Beyond Materialism: Exploring the Fundamental Nature of Consciousness

Sud Alogu
16 min readJan 13, 2023

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Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” This quote is particularly relevant in today’s age, where consensus is everything and the majority opinion is often considered to be the correct one. As Twain suggests, there are two dangers to be aware of: one is to always question the majority, the other is to never question the majority.

In Defense of Materialism

In the realm of science, it is important to question the pretensions of modern science, and how it may be falling into its own dogmas. For example, the extreme faith in positions such as materialism or physicalism, which have been considered to be the dominant narrative in science for decades.

Materialism, the belief that the physical world is all that exists, has become the dominant dogma in the sciences for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that materialism has been able to provide explanations for many phenomena that were previously unexplained by other belief systems. The development of scientific methods and tools such as the microscope, telescope and computer simulations, have allowed scientists to study the physical world in greater detail, and to uncover many of the underlying mechanisms that govern the natural world.

Another reason why materialism has become the dominant dogma in the sciences is that it is based on a simple, parsimonious principle: everything can be reduced to the interactions of matter and energy. This principle is easy to understand and test, and it is consistent with the scientific method. As a result, scientists have found that many phenomena can be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, which are based on the principles of matter and energy.

Additionally, materialism has been successful in providing practical benefits to society. The application of materialist principles in technology and medicine has led to significant advancements in areas such as transportation, communication, energy production, and healthcare. For example, the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick was a direct result of the application of materialist principles, and it has led to many breakthroughs in genetic engineering, medicine, and agriculture.

Moreover, materialism has been able to provide a consistent and coherent framework for understanding the natural world. By assuming that everything can be reduced to the interactions of matter and energy, scientists are able to develop a unified understanding of the natural world. This has led to many breakthroughs in fields such as physics and chemistry, as well as the development of interdisciplinary fields such as materials science, biochemistry, and neuroscience. Materialism has also provided a framework for understanding the origins of the universe, the evolution of life, and the workings of the brain.

Furthermore, materialism has been successful in explaining the mind-body problem. The materialist explanation of consciousness, which posits that consciousness is simply a by-product of physical processes in the brain, has been able to provide a framework for understanding the relationship between the mind and the body. This has led to many breakthroughs in fields such as neuroscience and cognitive science, which have provided new insights into the workings of the brain, the nature of perception, and the origins of thought.

Lastly, materialism has been able to provide a framework for understanding the relationship between science and society. The materialist worldview has led to many breakthroughs in fields such as technology, medicine, and social science, which have provided new insights into the workings of society. This has led to the development of new policies and practices in areas such as education, healthcare, and environmental conservation.

Thus, materialism has become the dominant dogma in the sciences for several reasons. It has been able to provide explanations for many phenomena, it is based on a simple and testable principle, it has provided practical benefits to society, it has provided a consistent and coherent framework for understanding the natural world, it has explained the mind-body problem, and it has provided a framework for understanding the relationship between science and society.

Challenging Materialism

But in recent times, materialism has been extensively challenged for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that materialism has been unable to provide a complete explanation for certain phenomena, particularly those related to consciousness. The subjective experience of consciousness, such as the feeling of being aware, the sense of self, and the experience of qualia, cannot be explained by the materialist view that consciousness is simply a by-product of physical processes in the brain. This has led to the development of alternative theories such as panpsychism, which posits that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality.

Panpsychism and idealism are two alternative theories to materialism that have been proposed to explain the nature of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter.

Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, and that it is present in all things. According to panpsychists, consciousness is not an emergent property of matter, but rather, it is a basic feature of the universe. Panpsychists argue that consciousness is not limited to the brain or to living organisms, but that it is present in all things, including atoms, subatomic particles, and even in inanimate objects.

Idealism, on the other hand, is the view that consciousness is the fundamental reality and that the physical world is a product of consciousness. According to idealists, the physical world is an illusion, and that the only thing that truly exists is consciousness. Idealists argue that the mind and the physical world are not separate entities, but rather, that the physical world is a product of the mind.

While both panpsychism and idealism provide alternatives to materialism, they differ in their understanding of the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. Panpsychism posits that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality that is present in all things, while idealism posits that consciousness is the fundamental reality and that the physical world is a product of consciousness.

Panpsychism is consistent with some of the findings of quantum mechanics, which suggest that the universe may be interconnected and that consciousness may play a role in the behavior of subatomic particles. Panpsychism also provides a framework for understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain, as it posits that consciousness is not limited to the brain but is present in all things. This means that the mind and the brain are not separate entities, but rather, that the brain is a physical manifestation of consciousness.

Idealism, on the other hand, is consistent with some of the findings of neuroscience, which suggest that the brain may not be the sole source of consciousness and that consciousness may have a non-physical aspect. Idealism also provides a framework for understanding the nature of reality, as it posits that the physical world is a product of the mind and that the only thing that truly exists is consciousness.

Another reason materialism has been challenged in recent times is due to the limitations of the scientific method in understanding certain phenomena. Materialism is based on the principle that everything can be reduced to the interactions of matter and energy, but some argue that this principle is too restrictive to account for certain aspects of reality such as consciousness, meaning and information. Some scientists argue that there are certain phenomena that cannot be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, and that there may be other principles that govern the natural world.

Additionally, new research in fields such as quantum mechanics and neuroscience has challenged the materialist view of the world. The findings of quantum mechanics suggest that matter and energy may not be the fundamental building blocks of reality, and that there may be other principles at play.

Quantum mechanics has revealed that the material world is not as solid and unchanging as we once thought. The principles of quantum mechanics suggest that the universe is not made up of tiny, solid particles, but rather, it is made up of probability waves. This means that our observations and measurements play a crucial role in shaping the reality that we perceive.

Similarly, recent findings in neuroscience suggest that the brain may not be the sole source of consciousness and that consciousness may have a non-physical aspect.

Furthermore, the principles of quantum mechanics have also challenged the notion of physicalism, which holds that the physical world is all that exists. Quantum mechanics suggests that the physical world is not separate from the mental world, and that our thoughts and consciousness play a crucial role in shaping the reality that we perceive.

Therefore, the extreme faith in positions such as materialism or physicalism, which have been considered to be the dominant narrative in science for decades, have been challenged by recent discoveries in quantum mechanics.

Bernardo Kastrup, a philosopher and researcher in the field of consciousness studies, presents a compelling argument against materialism and physicalism by highlighting the problem of consciousness.

Kastrup was born in Portugal and received his early education in physics and computer science. He later earned a PhD in Computer Engineering from the Technical University of Catalonia in Spain, where he also worked as a researcher at the Institute of Robotics and Industrial Informatics

After his PhD, Kastrup went on to work as a researcher at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) where he was involved in the development and operation of several large-scale scientific experiments, including the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). While at CERN, Kastrup was able to gain a deep understanding of the workings of the physical world, which provided him with a solid foundation for his later philosophical work.

In addition to his work at CERN, Kastrup has also held research positions at other prestigious institutions such as the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and the Technical University of Eindhoven.

Kastrup has published several books, including “Why Materialism is Baloney” (2015), “The Idea of the World” (2018), and “Consciousness and the Brain” (2020). His work has received widespread recognition and has been featured in various academic journals and popular science publications.

Kastrup argues that the materialist explanation, which posits that consciousness is simply a by-product of physical processes in the brain, cannot account for the subjective experience of consciousness. He suggests that consciousness must be a fundamental aspect of reality, and not just an emergent property of physical processes.

Kastrup’s argument against materialism is based on the idea that the neural correlates of consciousness, as revealed by scientific studies, do not fully explain the subjective experience of consciousness. In other words, the fact that scientists can identify certain neural activity that is associated with conscious experience does not mean that this neural activity is the cause of consciousness.

For example, Kastrup cites research in neuroscience that has revealed that when certain regions of the brain are damaged, a person may lose the ability to experience certain aspects of consciousness, such as the ability to perceive color, yet they are still able to experience other aspects of consciousness, such as self-awareness. This suggests that the neural activity associated with the ability to perceive color is not the cause of that ability, but rather it is a correlate of it.

This suggests that the neural activity associated with the ability to perceive color is not the cause of that ability because if it were, then damaging certain regions of the brain that are associated with the ability to perceive color should also result in the complete loss of that ability, instead of just a partial loss.

For example, if the neural activity in a certain region of the brain is causing the ability to perceive color, then if that region of the brain is damaged, the ability to perceive color should also be lost entirely. However, research has shown that when certain regions of the brain are damaged, a person may lose the ability to experience certain aspects of consciousness, such as the ability to perceive color, yet they are still able to experience other aspects of consciousness, such as self-awareness. This is inconsistent with the idea that the neural activity is causing the ability to perceive color, but consistent with the idea that it is a correlate of it.

Let me demonstrate this with a simple analogy.

Imagine you are trying to figure out how a clock works. You observe that when the clock’s hands move, the ticking sound is also heard. Based on this observation, you might conclude that the movement of the clock’s hands is causing the ticking sound. However, if you were to remove the clock’s hands and the ticking sound is still heard, you would realize that the movement of the clock’s hands and the ticking sound are related but not causally linked. The ticking sound is caused by the clock’s mechanism, not by the movement of the hands.

Similarly, when scientists study the brain and observe that certain regions of the brain are active when a person perceives color, they might conclude that the activity in these regions is causing the ability to perceive color. However, when research has shown that when certain regions of the brain are damaged, a person may lose the ability to perceive color yet still be able to experience other aspects of consciousness, it suggests that the neural activity in those regions is correlated with, but not causing, the ability to perceive color. This is why Kastrup and other philosophers argue that the neural activity associated with the ability to perceive color is not the cause of that ability, but rather it is a correlate of it

Note that the argument of brain damage and the ability to perceive color being used to challenge materialism is not attributed only to Kastrup or any specific author, as it’s a widely used argument that has been developed and discussed by multiple philosophers and scientists in the field of Philosophy of Mind and cognitive science. It is a well-established idea that is widely accepted and used by many researchers. It’s a common argument that is used to illustrate that consciousness cannot be reduced to physical processes in the brain.

Furthermore, Kastrup argues that even if we could identify the neural correlates of all aspects of consciousness, this would not explain the subjective experience of consciousness because the subjective experience of consciousness, such as the feeling of being aware, the sense of self, and the experience of qualia, cannot be reduced to physical processes in the brain. The materialist view that consciousness is simply a by-product of physical processes in the brain is based on the idea that consciousness can be explained by the neural activity in the brain. However, Kastrup argues that the subjective experience of consciousness, such as the feeling of being aware, the sense of self, and the experience of qualia, cannot be fully explained by the neural activity in the brain.

The subjective experience of consciousness, such as the feeling of being aware, the sense of self, and the experience of qualia, represents an intrinsic, personal experience that cannot be fully captured or objectively quantified through mere physical measurements or observations. Despite the potential for neural correlates to be identified and studied, the subjective experience itself remains an elusive and inexplicable phenomenon. This dichotomy between the subjective experience and its physical correlates is what philosopher David Chalmers referred to as “The Hard Problem of Consciousness”, highlighting the fundamental difference between subjective experience and objective physical processes.

In addition, Kastrup points out that there are many phenomena that can not be fully explained by materialism, such as the problem of consciousness, the problem of meaning, and the problem of information. He argues that materialism is too restrictive to account for these phenomena and posits that there may be other principles that govern the natural world.

Furthermore, Kastrup also argues that the materialist explanation, which posits that consciousness is simply a by-product of physical processes in the brain, cannot account for the non-physical, non-local and non-temporal aspects of consciousness. He suggests that the materialist view is too limiting in its explanation of consciousness and that it fails to account for certain aspects of consciousness that cannot be reduced to physical processes in the brain.

For example, the sense of self, which is often considered as one of the most fundamental aspects of consciousness, is not a physical entity, and is considered non-local and non-temporal because it does not have a physical location and it does not change over time. It is not a physical entity that can be located in a specific place or that can be observed changing over time.

The sense of self is often considered as a subjective, internal experience, it is not something that can be seen or touched. It is an experience that is unique to each individual and it is not something that can be shared or observed by others. It does not have a physical location and it is not dependent on the physical body or brain.

Additionally, the sense of self is not dependent on time, it does not change over time, it is not affected by the passage of time, it is not something that is created or destroyed. It is an aspect of consciousness that is constant and unchanging.

However, the materialist explanation of consciousness that posits that consciousness is simply a by-product of physical processes in the brain, would suggest that consciousness is limited to the physical brain.

Another argument against materialism and physicalism is the problem of intentionality.

Intentionality refers to the fact that our thoughts and perceptions are directed towards objects and states of affairs in the world. If the material world is all that exists, then how can we explain the fact that our thoughts and perceptions are directed towards something beyond the material world? Sheldrake argues that the materialist explanation, which posits that intentionality is simply an emergent property of physical processes, cannot account for the fact that our thoughts and perceptions are directed towards something beyond the material world. He suggests that there must be a non-material aspect to reality that explains intentionality.

Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields posits that form, patterns and habits of organisms and systems are not only stored in the material structures of the brain or DNA, but they are also stored in a non-physical realm, the morphic fields.

Additionally, both Kastrup and Sheldrake also mention that there are certain empirical facts that are not well explained by the materialist/physicalist worldview. For instance, phenomena such as telepathy, psychic abilities, near-death experiences, consciousness in non-human organisms, and other such phenomena are not well explained by the materialist/physicalist worldview.

Materialist philosophers argue that consciousness can be fully explained as an emergent property of physical processes in the brain. They argue that the subjective experience of consciousness can be explained by the functioning of the brain and the nervous system. They propose that the brain is able to process information and create the subjective experience of consciousness as a result of this processing. They suggest that the subjective experience of consciousness arises from the activity of the brain, just as the color of a rose arises from the physical properties of the rose.

Materialist philosophers point out that neuroscience has made great strides in understanding the brain and its functions, and that as our understanding of the brain improves, we will be able to explain more and more aspects of the subjective experience of consciousness. They argue that the subjective experience of consciousness is a result of the activity of the brain, and that it is not a fundamental aspect of reality that transcends space and time.

Materialist philosophers also argue that the idea that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality that transcends space and time is not supported by scientific evidence. They argue that there is no empirical evidence to support the idea that consciousness is not limited to the physical brain, and that the idea is not testable or falsifiable.

Who’s Right and Why Does it Matter?

It is difficult to say who is more likely correct between materialist philosophers and non-materialist philosophers. Both sides have strong arguments and evidence to support their positions. Materialist philosophers point to the vast amount of scientific evidence that supports the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of physical processes in the brain. They argue that the subjective experience of consciousness can be explained by the functioning of the brain and the nervous system.

On the other hand, non-materialist philosophers such as David Chalmers argue that the materialist explanation of consciousness is not sufficient to fully explain the subjective experience of consciousness. They suggest that consciousness may be a fundamental aspect of reality that transcends space and time and that it may not be limited to the physical brain. They argue that the subjective experience of consciousness cannot be fully reduced to physical processes.

It’s worth noting that the question of whether consciousness can be fully explained by physical processes or whether it is a fundamental aspect of reality is still an open question in philosophy and cognitive science. Some scientists and philosophers argue that the answer may lie somewhere in between, and that consciousness may be a combination of both, an emergent property of physical processes in the brain and a fundamental aspect of reality.

Ultimately, the answer to this question may depend on the development of new scientific evidence and technological advancements that will help us to better understand the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical world.

The debate about materialism matters on a practical level because it has implications for our understanding of the nature of consciousness and the relationship between the physical and non-physical realms. This debate has important implications for fields such as philosophy, cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology, but it also has practical implications for other areas such as medicine, technology, and even ethics.

If materialism is true, it would mean that the mind and consciousness are fully reducible to physical processes in the brain, and that consciousness is not a fundamental aspect of reality. This would imply that the mind and consciousness are not separate from the physical body, and that consciousness does not continue to exist after death. It would also imply that consciousness is a product of the brain, and that any problem or malfunction in the brain can be explained by its physical states.

On the other hand, if non-materialism is true, it would mean that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, that it is not reducible to physical processes in the brain, and that it may continue to exist after death. This would have important implications for our understanding of the mind-body relationship and the nature of consciousness. It would also imply that consciousness is not just a product of the brain, but a fundamental aspect of reality that transcends physicality.

In terms of practical implications, this debate has significant implications for fields such as medicine and healthcare. If materialism is true, it would mean that all mental illnesses are caused by physical brain disorders, and that they can be treated by addressing the physical brain states. On the other hand, if non-materialism is true, it would mean that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, and that mental illnesses may have non-physical causes.

In addition, the debate about materialism also has ethical implications. If materialism is true, it would mean that consciousness is not a fundamental aspect of reality, and that all living beings are simply complex machines with no subjective experience. This would imply that there is no moral or ethical significance to consciousness and that living beings do not have any inherent value. On the other hand, if non-materialism is true, it would mean that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, and that all living beings have subjective experience and moral value.

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