monist/physicalist thought makes no sense

I thought I might publish this little note that I wrote a little while ago on “consciousness” being combined with apparently monist/physicalist/materialist thought.

The modern concept of Consciousness is an idea that was originally derived from Descartes and his famous cogito ergo sum, focus on reflexive thought, and separation of the subject and the object, of the mental and the physical. Doubting anything beyond one’s own thought leads to the idea of a bodyless thinker, a “consciousness”. Descartes solidified a changing view of the word “conscious”, altering a Latin meaning of the word that was closer to a general sense of “knowing”, and changing it into an object or entity that was involved in reflexive thought. Though several variations exist Descartes’ reasoning is typical of Dualist thought generally.

Since then no clear or widely accepted definition of Consciousness has arisen (the first paragraph here is a good illustration of the many alternatives), but it can still be argued that the use of consciousness makes sense in a Dualist framework, where the doubt of everything but one’s own thoughts seems to imply a metaphysical entity that must exist to “do the thinking”. In other words, consciousness makes sense in a Dualist world.

In contrast to Dualist thought stands Monism and Physicalism. They reject the idea that the world is divided into two substances. Monism asserts there must be only one substance, and physicalism asserts that subject is material or physical. Physicalist thought starts not with the self, but general observations of the world, including people. The self is usually established afterwards as one instance of the category of people or humans. We observe human behaviour, and with modern technology, we also observe the brain and postulate it as an explanation for the behaviours. Consciousness never comes into the equation for a Physicalist.

Now it would be very strange and totally unjustified for a Monist or a Physicalist to start using a Dualist concept with a Dualist justification. Yet this occurs in the discussions of prominent Monist scientists using the word “Consciousness” when they are discussing fields such as neuroscience or AI development. Claims that they have “found consciousness in the brain” or that “consciousness is an emergent property” of, say, certain neural networks are commonly accepted without any philosophical questioning. For example Rodolfo Llinás talks about Consciousness and subjectivity (Dualist concepts) as a physical process in the brain (asserting Physicalism).

When Monist scientists talk about Consciousness, they are deeply confused about their philosophical positions. A philosophical Physicalist doesn’t look for physical explanations of Consciousness, he or she asserts that Consciousness is a Dualist concept and has no place in their Physicalist worldview. They assert there is no such thing as mind, as subjectivity, as Consciousness. A Dualist rejects this, and asserts that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. To mix and match Dualist and Monist concepts is deeply confused, even when the person doing it is a brilliant neuroscientist or researcher.

The debate between Dualism and Monism will continue, but both camps can agree that the other’s concepts are centuries-old tested philosophical systems and that mix-and-matching shows an unfortunate intellectual confusion.


  1. Mend it, don’t end it. With any luck, as anesthesiology and the study of sleep and the neuroscience of perception progress, we will invent (presumably many) more specific definitions for varieties of consciousness.

    1. I think its worth considering, though, whether a system of thought is justified in hanging on to a concept that lies at the heart of another system of thought it claims to fundamentally oppose. Ask yourself, what does consciousness causally explain? How could someone falsify an idea like “consciousness”? What if an explanation for affairs was given in which it was not required? Would belief be justified? These seem like important questions for a Physicalist to be asking.

      1. Hey ciizensearth,
        Sorry I missed this; hope it’s OK to reply way after the fact. I would submit that neuropsychologists who take consciousness seriously are well on their way to answering all of your questions, directly or indirectly. I can round up a few references later.

        As for systems of thought that are opposed: I would suppose that arch-conservatism has “we should not wantonly kill each other” as one of the principles at its heart. As a liberal, I definitely have no desire to reject that principle! Your advice is just really bad.

      2. Replies are always welcome whenever they arrive.

        I feel those questions are essentially philosophical. The problem to my thinking is that by “mending” they’re essentially retaining the confused philosophy, even if they are trying to align it with empirical evidence. It’s like studying lightning and saying you’re improving your knowledge of Thor’s spear. It’s not lack of evidence that is the problem, it’s that you’re using concepts that don’t logically arise from the evidence. The evidence will never disprove your conceptual approach – the problem is logical not empirical.

        “As a liberal, I definitely have no desire to reject that principle! Your advice is just really bad.”

        This part confused me. What advice? I take it the politics is an analogy? I don’t think this is very similar to politics.

        Consider it this way – physicalists don’t derive their conceptual framework from non-physical concepts (first-person concepts don’t exist in a physical location). Their conceptual understanding of their own thought is based on objects observed in emprical neuroscience. Ie. “my thoughts are really my brain interacting with itself”. So you look at the evidence without concepts and induct your concepts from what you see. A physicalist using consciousness is doing the opposite – deducing the physical location of preconvceived, non-physical concepts. Sure the evidence is physical, but the concept comes from the non-physical realm. Just like lightning and Thor’s spear.

      3. I don’t know how I miss these replies. Maybe I forgot to check the “notify me by email” box last time. Anyhow…

        I just don’t agree that consciousness is a “non-physical concept” in the overly strong sense you seem to intend. Rather, “consciousness,” like “life” before the discovery of DNA etc., is an open-ended concept. It’s not specified as physical, and it’s not specified as non-physical. Everyone has their theories, which, until relatively recently in our language’s history, were highly speculative.

      4. That sounds possible. I don’t think I can adjust that setting for you, and I’m a bit tempted to just encourage you to visit often 🙂 Your comments are always good. Are you planning more posts yourself soon?

        I basically agree with your presentation of the concept, but it’s that very open-endedness that I think is such a huge red flag for the concept. It’s like we started with something really vague, and then went looking for some way to justify that, because while it wasn’t accurate it was very useful to us in some way.

        I actually get the sense from “I just don’t agree” that you may have other non-voiced objections. Can I ask, if I was able to describe the existence of morality, without any reference to consciousness, in a way that you felt was convincing, would that change the landscape for you at all? Do you feel there are any other objections of this kind (eg. “without consciousness we cannot….”)?

        My feeling is that in the absence of those objections, it’s totally safe to do the following – discard all related concepts, relook at that area of evidence (people, brains etc), and see if any similar concept arises. In a physicalist framework, I think we would quickly get the concept of brain, which we would assign attributes of emotions and choices (established as objects by observing behaviour). But I can’t identify any point where we look at a brain or a behaviour and see an object that whose definition would be anything like the “consciousness” we have now (other than the very different meaning of just “awake”).

      5. Check out “global workspace theory.” This is a theory with a straightforward physical meaning that promises to explain some phenomena in cognitive/neuro-science, and at the same time seems damn close to the ordinary idea of “consciousness”, and not just in the sense of awake vs asleep.

        For phenomenal states (qualia) in particular, check out Morsella 2005.

      6. Thanks for the links, I shall check them out. I’ve not heard of global workspace theory before.

        I should probably mention that qualia is often seen as being in conflict with, and in many cases, used as an attempted refutation for physicalism. For me, this supports the idea that consciousness and physicalism are incompatible.

  2. I don’t see the conflict. Why can’t the monist speak of Consciousness as a emergent property of physical systems? This does not contradict dualist concepts such as subjectivity and Consciousness. Indeed one might never know how others experience impulses from the inside.

    1. Firstly, in case its unclear, in this article I’m not arguing for or against monism or dualism.

      However, if I can humbly make a suggestion that I feel is a reasonable skepticism, perhaps instead of “what can’t I speak of consciousness as being an emergent property of physical systems?”, we start with “what does my empirical evidence suggest are the properties of this physical system?” and see if consciousness arises as one? If it’s a justified belief, it should.

      Looking at the human brain, you can see things like mass, volume. You can see behaviours, like talking, walking, which seem to be associated with the brain. You can see evidence of brain activity itself, the properties of a neural network, by looking at a neuron in a microscope or using an EMG. You can even explain “yourself”, simply by identifying “yourself” as an instance of the many humans that you see before you. A complex neural network capable of internal states that interact with another would be able to explain “private” brain activity (“internal thoughts”). At what stage do you have justifcation, as a Physicalist, to introduce the Dualist concept of consciousness into the mix? Why introduce a new property, when you’ve already explained the causes(biochemical), properties (all those we can see in a neural network) and effects of this system (human behaviours)? For a physicalist, especially considering Ockham’s Razor, the only reason left to introduce a new property with no tangible effects (we already have an explanation of human behaviour – both others and our own) is to satisfy some latent Dualist reasoning.

      I’m not criticising either Dualism or Physicalism (as a footnote, the moral philosophy on this site is generally compatible with both), merely stating that this unexamined assumption, when we ask where it came from, amounts to an unfortunate and illogical mixing of two mutually exclusive systems of thought.

  3. “A philosophical Physicalist doesn’t look for physical explanations of Consciousness, he or she asserts that Consciousness is a Dualist concept and has no place in their Physicalist worldview. They assert there is no such thing as mind, as subjectivity, as Consciousness.”

    I don’t think that’s true of all physicalists. John Searle certainly doesn’t discount consciousness.

    1. I agree that individual physicalists sometimes do this – thanks for the great example of Searle. To be clear though, my assertion is not that they don’t, but that they probably shouldn’t, because it amounts to latent Dualism in someone who is claiming to be a Physicalist. In case it’s a bit unclear, I’m not actually arguing for or against Dualism or Physicalism in this article (most of my writing is compatible with either).

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