Consciousness Is an Axiom, Not a Theorem

2 min readJun 21, 2023

This brief article is in reply to Casper Skern Wilstrup’s piece: We Know Exactly What Consciousness Is — Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise. In that article it is argued that an understanding of consciousness cannot be rooted in the ideas that science presents to us about an external world, via neurology ,quantum fields, mathematics and so forth. Wilstrup bases his argument on idealism (he expounds his idealism more directly here), which turns any attempt to ground consciousness in science into a vicious circle, because in its estimation science is an emanation of consciousness only, outside of which there is nothing. You can’t ground consciousness in something whose only ground is itself consciousness. (I hope that I have stated Wilstrup’s argument correctly). The argument is valid if you are willing to grant idealism. I am not. It seems to me an arrogant position: that the only thing that exists is our own consciousness. This ushers us back into that comfortable world from which Copernicus (and Aristarchus before him ) exiled us-namely the world of which we are the center. Here’s a much simpler argument for Wilstrup’s conclusion, in which idealism plays no role.

We find it self-evident that we have consciousness, in that that it is like something to be us at each moment. There is, as it were, someone home. We also find it self-evident that our experience is a structure in which primitives (qualia) often appear. Let us take the canonical example of a quale: color. A color is a quale because it has no internal structure for us, no parts. Initially (we all start as naïve realists) we take color to be a property of the objects around us. Later most of come to think that color in our minds is not a direct copy of or access to something in the physical world, but some sort of representation of it. Even after escaping naïve realism, we still believe that when we see a particular color, that color is an element of experience with its own essential nature.

The above paragraph contains two statements of belief, the first that we have consciousness, and the second that our experience includes primitive elements, each with its own essence. Both are of an introspective nature, that is, they are statements that emerge from our self-model.

What do we mean by these statements, and why do we believe them? It seems that both statements are primitive, in the sense that they cannot be explained in other terms. I cannot (nor it seems can anyone else) imagine what an argument establishing their truth would look like, or even what notion of truth would apply (except “obvious without argument”). They have no hope of being formulated as scientific statements (you can posit all the conscious electrons or quantum mind-stuff or Φs that you like — it won’t help a bit). I conclude that we believe these things because we can’t help it; they are built into our minds as are axioms into a mathematical theory. This conclusion is a species of mysterianism.