Can Human Self-Awareness be Exhaustively Explained by Science?



Since the enlightenment, it has become ever more acceptable to believe that the category of existence, or things that are real, is limited to phenomena composed of matter. The naturalist asserts that if it is not constructed of material parts, then it does not exist at all. This and other such claims, however, betray their veracity from the onset because they rely on metaphysics in their appeal to a source of validation beyond the material realm. This is because materialism has no method by which it can prove this claim as a brute fact; one cannot prove that only matter exists by observing matter. Beyond this are additional problems. This materialist view excludes all things qualitative, be they experiences of music, visual art, beauty, love, and so on. The most interesting phenomenon excluded by this materialist perspective is the very means by which one has the capacity for qualitative experiences: self-awareness.

Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers notes that we humans “play movies” in our heads that project to us real time observations, dreams, memories, ideas, and other mental images. What is fascinating about these experiences is not the “movies” themselves, but that there is a “me” that is observing and experiencing them.

Before progressing further, I want to emphasize a distinction that highlights the primary focus of my argument. By claiming that human consciousness and self-awareness cannot be exhaustively explained by science, I do not mean that science cannot observe and explain self-awareness right now, but might find a way in the future. What I mean is that this “me,” this observer, this subject cannot ever be accessed and quantified by the scientific method because it isn’t quantitative but rather qualitative, and the aim of science is to observe and explain that which is quantifiable.

In light of of this qualitative problem of self-awareness, some have posited a radical hypothesis: self-awareness is an illusion. If they are correct, then my argument is moot from here on out because there is no use arguing for something that doesn’t exist. This claim, however, is not merely radical. It seems outright absurd, for it denies the very phenomenon that, for centuries, has been held by epistemologists to be the chief certainty among our human experiences. There is even a school of philosophy, solipsism, that argues that our self-awareness is the only thing we can know exists.

To question self-awareness is to introduce contradiction from the outset, for if one asks “do I exist?” they must also necessarily ask “well, who is asking?” In other words, the question cannot even be posed without presupposing the existence of the self, the subject. To deny self-awareness is not only denying that there is a “you” experiencing the world, hearing music, viewing a film, etc.; it is denying that there is a “you” or a “me” at all. It is to propose that the foundation and awareness of each of our subjective experiences, the means through which we observe, interact with and know the world doesn’t actually exist. It is the most absurd of absurdities; it is to deny the most obvious aspect of our existence.

With that in place, the central question of this post is introduced: Can human self-awareness be exhaustively explained by science?

The scientific method is a system by which its employers seek to answer questions about the natural world. Scientists pose a question about some phenomenon in the universe and seek to answer the question through observation, testing, and re-testing their findings to control for anomalies and establish regularity. Thus in order for the scientific method to answer questions and offer new facts and knowledge about what is being observed, the phenomenon being observed must be 1) generally observable (meaning observable by most everyone, given the proper tools and sensory abilities) and 2) falsifiable. If a phenomenon isn’t observable, then it cannot be studied, and if it is not falsifiable, then there is nothing to be discovered about the phenomenon, at least as far as the scientific method is concerned. To answer the question central to this article in the affirmative, it must be demonstrated that human self-awareness is 1) observable and 2) falsifiable.

There is indeed a sense in which human self-awareness is observable; it is implied by the very term itself. The self can observe their own awareness. However, subjective observations or experiences are not adequate methods of observation because one’s subjectivity is not accessible to others. Effects related to self awareness can be observed, such as neurological activity in the brain and verbal descriptions of experiences being had. However, these material aspects of self awareness tell us nothing more than there are material aspects associated with self-awareness; they never grant firsthand access to what it is to be the subject.  To reduce human self-awareness to these material processes and observable constituents is akin to saying that one viewing a painting is nothing more than the painting’s material components or that, in Chalmer’s “movie” example, one isn’t the viewer of the movie, but the movie itself.

At this point, some may object to my claim that self-awareness will never be the kind of thing science can observe and argue that, while it is currently incapable of directly observing consciousness, science may eventually develop the tools necessary for making such a direct observation. To see why this argument fails, consider what it would mean to directly observe one’s self awareness. It would require that one, in essence, become the subject being observed, given that one’s self awareness, as previously stated, is the thing that makes me “me.” My self-awareness isn’t merely the movie of dreams, memories, and real-time experiences I am having, and one’s observation of these things would not be observing self-awareness, but rather that which the self is aware of. Self-awareness, in other words, is the very means by which I observe and have experiences of these visualizations. Thus even if scientists are one day capable of seeing my mental images, hearing my mental sounds, etc. they are still not accessing the “me” that sees and hears these things, but merely the things I see and hear.

Because self-awareness is not directly observable, it necessarily follows that scientific questions regarding consciousness are not falsifiable via the scientific method. Can human self-awareness and consciousness be exhaustively explained by science? Clearly, they cannot.

For further reading and viewing on this topic, I recommend the following:

“God and the Mad Hatter,” and article by David Bentley Hart

“What is Consciousness?” from the PBS tv program Closer to Truth