Will science be able to explain consciousness?

There is every reason to believe that consciousness will eventually yield to scientific analysis just as the general nature of life yielded

A dictionary definition describes consciousness as “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings”. Self-awareness is an elaboration of consciousness and means being conscious of your own consciousness.

Science now understands the basic molecular basis of life but doesn’t yet understand the basis of consciousness as discussed by Dan Falk in Scientific American. However, there is every reason to believe that consciousness will eventually yield to scientific analysis just as the general nature of life yielded.

The hierarchical structure of the world, from the simplest to the most complex, is traditionally categorised as follows: mineral, vegetable, animal, human. Each level displays all properties of the simpler level beneath but in addition displays a property/properties not present below.

Thus, the human body is made of matter, is living, conscious and self-aware. The animal body is similar but lacks self-awareness. The plant body is made of matter, is living but lacks consciousness and self-awareness. Minerals are made of matter but are not alive, conscious or self-aware.


The higher levels of consciousness involve thinking and we find it extremely difficult to imagine how ethereal thoughts could arise from matter. But, over hundreds of years, many people found it equally difficult to imagine how life could be constructed out of lifeless matter, postulating the existence of various “vital factors” to explain the conundrum.

However, by the mid-20th century, ongoing scientific investigation had revealed how life is constructed from lifeless chemicals. Science had patiently and sequentially discovered the basic unit of biological organisation (the cell), the unit of heredity (the gene), the chemical nature of the gene, had developed the technique of X-ray crystallography and used it to solve the molecular structure of the gene – which discoveries cumulatively explained the secret of life in the mid-20th century.

The entire history of science fully justifies expectation that analogous scientific investigations will eventually unveil how consciousness and self-awareness gradually developed through biological evolution and how these processes work at a molecular level.

Most scientists and philosophers think that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Emergent phenomena arise in complex systems, such as the human brain. The “wetness” of water is a simple example of an emergent property. Water is composed of water molecules (H2O). There is nothing about the fundamental properties of hydrogen or oxygen that predicts wetness but when countless H2O molecules congregate together, wetness emerges.

Similarly, the human brain contains 86 billion neurons. Individual neurons are not conscious but the emergent phenomenon hypothesis predicts that the collective properties of these 86 billion neurons and their interactions produce consciousness.

The emergence interpretation of consciousness is an example of a philosophical approach called physicalism, the metaphysical position that everything is physical. But, approximately a third of philosophers reject physicalism in favour of alternative explanations of consciousness, of whom panpsychism is probably the most popular.

Panpsychism proposes that consciousness is a fundamental part of physical reality, just like mass, and not dependent on any particular material. This, if true, offers a neat solution to the conundrum of how inanimate matter forms mind/thought – mind is, and always was, part of the fabric of the universe.

Panpsychism is an old idea, supported by many philosophers. Plato (428-348 BC) took the idea seriously as did psychologist William James (1842-1910), philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and palaeontologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) as outlined in his book The Phenomenon of Man.

Philosophers who support panpsychism believe there is an open explanatory gap between the physical and the mental. As Norwegian philosopher Hedda Hassel Marsh notes: “If you knew every last physical detail about my brain processes, you still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be me.” And philosopher Yanssel Garcia, University of Nebraska Omaha, declares “physical science is incapable, in principle, of telling us the whole story”.

But, the apparent difficulty of the task facing science of elucidating how inanimate matter forms conscious minds must not deter scientists from patiently and systematically pursuing the matter in the traditional manner. Of course, if consciousness eventually turns out to be completely resistant to explanation by science, then we are into, as they say, “a whole new ballgame“. Either way, exciting times lie ahead.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC