A few days ago Aeon magazine shared this, which they orginally published last year.
I think we should share our thanks for the article, it’s good to see people outside the cognitive sciences (the author is an astronomer) trying to grapple with core cog sci problems. I wanted to pick up on a couple of things because I don’t think he characterised materialism or consciousness entirely accurately, and I suspect that’s what’s driving the dualist intuitions here.
So, right at the start Frank characterise materialism with a hypothetical protagonist saying: “‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons”. This is, I think, a rather dated conceptualisation of materialism. This would be fair enough characterisation of early forms of materialism advocated by mid 20th Centurary philosophers like Place and Smart . Modern conceptualisations of materialism generally consider this kind of approach to be missing a metaphysical level, specifically the level of organised neural activity also thought of as the representational or computational level. Kim’s good on this but tricky to read, Bechtel (2007) also isn’t bad here and it’s a bit more data driven than Kim.
We see the same thing again when Frank turns to talk about fMRI and EEG as the measurement tools of the materialist, but work by materialists tends to depend more on behavioural studies (Irvine  reviews this well, even though she ends up with a fairly radical claim that what we call consciousness is an arbitrary grouping of cognitive functions), or even AI simulations, both of which study higher levels of organisation than imaging techniques.
Frank then turns to the core of the article, pushing even lower in trying to understand matter, all the way down subatomic particles. But, why would this be the right place to understand the material basis of consciousness (if there is such a thing)? Consciousness is a property of minds, of cognitive systems and these aren’t made of subatomic particles, but such things organised into atoms, atoms organised into molecules, molecules organised into cells, cells organised into tissues, tissues organised into organs, organs organised into organisms and organisms interacting with the world (and making up new things like flocks, troupes or families). At each level of organisation properties are gained and lost. We see evidence for this gain when we consider the causal powers of things: I can do things like write this sentence, that precisely the same subatomic particles that make me now couldn’t do if they were organised in a different way (like a dead body, or a plasma). The point is that if we are to seriously look for a material basis of consciousness we shouldn’t look at the matter that isn’t conscious (unorganised subatomic particles), but matter that is conscious, i.e. organisms.
The problem Franks moves onto, that of interpreting things like a wave function then seem broadly irrelevant, because organisms do not behave as quanta. Worries about interpreting quantum mechanics may merely be an artefact of quantum mechanics being a theory of the interaction of quanta and measurement tools, and not at all a theory of the quanta themselves. Do we need to posit an observer to understand quanta? Well if our theory of quanta is, by design, limited to understanding the interaction of quanta and observers, maybe we do, but maybe we just need a more general theory of quanta.
When Frank turns to a more stereotypically “Newtonian” characterisation of materialism, he again miss some of the key features of the world that the materialist (about consciousness) uses to explain consciousness. Specifically missing from this is an understanding of mental representation and computation, which aren’t included in what he calls the “ball and stick vision of reality”. Materialists aren’t likely to be convinced by the criticisms here, because, as with the lack of a consideration of organisation above, he ignores the material things that are hypothesised to underlie consciousness.
When we turn to the characterisation of consciousness we see a similar mischaracterisation of the phenomena. I get that the focus here is understanding implications from physics for understanding materialism, but Frank defines himself out of the possibility of considering a materialist theory of consciousness by characterising consciousness in terms of Chalmers’ Hard Problem. Remember that the Hard Problem is not just the problem of consciousness, it includes the claim that consciousness can’t be explained by the function of matter:
“What makes the Hard Problem hard? Here, the task is not to explain behavioral and cognitive functions: even once one has an explanation of all the relevant functions in the vicinity of consciousness — discrimination, integration, access, report, control — there may still remain a further question: why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? Because of this, the Hard Problem seems to be a different sort of problem, requiring a different sort of solution” (Chalmers, 2002).
If we, generously, update this to characterise materialism in a more contemporary way we can understand the Hard Problem as the claim that consciousness is something that cannot be explained by the structure and function of matter, it thus assumes materialism is false in its very characterisation of consciousness. To fairly evaluate materialism a more reasonable characterisation of consciousness is needed.
Bechtel, W. (2007). Mental mechanisms: Philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Chalmers, D. J. (2002). Consciousness and Its Place in Nature. In D. J. Chalmers (Ed.), Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Oxford.
Irvine, E. (2012). Consciousness As a Scientific Concept: A Philosophy of Science Perspective. Springer Science & Business Media.