Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Ontology of consciousness

  1. Aug 26, 2005 #1
    Does modern physics need to expand its current ontology to cater for the existence of qualia and consciousness, or is it possible that these phenomena could be explained entirely within our current physical framework of matter, energy, space and time (or possibly strings)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 26, 2005 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Short answer:
    Nobody knows.
  4. Aug 26, 2005 #3
    It is not possible to know that nobody knows, and a great many people assert that they do know. However, it is true that physicists generally assume that nobody knows, and the answer will certainly depend on who you ask.

    Some still think that physics as currently defined can explain consciousness, although nobody has yet shown how this might be done. Others find this an odd view since, for a start, physics as currently defined cannot show that there is anything there to be explained, or even define what it is.

    The trouble (for physicists) is that if consciousness cannot be explained within physics (as it is currently defined) then it is impossible to show this by doing physics. That is, there is no method in physics for showing that consciousness cannot be explained by physics. So unless physics can, after all, explain consciousness your question will remain forever unanswerable within physics. However, this does not entail that it is unanswerable.

    In the end it is impossible in principle to demonstrate a proof of the existence of consciousness, despite its seemingly-obvious existence, so it is odds-on that physics, which is based on demonstrations of proofs, must either change or must banish the problem of consciousness to the realms of metaphysics. There are signs that a change is underway but there's a way to go yet.

    You might like to check out the discussion of Gregg Rosenberg's book on consciousness going on in another thread here. It seems about right to say that his approach is an example of doing physics with an expanded ontology.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2005
  5. Aug 26, 2005 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Just to clarify, since the above might be a bit misleading: Rosenberg's framework (articulated in his book A Place for Consciousness and being disucssed here at Physics Forums as Canute mentioned) does not call for a revised physics. Rather, it introduces a wider ontological framework than physicalism, of which physics only describes a part. Within the domain over which physics is applicable, there is no intimation that physics is incomplete in principle or needs reworking beyond the that which arises from the normal scientific process, although Rosenberg does offer some speculations that might come to bear on topics in physics (such as on the ontology of causation and spacetime).

    In general, madness, there is no real concensus on the question you ask. There are myriad viewpoints, and each side has arguments for its own position and against the others. I fear there will be no such concensus for quite some time, since debates such as these are usually only quelled once and for all empirically, and phenomenal consciousness poses significant empirical and epistemological difficulties (the main one being that each individual can observe his or her phenomenal consciousness directly, but seems to have no such direct empirical access to the consciousness of other physical systems).

    An excellent discussion of this subject can be found in David Chalmers' paper, Consciousness and its Place in Nature. (It might be helpful to read Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, also by Chalmers, before tackling the other paper.)
  6. Aug 27, 2005 #5
    Others still might think it odd that this should be considered a problem for physics, rather than psychology, in the first place.
  7. Aug 27, 2005 #6
    Hmm. Don't most physicists consider that psychology reduces to physics?
  8. Aug 27, 2005 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Most of them would say that it eventually does, though there is a strong and growing faction that supports what you might call "deep emergence" or antireductionism in physics. It's important to remember that most physicsts are not particle theorists, but workers in condensed matter and such.

    But I think only a tiny minority of physicsts of either school think physics has anything interesting to say about psychology at the present time.
  9. Aug 29, 2005 #8
    PhysicalISM is much more common among philosophers than phycisists IME.
  10. Aug 29, 2005 #9
    I suppose that would figure, since it's a metaphysical issue. I expect the same goes for idealism.
  11. Aug 30, 2005 #10
    As a physicist, I consider psychology to reduce to computer science.

    It is my opinion that conciousness is an epiphenomenom of the brain's (deterministic) configurations. In order to obey conservation laws, thoughts must be zero energy and unable to interact with anything. I believe that conciousness may one day be described by mathematics, but that this is not what is called physics.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook