Why It’s Impossible For Reductive Materialism To Fully Explain The Universe

It is generally accepted that reductive materialism is the only acceptable philosophy for a scientist to hold.  It’s a form of physicalism that treats the entire universe as if everything is physical.  To quote wiki, “It asserts that mental events can be grouped into types, and can then be correlated with types of physical events in the brain.”

This type of philosophy has aided mankind in drastically improving his standard of living, and has worked well as a means of understanding the physical universe.  Of course, it seems to contain one glaring problem.  Sensation and emotion are obviously non-physical, they are metaphysical.  The qualia of human experience cannot be reduced to computation by physical processes.

We can build super-computers capable of enormous computational power, far exceeding what a human could compute.  We can build super-sophisticated artificial intelligence that acts and learns the same way a human would.  Someday, we might even build robots so human like that they act like Commander Data from Star Trek.  However, those robots will all have the same problem Data had – they can’t experience emotions.  They could act like they are emotional beings, but that doesn’t mean they could experience the qualia of emotional conscious states the way a living being would.

There is no way for computation, the flipping of 1s and 0s, or the changing state of matter, to ever arrive at a mathematical equation that results in the feeling of happiness springing into existence.  No matter how complex, no matter how obtuse, no matter how beyond comprehension an equation may be, it’s still nothing more than an equation.  The dumbest dog will always feel more real psychic pain when it is kicked than the most powerful complex android ever will.  This is where reductive materialism breaks down.

A lot of scientists presume that quantum mechanics holds some kind of answer to this problem, but this is simply not possible.  Quantum mechanics is pure theory, and it attempts to model all matter as a purely physical phenomena.  Quantum mechanics does not assign emotional states to electrons or quarks or anything else.  No matter how complex or obtuse the theory of quantum mechanics becomes, unless they start throwing emotions into the mix, they will never arrive at a real understanding of consciousness.

To further philosophically define the exact point at which reductive materialism breaks down, we need to look at a philosophical problem called strong emergence.  Strong emergence entails consciousness arising from a conglomeration of whole-brain activity (if you stick enough brain matter together and wire it all up in just the right way, suddenly you get emotions.)

This belief that consciousness springs into existence at some undefined point of brain complexity is a violation of reductive materialism.  If consciousness is “irreducible” beyond a certain level of brain complexity, then this is a clear failure of reductive materialist science.

The ONLY way the brain can achieve “awareness” AND be in compliance with a reductionist philosophy is if the components that make up the brain contain elements of conscious awareness to them.  Such a situation is called “weak emergence.”  Weak emergence is the only philosophically valid form of emergence that does not violate the rules of causality.  Since weak emergence must be true, this means consciousness cannot simply be a by-product of whole brain activity.

I’m a big believer in maintaining a reductive materialist mindset when it comes to using science to solve physical problems, build better TVs, create better engines, or produce new materials that benefit mankind. Physical problems require physical solutions.  However, when it comes to a creating a “Theory of Everything,” which modern day physicists are so fond of chasing, a purely physicalist theory automatically fails to pass muster because it cannot address how awareness exists.

Dr. Stuart Hameroff is an anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Arizona.  Hameroff has come out with a theory about quantum processes within microtubules that reside in the brain being responsible for the generation of awareness.  He supposes that within these tubules, the quantum wave function of matter collapses and at that point consciousness springs into existence.

I think Hameroff is on the right path here, but consciousness goes deeper than microtubules.  Consciousness and all forms of matter are intertwined.  This has been demonstrated repeatedly in lab experiments like the Quantum Eraser experiment.  Further, looking at logical thought problems like the Winger’s Friend thought experiment, we find that a concrete explanation for quantum phenomena becomes impossible without an external observer.

Again, when we go back and look at the logical problem of strong emergence, the notion of all matter containing elements of consciousness to it is the only thing that makes sense from a reductive viewpoint.  It is a form of cognitive dissonance to believe in the principle of reductionism while simultaneously believing consciousness is an irreducible product of whole-brain activity.

At least Hameroff concedes that matter, in the form of microtubules, directly interacts with a field of consciousness, and that this field may in fact be capable of supporting awareness outside of the physical body.  This “external” direction of matter through a quantum level interface of matter and consciousness seems to be supported by findings in cellular biology as well.

A major reason why I think Hameroff is still missing the mark comes from the work of Dr. Gerald Pollack, a bioengineer and Professor at the University of Washington, along with Dr. Bruce Lipton, a cellular biologist from Stanford University.  Lipton has found that active decision making processes in cells must be externally driven.  It was previously assumed that DNA residing within the cellular nucleus was the “decider” about what processes should be carried out and when.

Lipton’s research clearly shows that DNA is nothing more than a blueprint.  DNA never actually makes decisions about when or what things should happen in a cell.  All of the decision making is carried out at the cellular membrane level. All cellular membrane processes are electrically driven and are moderated by the medium of water that they reside in.  Hameroff’s theory moves the “decider” out of DNA and into microtubules, while Lipton’s theory takes this one step further.

Further, Pollack’s research on water has allowed him to come up with a much more plausible theory concerning how anesthesia works.  Hameroff thinks anesthesia works at the level of microtubules, which is decidedly difficult to prove, while Pollack shows it may work on the surrounding environment of water, based on water’s electrophysical properties.

So here we have cellular biology being controlled by an external source, which is a PROVEN FACT, and that control is totally unrelated to DNA or any other intracellular components.  Anyone think consciousness might play a roll here?  Because Lipton certainly does.

Either way, awareness must be considered a fundamental irreducible component of the universe, rather than an irreducible component of whole-brain activity.  The ultimate conclusion being that all matter, even rocks, must have some level of awareness or “consciousness” to them.  This doesn’t mean rocks “think,” but rather that they contain a certain level of awareness, much like being in a state of perpetual meditation.

I presume the rock experiences “elements” of phenomenal states. It may be that the rock is aware it is a rock, but it perceives nothing else beyond that. Perhaps it perceives nothing at all. I don’t know. All I know is that the matter the rock is composed of contains elements of consciousness within it.

“Elements” presumes consciousness may be divisible or exist along a continuum. From our vantage point as humans, consciousness appears to be one indivisible experience that takes place in the present moment, but that may not necessarily be the case for everything.

I’m also loosely using the terms “contains” and “within’ here. It may be that consciousness is a field that is entirely external to matter. It may be that “pieces” of consciousness exist within matter like building blocks or pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It may be that matter is ultimately composed of consciousness. It may be that we are light-beings inhabiting a holographic projection and the entire universe of space and time are all a grand illusion. From my perspective this doesn’t really matter since I’m not overly concerned about the specifics.

I know I’m being real loosey goosey here, but again, my aim is not to get into specifics, only to make the point that pure physicalism fails when it comes to explaining consciousness. There must exist some level of duality between the physical and non-physical. The specifics of exactly how that duality plays out is beyond my comprehension.

Beyond logically concluding that consciousness is a fundamental part of the universe, I can only theorize about everything else. I can theorize about the rock. I can theorize about how consciousness interacts with matter or if matter is composed of consciousness. But theory is just theory, it’s not solid stuff. The only thing that is solid in all of this is the fact that I know I am experiencing, and the qualia of that experience is non-physical; therefore a purely physicalist theory will always fail to explain the qualia of my experience.

If we are to take experiments like the Quantum Eraser at face value, indeed, all matter must be a product of focused intention.  The universe is really a “great thought,” rather than a “great machine.”

Dr. Lloyd Rudy, a renown pioneer in cardiac surgery, discusses a case where a patient, who had been dead on the operating table for 20 minutes, miraculously returned to life without their intervention and then proceeded to describe all of the events that took place in the operating room after he had died on the table.  For more information on this event, click here.

Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard trained neurosurgeon, discusses his ordeal with a severe form of bacterial meningitis that should have killed him, or at the very least left him in a persistent vegetative state.  During this ordeal, Alexander experienced a state of consciousness that defies all physical explanation, and then experienced a miraculous recovery with no neurological deficits.

Pam Reynolds, a singer-songwriter from Atlanta, underwent a procedure known as a hypothermic cardiac arrest, where her heart was stopped and her core body temperature was lowered to extreme levels.  During the procedure, Reynolds claims her consciousness went out of her body and into the operating room.  Reynolds was able to accurately describe events that took place during a period when she was under general anesthesia, her eyes were taped shut, and her ears were plugged with noise making devices.



  • j

    No offense, actually wait, please take offense, but this article makes a ton of claims that are not verifiable and demonstrate a real misunderstanding of how consciousness might arise from the brain. It is something we just do not fully understand, not something we will never understand.

    And please, NDE’s? Come on man.

    You claim to want to reap the benefits of materialism for every other area of science, but because we have insufficient data at this point, you want to make the claim that we can never define consciousness through physical laws. And Man will never walk on the moon.

    • I’m sorry, but when a world famous cardiologist, AND his entire medical staff, says a dead man was able to see what they were doing, I have to take them seriously.

      Of course, it’s not just Rudy. Hameroff had a similar experience. In fact, most cardiologists who have been in the profession long enough have also experienced this. I can dig up a litany of doctor testimony on this subject.

      • j

        Appeal to authority, bogus. And Eben Alexander? Totally debunked.

        • Good thing I only use Alexander as one example out of many then. And how is citing problems with strong emergence an appeal to authority?

          As for the debunking, it may be that the materialists were able to convince more undecided voters, but almost half the voters still sided with Alexander.

          And besides, consensus does not dictate reality.

  • c

    You make a lot of unnecessarily strong/absolute claims. I suggest you take a look at integrated information theory and notions of supervenience to understand how it may be possible that qualia can arise from a purely physical system. http://www.architalbiol.org/aib/article/viewFile/15056/23165867 provides an account of IIT. Also Matteo Grasso, in “Integrated information theory and the metaphysics of consciousness”(http://consciousnessonline.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/grasso-co5.pdf), attempts to classify IIT’s metaphysical commitments according to a taxonomy of positions based on the work of David Chalmers. Grasso concludes that IIT is compatible with a type of materialism that accepts that “no physical account of structure and function can explain conscious experience.” He further distinguishes between two types of materialism that IIT is compatible with: one that claims “that the relationship between phenomenal and physical properties is identity and one that claims that “physical and phenomenal properties are not identical, but that phenomenal properties supervene on physical properties (in the sense of Kim, 1990).”

    Of course this may not be the correct way to look at consciousness, but you should be a little less narrow-minded and absolute in your writing

    • I think the linguistic gymnastics is a product of cognitive dissonance.

      There is no logical possibility of a purely physical system giving rise to non-physical phenomena, such as qualia. It doesn’t matter how obtuse the materialists try to spin their theories.

      I think the scientists you mention are making themselves look like fools by trying to cling to an obviously dead theory because they are scared about the implications of abandoning it.

      • Lewis

        Your confusing some basic notions here of fundamentality and priority. First off you seem to basically assume that consciousness is brutely fundamental (in a brute fact, Markosian way), rather than providing any actual logical argument to this end.

        Having assumed that consciousness must be fundamental, you then use this assumption to then say “and so physicalism cannot give us the complete explanation”. Well of course it cannot based on your metaphysical strictures, you’ve just assumed it is wrong and taken this to be a sufficient argument against the doctrine.

        The priority of things depending upon veiwpoint here also seems to be something you are confusing. Oneof the key parts of materialism is the view that the physical is prior to all else, not that non physical phenomena (or what is perceived as non physical phenomena) cannot arise from this. As mentioned above, consider looking into supervenience to explain how a system that is fundamentally only physical can produce mental events.

        Your assertion that there is no logical possibility of a physical system giving rise to non-physical phenomena is frankly just wrong. Logical possibility is incredibly permissive in what actually is possible, and if we look at something like the Lewis-Stalnaker account of possible worlds we find that we almost certainly do have worlds of the kind you have denied obtaining, as it is at least conceivable that they do obtain (and conceivability, along with certain basic restrictions, is our guide to logical possibility generally in the literature it seems).

        Finally it seems as though you make use of the intuition that chains of ontological dependence must terminate which, while more common in the philosophy of mind, does not have any proven basis for it’s necessity, as shown here: http://www.personal.leeds.ac.uk/~phlrpc/Regress%20and%20priority.pdf

        • “Your assertion that there is no logical possibility of a physical system giving rise to non-physical phenomena is frankly just wrong.”

          No, it’s not wrong. Accepting that non-physical phenomena exist automatically makes pure physicalism an impossibility. There is no room for a “bridge” between the physical and non-physical in a purely physical system. Arguing that such a “bridge” exists is the same as arguing against pure physicalism.

          • Lewis

            Your understanding of “logical possibility” is lacking and why I labelled your assertion as wrong.

            While you say that there cannot be a bridge between the physical and the non physical and to argue so would provide an argument against pure physicalism, you do not provide any argument or justification for your opinion here, you merely obliquely state it.

            Given the general work on supervenience why is it that a pure physical system cannot give rise to any non physical phenomena? Here I’m not asking just for your opinion that “They can’t!”, but rather looking for your structured reasons of why supervenience arguments fail. If you don’t give any argument to this end we are left with all of what you’ve said basically just being an opinion piece that you dislike physicalism.

            If we are willing to contend that physical laws and their constants are contingent rather than necessary (which the vast amount of not only philosophers but also physicists are willing to do) it seems fatuous to say that while the fundamental laws of the universe (from which my inference is based) are contingent, the conclusion I have drawn from these laws is necessary. It’s committing the modal fallacy essentially. For more on this general idea of logical possibility and how wide a net it is you may want to look into either Counterfactuals or Plurality by David Lewis which explores the various issues involved with the kind of subjunctive possibility you seem to actually be talking about here.

            While you continually assert pure physicalism means there is nothing non physical, none of your assertions serve as argument against the supervenience arguments that the non physical can come from the physical. As I said above you need to engage with this on at least some level to prevent this merely being an opinion piece.

            As noted above, without some serious argument on your part I just reject the claim that pure physicalism necessitates that they is nothing non-physical in existence. Back up your opinion with argument here and then we can deal with this “obviously not being the Universe we live in” (which I think your aware is a fallacious point). I have no desire to argue that your not aware. I’m merely saying that you have no argued that you are aware in any way, beyond merely stating that awareness is fundamental on your account. That’s fine but your then just assuming that awareness is fundamental without any argument to that end. Further your not entirely clear which chains of ontological dependence it is fundamental in, or whether it is fundamental within all of them. Given this your very unclear if you endorse a sort of Idealism or some sort of Cartesian, substance, dualism. Given which on of these you support, how is it that you solve the problems for these accounts?

            None of this still however deals with the problematic notions of fundamentality and priority I noted in your article in my above comment, which without a solution to which it is frankly illogical to conclude that any chain of ontic dependence terminates anywhere.

          • Look at what you just wrote:

            “While you say that there cannot be a bridge between the physical and the non physical and to argue so would provide an argument against pure physicalism, you do not provide any argument or justification for your opinion here, you merely obliquely state it.”

            Do you believe in the existence of the non-physical? If you’re asking me to prove the existence of the non-physical, I can only prove it to myself because I cannot directly share experience with anyone other than myself.

            If you believe in the existence of ANYTHING non-physical, then YOU ARE NOT A PHYSICALIST.

          • Lewis

            Writing something in capitals doesn’t make you respond to any parts of my argument. My view on the non-physical is literally irrelevant here. All I’m saying is that your view is patently wrong. You’ve misunderstood what physicalism is on some level, you don’t understand the idea of logical possibility (in a philosophical sense, when ever you mention it you seem to mean nomological possibility) and have no account of why it is that a the varieties of supervenience argument fail. In addition to this you’ve provided no response to my comments about fundamentality and priority earlier. Unless you can respond to all of this (and I do mean all of it, rather than just one point of the several you respond to from each comment) your account will just not work. If you can provide a satisfactory response to all of this then maybe you’ll be getting somewhere.