Tuesday 30 November 2021

What Problem of Consciousness? (2021)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVIII No. 2 Autumn 2020
Nagarjuna (detail), Eastern Tibet, 19th century
Karma Gardri School, Collection Rubin Museum of Art

      What ‘Problem of Consciousness’?

By Peter Jones

The philosophical problem of consciousness may be expressed in various ways but let us not quibble. Where it appears ‘hard’ it is the ancient ontological problem of reducing mind and matter. Once we know how to do this then we have solved it. That the ‘hard’ part of the problem is not scientific but metaphysical is a fact the philosopher of mind David Chalmers has helped to clarify by advocating an approach to consciousness he calls naturalistic dualism. The defining feature of this approach is that it consigns the problem to metaphysics and walks away from it. 

Refusing to face up to the problem of consciousness on the grounds that it is metaphysical makes some sense in the physical sciences for it is an honest recognition of the limits of their method, but clearly it would be a perverse approach for anyone who wants to understand consciousness. Rather than being naturalistic Chalmers’ approach depends on the assumption that consciousness must remain forever a metaphysical mystery.

Attempting to explain the science of consciousness before explaining the prior metaphysics is the root of most of the trouble. We are almost certain to end up trying to rationally and ‘scientifically’ explain a misconception of the relationship between awareness, consciousness, mind and matter and thus to become enmired in intractable problems in the form of contradictions, paradoxes, and barriers to knowledge. In order to avoid this danger a rational science of consciousness must begin and end with the results of metaphysical analysis. The stagnation and general hopelessness of modern consciousness studies may be entirely explained by its refusal to concede this point.

So what are the results of metaphysics? While the subject is complicated in various ways its logical results are straightforward and easily stated. The most general and indubitable result of metaphysical analysis is that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. Interpreting and explaining this logical fact is the hard problem of metaphysics and it may be the only one. When we are able to explain it we will be able, in principle at least, to explain all metaphysical problems including consciousness.

Hence the issue here is mostly a matter of commonsense. If we know that all positive metaphysical theories do not work then we have largely dealt with metaphysics. A ‘positive’ metaphysical theory is extreme, partial, dualistic and selective. It states that reality is in some respect this as opposed to that or has this property or attribute as opposed to that. Metaphysical questions ask us to decide between two positive this/that theories about the nature of reality neither of which survive analysis, and as a consequence all such questions are undecidable. The mind-matter dichotomy in its various guises is a typical example. It does not make sense that either is fundamental, so a third option is implied.

It is a minimum condition for a useful and philosophically-sound fundamental theory that it explains this result of analysis. If a metaphysical theory cannot explain why positive theories fail in logic then it is either non-reductive or paradoxical, which is to say it is either incomplete or inconsistent. This dramatically limits the possibilities for a plausible theory of consciousness. At present this limitation is rarely acknowledged by scientists who speculate about the nature of reality and the consequence is a plethora of metaphysically flawed theories that are called scientific, do not work and explain nothing.

Theories for which either mind or matter are assumed to be fundamental must be rejected by the Ideal Reasoner. They are logically indefensible positive metaphysical theories that will never make sense to anyone. Positive theories give rise to the myriad of contradictions and paradoxes that plague Western philosophy. Examples would be the original miracle required for materialism, the so-called ‘hard’ problem of consciousness and the many logical problems that render commonplace monotheism implausible. This is the price of ignoring metaphysics, for we are abandoning logic and reason for the sake of guesswork and ideology.

The British idealist philosopher .F. H. Bradley, best known for his metaphysical essay published as Appearance and Reality, neatly summarises the results of metaphysics with the statement, ‘Metaphysics does not endorse a positive result’. Kant likewise concludes, as S. Körner puts it in his introduction to Kant’s philosophy, ‘all selective conclusions about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable’. By ‘selective conclusions’ here he means positive or partial theories for which the truth is this or that. Such theories come in counterposed pairs for which both of their members are logically absurd such that we cannot decide between them. The second-century Buddhist philosopher-monk Nagarjuna logically proves the same result in his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. This conclusion of logical analysis is the unmovable philosophical rock on which a rational science of consciousness must be built. If it is not grounded in sound metaphysical analysis then it will be doomed to descend into confusion and go round and around in circles forever. It will be unable to see that there is no ‘hard’ problem of consciousness but just a well-known philosophical fact that has been overlooked. If we choose to endorse metaphysical ideas that are demonstrably absurd and find our theories of consciousness run into problems then they are personal, not philosophical or scientific.

In the Western tradition of philosophical thought this conclusion of metaphysical analysis is seen as a problem. Yet how can a fact be a problem? No problems arise if we trust the efficacy of human reason and respect the results of metaphysics as a reliable guide to truth. If we have no fixed theoretical preferences and are free from dogma and ideology then in order to deal with the failure in logic of positive fundamental theories all we need do is conclude they are wrong and that the truth lies elsewhere. In other words, we need do no more than use our commonsense and reject theories that are logically unsound. Why would anyone do otherwise? How could any other approach be called scientific or rational? Difficulties only arise when we ignore the conclusions of two thousand years of Western philosophical thought and choose to endorse logically indefensible theories.

Being unable to prove that a logically absurd theory is true is not a problem so we can move straight on to an examination of what the third term implied by the mind-matter problem might be. Descartes thought it was God. For Chalmers’ ‘naturalistic’ approach, which produces a double-aspect (psycho-physical) theory of information, it would be the information-space. The mystics tell us it is consciousness. They say that what is missing from all purely psycho-physical theories of consciousness is precisely the phenomenon these theories are supposed to explain. As the mystics study consciousness first-hand rather than speculate and as what they say would be entirely in accord with the result of metaphysics there seems no reason to doubt them. If they are right then this would easily explain the befuddlement that currently afflicts academic consciousness studies and Western metaphysics.

The only metaphysical theory left standing by this analytically-sound approach is neutral, for only a neutral theory is logically-defensible. A neutral theory is the rejection of all positive theories and the reduction or transcendence of all the conceptual categories from which they are formed. This solution works for consciousness and all metaphysical problems. It is the philosophical basis and intellectual justification for Middle Way Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism, Sufism, advaita Vedanta, Kabbalism, Christian mysticism, Transcendental and Absolute Idealism or more generally non-dualism and the Perennial Philosophy. This existential doctrine is known as ‘perennial’ because it dates back to the earliest recorded human texts and beyond and remains as popular today as ever. It may be seen as a science for which ‘self-enquiry’ is the method. That a neutral theory is the only theory that survives analysis is a demonstrable result of metaphysics, and that this is widely ignored and largely unknown in the natural sciences and academic philosophy is a truth stranger than fiction.

The Perennial Philosophy, a phrase popularised by Aldous Huxley in his book under this title, is a methodology for the scientific study of consciousness and reality, which are found to be the same phenomenon, and an extensive body of teachings and first-person reports describing what is discovered. Its method may be summarised as ‘Know Thyself’ and its teachings comprise the ‘Wisdom’ literature. It has no orthodoxy or dogma and discourages speculation. It normalises on a neutral metaphysical position and denies all multiplicity for a fundamental descriptive theory that is non-dual. Its description of reality and consciousness predates human literacy and never changes, consistent with the claim that it is true.

The Perennial Philosophy then, is not a speculative theory but a description of what has been discovered by the science of consciousness best known as yoga or ‘union with reality’, an ancient methodology that involves the actual study of consciousness. The more recently invented theoretical project that calls itself ‘scientific consciousness studies’ does not require anyone to study consciousness scientifically, with the ironic consequence that it has less justification for calling itself scientific than mysticism. It is a wonder this approach receives so few complaints from scientists. In the modern discipline what, exactly, is the role of the word ‘scientific’?

Inevitably, then, researchers into consciousness and other metaphysical issues face a difficult but straightforward choice. They must either abandon hope for a coherent fundamental theory or adopt a neutral metaphysical position as endorsed by the Perennial Philosophy. There is no third option and nobody has every proposed one. It is a basic philosophical fact that a global theory must be neutral or logically absurd and this fact is the entire motivation for logical positivism, dialethism, scientism and other such pessimistic ideas. That these ‘isms’ are widely endorsed by philosophers in the West is clear evidence that this metaphysical fact cannot be ignored unless we abandon hope for all metaphysical problems including consciousness.

So why does Western philosophy and science resist this solution? Is it that the price of endorsing it is mysticism? This appears to be the stumbling block. It may seem implausible, but I can assure you there are many recently published books on consciousness that fail to even mention the discoveries of the mystics quite as if the study of consciousness has only just been invented. How can this approach be called scientific or rational? Is it not entirely predictable that intractable problems arise for such a thoughtless and unscholarly approach? Would it not be rather odd if those who study the actual phenomenon know less about consciousness than those who merely speculate?

What most researchers seem to overlook is that every attempt to prove a theory of consciousness that implies a positive metaphysical position is an attempt to refute both the logical results of metaphysics and the truth of the Perennial Philosophy. All such attempts are bound to fail. The ‘Middle Way’ metaphysical position of the Buddha as described, or more accurately proscribed, by the second-century philosopher-monk Nagarjuna in his Fundamental Verses, is the only one endorsed by logic and reason. All other metaphysical positions give rise to fatal contradictions. In this case the rejection of mysticism by the natural sciences is a naive and catastrophic philosophical error. There are no scientific grounds for this rejection and nothing slightly scientific about it.

It is possible only because natural scientists, when they wander off-piste into speculation about consciousness and the true nature of reality, generally ignore the results of analysis. Indeed, many are happy to endorse logically incoherent theories such as philosophical materialism and religious monotheism quite as if rational thought were unnecessary to scientific progress. Yet metaphysics does not reject the Perennial Philosophy and this is the only theory it does not reject. That it rejects all other theories has been proved beyond all possible doubt, for it the reason why Western thinkers believe metaphysics is hopeless and why they find it so. They cannot find a theory that metaphysics endorses because there is only one and they do not study it.

The hard problem of consciousness, therefore, may be redefined as the problem of falsifying Buddhist doctrine. In this case the problem does not exist. The neutral metaphysic that grounds Buddhist doctrine is irrefutable in logic and this is what Nagarjuna shows. We will never be able to prove or justify some other explanation of consciousness. If this is a problem for some researchers then it is not a philosophical or scientific one. The only problem here would be the difficulty of conceding that Buddhist doctrine might be true, and while this might be an ‘easy’ or a ‘hard’ problem for us as individuals it should not be generalised to others.

Metaphysics reveals that the problem of consciousness is an artefact of a logically absurd worldview. It would have a well-known solution and so presents no obstacle to a fundamental theory. The task for philosophy of mind and the science of consciousness would be only that of understanding this solution and examining its scientific consequences. The analysis and testing has been done and the situation is clear. Kant tells us that all selective conclusions about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable. Nagarjuna demonstrates that all such conclusions are logically indefensible and goes on to explain the reason why this is the case. Bradley lays out a similar but less formal argument in Appearance and Reality. George Spencer Brown in his 1967 book Laws of Form, where he presents an arithmetic calculus for Boolean algebra, gives us a mathematically-sound fundamental account of the origin of form that avoids all logically absurd theories for a neutral one. This metaphysical position was endorsed by Erwin Schrödinger and is sufficiently well-known to have become the ‘Pondicherry’ interpretation for quantum mechanics. Yet this solution for metaphysics is largely unknown in scientific consciousness studies and philosophy of mind. What could explain this unless it is perversity, limited scholarship and ideological blinkering?

The logical positivists were well aware that positive metaphysical theories do not work since this was their reason for setting up an anti-metaphysical club in the first place. Those who argue against the usefulness of metaphysics do so for this very reason, that it does not produce a positive result. They miss the fact that there is a perfectly good explanation for this because the reports of the mystics are so little studied in the academic world. A neutral metaphysical position is mysticism and it seems many people would rather face an intractable problem than concede ground to what, presumably, they imagine is an unscientific, irrational or speculative religious theory. Or perhaps the obstacle is just ‘not invented here’ syndrome. It must be admitted that mysticism has been poor at explaining itself in terms that might appeal to a modern scientifically-minded academic audience and so far has not even succeeded in convincing more than a rare few scientists to take it seriously, but this situation would soon change if the academic community started to do so.

Yet the tide may turn, for the longer consciousness remains an unsolved problem in the sciences the more plausible the perennial solution becomes. Perhaps this will eventually lead to a recognition that mysticism is not the enemy of religion, philosophy or science but only of incoherent conjectural religious, philosophical and scientific doctrines. Rather than being an enemy of reason or a threat to science the Perennial Philosophy allows us to make sense of metaphysics, religion and the fundamental basis of the physical world. The problem posed by a neutral metaphysical theory is only that of understanding it.

Can scientific consciousness studies ever make such a concession to mysticism? Only if it decides that respecting logic and reason would not disqualify the discipline from being scientific. What may be said with certainty, as Chalmers surmises, is that if it continues to ignore metaphysics then consciousness studies must give up on explaining consciousness. A coherent fundamental theory will be forever impossible.

It is a matter of commonsense that if consciousness studies is to be a rational pursuit then it must accept the results of metaphysics. If it does this then in principle the problem of consciousness is solved. Would this be a scientific solution? My own view is that it is. but perhaps there are definitional issues that allow for a different view. Who cares? Either it works or it does not. Would it be a naturalistic solution? Again, this is a question of definitions. It would certainly be impossible to show it is not naturalistic, and we would have to know all about this solution and all about Nature before we are qualified to judge. Would it be a rational solution? This is an easy question. Metaphysics refutes all metaphysical positions except one and a rational thinker would be bound to endorse it. 

About the author

Peter Guy Jones’ research interest is the philosophical foundation of the Perennial Philosophy and the relationship of this ancient description of reality with current Western metaphysical thought. 

This essay is a summary of issues discussed at greater length in his forthcoming book on metaphysics and mysticism.

His concern is with the failure of Western thinkers to take mysticism seriously and with  the way in which this ideological narrowing of attention renders philosophy in our universities inconclusive and ineffective. 


  1. A intriguing and enjoyable discussion, Peter, of consciousness.

    If I may play off your ideas, my own take on how we’ll arrive at an understanding of consciousness and experience presupposes the effective marrying of philosophy and neuroscience. As we’re well aware, philosophers have grappled with consciousness for millennia. They have formulated many creative hypotheses, but have not been able to claim the brass ring — and on their own, may never. Something’s been missing.

    Neuroscientists are relatively newcomers to the study of consciousness, bringing new, powerful tools to the task. Tools that map the brain and peer deeper into what neuronal and synaptic activity results in by way of awareness, experience, agency, identity, intentionality, reality, free will, subjectivism, and so forth. The whole mélange. The challenge in understanding consciousness — framed intelligibly, logically, consistently, confirmably — surely is not just one of metaphysics. (To that extent, I suppose the preceding notion diverges somewhat from the essay’s assertion that ‘a rational science of consciousness must begin and end with the results of metaphysical analysis’.)

    Going forward, philosophy of the mind and neuroscience will mutually inform. Indeed, they will have to. There is no excuse for jealously staking out separate turf, in an unhelpful toggling between the two fields of thought or in me-versus-them-ism. Rather, there exist significant areas of overlap and distinct commonalities, increasingly and encouragingly recognized by all parties. All the more so as philosophy of the mind and neuroscience see each other as force-multipliers. And arguably doing so in a quintessentially physicalist rejection of mind-body dualism.

    To be sure, the symbiosis between philosophy and neuroscience has indeed been happening, in aspects both necessary and unabated. There’s an implied recognition that both fields have limitations, while both also offer strengths. To those extents, philosophers’ historical hypotheses, a rich cocktail, intersect with and stir neuroscientists’ imagination about innovative possibilities. In turn, neuroscientists’ powerful, rational methodologies reciprocate, inspiring philosophers’ thinking and introducing avenues of study not previously imagined, let alone doable.

    Jointly, neuroscience and philosophy, inescapably informed by the other, will eventually get us to an understanding of human consciousness and its many manifestations, all ‘the hard problems’ notwithstanding.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As you will know I cannot agree. I find the idea that neuroscience and philosophy of mind are going to help us understand consciousness highly implausible since neither discipline studies the phenomenon. Only those who study the actual phenomenon claim an understanding, and at this time their explanation is studiously ignored by neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Pardon my scepticism, but as your first paragraph indicates history is my side.

  2. Thank you to Peter Jones for worthwhile read.

    I think that this is correct: 'The most general and indubitable result of metaphysical analysis is that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.'

    I suspect that the solution to the problem of consciousness lies here: that we have created categories which do not exist, and have not discovered those which do.

    1. Thanks for your generous comment. The point about categories is crucial.

  3. Thank you for this post about the science of consciousness


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