The Strong Assumption


The Strong Assumption
Annaka Harris

The central challenge to a science of consciousness is that we can never acquire direct evidence of consciousness apart from our own experience. When we look at all the organisms (or collections of matter) in the universe and ask ourselves, “Which of these collections of matter contain conscious experiences?” in the broadest sense, the answer has to be “some” or “all”—the only thing we have direct evidence to support is that the answer isn’t “none,” as we know that at least our own conscious experiences exist.

Until we attain a significantly more advanced understanding of the brain, and of many other systems in nature for that matter, we’re forced to begin with one of two assumptions: either consciousness arises at some point in the physical world, or it is a fundamental part of the physical world (some, or all). And the sciences have thus far led with the assumption that the answer is “some” (and so have I, for most of my career) for understandable reasons. But I would argue that the grounds for this starting assumption have become weaker as we learn more about the brain and the role consciousness plays in behavior.[1]

The problem is that what we deem to be conscious processes in nature is based solely on reportability. And at the very least, the work with split-brain and locked-in patients should have radically shifted our reliance on reportability at this point. Ask split-brain patient, Julie, what she’s experiencing, and you’ll get the impression that none of the input to her right hemisphere is consciously experienced (which we know is not the case).[2] How could we even begin to guess whether there is a felt experience associated with the processing of the kidneys, for example? All we have to go on is an analogy to where we find reports of conscious experience, even within in a human brain. “Yes, I feel that”—okay that processing is conscious. “No, I don’t feel that” —okay, no felt experience associated with that processing… we’re on very shaky ground here.[3]

The realization that all of our scientific investigations of consciousness are unwittingly rooted in a blind assumption led me to pose two questions that I think are essential for a science of consciousness to keep asking:

  1. Can we find conclusive evidence of consciousness from outside a system?
  2. Is consciousness causal? (Is it doing something? Is it driving any behavior?)

The truth is that we have less and less reason to respond “yes” to either question with any confidence. And if the answer to these questions is in fact “no,” which is entirely possible, we’ll be forced to reconsider our jumping off point. Personally I’m still agnostic, putting the chances that consciousness is fundamental vs. emergent at more or less 50/50. But after focusing on this topic for more than twenty years, I’m beginning to think that assuming consciousness is fundamental is actually a slightly more coherent starting place.



[1] For more, see chapter 3 “Is Consciousness Free?” in CONSCIOUS

[2] For more, see my recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies,“The Future of Panpsychism”and chapter 5 “Who Are We?” in CONSCIOUS

[3] For a bit of intuition-shaking, reflect upon these views of conscious processes, absent a “reporter”:
Neuron Time-Lapse Video, “This would be conscious if it were still alive”, and “Zooming In On the Human Brain”



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