Can Science Explain Consciousness?

Sunday, April 19, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 15, 2007

What Is It

Humans are conscious, billiard balls are not, and computers aren't either.  But all three are just collections of molecules, aren't they?  What is consciousness, and does it go beyond what science can explain?  John and Ken probe the limits of scientific accounts of consciousness with Joseph Levine UMass Amherst, author of Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by defining consciousness and questioning whether consciousness is anything different from the other functions of the brain, like vision, memory, decision-making, or emotions. John thinks there is something special about consciousness, that there will always be a gap between what science can explain and what conscious experience is like. Ken remains skeptical, but John continues to describe what he feels is a fundamental gap through some wild examples from film and literature.

Ken introduces Joseph Levine, Professor of Philosophy at UMass-Amherst, and John wonders how we could tell if a robot that cleaned our house was conscious--at what point do we draw the line between the conscious and unconscious? Joseph Levine thinks it would be near impossible to draw that line, and uses other robotic examples from Terminator to illustrate his point. Ken pushes for a  further explanation of what "pain" really is, and whether it is the feeling of pain or a system for detecting damage--is there a difference between "detecting damage" and "being hurt"? Joseph Levine discusses the different levels of discourse that deal with these subjects, from ones that only use everyday notions to describe consciousness, to those that discuss everything in terms of outward behavior. Levine believes that a lot depends on how we decide to discuss consciousness, because different ways of talking lead to different conclusions.

John and Joseph Levine discuss the different constructions that have been used by philosophers to describe consciousness. What do we feel when we feel things? Are all of our conscious experiences the same--do you feel conscious the same way I feel conscious? Is it even possible to describe these types of feelings using our language? These questions have been written about for centuries, and John, Ken, and Joseph try their best to parse and discuss possible answers to them. Ken brings up the important difference between the two realms of discourse: science is from a third-person-objective standpoint, whereas feelings and consciousness are necessarily described in very individual, subjective terms. Is this where the explanatory gap originates? Joseph Levine thinks it is more complicated than that, and uses color vision as an example for illustrating his views.

John, Ken, and Joseph Levine discuss consciousness with callers, who wonder about the consciousness of animals, robots in science fiction, and how science can give a suitable scientific explanation of consciousness to laymen untrained in scientific matters.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:26): Zoe Corneli delves into the conscious and unconscious through scientific evidence and Shakespearean soliloquies.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 53:56): Ian Shoales speeds through some of the main concepts surrounding the philosophy of consciousness and some wild possibilities for robotic consciousness and our human future.


Comments (4)

Damian's picture


Tuesday, April 7, 2020 -- 6:25 PM

I propose that (proto)

I propose that (proto) consciousness existed long before brains came into being.

Damian's picture


Wednesday, April 15, 2020 -- 6:05 PM

I asked David Chalmers: "Is

I asked David Chalmers: "Is it possible that our concepts of consciousness presume that it is an exclusive property of minds? Maybe there exists in nature a presently unknown form of consciousness that is devoid of mental properties - - ". David answered: " I think of consciousness as mental by definition . Maybe there is a sort of precursor to consciousness that is not mental. We could name that protoconsciousness. Then the view would be aversion of what I call 'panprotopsychism'. I agree that this view is definitely a possibility".

This supports my concept that protoconsciouness is devoid of mental properties and existed long before brains came into being

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, October 27, 2022 -- 6:42 AM

This is a pretty old show but

This is a pretty old show but instead of inquiring elsewhere, I chose to comment here. In the last week, I have read that there are now six theories of consciousness floating around thinkers, uh, consciousness. I know of a couple, maybe three, and have not taken time to research what the additional ones may be. Interest in the topic seems to emerge and subside. I have examined further an evolutionary angle, but am unconvinced, to date. How about PT? Anything new in your backyard?

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joeden88's picture


Monday, April 22, 2024 -- 5:04 AM

Can science explain

Can science explain consciousness? This perennial question probes the limits of scientific inquiry into the enigmatic realm of human experience. Despite advances, defining consciousness remains elusive. While humans possess it, inanimate objects like billiard balls do not exhibit consciousness. Yet, they share molecular composition. This disparity challenges scientific understanding. Does consciousness transcend scientific explanation? This philosophical inquiry intersects with scientific discourse, urging a deeper exploration. For those delving into such profound questions and seeking academic assistance, consider accessing case study writing service online for comprehensive analysis and insights.

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