Consciousness and Materialism

Hume’s Parallel

David Hume has often been quoted for his “Is” vs. “Ought” distinction. The argument is that fact and morality are two different domains, and from no accumulation of statements of fact alone can we ever jump to a statement of morality.

We can say statements of fact such as:

  1. To be murdered is potentially painful.
  2. To be murdered is irreversible.
  3. Murder causes social dysfunction.
  4. Etc.

By merely my collecting these, we haven’t proven that Murder is evil. That is an entirely different statement that cannot be inducted from statements about the description of murder.

Certainly we can derive moral statements from other moral statements accompanied by factual statements. For example, if we assume that the moral statement To kill a living being is immoral. we can derive new moral “facts” from it:

  1. To kill a living being is immoral.
  2. Unborn children in the womb are living beings.
  3. Abortion is immoral.


  1. To kill a living being is immoral.
  2. Animals are living beings.
  3. Killing animals is immoral.

Whether you find Hume’s argument ironclad, it proposes that mere fact and morality are ultimately two domains and substances, and while they can interact, importantly, morality itself—whatever it is—is made of different stuff than just empirical statements. There requires some extra jump.


I bring this up because it is a logical analog to the reality of consciousness.

Some would incorrectly say that the issue of consciousness is the “Hardest Problem in Science.” That’s premature because it presupposes that science has even begun to properly ask the question, or has any idea of a vector to approach the issue, or any tools to attack the problem.

One funny thing, even—perhaps especially true about the institutionalized academic venues for the study of consciousness, is that they are rife with “pseudoscience.”

Go to a “scientific” conference or institute and however many serious scientists you see, you will find no fewer Hindu gurus. This is because there are simply no scientific methods for even approaching the issue of the origin and nature of consciousness and many scientists are at least honest enough to recognize they have little to no performative advantage in the field over pagan lore or even esotericist scammers.

Consciousness from a Humean Perspective

In the same way that Hume argued that morality must be a different substance from fact, I will state flatly that consciousness, in its essence, must be a totally different substance from matter.

Materialist science is self-limited to what is ultimately the syntactic interactions of atoms more or less bumping into each other, at whatever level of abstraction. In the same way that Hume could say that no as-of-yet unknown facts could generate a foundational moral statement, I say that no as-of-yet unknown material configuration generates this ontologically new category of self-perception.

Now when Hume, as a skeptic, suggested that fact and morality were different domains, a part of that skepticism is the suggestion that morality, since it is not grounded in fact, might actually just be a worthless enterprise. That “solves” the philosophical problems of morality by saying it ultimately has no independent ontology, i.e. it doesn’t really exist, so we don’t really have to talk about it.

Consciousness cannot be discarded in the same fashion. Consciousness is not just something we observe, but it is the only thing we observe. It is the basis of all of our other observations and it is the most inexplicable thing.

Mere computation?

You might interpret my statement here as a denial of the so-called Computational Theory of Mind which, among other things, alleges that consciousness itself is a side-effect of the configuration of the brain to compute and process reality.

After all, computation is merely the processing rules of a formal game. Saying computational operations can generate consciousness by themselves is no sillier than saying that a game of Monopoly can generate consciousness. (There are some who have argued themselves into corners where they will affirm that such Monopoly games can be conscious).

It might be that some syntactic configurations might resonate in such a way to “summon” consciousness from another dimension. That is not my point, my point is the more obvious one: consciousness itself, qualia, sense in itself are obviously something different than matter.

There’s an unfortunate temptation to describe things that consciousness seems to interact with or do or correlate with, mistaking that to be an explanation of the sensation of consciousness itself. To do that is to forget the question altogether, replacing it with something trivial.

Matter over Mind?

To be clear, it is very obvious that material conditions affect consciousness. This is no different from how Hume admitted that factual statements can affect derivations of moral statements.

Chemicals can induce other states of consciousness. Injuries can affect the state of self-perception.

For a while I assumed the error of thinking that because these statements were true, that must mean that consciousness itself must be merely material as well.

This is fallacious reasoning because we can just as easily say that the physical components of the brain are “receivers” of a “signal” of consciousness.

In the same way that smashing a T.V. doesn’t destroy the signal it receives, damaging the brain or distorting its physical reactions in such a way to affect consciousness doesn’t mean the consciousness itself has an origin in the physical brain.

That might sound other-worldly, as if it entails consciousness must be something from another dimension, but it’s even similar to the way people approach their non-solutions in the Computational Theory of Mind.


I will say that I have come to grips with the idea that consciousness must be something literally other-worldly.

Before pan-physicalists and atheists throw their computers aside in disgust, remember that this is almost a tautology or truism, and it is really the essence of my argument here. It also doesn’t even require any more metaphysics than are required to remain consistent.

Physicalism and materialism assume that the core of the universe is familiar atomic matter and other physical forces and energies. Consciousness is simply something ontologically apart from these things.

In making philosophically physicalist models for consciousness, we are trying to build paper-flat two-dimensional scaffolding to hold an immensely oblong three-dimensional object. That might teach us something about consciousness in a pedagogical sense, but the operations of atoms and forces are just different stuff than consciousness and even with clever emergent arguments, never suffice to explain it.

It is one thing to say that complex computational systems can emerge from simple interactions of matter. This is a mere issue of complexity. It is a totally different thing to say that the very realm of the cognitive theater, including qualia and sense itself are mere complex atom-bumpings. This is an addition of that same third dimension.

While nearly everything in the universe can be attacked with a materialist model, and even though we can correlate matter with conscious states, the appearance of the qualia of things in the mind is not just something we can reduce to material corollaries, because the material corollaries are not the interesting or crucial aspect.

You’re already a dualist anyway.

There is an obvious sense in which even a rigid materialist should realize the wide scope of the universe is pretty wide, nearly certainly wider than we now anticipate.

Familiar matter and energy has formed the physical sciences, but that in no way means that part of, in fact, most of reality is actually other types of forces and substances.

Remember that modern materialism before used to be “mechanicalism.” Before Newton, many thought that atoms alone were sufficient to describe reality, specifically, atoms exerting direct force on one another.

Newton proposed an elegant theory that was involved an occult force: Gravity that acted counter-mechanically over long distances via an unknown—and still totally unknown—means. The theory solved significant problems and unified much, but its central assumption was other-worldly and totally unjustified and unexplained.

How can a force act over long distances seemingly instantly? The fact that we don’t dismiss gravity immediately as spiritualism is only a testament to the multi-generational coping mechanism has made this new force mundane.

Now Newton’s concept of gravity is thought of as being “real” and “physical” and within the realm of “science” despite the fact that it upended the physicalist assumptions of the day of how matter and atoms can interact.

All of this is to say that old-school atomists (Democritus, Lucretius, etc.) promoted a highly obsolete science that not even modern “materialists” endorse. At that, new occult and spiritual forces, like gravity, after repeated observations and theories come under purview of “science” and thus become “physical” even though they are clearly of a totally different substance than traditional atoms and matter.

That said, the universe has many different substances and forces that are not necessarily commensurable. They may interact, but that in no ways makes them the same substance. When we realize that, we have already dismissed philosophical monism. Some forces are familiar enough to make models of, thus they become unsurprising, regular and subject to science. Other forces of the universe might be wider than experimental tests can harness, so irregular as to avoid sensible-sounding theories and different enough to still seem miraculous forever.

So in saying that consciousness is a totally different substance, of a non-material reality and cannot be accounted for from narrowly material computation is not an unreasonable statement. I would say that it is a self-evidently true statement regardless of philosophical assumptions, and I think it would behoove people who purport to study consciousness to acknowledge it as such, rather than attempting to muddy the waters and reduce conscious theater to something it is not, so they can pretend to study it.

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