Steven Pinker on Consciousness

In a recent article in Time Magazine, also posted on the Internet and becoming a front page news story at, Steven Pinker argues that consciousness is merely activity in the brain. In the article, Pinker denies the existence of a soul and the possibility of an afterlife. However, Pinker’s case is remarkably weak once analyzed with a marginal degree of philosophical rigor.

Pinker mentions the difference between the Easy problem and the Hard problem in philosophy of mind. The Easy problem is “to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.” The Hard problem is “why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head- why there is first-person, subjective experience.”

The Hard problem as such is a huge problem for physicalist and reductionist theories of the mind. But Pinker tries to discount substance dualism (belief in the soul) with reference to the Easy problem. He says, “Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain.”

However, Pinker makes a logical leap by assuming that correlation of brain states and consciousness imply that consciousness is identical to brain states. Correlation does not entail exact similarity- for example, all triangles have 3 sides and 3 angles. Thus, in triangles, the property of having 3 sides is always correlated with having 3 angles. Yet, the two properties are not the same. This merely demonstrates a simple truth of logic- correlation does not demonstrate similarity.

Thus, even if neuroscientists were able to pinpoint every brain state for corresponding mental states, this would neither demonstrate the truth of physicalism nor the falsity of substance dualism.

So how do we decide? This brings us to the Hard problem, the one that Pinker practically admits is impossible for physicalists to solve. But since Pinker incorrectly believes that progress on the Easy problem is a refutation of substance dualism, he brushes off the idea of a soul in a mere sentence:

“No one knows what to do with the Hard Problem. Some people may see it as an opening to sneak the soul back in, but this just relabels the mystery of ‘consciousness’ as the mystery of ‘the soul’- a word game that provides no insight.”

Here Pinker is wrong on two accounts. First of all, the soul does not need to “sneak” back in- because it never left! Secondly, the idea of a soul does at least help us solve the Hard problem of the mind. Since the soul is a completely different kind of thing than physical objects, it can explain why consciousness is completely different than anything physical objects could produce. And even if postulating a soul does not answer all of our questions, this does nothing to undermine the strong philosophical basis for preferring substance dualism over physicalism.

Is Physicalism Depressing?

At the end of his article, Steven Pinker tries to argue that the lack of a soul and the impossibility of an afterlife really aren’t as disappointing as some people think. Pinker seems to think this realization may actually have a positive impact on ethics, saying that “once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous.” Certainly does, but I highly doubt that people have been cruel in the past and present because they somehow doubted that other persons really existed.

Even more absurd, Pinker tries to make some sort of connection to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, saying “And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.”

It seems unfair to associate the doctrine of the afterlife with terrorists acting in self-interest.

Pinker suggests that the shortness of life may make us value it more, but in reality life can have no meaning if all conscious life is doomed to eventually die.


Pinker makes several philosophical mistakes in his attempt to explain away consciousness. However, as Pinker himself admits, the Hard problem doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Even though most philosophers reject substance dualism, the fact that they do so for reasons such as the ones advocated by Steven Pinker offer a great comfort to the Christian who believes in the existence of a soul.


  1. I’m not sure you give Pinker his due in the first part of this article. Casually brushing off his argument by saying “well, just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t prove it’s a duck” doesn’t quite level his position. He claims that consciousness depends not only on brain states but on certain functional structures within the brain—for example, pretend the brain is a computer. Indeed it cannot function without all its parts, but Pinker is saying that if he removes the CPU, all processing ceases, therefore the CPU must do the processing. If I remove other parts, say, the RAM or hard drive, I still see processing (even though the computer doesn’t work), but when the CPU is gone, the processing is no more. I can reasonably conclude that instruction processing goes on in the CPU and not elsewhere. I don’t think hand-waving about triangles is going to make that go away.

    Pinker also gives several examples to support his hypothesis, namely that the brain is a series of haphazardly firing neurons and that boisterous cacophony is harmonized only momentarily during conscious perception. Yet I don’t really see you objecting to any of his evidence—this would be crucial, as he claims the “mounting evidence” against dualism is the reason he’s come to such a conclusion.

    Now, Pinkers’ is the kind of article I hate—I don’t believe a word of it, but I really can’t find anything wrong with it either. Maybe together we can. ;)

    — Vincent    Feb 3, 05:04 AM    #
  2. It is interesting that surveys show that the proportion of religious believers is higher among mathematicians and physicists than among biologists and social scientists. An appreciation for the beauty-and uncertainty-of higher mathematics seems to argue against the kind of reductionism that one finds in the writing of those like Pinker and Dennett.

    Richard    Feb 5, 03:44 PM    #
  3. Vincent,

    My point is just that the mere fact of a correlation does not prove the physicalist thesis that Pinker defends. You seem to be saying that, since all consciousness ceases when a certain part of the brain is removed or dies; we can reasonably conclude that the physical brain is what caused the consciousness in the first place. But there are several problems with this argument.

    First of all, it has not been proven that consciousness ceases when the brain ceases to function. We cannot really know what happens after death.

    But second of all, the argument only proves that a physical brain is a necessary component of conscious experience. The argument does not show that a brain is sufficient for conscious experience.

    And, in fact, we learn from the “Hard” problem of consciousness that a physical brain is NOT sufficient for consciousness. Physicalists are unable to account for the felt, first-person experience of consciousness. So, EVEN IF a physical brain is necessary for consciousness (a dubious assertion in itself- as I said earlier, there is no way for us to establish that this is the case), the necessity of the soul is not eliminated.



    Kyle Deming    Feb 5, 04:55 PM    #
  4. Kyle,

    Thanks for your reply!

    I see your point. So I must ask, then, suppose for the sake of argument that man is able to create a synthetic consciousness out of extremely advanced AI/neural networking. Even though we can never be sure the entity is having a genuine conscious experience, all the outward signs appear to suggest that it is fully sentient. Is this proof that consciousness is a result of complex brain structures? Or is it just a clever consciousness-impostor?

    — Vincent    Feb 9, 02:00 PM    #
  5. Interesting post (which I surfed into via my “Stumble!” button).

    IMO, it’s pretty hard to debate a thing when the other person (Pinker) has already made up his mind that all that exists is the result of time, matter and chance. All kinds of atheism can be “proven” when you start from that assumption. The real issue here is not science or faith but assumptions and which are worth … well, assuming.

    Mrs. Nicklebee    Feb 11, 09:48 PM    #
  6. Very interesting discussion. I think Mrs Nicklebee makes a very strong point. David Hume the renowned atheist philosopher a priori rejected supernatural and miracles from having any possibility of existence. No amount of evidence or persuasion will do anything to one who has sealed off even the possibiklity of your position from being true.

    Robert    Mar 23, 06:36 PM    #
  7. interesting discussion, but i don’t think the “correlation” points you make are so compelling as arguments about this issue. we have to make methodological decisions in the pursuit of knowledge and one possible decision is that we shouldn’t have two explanations for something if we already have one. you’re of course right that finding a physical (neural) explanation for something doesn’t mean there isn’t a non-physical one. but one of these explanations is then redundant.

    also, i don’t think it’s quite fair to say the 9/11 terrorists were acting in self-interest. i think it’s clear they believed they were serving a higher cause and they surely believed they would be rewarded by god for their actions.

    on a similar note, i would claim that belief in an afterlife makes it easier for a soldier to consider giving her life for a cause, and it’s not clear to me that this is a good thing.

    pinker’s a smart guy thinking really hard about really hard questions. i think he will help us understand what we can explain and what we can’t explain. and ultimately—i guess this is my main difference with you, based on what i know—i think christianity must be reduced to faith. science is a gift and it’s helping us understand just about everything, and there’s nothing atheistic about that.

    — visitor    Mar 29, 02:38 AM    #
  8. It is not only the soul that will be resurrected, but the body also. Perhaps the brain provides the soul an experiential matrix without which it would not be able to sense this place- provides it a foothold in the physical world. I’ve always wondered what is God’s preoccupation with resurrecting our bodies? I guess the formula is that a plant is a resurrected seed like our new selves will be the resurrection of our bodies (brain as well). That right there would almost allow me to say you could be a Christian and a physicalist at the same time, if it weren’t for the whole “to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” thing that Paul says. I think the biggest problem with atheistic physicalism, though, is that it inevitably runs into determinism- there is no alternative. That doesn’t seem to bother them much, though, that all human behavior is just the latter end of a set of dominoes, so to speak, that began at the big bang- all predictable if one had all known data from the swirling dot right before it exploded.

    Bryan    Apr 13, 11:37 AM    #
  9. I’m a rationalist—-but I think you Christians have got one thing absolutely right.

    The existence of souls.

    I think you guys are right about this.

    If souls exist (defined as eternally existing, thinking and feeling structures that survive the death of the physical body), it MUST be possible to deduce this RATIONALLY. From an examination of human behavior. Without invoking any kind of religion, using only the rules of objective logic and reason.

    It is entirely possible to do this. The analyses are at:

    I invite any and all to come by, read, make your own judgment, and leave a comment. (Plus there is a small tale of my own direct encounter with a disembodied soul once there.)

    I guarantee you an intereting read.

    Jeff    Apr 24, 04:53 PM    #
  10. Fudge.

    Jeff Corkern    Jun 1, 02:05 PM    #
  11. I’m pleased to find this response to Pinker, which articulates my reaction to what I perceive to be his, pardon me, arrogant and naive self-promotion. Goedel’s theorem (“if a system is sufficiently complicated, it has truths that can’t be proven”) which is as hard a logic anvil as can be found, should have been enough to cause him pause before declaring so flatly that there is no “substance” of consciousness, soul, or spiritual continuum. I personally favor the idea, which is open to direct experiential exploration, that consciousness is a “doorway” to the spiriritual continuum, something like an intersection of matter, energy and spirituality. In this sense, spirituality might be considered a form of transpersonal consciousness, a domain in which non-corporeal entities exist with minds, histories and intentions. Plenty of room in that view for all the religions of the world. Now if we could just stop fighting over which one was “the only true” religion…

    Interested    Dec 8, 06:35 AM    #
  12. The hard problem is a VERY intriguing problem. Clearly, consciousness cannot possibly be explained away. The hard problem can even be SCARY. What if there are souls after all? What if my turning away from Christianity was a mistake? Similarly, though, people who currently embrace Christianity should entertain the possibility that consciousness really is genereated by the brain and that ULTIMATELY, our lives are utterly devoid of meaning, morality and control. That “persons” are really a figment of our imagination. There is something liberating in that view too, as we could move more towards viewing ourselves and others as passive witnesses of a grand show, and face the tragedy of it like the captain of a sinking ship…

    Sean    Jan 24, 04:51 AM    #
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