brain module Pete Mandik has posted a thought-provoking paper (pdf) by Jack, Robbins, and Roepstorff which suggests we may have been considering the wrong issue all along. The problem with the Hard Problem (how do we square our ineffable, subjective experience of the world with the mechanical reality described by physics), they say, is that we tend to regard subjective experiences as being out there in the same sort of way as physical objects. This makes it hard for us to understand how our two pictures of the world can be reconciled. We end up looking for a mysterious missing ingredient in subjective experience, but that search is hopeless. In fact, JR&R suggest, the difference between the two accounts of the world arises from our using two different brain modules: one aimed at the world in general, one aimed specifically at phenomenal states.

That seems plausible enough at first sight and JR&R contend that it is a parsimonious theory too. It does require an additional brain module, but if you assume that the alternative is some form of dualism (as I think they do) then they’re right, since the additional ontological commitment invoved in dualism would easily outweigh the merely neurological one required for an extra brain module. Moreover, there is apparently some good evidence to support the existence of the phenomenal brain module. It has been shown that activity in parts of the brain concerned with the external world correlates negatively with activity in the parts concerned with thinking about our own mental states (not too surprising, this – it’s hard to imagine paying close attention to your own feelings and to the details of what is going on around you at the same time). More dubiously, JR&R suggest that autism looks a bit like what you get when your phenomenal module fails to operate correctly.

This doesn’t seem quite right, however. If your phenomenal module ceases to function, you surely ought to become a philosophical ‘zombie’ – someone who has no subjective experience. That wouldn’t be at all like autism, however. The behaviour of a philosophical zombie is perfectly normal (since your behaviour is determined by your non-phenomenal cognition): autism, however, certainly does affect your behaviour, in some cases very severely.

The problem is that JR&R are actually assigning three distinct roles to their module: they want it to provide phenomenal experience, to be a kind of higher-order facility which tells us about our own mental states, and a theory-of-mind machine which enables us to understand other people and social interactions (the bit most relevant to autism). The paper, I think, is a little light on explaining why these three things arise from the same basic function – in fact it almost seems to treat them as evidently equivalent. In fairness the paper doesn’t pretend to be more than a sketch of quite a wide-ranging set of ideas.

Do the three go together? I suppose the insight that links them all is that knowing how something feels to us helps us understand how similar experiences feel to other people (only helps, though – I think our understanding of other people consists of a good deal more than just empathy). It is certainly plausible that our understanding of our own mental states arises from our understanding of other people’s (though there are those who would say that it is our understanding of other people’s minds that leads us to think we have our own). Less persuasive on the face of it is the view that our subjective experience is a matter of knowledge about our own inner states. My subjective experiences appear to me to be about the external world for the most part, and it isn’t immediately clear why second-order knowledge of my own mental states should endow them with subjective qualities. Of course, some people have put forward theories very much along those lines – Nicholas Humphrey, for example. But you certainly can’t, as it were, have that conclusion for nothing.

Anyway if JR&R are at least broadly right, then there will always appear to be a mysterious Hard Problem, because we’re just built that way. But they hold out instead the possibility of addressing instead the ‘Genuine Problem’, namely the question of the structure of cognition and its two modules. The good news, they say, is that this question can be addressed scientifically, so we won’t have to wait around to see whether philosophers can get anywhere with the issues over the next thousand years or so. As a project, this is unquestionably a good idea: if science could explain the differences between the two modules and how one gives rise to subjectivity, that would be a very major advance. Unfortunately, I think merely saying that makes it clear how much remains to be done, and raises a fear that JR&R have themselves fallen into a trap they describe: of setting out to explain qualia and ending up explaining something more amenable to science instead.

JR&R also make a plea for the return of the subjective as a field of proper research, mentioning the introspectionists of bygone days. Rhetorically this may be a mistake: I found my own automatic reaction was more or less the same as if they had called for a fresh look at the virtues of Ptolemaic astronomy. In fact they are careful to distinguish between the problematic efforts of Titchener and Wundt and the more measured approach they advocate.

A stimulating paper, anyway, though I for one will continue to beat my head philosophically against the good old Hard Problem.


  1. 1. Alex says:

    “Embodiment and Cognitive Science” by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. is an interesting book. I was reminded of it when reading this post. The book touches on the relationship between the body and our thinking. He tries to convince us that our thinking happens through our body.

  2. 2. peter.hankins says:

    Thanks, Alex.

  3. 3. Anthony Jack says:

    Thanks very much for your comments on our currently very rough draft of ‘The genuine problem of consciousness’.

    Some confusions I want to clear up:
    1) We certainly do not hold that there is a ‘phenomenal’ module which supports subjective experience in individuals (nice picture, though!). The ‘phenomenal stance’ module that we propose only supports the ability of individuals to understand themselves and others as bearers of phenomenal states. The point of the paper is to indicate that the following idea is an attractive but ultimately mistaken view: There is some module, mechanism, physical or non-physical process, sustance or property that is needed for a being to have phenomenal states. According to our view, there is nothing that determines whether or not the ‘philosophical zombie’ has subjective experience, other than the stance you take to it. Same object, different ways of thinking about it. So we regard it as an entirely futile endevour to look for a module that supports phenomenal experience.

    2) However, we agree that there is a very difficult problem here – a problem about what may be wholly incomensurable ways of seeing the same object. The ‘hard problem’ assumes that this is a problem about the object itself. This view is mistaken and thus the ‘hard problem’ isn’t a real problem. Our problem is a ‘genuine’ problem in two senses: First it is a real problem. Second, it is a genuine problem in the sense of being very difficult. Yes, we think our formulation gives us a much more tractable handle on the problem, but we wouldn’t even go so far as to definitely claim it is soluble. Perhaps our cognitive systems are such that we will never get our phenomenal and physical conceptual systems to fully cohere. There is nothing in nature to say this shouldn’t be so – it might simply be a cognitive limitation of ours. (Although note that this is a very different formulation of what our limitation is from that proposed by McGinn – he thought the phenomenal and physical were different and we couldn’t understand how to bring them together. We think they are the same and our cognitive limitation is that we pull them apart.)

    3) The relevance of autistic spectrum disorder to our argument is somewhat different from that suggested. It is discussed at length alongside psychopathy in a paper which came out last year in Philosophical Studies:
    “The Phenomenal Stance” Robbins, Philip; Jack, Anthony; Philosophical Studies, Volume 127, Number 1, January 2006, pp. 59-85(27)

  4. 4. peter.hankins says:

    Thanks for the clarification: sorry to have misrepresented you. Sorry also that your comments have taken a few days to appear – for reasons which elude me my anti-spam software thought they were suspicious in some way.

    I shall read “The Phenomenal Stance” with interest – thanks for the link.

  5. 5. Steve L says:

    I read the paper by Jack, Robbins and Ropestorff and I found myself confused as I often do when reading about consciousness. For me consciousness should be about what I am conscious of. But JRR are mostly talking about mental processing/activity that I am not conscious of.

    My senses take in a vast amount of information but I am only aware/conscious of some of it, mostly only that to which I direct my attention. But somewhere there is processing continuing on all of this sensory data, so the smell of my partner’s cooking will suddenly impinge on my consciousness, or a particular piece of music playing on the radio will grab my attention.

    In the same way in my interactions with others, how I interact is not governed by just conscious thoughts and reasoning. A lot is decided by non-verbal signs and other unconscious perceptions. And by my own mood, feelings and judgements that I may not be aware of. There may be some brain process that makes decisions about my interactions with others but I am most certainly not aware of its processing, it is not conscious.

    I am aware of some of what my brain perceives and I am aware of my conscious mental musings. But there is a huge amount going on that I have no awareness/consciousness of. JRR muddle these two together and I end up unable to follow when they are talking about a conscious mental thought or some unconscious process, a perception that is attended to or one that is just background and not attended to.

    A confused,

  6. 6. Eric Thomson says:

    Anthony Jack said:

    According to our view, there is nothing that determines whether or not the ‘philosophical zombie’ has subjective experience, other than the stance you take to it. Same object, different ways of thinking about it. So we regard it as an entirely futile endevour to look for a module that supports phenomenal experience.

    Egads. It sounds like he is either saying that systems don’t (objectively) have qualia: we just attribute qualia to systems when we invoke a certain explanatory framework (the phenomenal stance), but this attribution is actually wrong since qualia don’t exist. There is no hard problem, just the problem of qualia concepts.

    This position, of course, doesn’t work for those of us who think that we in fact have phenomenal experience: i.e., experiences aren’t just a useful fiction. This runs into all the problems with interpretivism in semantic theory, which I had thought was sort of dead. While as a naturalist, I would really like to be convinced of their argument, the existence of things like stomach aches, dreams, and hallucinations makes me suspicious.

    At any rate, they aren’t providing an account of qualia as much as our concepts about them.

  7. 7. Eric Thomson says:

    Oops. There should be no “either” in my first sentence above.

  8. 8. Anthony Jack says:

    Response to comments by Steve and Eric

    Steve –
    ‘Consciousness’ is a big issue, and you are discussing a part of it that is somewhat seperate from what we are discussing in the ‘genuine problem’ paper. I quite agree with comments that we are conscious of a limited amount of information and that much of our processing is unconscious. This paper focuses on debunking one common motivation for supposing that we need a ‘special’ mechanism to account for consciousness. However, I certainly think that it does make sense to distinguish conscious from unconscious thoughts, both in everyday life (‘I was aware of that’) and in scientific psychology. I have even sketched how we can provide a meaningful information processing account of this difference (i.e. one that is not lead astray by spurious motivations). You can find it in a paper I published in the journal Cognition just below. Note, however, that it is an information processing theory and thus will not satisfy those who think there is a ‘hard problem’, nor indeed does it solve the importantly different ‘genuine problem’. It does make sense of the everyday language distinction between being aware/conscious/’taking note of’ something as opposed to cases where processing is implicit/automatic.
    Jack, Anthony Ian and Shallice, Tim (2001) Introspective physicalism as an approach to the science of consciousness.

    Eric –
    Whether or not we have qualia depends on what that implies. Do our internal states have properties, which we have introspective access to, and in virtue of which we can distinguish one from another? Obviously this is so, and it is clearly scientifically demonstrable that it is so. You want to claim we are denying qualia, then you have to define what ‘qualia’ means in such a way that it clashes with out position. But be carefull, then you might find you are arguing for something that looks foolish…
    But I think I get what you are driving at, and I am also very interested by it. In our (expanded) view attributing phenomenal properties is doing something more than merely attributing such physical/functional properties as serve to distinguish mental states. Our view is that the extra something we are doing is something like treating the bearer of those phenomenal properties as an object of moral concern. In our view, there is nothing ‘physical’ about attributing such a status to an object. We might well decide to only give such status to things with certain physical characteristics, but still granting the status isn’t the same as attributing a set of physical properties. It is, if you like, a social act rather than an explanatory or descriptive act in the classic sense. But really it is more than a social act, since it also involves a different type of descriptive framework. The phenomenal aspects of mental states are not a part of the physical description of those states, but they are a type of explanatory posit that we cannot do without, for ultimately we humans depend just as much on our ability to negotiate the social world that surrounds as we do the physical world. Hurting other people really is wrong, even though nothing about the physical properties of people makes that so. It is wrong precisely because those people have phenomenal states and thus moral status (Bentham had it right). We can’t do without phenemenal states as explanatory posits because they are central to our ability to negotiate the social world. However, it is a mistake to think of them as either ‘existing’ or ‘not really existing’. This is a kind of higher-order category mistake because it involves thinking of explantory posits from one system (the phenomenal/social system) in a terms that only apply to a different system (the physical/mechanistic system). In our expanded view, we need (at least partially) separate ontologies for the physical world and the social world, because these appear to be incommensurable explanatory frameworks which serve different ends. Phenomenal properties belong in the social ontology, and are almost certainly irreducible and irreplacable in that ontology. BUT, the issue of ‘existence’ is really an issue about whether something should count as going into the physical/mechanistic ontology. It would be a mistake to think of phenomenal properties as even being candidates for that ontology.
    Thanks for your comments.

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