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Can science unravel the mystery of consciousness

Author: Hongbo Sun 2023/04/18

Consciousness is an ancient and mysterious topic that is both familiar and unfamiliar to each of us. We all operate and think under consciousness every day, but no one can clearly explain what consciousness is. Countless people have studied it since ancient times, but so far, no one has made fundamental breakthroughs in its research. To make breakthroughs in philosophy, we must make breakthroughs in consciousness research. Because if consciousness is compared to the light of a flashlight, then studying this world is like using a flashlight to examine the entire world. If we cannot make breakthroughs in consciousness research, both philosophy and science will have significant flaws because humans are only observing the things illuminated by the light of the flashlight, but cannot observe the light itself. This does not conform to the reflective spirit of philosophers, nor the exploratory spirit of scientists towards the real world. Therefore, we must start with the problem of consciousness. First, let's see if science can uncover the mystery of consciousness.

We all know that various aspects of human science have achieved considerable achievements. Humans have understood large celestial bodies such as black holes and galaxies, and even measured the age of the universe, which was previously unimaginable. We have also found tiny fundamental particles like quarks in the microscopic quantum world. The development of quantum theory has enabled humans to control matter to a very high level and create extremely sophisticated electronic devices. The development in this area is very fast, allowing humans to obtain high computing performance in a very small device. The improvement in computer and mobile phone performance has greatly improved people's lives. The success of genetics has enabled people to study human diseases, genetic traits, and behavior through large molecules such as DNA. These are just the tip of the iceberg, and human science seems to have infinite power to realize infinite dreams. All of these achievements were accomplished under the influence of human consciousness. People's understanding of the material world under the influence of consciousness has achieved such great success, but until now, we cannot gain breakthrough understanding of consciousness through understanding the material world. Currently, human understanding of consciousness should be zero breakthrough, and no clues have been found to unlock the mystery of consciousness. Consciousness remains an unsolved mystery. The current situation of humans is that it is relatively easy to study matter from consciousness, but the reverse is difficult. This is an asymmetric relationship. How to explain this? Can we achieve the same brilliant achievements by studying consciousness through matter as we do by studying the material world through consciousness? How to explain the relationship between matter and consciousness? Can we find light by using a flashlight?

No form action theory is a philosophical theory I formed during my study of consciousness. The reason for developing a philosophical theory to explain consciousness is that I found modern science to be flawed in its study of consciousness. When I first started studying consciousness, I thought that I could trace the clues about consciousness from psychology and neuroscience and then figure out what consciousness is and how it is generated. However, I was wrong. From these disciplines you can only get descriptions of conscious behaviors, and the neural correlates of psychological activities, or or processes of mental activities. Even more detailed research, such as studying biological macromolecules, can only reveal more complex and refined material operations and processes. With more refinement, you will find molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks. Other than the properties, behaviors and processes of these materials, you know nothing about what consciousness is. Is consciousness just some properties, behaviors, and processes? Obviously our consciousness has something else beyond these that we have not discovered.

First, we need to answer a question: what does it mean to unravel the mystery of consciousness? I believe it means answering the question, "What is consciousness?" This is the hard problem of consciousness.

How does science study consciousness? Currently, all methods for studying consciousness are either objective or subjective, or a combination of both.

Objective methods include: (1) observing and studying human behavior. Behaviorists believe that human behavior is a series of reactions caused by stimuli to the human body. They use the "stimulus-response" method to study human behavior in psychology, essentially abandoning the study of consciousness and focusing only on behavior. The task of this psychology is to discover the causal relationship between stimuli and human responses.

(2) Studying the neural activity states and processes in the brain when a certain consciousness is generated, or even molecular-level states and processes. There are many studies in this area, such as which parts of the brain react when a consciousness is generated, which neurons are involved in this reaction, what kind of neural circuits are formed, and how neurotransmitters are transmitted, etc. That's all.

Subjective methods refer to introspective psychological methods, which report inner mental activities for research analysis to derive laws of psychological phenomena. Introspection acknowledges the existence of consciousness but only reveals the laws of psychological phenomena.

Neither of these methods can touch the essence of consciousness, so they are unable to ultimately understand consciousness. Even if the neural correlates of consciousness generation are found, and even if it is understood what kind of process these neural correlates go through to generate consciousness, how does consciousness manifest from such a process and in what way? Why does such a neural process and such consciousness-related matter produce consciousness? It seems that the gap between matter and consciousness is insurmountable. As Searle puts it more clearly: consciousness has a kind of first-person or subjective ontology, and therefore cannot be reduced to anything that has third-person or objective ontology.[1] According to Searle, consciousness only exists when it is experienced by a subjective person, that is, it exists subjectively. My understanding of his theory is that a certain state of matter produces consciousness, but apart from the matter that produces consciousness, there is no way for the outside world to know that this matter is conscious. We cannot objectively and directly touch consciousness, but can only indirectly understand it. This is the first confusion of consciousness. However, the more confusing question is, even if we can directly touch consciousness and objectively study it with scientific methods of observation and experimentation, can we know what consciousness is? Isn't our study of matter objective? Don't we directly touch matter? Can anyone clearly tell me what matter is?

Edelman and Tononi's view is that "scientific explanations can provide sufficient and necessary conditions for the occurrence of a phenomenon, can explain the nature of the phenomenon, and can even explain why the phenomenon can only occur under these conditions. However, no scientific description or explanation can replace the real thing.[2]" This means that science has limitations. Even if we use science to explain consciousness, we can only describe consciousness without truly knowing what it is.

First, let's look at the nature of modern science and what it can do. Then analyze whether science can really uncover the mystery of consciousness. The scientific method is this: obtain some facts through observation and experimentation, deriving laws from these facts, proposing hypotheses, establishing formal models using mathematics, and finally validate the proposed laws, hypotheses and models through experiments - this is the scientific method, exemplified by Newton's law of universal gravitation, Einstein's theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, among others. No matter how deep or complex the research using this method, the conclusions are ultimately phenomena, laws, and mathematical models. Science does not explain what the phenomena themselves are; laws and mathematical models are merely forms (including formal logic and causal relationships). Therefore, modern science cannot possibly study what our emotions are. For example, what is the essence of our conscious perception of the color red? Although modern psychology can understand how nutrients, hormones, and bacteria can affect human cognition and emotions, these are external influences, not the study of emotions themselves. As for "what emotions themselves are," modern science is still powerless.

However, science can indeed study and explore this world. Why is that? This shows that the scientific method itself reveals some mysteries of this world. The revelation of these mysteries is because science is based on form, and form is a component of the world. But merely studying form is not enough; there must also be "no form" things. This is the subject of study for the no form action theory.


[1] Searle, J. The Mystery of Consciousness, translated by Liu Yetao, 1st ed., Nanjing University Press, 2007.

[2] Edelman, G., and G. Tononi. The Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Transforms into Spirit, translated by Gu Fanji, 1st ed., Shanghai Science and Technology Press, 2003.