Materialism Cannot Explain Consciousness

Below is an interesting paragraph I jotted down a few years ago from a book called The Mind and the Brain.

It’s dense but makes a really good argument against materialism. Materialism is the view that only matter exists, and thus people do not have souls (OK, I grant that no materialist would put it that way, but that’s what it amounts to!), or that the soul is merely produced by the body and is not a non-material component of our being in its own right. Here’s the paragraph (which I’ve divided up):

But if you equate the sequential activation of neurons in the visual pathway, say, with the perception of a color, you quickly encounter two mysteries. [In other words, if you think that the perception of color can be fully explained simply by physical processes in the brain, you encounter two big problems.]

The first is …that just as the human brain is capable of differentiating light from dark, so is a photo diode. Just as the brain is capable of differentiating colors, so is a camera. It isn’t hard to rig up a photo diode to emit a beep when it detects light, or a camera to chirp when it detects red. In both cases, a simple physical device is registering the same perception as a human brain and is announcing that perception.

Yet neither device is conscious of light or color, and neither would become so no matter how sophisticated a computer we rigged it up to. There is a difference between a programmed, deterministic mechanical response and the mental process we call consciousness. Consciousness is more than perceiving and knowing; it is knowing that you know. (25-26).

And here’s a good quote on how materialism would necessitate that we abandon any conception of moral accountability:

[materialism] reduces human beings to automatons. If all of the body and brain can be completely described without invoking anything so empyreal as a mind, let alone a consciousness, then the notion that a person is morally responsible for his actions appears quaint, if not scientifically naïve. A machine cannot be held responsible for its actions. If our minds are impotent to affect our behavior, then surely we are no more responsible for our actions than a robot is. It is an understatement to note that the triumph of materialism, as applied to questions of mind and brain, therefore makes people squirm. (52)

  • John

    I agree that materialism cannot explain “mind”. I have summarised the problems of materialism at: Materialists should read this first.

    “The materialist concept of reality as but a single instant of time is what underlies the “homunculus” argument in the philosophy of mind. The homunculus argument runs as follows: photons might flow to create an image on the retina and the image on a retina can create a pattern in nerve cells in the brain but then what sees that pattern? The pattern on the nerve cells might be transferred to another set of nerve cells but then what sees that pattern? According to materialist reasoning it always seems as if another person, a little man or homunculus within us, is needed to view the content of our minds. So materialism contains a contradiction – all reality is held to be due to the flow of matter but this flow can never be our experience now, at this moment, and materialism has no other time available for experiencing anything.”