The mystery of consciousness shows there may be a limit to what science alone can achieve

Philosophy | Science

Science is often hailed for its achievements, yet when confronted with the enigma of consciousness, it becomes evident that there might exist a boundary to our understanding that science alone cannot surpass.

Image by julos on Freepik” rel=”noopener ugc nofollow” target=”_blank”>Consciousness

It is unbelievable how far science has come in the last four centuries. Who would have guessed that we could learn how the cosmos came to be fourteen billion years ago? Despite these serious issues, the number of people who still believe in scientism has risen. Almost every philosophy department in the world engages in “metaphysics,” but the vast majority of people have no idea what this means.

Metaphysics is simply the technical word for philosophical (as opposed to scientific) investigation into the essence of reality; philosophers do not imply anything eerie or otherworldly when they use this term.

Reality without evidence

If we don’t conduct scientific experiments, how can we possibly learn about the world? A defining characteristic of philosophical ideas is their inability to be “empirically differentiated” by experiments.

Consider the field of philosophy of consciousness, which is the only place I’ve been able to conduct most of my inquiries. The “physicalist” position holds that certain mental states are based on biological processes in the brain. On the other hand, many believe that the physical universe is an outcome of consciousness rather than the other way around.

“Panpsychism” (meaning “soul” or “mind”) is an alternative that holds that awareness extends to the most essential elements of existence. The term originates from the Greek words pan and psyche. Some people, known as “dualists,” believe that the physical world and consciousness are fundamentally distinct yet complementary. Notably, an experiment cannot differentiate between these perspectives since, for any given piece of scientific evidence, each perspective will assign its meaning according to its own assumptions. Frustrating huh?

Thought Experiment:

To illustrate the point, let’s say that through scientific investigation, we find that an organism’s conscious experience is associated with a specific type of brain activity. While physicalists see this as the structure that allows for the conversion of unconscious physical processes like electrical signals between brain cells into conscious experience, panpsychists see it as the structure that combines separate conscious particles into a single, unified whole. This leads us to two philosophically divergent conclusions from the same empirical evidence.

How can we choose between competing theories if experiments fail to reveal their relative merits? What we observe in science is similar to the selection process. Scientists rely on experimental evidence and highlight a theory’s theoretical qualities, such as its simplicity, elegance, and unity.

Philosophers can also use theoretical virtues to support their preferred viewpoint. For example, the dualist theory of consciousness seems to be at odds with simplicity considerations because it posits two types of fundamental stuff — physical stuff and consciousness — instead of just one essential kind of stuff, as physicalism and panpsychism do.

It is also possible that specific theories are contradictory, but in nuanced ways that can only be revealed through meticulous examination. For instance, I contend that physicalist theories of consciousness lack coherence (though this is contentious, as is much of philosophy).

These strategies may or may not produce an apparent victor. If we discover numerous, consistent, and equally straightforward competing frameworks for understanding some philosophical problems, we should remain neutral on the relative merits of competing theories. This would be a significant philosophical discovery about the boundaries of human understanding.

There is much debate in philosophy, and discussion is always positive for philosophy as it advances ideas. This is true in many scientific fields, including economics and history. On the subject of free will, for instance, a modicum of agreement on specific points is developing.

We need a unified front to combat destructive and actual anti-science movements, such as anti-vax conspiracies and climate change denial. Still, we have a propensity to conflate philosophy with this movement.


The scientific community has tried for many years to rid us of philosophy; however, it is here to stay. Whenever they’ve tried to do so, the result is flawed philosophical reasoning.

“Philosophy is dead.” That was the audacious first line of the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design. After that, the book dove headfirst into some extremely simplistic philosophical debates about free choice and objectivity—both absurd and hypocritical.

I need to gain the necessary education, experience, and exposure to this field’s literature and peer review; anyone would have every right to mock me, even the most fundamental claims about particle physics. However, there are numerous instances where scientists who did not receive formal instruction in philosophy nevertheless managed to publish shoddy works on philosophical subjects, which did not affect their credibility.

A greater understanding of philosophy would greatly benefit society. After this so-called “scientistic” era, I sincerely wish that people would see the value of philosophy and science in working together, not necessarily to understand the nature of reality, but rather to accept it gratefully as a gift and use its total capacity for the good of all.