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Mind, Science, and the First- and Third-Person

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Science is concerned with studying physical processes and phenomena. So anything that isn’t physical (like the mind/consciousness) can’t studied by science. I have made many sound arguments for this conclusion. However, we can go deeper. Here is the argument:

(1) Mind is first-personal and subjective.

(2) But science is third-personal and objective.

So (3) it follows that science (a third-personal objective endeavor) can’t study mind (first-personal subjective states).

I will defend these both premises and the conclusion in this article.

Defending the premises

Premise (1) The existence of a first-person perspective (FPP) is necessary and sufficient for consciousness. It is this first-person perspective that we are experiencing, as I write this article and as you read it. A first-person view is subjective experience. Each human has their own special access to their own minds that is “private.” By “private”, I mean it is only accessible to them, the agent, and not accessible to anyone else. If it’s not accessible to anyone else, and another observer would be a third-person observer, then it isn’t accessible by the methods of science. Further, the pronoun “I” denotes an FPP. When we refer to ourselves, we say “I.” “I did that.” “I will do that.” “I have done that.” All of these considerations point to one thing: Consciousness is a subjective state in which agents experience sensations and feelings, and the world around them.

The FPP is the first person perspective of “I”—and by that I mean the experience that we all have every day of our lives. It’s how we ourselves experience the world around us. By “subjective” I mean simply that which belongs to the thinking subject. Subjective states can be said to be intentional states. Intentional states are normative and so irreducible to the physical. So subjective knowledge is—private—knowledge of one’s first-personal states, their beliefs, goals, and desires.

Premise (2) When I say “Science is third-personal”, I mean that there is an observer—on the outside, deliberating on things, viewing things. They are using their first-personal subjective experience to do science, which is in the third person. The mind, apparently, is just the electro-chemistry of the brain—basically the mind is what the brain does. However, mind isn’t identical to brain. Yes, scientists can study the brain since it is made up of physical parts, and neurophysiologists can study the states of the brain. Of course we use our first-personal subjective states to scientifically study what is third-personal. But this need not license the conclusion that since we can study the brain using neuroscience then we can study the mind using neuroscience since M and P are not identical. M is subjective, while P is objective. Lavazza and Robinson (2014) explain this perfectly:

Another set of arguments that present an apparently unanswerable objection to a materialist view is grounded in the fact that every item in an entirely material world would admit of third-person description. Every item would be accessible to the third-person viewpoint and would be amenable to description based on what is revealed to that viewpoint. The problem for the materialist view is that any such description will fail to capture what is accessible only to a first-person viewpoint and thus necessarily will omit the very centre of a person’s world; more specifically, it will omit the self, understood as the subject of conscious states as well as much of the intentional content of those states. As David Lund maintains, third-person information about oneself (knowledge of oneself by description) seems indeed to be neither necessary nor sufficient for consciousness of oneself. It is not sufficient, for (in first-person terms) I would be unable to see that the third-person information is information about me unless I were already aware of myself in a first-person way. But in the materialist view, it would have to be sufficient.

Conclusion I have successfully defended both premises, and so the conclusion that science (third-personal) cannot study mind (first-personal) follows. Of course there is the field of neuroscience where we study the brain’s physiology. Neuroscience contains 2 assumptions—(1) that the mind is physical; and (2) that the brain (or some aspect of the CNS) is sufficient for the mind, that is, we are our brains. The goal, then, is to attempt to discover the sufficient conditions of consciousness; basically the brain produces the mind and there are parts of the mind which are reducible to or identical to parts of the brain. The physical enables conscious experience—that is, it is a dependency condition. But dependency conditions are not sufficient conditions. The ultimate claim, then, is that phenomenal experience is identical to, reducible to, or sufficient from neural activity. Neuroscience neither has the skills nor methods to study the mind—being a science and third-personal, it can only study the physical and so it studies the brain, and the CNS, not the mind. There are organs that have specific processes that we can study, like the stomach and digestion, or the lung and breathing, or the heart and blood circulation. So then it would follow that we study the brain for mind, as neuroscientists assume. But the claim clearly fails (Manzotti and Moderato, 2014).

Francis Crick—one of the discoverers of DNA along with James Watson and Rosalind Franklin— in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis said that humans are

“Just a bunch of neurons…You, your joys, and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Of course neurons and everything else that makes up the brain is necessary for the mind but necessariness isn’t sufficientness and it definitely isn’t identity, so Crick’s claim is false.

Richard Dawkins in 1976 argued that humans are mere gene-machines, that is, humans exist merely to propagate selfish genes. But selfishness is a property of organisms (so that’s a mereological fallacy), his idea isn’t even testable by Dawkins’ own admission and DNA can’t be regarded as separate from the cell (Noble, 2011, 2018).

The attempt from Crick to reduce human mental life to mere neurons and by Dawkins to reduce human social life to being for “selfish genes” clearly fail. The most important part, I think, is that they are reductive perspectives, and reductionism is false, so their claims are false. These two claims are attempts at using science to explain the mind and (what appear to be, for Dawkins) intentionality (from his selfish genes), and they obviously fail.


A similar argument is made by Lynne Rudder Baker, where she gives an argument she calls “the master argument”: (1) All phenomena can be explained by science. (2) All science is constructed exclusively from a third-personal view. So (3) All phenomena can be explained with a third-personal view. (Also see Baker, 2007.)

Obviously it’s valid, but is it sound? No, it isn’t, since the first premise is obviously false—mind cannot be explained by a third-personal perspective.

Scientific naturalism is clearly false, since it cannot explain all phenomena like the mind since the mind isn’t physically/ontologically reducible. So, again, as many other arguments have established and entailed, we are not fully physical and, due to this, science can’t explain all aspects of humans. Two substances exist, one first-personal, subjective and private, and the other objective and public. So we should accept that there is an irreducible aspect of human constitution that science simply cannot study, as hard as they try. Thus, the limits of science are clear—Science CANNOT explain everything.



  1. intersubjectively testable says:

    it’s just a matter of how you want to define science. natural scientists contemn the social sciences, the soft sciences, as so much bullshit. i agree with them.

    but there are psychological, economic, societal, political, anthropological phenomena and so one would like to explain them, predict them.

    one can communicate with some other minds and to this extent know them. but he can never be inside someone else’s mind. Latin sciō, the present participle scīre, meaning “to know”.

    a more charitable and hopeful pov is that these phenomena are simply too complex or subtle for any would be science today, but may be more amenable in the future.

    everyone has physics envy. but physics is what it is precisely because the phenomena it focuses on are so simple.


    • RaceRealist says:

      I don’t think that everything can have an explanation of origins, and mind is one of those things. That something “may be more amenable in the future” is like the “wait X years” argument from hereditarians on genetic and neurological causes of IQ—it’s hollow.


    • try steelmanning hereditism for once. says:

      it is. i agree. and i think the empirical case against hereditism is strong for every so-called “psychological trait” except intelligence. i think joseph is right about psychiatry and addiction. i think there is no genetic basis of homosexuality. but it could be personality tests are just shitty, and shitty because personality is so complex.

      HBDers are dumb. but you can steel man their case. ask yourself: “what facts would change my mind?” if your answer is “none”, then your theory is just as un-scientific as theirs.


    • iceland leads the world in unionization for example. says:

      ask yourself: “why do so many people feel like there is something to hereditism even if they’ve never even heard the term ‘heritability’?”

      ask yourself: “what are the practical consequences of my position?”

      as i have said many times at PP’s the political conclusion of GxE is that small homogeneous societies are also the best sovereign states. iceland is the paradigmatic example.


  2. if a lion could talk we couldn't understand him. says:

    human behavior is objective.


    • RaceRealist says:

      How do you define “human behavior”?


    • there're many babies in the bathwater. says:

      everything a human with a mind and a zombie have in common.

      real world problem: too many applicants for a job or to a school. what do you do? one objective means of deciding who’s hired or who’s admitted is a test score. the score is a behavior. whether it measures anything in the mind doesn’t matter. there’s no reason to worry about such things. call it an IQ test if you like. don’t call it an IQ test if you don’t like.

      inflation is a human behavior, a behavior of humans collectively.

      economic inequality, drug addiction, suicide, etc…


  3. Science is Latin for knowledge. And knowledge is limited.

    Yes, I cannot know what others personally experience but this does not mean everyone lacks cognitive empathy and are autistic.

    We extrapolate from our own perspective what others may be experiencing.

    What we know may or may not be true.

    But if you are not autistic you know more true things than those who are.


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