Picture: cryptic entity. I was thinking about the New Mysterian position the other day, and it occurred to me that there are some scary implications which I, at any rate, had never noticed before.

As you may know, the New Mysterian position, cogently set out by Colin McGinn, is that our minds may simply not be equipped to understand consciousness. Not because it is in itself magic or inexplicable, but because our brains just don’t work in the necessary way. We suffer from cognitive closure. Closure here means that we have a limited repertoire of mental operations; using them in sequence or combination will take us to all sorts of conceptual places, but only within a certain closed domain. Outside that domain there are perfectly valid and straightforward ideas which we can simply never reach, and unfortunately one or more of these unreachable ideas is required in order to understand consciousness.

I don’t think that is actually the case, but the possibility is undeniable; I must admit that personally there’s a certain element of optimistic faith involved in my rejection of Mysterianism. I just don’t want to give up on the possibility of a satisfying answer.

Anyway, suppose we do suffer from some form of cognitive closure (it’s certainly true that human minds have their limitations, notably in the complexity of the ideas they can entertain at any one time). One implication is that we can conceive of a being whose repertoire of mental operations might be different from ours. It could be a god-like being which understands everything we understand, and other things besides; its mental domain might be an overlapping territory, not very different in extent from ours; or it might deal in a set of ideas all of which are inaccessible to us, and find ours equally unthinkable.

That conclusion in itself is no more than a somewhat frustrating footnote to Mysterianism; but there’s worse to follow. It seems just about inevitable to me that if we encountered a being with the last-mentioned fully cryptic kind of consciousness, we would not recognise it. We wouldn’t realise it was conscious: we probably wouldn’t recognise that it was an agent of any kind. We recognise consciousness and intelligence in others because we can infer the drift of their thoughts from their speech and behaviour and recognise their cogency. In the case of the cryptics, their behaviour would be so incomprehensible, we wouldn’t even recognise it as behaviour.

So it could be that now and then in AI labs a spark of cryptic consciousness has flashed and died without ever being noticed. This is not quite as bonkers as it sounds. It is apparently the case that when computers were used to apply a brute force, exhaustive search was applied to a number of end-game positions in chess, it turned out that several which had long been accepted as draws turned out to have winning strategies (if anyone can provide more details of this research I’d be grateful – my only source is the Oxford Companion to the Mind) . The strategies proved incomprehensible; to human eyes, even those of expert chess players; the computer appeared merely to bimble about with its pieces in a purposeless way, until unexpectedly, after a prolonged series of moves, checkmate emerged. Let’s suppose a chess-playing program had independently come up with this strategy and begun playing it. Long before checkmate emerged – or perhaps even afterwards – the human in charge would have lost patience with the endless bimbling (in a position known to be a draw, after all), and withdrawn the program for retraining or recoding.

Perhaps, for that matter, there are cryptically conscious entities on other planets elsewhere in the Galaxy. The idea that aliens might be incomprehensible is not new, but here there is a reasonable counter-argument. All forms of life, presumably, are going to be the product of a struggle for survival similar to the one which produced us on Earth. Any entity which has come through millions of years of such a struggle is going to have to have acquired certain key cognitive abilities, and these at least will surely be held in common. Certain basic categories of thought and communication are surely going to be recognisable; threats, invitations, requests, and the like are surely indispensable to the conduct of any reasonably complex life, and so even if there are differences at the margins, there will be a basis for communication. We may or may not have a set of cognitive tools which address a closed domain – but we certainly haven’t got a random selection of cognitive tools.

That’s a convincing argument, though not totally conclusive. On Earth, the basic body plans of most animal groups were determined long ago; a few good basic designs triumphed and most animals alive today are variations on one of these themes. But it’s possible that if things had been different we might have emerged with a somewhat different set of basic blueprints. Perhaps there are completely different designs on other planets; perhaps there are phyla full of animals with wheels, say. Hard to be sure how likely that is, because we only have one planet to go on. But at any rate, if that much is true of body plans, the same is likely to be true of Earthbound minds; a few basic mental architectures that seemed to work got established way back in history, and everything since is a variation. But perhaps radically different mental set-ups would have worked equally well in ways we can’t even imagine, and perhaps on other worlds, they do.

The same negative argument doesn’t apply to artificial intelligence, of course, since AI generally does not have to be the result of thousands of generations of evolution and can jump to positions which can’t be reached by any coherent evolutionary path.

Common sense tells us that the whole idea of cryptic consciousness is more of a speculative possibility than a serious hypothesis about reality – but I see no easy way to rule it out. Never mind the AI labs and the alien planets; it’s possible in principle that the animists are right and that we’re surrounded every day by conscious entities we simply don’t recognise…


  1. 1. DiscoveredJoys says:

    At the risk of going over old ground, how do you know that other people are conscious and experience consciousness – and not just meat zombies? Presumably you observe that they respond to external events in an appropriately flexible way. Appropriate in this case meaning in proportion to the external event and their internal state you infer they have. Your inference is derived from your own experiences. You even infer their internal (cryptic) events that they may be responding to.

    Now although I might argue that the process of evolution has tuned an individuals ability to infer other humans’ internal states, to detect agency, and to assess appropriate responses (etc. etc.), some of this ability also spills over into to non-human animals and objects.

    Hence although we might anthropomophise the ‘internal states’ of dogs, or porpoises, or machines (have you ever cursed your car for not starting?), we ascribe to them an honourary human consciousness. Their consciousness, which may or may not be anything like ours, if it exists at all, is judged by our standards of consciousness.

    It seems to me therefore that the New Mysterian postition that we may not be able to comprehend our own consciousness (which I doubt because we could invent tools and mathemetics to do the heavy lifting) actually inverts the problem. It’s not that we can’t know our own minds, the problem is that we are too willing to ascribe the same status to other living and non-living objects.

    Personally I expect that scienctific methodology will eventually be able to explain consciousness and the ‘feeling of feeling’. I also expect that science will demonstrate that we mostly live by unconscious emotion, habit, and thought, and that our prized rationality will just be a minor second-guess pimple tacked on the top…

    And on that cheerful thought, I wish you good day!

  2. 2. Lloyd Rice says:

    It is my belief that consciousness is a direct result of our having certain mechanisms, perception of world and self, predictive abilities, a few others. Once we understand how all the pieces work, it will be clear that when you put the pieces together, you get a certain level of conscious being; human, dog, computer or otherwise. This view would pretty much deal with DiscoveredJoys’ concern with meat zombies. If you can see the pieces working, you can correctly infer the conscious result.

    But will we ever be able to understand the pieces? What is creativity? What kinds of limitations might we have? I suspect the most difficult part of the problem will be in understanding the relationships among the parts of very complex systems. Our ability to create and use elaborate mathematical tools will take us a long way in that regard. But progress almost always comes in micro steps. Evolution is like that, but in the long run, it has done fairly well (so far). The long-winded chess solutions point to a real problem. Evolution can get there by simply following any promising arc, but as you say, Peter, upon thinking about it, we tend to edit the process, maybe prematurely. Following such leads tends to use up research budgets. And I suspect that there is a vanishingly small probability of hitting upon some marvelous solution which cannot be reached by micro steps.

    It is said that Einstein’s brain developed visualization capabilities well beyond the norms. Did that include an ability to think in 4-D? What if some alien’s brain was wired to think in 5-D, 6, 7, etc. We can build mathematical structures with those properties and some people seem to have developed amazing tools to seemingly be able to think in such terms. But what if a mind, alien or AI, was constructed so as to be able to think directly in such terms? It might help to be able to see more deeply into the chess problem before giving up.

    What I’m trying to do here is to put a soft boundary on the question of the kinds of things a mind can comprehend. The Mysterian view seems to imply some sort of logical, hard boundary. I do not believe that. I do believe there are plenty of real really complex complications.

    And I whole-heartedly agree with DiscoveredJoys’ views on our “prized rationality”.

  3. 3. Denise says:

    I’ve been away for awhile. Popped in to see the conciousness question is still driving everyone itchy. Does anyone think there will ever be an “AHA!” moment when all becomes clear? And clear to whom? Would the information have to be shared to be valid or can it only “live” as a secret?

  4. 4. steve esser says:

    I think Lloyd has a good point with regard to the hard vs. soft boundary.

    Here’s some instant speculation: I think conscious activity has much to do with the weighing of possibilities. And since physics itself is grounded in a process of actualizing possibilities (in a quantum measurement event), all aliens should have evolved this core feature.

  5. 5. Christophe Menant says:

    As far as I understand Colin MCGinn’s position on the mystery of consciousness, it is about the mystery of phenomenal consciousness (“what it is like to be in that state”). But phenomenal consciousness is only one component of human consciousness. Self-consciousness is another one (“the possession of the concept of the self and the ability to use this concept in thinking about oneself”). And it may be less mysterious.
    Human minds have indeed their limitation. And there are subjects where we find our limits like “what before the big bang ?”. But the mystery of phenomenal consciousness per se should not imply the mystery of human consciousness. The “mind-body relations” is to be considered thru all the components of human consciousness, not only thru phenomenal consciousness. Looking at explaining the nature of a conscious self may be an easier entry point.

  6. 6. Lloyd Rice says:

    In my list of pieces (in comment 2 above), memory should clearly have been listed as the second element. My current thought is that perception and memory may be the only really crucial elements of consciousness, although several others clearly contribute to enhance the experience. Both Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens) and Chalmers (The Conscious Mind) have longish lists of contributory elements. For example, much has been said here about the mirror neuron system. Our ability to empathize directly with others clearly enhances our experience. But I’m not convinced it is a sine qua non for consciousness.

    To address Denise’s point about what it might mean to finally understand what consciousness is all about, my view is that it would be something like understanding how a TV set or a certain computer program works. Clearly, you would need some background in the basics. And those basics might involve some fairly heavy math. For example, Freeman (How Brains Make up their Minds) has a nice discussion about how patterns of response to specific odors give rise to shifting patterns of enhanced and supressed excitation across the surface of a rabbit’s olfactory cortex. He describes this using the language of chaotic attractors, which may or may not be the most useful explicatory description. But however it is stated, it will require some insights into how such patterns could interact with corresponding patterns from other modalities before you would have that flash of enlightenment that means, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I understand how it works.”

    And then there are many who will protest that this sort of understanding has nothing to do with the experience of consciousness — that is of course the leap of the “hard problem”. Knowing how a program works internally and running that program to see its results are not the same thing, either. But when you do understand the internals, there is some sort of a sense of completion that the higher level behavior follows directly from the lower level structure. To me, that is what it means to understand something. And no, it’s definitely not the same thing as “being there”.

    I like to think of this as Ken Wilber has put it, that the universe has a first person view and a second person view. He does not go into the machinery that might be needed to support a first-person view, but he describes this view as an alternative, a different approach to reality. I used to think of it as “the view from inside the box”, although that does not very well capture my sense of what happens when you put the necessary machinery together and turn it on, such as when an infant begins to process sensory inputs. I’ll not speculate upon when in the life cycle that action begins.

    I believe this first-person view is what McGinn (and Christophe) refer to as phenomenal consciousness, the raw sense of “Here I am and I am me”; “Cogito”. Self-consciousness and a variety of other senses of oneself have more to do with the enhancements, the richness of detail provided by the many other contributory elements that we have access to, such as awareness of our own emotional state, to mention just one “minor” player. These “supporting players” would be present or not in many different species and each would serve to enhance the experience in its own unique way.

  7. 7. Christophe Menant says:

    Lloyd post (N° 6) brings up a couple of interesting points.
    The first is about phenomenal consciousness. I’m not sure it is the raw sense of “Here I am and I am me”. Phenomenal consciousness (PC) is about first person experience “What makes an experience conscious is a certain awareness one has of the experience while living through or performing it (1)”
    On the other hand, thinking about myself as being here and being myself is more about a third person experience where my being is a fact I can sense and think about. In the same way that I can think about the fact that Lloyd does exist. I am conscious of myself. And this is self-consciousness (SC).
    But it is true that the separation between PC and SC is not always easy as some philosophers tend to “integrate” SC in PC. “a minimal form of self-consciousness is a constant structural feature of conscious experience”(2).
    About mirror neurons, I agree that their performance may not be sine qua non for PC. But the performance of “identifying with conspecifics” looks to me as key in an evolutionary approach to SC. Our pre-human ancestors carried representation of their conspecifics as “existing in the environment”. When they became able to identify with their conspecifics, they became themselves “existing in the environment”. Which means conscious of themselve, self-conscious (3).

  8. 9. Lloyd Rice says:

    Christophe, I agree. Perhaps this is a case where I need to accept the vocabulary of the philosophers rather than depending on quick quotes and comments. If all can agree on the meanings of terms like phenomenal consciousness, such terms do indeed provide useful handles for the discussion.

    I need to retract part of my previous post. Both awareness of self and awareness of emotions are clearly aspects of perception and therefore must be considered as part of the perception/memory loop that leads to consciousness. However, I do not believe that all aspects of perception take equal parts in the functionality that results in consciousness. We — and many other animals — are able to perceive many different kinds of things in many different degrees. Each of these capacities will need to be evaluated independently and in consort with other faculties to determine its role in forming the first-person view of the world.

    I am partly in agreement with Hofstadter (I Am a Strange Loop) in that perception of one’s self plays a significant role in forming consciousness. However, I disagree with his claim that there is anything strange about it. A loop is just a loop. Loops with negative feedback tend to produce stability and loops with positive feedback tend to produce oscillatory patterns, usually depending on limitations in other system components outside of the loop itself. These two effects can indeed produce some startling system behaviour. But Hofstadter tries to make it sound almost magical.

    There is much more we do not yet know about perception. I am just recently beginning to get caught up in the literature of what is called embodied perception, the idea that our perceptual abilities and indeed, meaning itself, are firmly rooted in the percepts we form from birth of worldly objects and events. Obviously, we are just beginning to learn what we need to know in order to build machines that can do these things. Some people in the AI camps are beginning to understand this. Traditional GOFAI certainly can’t hack it.

    One asks how alien consciousness might differ from ours. Suppose a being had perfect memory (should I say “total recall”)? How might that being’s awareness differ from ours? It might be like going into a grocery store. If you can get bread and milk, you can get by. But if you could also find fresh truffles, how much better would your life be?

  9. 10. Luis Garcia says:

    What kind of consciousness can have entities that “deal in a set of ideas all of which are inaccessible to us, and find ours equally unthinkable”?. I mean: the very idea of consciousness belongs to our set and is, by implication, completely alien to theirs. Can those entities be considered conscious?.
    Suppose clouds, or ants, or helium atoms experience their own kind of cryptic, high level, cognitive something. This something is not even definable within our set of ideas, let alone identifiable by us. Have sience or philosophy something to do with it? I tend to think that they have not.
    Of course animist may be right. But this is only one in a million possibilities science or philosophy can’t rule out. Other universes may exist, there may be life after death, and the moon may be a perfect sphere, provided it is surrounded by a transparent, no perceivable substance that fills the irregularities of its surface.

  10. 11. Richard says:


    I can’t get my head around something and you seem like the guy to ask!

    Have you come across any theories on how we are able to talk about qualia? I.e. the subjective experience of redness.

    If it’s subjective and a so called zombie could function exactly like a human without it; how in the world do we end up pondering it? Whether “it” is something immaterial or an emergent phenomenon.

    Thanks a lot.

    P.S. This website is fantastic, the best of its kind as far as I know.

  11. 12. Lloyd Rice says:

    Richard, not everybody agrees with my ideas about qualia, but I believe that as we grow and experience the world, the brain forms internal “labels” as reference points in order to make distinctions between one percept and another. In other words, when we first encountered two different colors, we invented qualia to keep in memory to be able to tell the difference between them. I believe this happens even before we learn words for the difference percepts. Where many people disagree with me is that I see no reason to believe my “red” looks anything like yours. It was just an internal construct I invented in order to know it was different than “green”. So when certain wavelengths of light hit my cone cells, the brain re-enables the construct it invented long ago, and I “see red”.

  12. 13. Richard says:

    Ah I see. So you believe that it would be impossible to create a zombie?

    I expect that our subjective experience is not required for cognition, from what I’ve read it makes more sense to me that way. I suppose I’m an epiphenomenalist of sorts.

  13. 14. Lloyd Rice says:

    You are correct that I believe a zombie is not possible. I believe that if you put the various pieces together, you will inevitably get awareness. That’s just the way my universe works. At this point, we get to the same problem that Christophe corrected me on above — definitions. Exactly what is included in “cognition”. What aspects of awareness are involved? Or does it just refer to the ability to process the relationships between various symbols? But that sounds more like what computers can do. Computers today do not have the mechanisms for perception or the ability to form relationships between the percepts. That leaves them a long way from awareness.

  14. 15. DiscoveredJoys says:

    A thought experiment for you. Due to some breakthrough in technology it becomes possible to scan and assemble a second copy of a human being, accurate down to the Heisenbeg uncertainty limit. You are that human being who is rendered unconscious, then scanned.

    When the two ‘yous’ are woken up after the procedure, will you both be conscious and share the same memories? Convinced of course that you are the original you and the other is the copy. In other words is consciouness and memory the result of purely physical processes, coded at molecular or atomic level?

  15. 16. Lloyd Rice says:

    DiscoveredJoys: Assuming your initial conditions could be fulfilled, I believe that both “me”s would wake up and each would be equally convinced he was the original. Whether each would look at the other and say “hello, me.” or “You are an imposter.” would depend, I suppose, upon the nature of the expectations that had been set out beforehand. I thought the Stargate episode in which Col. O’Neill was duplicated handled the situation about as realistically as would be possible, although in that case, there was clear physical evidence as to which was the original. I think the question you are asking is whether it would be possible to duplicate the consciousness. My view is that if you could duplicate the brain as described, the consciousness would be there right along with the physical aspects. I see no issue at all about having two of those. Hofstadter posed the same question in “I Am a Strange Loop”. I find it curious that anyone would think there might be an issue.

  16. 17. Vic P says:

    Cognitive closure to McGinn seems to be the demon that prevents us from understanding consciousness but paradoxicaly cognitive closure may be the very thing that creates phenomenol consciousness so we get caught in this conundrum.

    Consciousness should not be thought of as an “all or nothing” but essentially a matter of degrees, so even a rock or an atom contains “consciousness” but it is not a “built up being” like ourselves which has the cognitive closure to attain phenomenol consciousness like ourselves.

    For that matter all living beings possess consciousness but we possess the most advanced linguistic skills. If the explanatory gap exists it is because we do not possess the bridge between the mystery of consciousness energy and language which is information energy within ourselves…yet.

  17. 18. Luis Garcia says:

    About comment #15, by DiscoveredJoys, I would like to put it in a less crude way, but in my opinion, what you propose is not really a thouhgt experiment. Again (see my comment #10), I think that this is just the problem of demarcation. Let me try to explain myself with an example. Suppose a guy dies (this time no one has to be picked on for the example). Do you think that afterwards, that guy will continue having an existence in a different, non-material form, not accessible to us?. This is not a thouhgt experiment but simply a question on your beliefs. There are two possible stances: you belief in that kind of second life or you don’t. Now, if we aim our intellectual activity to try to enhance our knowledge, which of those stances should we adopt? I think that neither of them. I think that we’d better limit ourselves to questions about what is accesible to us (i.e., things we don’t suffer from closure on).
    In the end, you rephrase the question on your thougt experiment in a more direct way: “is consciousness and memory the result of purely physical processes, coded at molecular or atomic level?”. In my opinion, the answer is “we don’t know, so let’s leave aside questions on beliefs and do the wise thing: limit our search to that physical processes we can know about. At least while we don’t have evidence of other different prcesses that may be interacting with those ones (and I know that here I may be leaving a door open for quantum effects or who knows what…).
    So let’s assume as hypothesis that the original guy and the copy would wake up being conscious and convinced that each other is an impostor, let’s assume that zombies are not possible, and so on.

  18. 19. Peter says:


    “how we are able to talk about qualia?” is an interesting question, which I think is rarely addressed directly except by sceptics – I think Dennett, for example, would say that the fact that qualia have no causal effects means that anything we say about them was not actually caused by our experience of them – which might seem to mean we can never really talk about them; certainly none of the philosophical texts on the subject were caused by actual qualia – so let’s just shut up about it?

    However, you might take the view that intentionality, our ability to talk about things, does not involve causality, and that we can talk about things that did not themselves stand in any causal relation to the movements of our jaw. We certainly talk about imaginary things, which presumably have no causal power at all, so perhaps we do have the power to talk about qualia after all.

    Others may have a better-informed view on this.

  19. 20. Lloyd Rice says:

    To Vic P and Luis: I think everyone will agree that there are areas of knowledge that the human mind has not comprehended. When knowledge of such an area is not accessible to us, it is surely everyone’s right to believe what they wish about such matters. But Luis, can it really be wiser to avoid thinking about such things and, as you say, “limit our search”. If humanity had done that, science would be nowhere today. It seems that those who follow the ways of science continue to uncover facts in areas of knowledge that earlier were mysteries to humanity. When that happens, is it not best to put aside the earlier beliefs and embrace the newfound knowledge? Has not the Catholic Church done just that — several times?

    To Vic P: If consciousness is a result of brain processes, as I believe it is, then I cannot see how a rock nor even a plant could manifest such effects. I cannot put a limit on which lower forms of animal life would possess the necessary anatomy. My suspicions would exclude ants and probably include mice. But those are just hunches. I do not have the facts, although I believe those facts will one day be known to humankind.

    To Peter: Obviously, this has been and continues to be an amazingly interesting and productive topic. Does epiphenomenalism mean that one would completely push aside all thoughts on the matter? Horrors. Let us not shut up about it — and thanks for your efforts.

  20. 21. Luis Garcia says:

    Lloyd, you are right: limitting our search can never be the wise thing to do. My comment #18 needs rectification. What we have to avoid at any rate is letting questions of belief limit our search efforts (this is, I think, what the Catholic Church has done several times in history, and maybe is still doing).
    Anyway, in the field of philosophy of mind, I can’t help thinking that the wise hyothesis to start with (let’s call it H) is that consciousness is the result of physical processes. In fact, I don’t see a way to start a useful search based on “not H” (although this may be just a limitation of mine).
    There are variations on H, and what DiscoveredJoys is questioning is a stronger version, let’s call it H*: “consciousness is the result of physical processes coded at molecular or atomic level”. The door has to be open to subatomic processes and even to the physics we don’t have yet. It can’t be otherwise provided we don’t want to limit our search. But I don’t think there exist a straightforward and simple thought experiment that can prove H* false, based on zombies, molecular duplication of individuals or whatever. H* is still a good starting point and searching it maybe the wise thing to do.
    Of course, we may end up realizing that H* is untenable, but if this is the case, it will be after a lot of research and effort, not after an easy thought experiment. Besides, even if we end up with H* being false, we won’t have been wasting our time: we will have learnt a lot of things along the way. Most probably, we will have found a better hypothesis to replace H*, the new wise starting point for our search effort.
    Anyway, Lloyd, thanks for paying attention to my comments.

  21. 22. Lloyd Rice says:

    Luis: Thanks for the clarification.

    I just finished the book “How to Build a Mind” by Igor Alexsander. In the final chapter he has what I agree is a good analogy. He believe consciousness is a property something like stability in a feedback system. If the parts of the system are all working as intended, the system is stable. You would not be able to take the system apart and ever locate its “stable”. Rather, you need to understand how the system parts work together to produce behavior with the property of stability. And it also then becomes clear that it does not matter a great deal what kinds of parts or material the system is made of (H vs. H*, C vs. Si, etc.) As long as a functioning feedback system can be constructed, it will either be stable or not, depending on how it has been designed and built.

  22. 23. Vic P says:

    Lloyd: Thanks for the response.

    Well it’s true a rock is not conscious as we are but it does have an existense and does have a “life”, however if you place a rock in a petri dish or examine it under a microscope (or examine a zombie robot chip), it does not exhibit the same properties as a neuron (or any type of living cell). To me the question of consciousness is the same as the question of life itself.

  23. 24. Lloyd Rice says:

    Vic P: A rock certainly has its “existence”. Other than that, it has certain structure, chemical composition, crystaline makeup, etc. That all means that it also has a history which is to some extent discernable by us. Is such a history any different than the corresponding history of, say a water molecule, which has no uniqueness of structure (from other water molecules) that we can discern? Is that what you mean by saying that a rock has “life”? And finally, I would ask whether consciousness is not a special property of certain life forms and not necessarily inherent in all life forms? Maybe something like having a stomach or a tail. Some life has it, some does not.

  24. 25. Vic P says:

    LLoyd: True on all accounts. A rock or crystal has a rigid structure which follows a very narrow set of laws. A living cell which is essentially the basis for our life and our consciousness follows a more complex set of laws and evolves into a complex being which can create its own laws of existense.

  25. 26. Christophe Menant says:

    An entry point could be to accept three different levels of complexity in the universe (matter, life, consciousness) and try to differentiate them by the laws they follow and by the information they manage. Let’s have a try…
    * Matter:
    – Laws: physical and chemical laws.
    – Information: no management of information
    * Life (in addition to matter):
    – Laws: maintain a far from equilibrium state, including reproduction.
    – Information internal to organisms: the one needed for maintaining the above equilibrium.
    – Information exchanged with the environment: meaningful information that make possible the satisfaction of vital constraints (individual & species).
    Represent the entities of the environment, including conspecifics, as existing in the environment.
    * Human (in addition to life):
    – Laws: Very many.
    – Information exchanged with the environment: Very many, with the capability to indentify with conspecifics (mirror neurons) and become “existing in the environment”, which initiates and maintains self-consciousness.
    – Information internal to human: all the mental life with a conscious self allowing to consciously feel and experience events (subjective experiences, qualia, ..).

  26. 27. Lloyd Rice says:

    Christophe: I have two replies.

    First, I see fuzzy edges to the three levels you would like to define. Is a virus alive? It has the info to reproduce and can reproduce, but only with help. Depending on your answer to this, other borderline cases can be cited. Bottom line: Is it really of great value for us to define these levels?

    Second, You seem to be saying that consciousness is limited to humans. It is not clear whether we can ever know for certain, but I and some others would say that many non-human animals do have consciousness. If this is a matter of opinion rather than an observable fact, what is the value of setting it out as a given?

  27. 28. Christophe Menant says:

    I would agree with a couple of comments.
    – The three levels (mater, life, consciousness) appeared progressively in evolution. We should not look for sharps steps separating them but rather for gradual transitions. These levels are important to guide us for a tentative build up of definitions and for an understanding of their transitions (I do not think we today have a real definition of life besides “the set of functions that resist death”).
    – Consciousness is a “mongrel concept”. Definition is difficult (1). And we have here also to consider the gradual transition from animals to humans. Part of the problem about defining human consciousness vs animal consciousness comes (I feel) from the fact that self-consciousness has been progressively shadowed by phenomenal consciousness and almost forgotten. Humans have the performance of considering themselves as existing in their environment the same way they consider their conspecifics as existing in the environment. Besides perhaps some apes in a limited manner, only humans are capable of that performance. It is self-consciousness. And I’m sorry that self-consciousness is not that much considered in consciousness studies.
    Let me take self-consciousness as a reality we should rely on to build an evolutionary understanding of human nature (more on this in my home page).
    (1) N. Block,1996 “On A Confusion About a Function of Consciousness” http://cogprints.org/231/

  28. 29. Alec MacCall says:

    The inaccessibility of cryptic consciousness seems a bit circular to me, and isn’t all that useful in itself. Regarding your closing thought in the blog, it seems more useful to consider how much overlap would be necessary for us to realize that we are dealing with a consciousness that is indeed real, but fundamentally different from our own. That would seem to offer the a potential bridge to the animists’ view.

  29. 30. Vic P says:

    The possibility of cryptic consciousness in other beings in the universe is possible but one must conclude if evolution is consistent, these more evolved beings still had to survive thousands of years of dealing with their early environment and had to evolve as social group creatures with advanced linguistic skills and evolved social systems of restrictive rules for survival. Although the may have dealt with survival of some type of ecosystem possibly different from ours, they still had to deal with universal gravity or as Whitehead said, “The future belongs to those who can break the boundaries of the earth.”

  30. 31. Christophe Menant says:

    Brief summary about how this interesting subject looks to me:
    1) Phenomenal consciousness (qualia, what it is like to be, ..) is a mystery. It is cryptic consciousness.
    2) Self-consciousness (I know that I exist as I know you exist) can be investigated via evolution and should not be considered as cryptic (http://cogprints.org/4957/).
    3) Equating consciousness to phenomenal consciousness and considering consciousness as cryptic is a limited and incomplete analysis of consciousness.
    4) Relations between self-consciousness and phenomenal consciousness are to be looked at (http://cogprints.org/6120/)

  31. 32. Vic P says:

    As you read these words, you can hear them inside your head or silent acoustics as they are recreated from neural acoustic memory. An example of phenomenal consciousness or the system of information energy which overlays the consciousness in your neurons or consciousness energy.

    When early man walked on all fours, right always followed left but when he freed his arms, he had a choice. Our minds evolved up from our autonomic nervous system (waterboarding?) or being along with all of the language and laws or rules.

  32. 33. Vic P says:

    “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”…Friedrich Nietzsche

  33. 34. DiscoveredJoys says:

    I see I need to explain my thought experiment more clearly (now that I’ve had a chance to think some more!).

    I think the existence of a non material ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, separate from the meat of the body and brain is quite unlikely. What I was fumbling for in my thought experiment was (assuming the copying at an atomic level) whether or not the original and the copy would remain ‘in step’ until they had undergone separate post copy experience, or would they both wake up feeling different from each other? I guess I wonder how chaotic the electrical and chemical signals are within the body and brain. Are the signals chaotic at an atomic level, due to our chum Heisenbeg, or does the atomic chaos collapse into a statistical signal at the cellular level? If the signals are affected by chaotic variations arising from Heisenbeg uncertainty then our copied people might start diverging behaviour quite quickly. If the signals in the brain are statistical then behaviour might well be quite stable.

  34. 35. Lloyd Rice says:

    DiscoveredJoys: Indeed a most interesting speculation. My vote would be for statistically averaging out the quantum effects, but I have little basis for such opinion. My real suspicion is that it will be many, many years before we get to the technological capability that the question would arise. But I suppose we are not really here talking to each other for the purpose of maintaining absolute realism.

  35. 36. Vic P says:

    Repeating my comments (…About Computers and Minds)

    -You can create all of the computer simulations you want but it is akin to creating a camera which simulates the human eye. The AI simulations may simulate thought but they are still being created by human beings in the same manner that human beings are creating artificial eyes. If you took the AI software and integrated it into the human being as you would an artificial eye, you could enhance the human thought process in a qualia way.

    – All computer languages from the highest levels down become the “ghost in the machine”. Although the millions of machine level bits are “information”, the “information” in reality is something else?…They are timing states.


    -The soul may be something which preserves all of the “information” which is memory or previous experience.

    -If there is a unifying force, since all of the neurons are identical DNA, can the “planets align” at the quantum level under certain conditions?

  36. 37. Luis Garcia says:

    Hi, DiscoveredJoys:
    This time I will take your thought experiment as it is and I will try a bit of speculative reasoning myself. This is my point: the electrical and chemical signals within our body and brain may be chaotic (at the quantum level or whatever), but not enough to prevent any of us from working as a reliable conscious system, with a remarkable continuity in time. There must be trillions of different states allowed within that chaos but compatible with being yourself and I guess that it must not be easy for a body-brain system to step out of that set because otherwise we would find ourselves being a different person much more often than we do. You go to bed everyday and the next day you wake up feeling the same person, no matter how much of chaotic change may have happened during your sleep. So selves are quite stable: that “statistical signal” exists for sure. And the question is who is in charge of mantaining it. And the only plausible candidate I can see is the molecular or atomic structure of the system. In fact, I find it hard to see any other searchable possibilty (which of course may be just a lack of imagination on my side).

  37. 38. Lloyd Rice says:

    VicP: I might recommend Read Montague’s book “How Brains Make Up Their Minds”. I do not agree exactly with everything he says, but it’s a quite good discussion of how computation is used by living brains to survive. I think Searle set off a lot of confusion when he talked about the limits of simulation. Computation is another matter.

  38. 39. Florin Andrei says:

    Read “Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem. It’s an extraordinary book. The best literary description I know of a “cryptically conscious” being. Even beyond that, it’s still a great book.

    Two movies were made after it, one by Andrei Tarkowski, the other by Stephen Soderbergh.

    The first movie is a classic, kind of cryptic itself, but remarkable. In a way, it’s the ultimate “independent” movie, for those who appreciate the genre. It’s cinema purely as art, with no regard to the box office. I do think Tarkowski is a bit bombastic at times, but I give credit where credit is due.

    Soderbergh’s movie has triggered a personal revelation to me. I used to be focused on music, sound and words, and was blind to visual arts. At the time I saw this movie, my whole life was going through some changes, and I guess it was the catalyst which enabled the transformation: now I understand what it means to tell a story with the camera, just by framing, moving, zooming and panning. To my surprise, I saw I can now take pictures and actually deliver a message by just framing the subject in certain ways. It was probably just the right thing to happen at the right time, but anyway, thank you mr. Soderbergh!

  39. 40. Shubham Harnal says:

    The idea itself is nothing new; I actually think the idea fits well with Kant’s philosophy: that we look at the world through reason alone; but reason has its limits. So …. dunno…interesting stuff though.

  40. 41. Lloyd Rice says:

    It may be possible to find ways in which our inner experiences differ, person to person. For this purpose, discussing the nature of colors may not be the most promising. Let me explain.

    I am reading Igor Aleksander’s latest book, “The World in my Mind, My Mind in the World”. In chapter 2, in the process of trying to elaborate the nature of consciousness, he gets down to the most detailed descriptions I have yet seen of his own experiences, more detailed than the descriptions by writers such as Marr, Chalmers or Damasio. As I’m reading along, suddenly I say, “Wait a minute! That’s not what it’s like for me!”

    I’m quite accustomed to my own inner experience and I have also come to be rather familiar with the way other people describe theirs. The problem is that I never had reason to question whether their descriptions really agreed with my own experiences. Aleksander was talking about losing his car keys. He says he has a mental picture of what they look like. If he were to come across a set of keys not like he expected, the differences would be “intensely, almost painfully, felt”. And I say, “Whoa! That’s overstating it a bit.” I realise that I do not actually see visual images most of the time when I imagine things. They are more abstract. The inner “TV screen” on which I see the normal visual scene is usually dark when I imagine things. What’s going on here? Either (a) I am weird, (b) Aleksander is weird, (c) this is very interesting, or (d) some combination of (a), (b) and (c).

    So then I was thinking back to the experience I have had often lately, of not being able to remember some movie star’s name. I will then often think of some film the person was in. I will say to myself (or anyone else) “I can see his face.” But I realise that I do not really “see” it. Other people seem to say they do. But I think of details, the shape of the nose, the color of the skin, the style of the hair, etc. I do not “see” them on the inner TV screen. The sensations are some sort of abstractions, somewhere in between words and images, not quite either one.

    Dreaming is different. My dreams are more like the movie versions, where a small central scene is surrounded by out-of-focus blurriness. Surrounding objects are not really there, just imagined. But the central parts are just as vividly visual as my waking images.

    It has been said that Einstein had a very elaborate visual world. As far as I can tell, this claim is based on two observations; his own descriptions of certain “thought experiments”, typically dealing more with the content than the nature of the experience, and, as I understand, a post-mortem dissection of his brain. It is claimed that he had more cortex than average devoted to visual processing and less to language. I remain a bit sceptical of these claims. To my knowledge, no one ever documented discussing directly with Einstein the detailed nature of his inner life.

    How is it that I have not until now come across descriptions of these inner experiences that were detailed enough to be able to agree or disagree? Can this go somewhere? I presume that most of us do not want to wait for the post-mortem analyses. I could imagine psychology tests, such as the MMPI (the Minnesota Multiphasic) to explore differences in our inner lives. Would that not be of great interest? Has it already been done?

  41. 42. Vic P says:

    With no actual image in front of us the eyes and visual nerves receive no physical stimulation but our intentionality can still draw on the faint inner shadows created by the previous retinal activity, so we can “internally image” or imagine.

  42. 43. Lloyd Rice says:

    It appears that there are different groups in the population based on the internal mechanisms of both vision and hearing. I refer to these as “vivid visualizers” vs “abstract visualizers” and “vivid audializers” vs “abstract audializers”. The effect appears when the person tries to imagine a scene or a sound. For both senses, a person in the “vivid” group imagines the percept in a way very close to the way the percept would seem when actually viewed/heard. A person in the “abstract” group perceives the thing in a more abstract manner, being composed of elements, which I refer to as features. I was surprised to learn that the characteristics of the two senses are not correlated. A good friend of mine is an abstract visualizer, but a vivid audializer. I do not know whether any other senses have corresponding different types.

  43. 44. Meredith says:

    The above characterization of the situation is lucid and cogent. There are interesting aspects of this issue that should not go without note. Here’s a situation in the relationship between the development of mathematics in human culture and the actual mathematical reality that i see as a metaphor for the difficulties we face regarding the Mysteryan hypothesis. In our current understanding of quantity it is clear that the class of effective quantities is vanishingly small by comparison to the class of all quantities. For example, the real numbers, as we understand them today, include all the currently proposed effective notions of number (i.e., those representable by a realizable computation). However, the effective numbers have measure zero in the collection of real numbers. To illustrate this point, suppose you marshaled all the real numbers onto a disc, like the top surface of a dart board, and had a dart the tip of which was fine enough to hit a point on the dart board that corresponded to a real number. If you threw forever, you’d never hit an effective number.

    Now compare that mathematical characterization of the size of (the class of) effective quantities in (the class of) all quantities with what has actually happened historically in the collective human effort to understand quantity and what happens on a daily basis as each child engages with the concept of quantity. Both at the collective, historical and cultural level and at the level of individual human development, you find something remarkable. We find the counting numbers first! These numbers are well hidden in the class of all quantities. They’re so vanishingly small that if you threw them out you wouldn’t miss them — unless, of course, you were a human!

    From this fact, we have some pretty undeniable evidence that something about human cognition of quantity finds ‘wholes’. The counting numbers are a representation of how to work with ‘whole quantities’. Inside this description is a hint of an understanding of ‘whole’ as composite, e.g. number as sum or number as multiple. This, in turn suggests a way to dig deeper into the structure of quantity, searching for a kinds of description of various classes that enjoy a kind of wholeness at the class level (such as the rationals or the algebraic or the constructible numbers). This leads to a kind of inversion of the process of noted above. Instead of attempting to find the ‘wholes’ in the class of all quantities, we begin from an understanding of quantity that moves from ‘whole’ to what’s reachable by certain kinds of procedures to the class of quantities we understand today. We tug on the notion of whole and find our way to the larger reality of quantity.

    i see this as an extended metaphor for the Mysterian hypothesis. Even if consciousness lies on the other side of what we can reach by effective methods and effective meta-methods, and so on, something of its nature is embedded in what we can reach via these processes. Moreover, we can keep extending our experience and understanding of consciousness — just as we keep extending our experience and understanding of quantity — via limits of these processes.

  44. 45. Vic P says:

    Every real number is divisible by one or either one and two which tells you there may only be two real numbers and everything is built up from there. The “twoness” (left vs right, right vs wrong, good vs evil) may originate from our symetric nature or bicameralness.

    We can say that real numbers have a tangibility or physicality whereas consciousness is a phenomenol concept. Consciousness has the quality of appearing as states like different clouds in the sky. We can count the clouds but once your in one you can certainly analyze it but it’s hard to perceive the whole thing.

  45. 46. Lloyd Rice says:

    I’ve been doing more “research” regarding the subject of my comments 41 and 43 above, whether individual differences in the nature of consciousness can be discerned. I was recently at a conference and had several opportunities to query people sitting around the table. It turned out that all but one person I talked to were “abstract visualizers” and all but 2 or 3 were “abstract audializers”. My assumption at this point is that people who imagine abstractly tend to become scientists, while those who imagine vividly tend to become artists.

    A related contemplation is the idea that exploring the nature of imagination in this way is one way to get an answer to the age-old philosopher’s quandary that I know I am conscious, but I have no way of knowing whether you are. I claim that probing the nature of another person’s imagination is in fact a way to reveal aspects of their consciousness. I suspect that there are many other such questions that could be asked to probe these issues.

  46. 47. Nestor says:

    I was thinking about this subject in association with posthuman AI. The analogy I came up with is our pets, dogs and cats can understand our activities to a certain degree, but beyond a point they are completely beyond their mental equipment to comprehend.

    It’s fascinating to think that even though we can comprehend such concepts as entropy, the big bang, DNA, etc there may be whole areas of knowledge “above” this level that, like a dog watching you type on a computer screen, are completely beyond our capabilities to grasp.

  47. 48. Jeffry Peabody says:

    If you’re Bill Gates, you’d make billions. This has nothing to do with his software or web-based knowledge. Marketing (and monopoly) is his niche. He could sell ice to Eskimos and has become the wealthiest person in the world simply by P.T. Barnum’s rule of thumb: “There’s a fool born every minute.”

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