Picture: Clockwork Orange. Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies,  Martine Rothblatt offers to solve the Hard Problem for us in her piece “Can Consciousness be created in Software?”.  The Hard Problem, as regulars here will know, is how to explain subjective experience, the redness of red, the ineffable inner sense of what experience is like. Rothblatt’s account is quite short, and on my first reading I had slipped past the crucial sentences and discovered she was claiming victory before I quite realised what her answer was, so that I had to go back and read it again more carefully.

She says: “Redness is part of the gestalt impression obtained in a second or less from the immense pattern of neural connections we have built up about red things… With each neuron able to make as many as 10,000 connections, and with 100 billion neurons, there is ample possibility for each person to have subjective experiences through idiosyncratic patterns of connectivity. “ The point seems to be that the huge connectivity of the human brain makes it easy for everyone’s experience of redness to be unique.

This is an interesting and rather novel point of view. One traditional way of framing the Hard Problem is to ask whether the blue that I see is really the same as the blue that you see – or could it be equivalent to my orange? How would we know?  On Rothblatt’s view it would seem the answer must be that my blue is definitely not the same as yours, nor the same as anyone else’s; and nor is it the same as your orange, or Fred’s green for that matter, everyone having an experience of blue which is unique to them and their particular pattern of neuronal connection. I find this a slightly scary perspective, but not illogical. Presumably from Rothblatt’s point of view the only thing the different experiences have in common is that they all refer to the same blue things in the real world (or something like that).

Is it necessarily so, though?  Does the fact that our neuronal connections are different mean our experiences are different? I don’t think so. After all, I can write a particular sentence in different fonts and different sizes and colours of text;  I can model it in clay or project it on a screen, yet it remains exactly the same sentence. Differences in the substrate don’t matter.  We can go a step further: when people think of that same sentence, we must presume that the neuronal connections supporting the thought are different in each individual – yet it’s the same sentence they’re thinking. So why can’t different sets of neural connections support the same experience of blue in different heads?

Rothblatt’s account is a brief one, and perhaps she has some further theoretical points which explain the relationship between neuronal structures and subjective experiences in a way which would illuminate this. But hang on – wasn’t the relationship between neuronal structures and subjective experience the original problem? Slapping our foreheads, we realise that Rothblatt has palmed off on us an idea about uniqueness which actually doesn’t address the Hard Problem at all. The Hard Problem is not about how brains can accommodate a million unique experiences: it’s about how brains can accommodate subjectivity, how they make it true that there is something it is like to see red.

I fear this may be another example of the noticeable tendency of some theorists, especially those with a strong scientific background, to give us clockwork oranges, to borrow the metaphor Anthony Burgess used in a slightly different context: accounts that model some of the physical features quite nicely (see, it’s round, it hangs from trees effectively) while missing the essential juice which is really the whole point. According to Burgess, or at least to F. Alexander, the ill-fated character who expresses this view in the novel,  the point of a man is not orderly compliance with social requirements but, as it were, his juice, his inner reality.  I think the answer to the Hard Problem is indeed something to do with our reality (I should say that I mean ‘reality’ in a perfectly everyday sense:  Rothblatt, like some purveyors of mechanical fruit, is a little too quick to dismiss anything not strictly reducible to physics as mysticism) : we’re fine when we’re dealing with abstractions, it’s the concrete and particular which remains stubbornly inexplicable in any but superficial terms.  It’s my real experience of redness that causes the difficulty. Perhaps Rothblatt’s ideas about uniqueness are an attempt to capture the one-off quality of that experience; but uniqueness isn’t quite the point, and I think we need something deeper.


  1. 1. Doru says:

    My experience designing smart cameras for computer vision systems, made this post really irresistible not to respond.

    It seems to me that the experience of seeing color red is a more simplistic physical phenomena. Basically a certain frequency from the visible light spectrum (630 – 700 nanometers for red) leaves an impression on the retina. So we don’t actually “see” the red light, but we rather feel (sense) the impression of the red photon waveform that collapses into a chemical reaction sensed by specialized cone cells in our retinas.

    The interesting observation from quantum physics is that because of the collapsing of the electromagnetic waveform when is detected, basically each observer (detector) should see a quantum event irreversible and only once. Therefore, that reduction of the light waveform cannot be caused by any physical process (local process).

    Therefore, it must be only one consciousness, and that is non-local.

    If you and me or any other evolved life form in the other side of the galaxy can assume that a red apple appear red as a mental image and not as an independent existing red object, than my, yours or any other observer’s experience of seeing red color must be the same, universal and non local.

    PS. It is funny when you think that apples are red because they are not red. The surface of an apple absorbs all the colors from the visible spectrum but the red color. So the red color gets reflected back to the observer, in other words, a red apple is “red blind” and cannot experience being red. ?

  2. 2. Lloyd Rice says:

    There may well be a quantum state collapse when a particular photon interacts with the chemistry of a cone cell. I do not understand all the details of this. But whatever happens, the neural firing that ends up being transmitted up the optical fiber is a result of averaging and processing that definitely IS a “local process”, whatever you mean by that. The upshot is that the signal which finally reaches the appropriate areas (in the parietal lobe?) is as much a physical event as anything else that happens in the body. For me, it adds nothing to cite the quantum basis underlying all of this. I cannot draw conclusions from the nature of the conversion from photons to neural impulses that would allow me to pronounce a view on the nature of consciousness.

    In my view, the Rothblatt article is an erudite restatement of the view that I proposed in my blunt and crass way in comment 12 of the posting “Cryptic Consciousness”. We each form unique percepts reflecting external events based on the sum total of our brain configuration and experience. I see no reason to believe that there is any connection between the percept that I create when I view a red object and the corresponding percept that anyone else creates when they view the same object. We all call that “red” by linguistic agreement, and that IS shared, but the percept is unique to each.

    So then the conscious state that results from that percept is likewise unique to each individual. Whether my “red” percept looks anything like yours, we may never be able to say. But for me, the “hard problem” ends there. All else about consciousness will sooner or later be explored and studied — and reproduced in machinery. I do (sort of) agree that there is something of a “hard problem” there, but I see it as comparable to the understanding of how a collection of DNA can lead to a living thing. As more and more of the pieces are understood, we feel less and less inclined to see it as a hard problem.

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    The point is that is has nothing to do with the “hard problem”, and its brother the “binding problem”, it is ordinary neurophysiology of visual perception. It is true that genetics are progressing, but genetics are not equivalent to the hard problem. Genetic problem can be tackled using scientific methods, and that is why our “objective” knowledge on the topic improves. But the hard problem relates to subjective inner experience, and cannot even be properly stated in scientific terms. So the “hard problem” remains invict and the main source of hope for human beings.

  4. 4. Lloyd Rice says:

    “Main source of hope”??? What’s that got to do with it??

    Anyway, I agree that consciousness is a subjective matter, differing in that respect from genetics. Still, I will argue that a similar progression of understanding will take place as more is learned about the functioning of the brain. What seems like a hard problem now will disappear, even as it remains a “first person” subjective matter.

    As for the relationship between our present subject matter and “hard problems” and “binding problems”, I believe that these issues came into play early in this discussion, in which photon conversions in the retina were said to be related to the perception of red. In my comment above, I tried to clarify the differences by referring to the various locations in the head where each of these processes take place. It seems quite clear to me that the so-called binding problem refers to something that happens at the point (or points) where percepts are correlated (if I may use that term for a much more elaborate process), while the so-called hard problem happens just after that.

  5. 5. Ryan says:

    Isn’t arguing a seperate point, knocking it over, and claiming victory called making a straw man?

    Anyway, I think there are two things going on here.

    The first is that her argument doesn’t address the hard problem, so that’s moot.

    Second, of course everyone is seeing different things. The color red is encoded in a an ensemble of neurons, the aggregate of which indicates blue instead of red, in a process that is probably similar to arm movement ensembles. This ‘blue’ is pretty much the same from person to person, but it’s most assuredly not exactly the same. I didn’t think that was a novel idea. Maybe it is if you try to use it to solve the hard problem, which it doesn’t.

  6. 6. Lloyd Rice says:

    I see no reason to believe that my qualia have any resemblance to yours. Sure, the perceptual system may be wired roughly the same way, but there are so many other differences — for example, the order by which I encountered blues vs reds would, I believe, be a major factor in determining the details of my qualia. I will argue that these qualia are no more than internal reference points, outcomes of many similarity tests, used to distinguish one percept from another. The details would also depend, for example, on how important it was to make a particular distinction, say between shades of pink.

    These are the details which I believe will one day be fairly well understood. What that will then tell us about hard problems, I do not know. But I continue to argue that the issue will disappear.

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    Well that is what I meant, photon conversion in the retina is a physiological process as well as photon conversion in digital camera CCD is a physical process, as well as all the neural activity patterns (electical and synaptical) that occur in the visual cortex to support vision, are subject of ordinary neurophysiology studies. Still, for the time being how “redness” experience is produced by the brain activity induced by the stimulation of retina with red light is not understood at all.

    All individuals show differences (within a define range in healthy individuals) in the histology and biochemistry of the central nervous system CNS (eg: rodopsyn or cell concentration in the retina), so IF neural activity accounts for qualia, slight differences in the CNS could very well be translated in slight differences in the qualia, why not. See the case of blind colour people.

    for the “source of hope”… consciousness “hard problem” is the only “objective argument” we have to leave open the possibility of conscious existence beyond or not only linked to physical existence, with all its implications in an afterdeath existence, whatever that could be.

  8. 8. Alex says:

    I agree with the general sentiment that Rothblatt does not solve the hard problem. It seems that she explains subjectivity as a particular instance of objective information, guarenteed to be unique by its manifestation in a unique brain. This seems right to me; if we accept neural activity as the basis for conscious experience, and we accept that we all have unique brains(which at any level of detail we certainly do), then any individual’s experience of red would be based on a brain state unique to them. Therefore the experience is subjective in that that individual is the only one with access to the experience, but as Rothblatt seems to be implying, this subjectivity is really an instance of unique objectivity, only accessable by the individual whose brain it is but objective because the given specific brain state translates directly(/deterministically/objectively) to a specific experience. That translation from brain state to experience is the root of the hard problem, and an issue which is not really addressed in the right way by this conversation about subjectivity.

  9. 9. Doru says:

    Hi guys,

    I really enjoy the debate here,

    From my perspective, a butterfly can see more shades of red than I can do. Spending many hours in the lab working on camera sensors with a bunch of physicists I always thought about answering this important philosophical question:
    If we all believe that there is an experience called “seeing the red color”, then:
    “What is actually that “experience” and who is the “experiencer” from a scientific and objective point of view?”
    And my point above, and one very important and fundamental observation of quantum physics, is that in order to make a detection of a red photon, that waveform has to collapse. In other words the observation of a red photon, creates and annihilates that photon in the same time. It’s the hard question that quantum physics cannot answer because what it says is that the only thing that can happen is when what seems to exist in physical world is reduced to nothing. And this “nothingness” must be something that transcends space and time. It cannot be described using The Mind because you cannot just make “nothing” into “something”. But as far as I’m concern, there mast be some qualities about this conscious emptiness that enables us to conceptualize an experience and an experiencer.
    And these qualities are God like atributes: ”Non-local (everywhere), infinite (without limits), omnipresent (exists only in the present that is forever), whole (cannot be divided) etc.

  10. 10. Alex says:

    Also, the argument about the same sentence expressed through different substrates and represented the same way by everyone does not seem compelling. First of all, meanings of words and sentences is really a different area of discussion than things like redness. At least for the fact that redness is inherent in red things, and linguistic meaning is ascribed ad hoc. We all have to agree about the meanings of sentences and words for us to get some shared(objective?) meaning out of a sentence – we have to learn the language. We don’t have to learn anything about the world, or come to any sort of agreement about anything in order to see red the way we do as individuals.

    And even when we learn the same language, and represent the same sentence with brain states that are unique to us as individuals, I’m not sure that that’s clear evidence that unique brains really can yield exactly the same experience. At least it doesn’t follow necessarily that they do. Consider that we both know english, and we both know what all the words mean in the paragraph that you wrote making your argument, yet you think it’s right and I disagree. I think this must mean that we don’t have identical experiences of those sentences, even though we agree on the meanings of all the words.

  11. 11. Vicente says:

    Why is it so relevant the photon wavefunction collapse, or related quantum gauge problems, you could very well stimulate directly the brain with electrodes, magnetic fields or other means, and you will get similar experiences. You can imagine/dream scenes without the need of external stimulation. I believe that the hard problem is not coupled to measurement theory in quantum systems.

    The unicity of mind is a very interesting issue addressed by philosophers and scientists, and is part of the core believes of philosophies-religions like buddhism. One single mind with several instances is attractive. Again, this topic is related to “what is the mind?” rather than to “how does the brain produce the mind?”.

    All these very interesting considerations are only indirectly related to the hard problem

  12. 12. Luis García says:

    Couldn’t we switch to the experience “hearing the B flat note”. As far as I know, sound waves feel quite ok with classical mechanics, so we would avoid all this complications about photons and collapsing wave functions.

  13. 13. Lloyd Rice says:

    Alex: I agree with your position that neural activity must be the basis for conscious experience. Suppose that we could watch, in real time, the exact neural activity of as many neurons as necessary (along with the requisite processing power) and then interview the patient about the nature of their conscious experience? Putting aside language issues and assuming some in-depth interviewing, could we not learn all there is to know about that conscious experience? What I’m saying is that all of conscious experience should, in principle, be subject to vocalization. As for those language issues, I don’t agree with the claim that “redness is inherent in red things”. That idea seems to hark back to a philosophical position discussed by Searle (I don’t know the earlier history) that meaning is in the external world. It seems clear that meaning, our “redness”, is entirely within our minds, a result of the integration of perceptual processing of the chaotic and unstructured world. It is exactly our mind’s ability to find commonality among the variety of red experiences that creates “redness”.

    Maybe that’s just what you are saying in the last paragraph of comment 10. I would only add that we don’t really “agree on the meanings of all the words”. We do so only with sufficient statistical probability such that we agree to proceed with the discussion.

    Doru: Again, I must make the point that the quantum effects you speak of are but one step in a long chain of physical activity. How can you conclude that this somehow renders the entire process non-physical?

    Luis: Fine with me. My background is acoustics.

  14. 14. John Davey says:

    I have seen a zillion or so explanations for qualia given like this, particularly by the AI set. This is not new at all and amounts to ‘of course strange things happen in the brain – it’s complex !’. She might as well have gone off on a tangent and talked about ‘feedback loops’ like most AI people do. It’s not entirely obvious that Ms Rothblatt is of the ‘hard AI’ school but she is using similar arguments, focussing on logical structures (lots of connections!) rather than physical causality.

    A network of objects is no more than a collection of individual objects tied together in a logical or physical grouping . If you cannot explain a mechanism of how consciousness or subjective phenomena could arise between two of these objects – in this case, neurons – using LOGICAL arguments, then you cannot ascribe such causality to greater number of these objects. It’s the same as ‘feedback loops’ in algorithms – an algorithm with a feedback loop is just another algorithm.

    I don’t think it’s plausible argument that everybody has a completely different experience of colours or any other basic sense for that matter. Most people are basically the same – we can conclude that after a couple of millions of years of development in a slowly changing environment in which the species has plodded on in relatively slow increments of knowledge (excluding brain mechanics, in which we are only slightly better off than cavemen)

  15. 15. Lloyd Rice says:

    John: Agreed that most of us have two arms and two legs. But the brain is only to a small extent constructed according to genetic instructions. Most of the connections are either random (initially) or determined by life experiences. And surely you agree that these are mostly unique to each individual.

  16. 16. John Davey says:

    A glass of water consists of molecules of H20. Each molecule interacts with its neigbours to produce a liquid with local structure that becomes less orderly with distance. Therefore each drop of water consists of a range of short range that is completely unique to it.

    Does that mean that the seas are not homegenous or that the water in India is different fronm the water in the Pacific Ocean ?

    If you want to make a case for this alleged uniqueness, you must be able to make it for two neurons before you can make it for the set. You must shpow that the ‘patterns’ make any difference, which nobody has done.

  17. 17. John Davey says:

    “Therefore each drop of water consists of a range of short range that is completely unique to it.”

    Sorry – should read “short range patterns that are completely unique to it”

  18. 18. Trevor Mead says:

    I don’t know why it has to be said in terms of qualia or quantum physics… as argued above (before veering off a cliff), colors are a set frequency within visual light. Sensors for those frequencies have evolved in multiple ways, and persisted. So if human-specific sensors, with rods and cones, pupils and corneas, etc., are pretty much the same in every human, why wouldn’t it follow that neurobiological response is pretty much the same in every human?

    Color detection is a basic trick, something that all healthy individuals seem capable of from birth. Just because an infant could be raised to say “blue” when everyone else says “red” doesn’t mean they actually “see” a different color – color detection is not a learned trait. Human vision is not a learned trait. And saying the adaptable part of the brain has an unthinkable potential for neural connections doesn’t change or address that. The _associations_ made between sensory input and other mental objects surely are unique to the individual, but not the original sensory input, or its original perception.

    What about audible frequency changes? Wouldn’t sounds run into the same Hard Problem if visual sensory input was 100% unique? We may or may not agree on the meanings of words (because of differing associations made with the audible input), but it seems odd to suggest we don’t hear the same sounds as other humans. Hearing is also a pretty basic evolved trait, and would need to be universal across the species; early apes all responded the same to the sound of a predator, or mating call, etc. Their lives depended on it. Same with visual cues of what to eat, what to avoid, etc.

    A study was just released on how tamarin monkeys can be influenced by creating species-specific “music” (search “monkey music” in google news). It reinforces the idea that humans have a species specific–i.e. universal amongst all healthy humans–music, meaning we respond to certain perceived frequency changes more or less the same way. Do different cultures promote different associations with those universal responses? Of course, and they eventually take on more cognitive importance than our hardwired responses. But that doesn’t suggest the hardwired, universal responses aren’t there, nor does it suggest the initial sensory input, the raw data which is responded to, isn’t universal either. It’s not a huge leap to suggest the same holds true for color, or any other sensory perception.

  19. 19. Doru says:

    After reading again and putting more thoughts, there was this question rising into my mind.
    If a “Matrix-like” computer induced reality was possible, were people in it having subjective perception of the colors they were seeing?
    And according to the article they do.
    How about in the real world, if there is such a thing? Well, I guess that’s why we are all here, not to find out the answer, but to understand the answer we already have.

  20. 20. Peter says:

    I take your point, Trevor, but the question is not so much whether you could have a child that says “blue” when everyone else says “red” – it’s more a child that says “red” when everyone else says “red”, but inside is actually experiencing what other people experience when they see (and say) blue.

    Doru – yes, I think the Matrix point gets us to the highly intractable nub of it. What if Matrix people don’t have subjective experience, but carry on behaving as if they did? Then they would be philosophical zombies, belief or disbelief in which is notoriously a highly divisive and contentious issue.

  21. 21. Lloyd Rice says:

    I have argued above that we all have distinct qualia. In fact, my real claim would be that I can see no reasonable argument that we should all have the same qualia — that out individual experiences lead to distinct inner representations of the world. And that would also be true for people in a matrix (if that were possible).

    But when it comes down to it, I would equally argue that there is no way we can ever know the answer. What we do know is that — as Peter says — we have whatever it is we need to be able to perceive and behave coherently.

  22. 22. DiscoveredJoys says:

    My suspicion is that my qualia are probably slightly different to yours, and yours, and yours…. but close enough for practical purposes. They are ‘close enough’ because they arise from quite closely (but not totally) determined physiological processes and these processes are the current result of repeated natural selections.

    Now, as it happens, I ‘know’ that my qualia may be different from yours. How? I ‘know’ that each of my eyes has a slightly different colour cast. Under the right conditions the colour vision of one eye has a slightly blue tinge when compared to the other. I also know that some people (usually men) cannot distinguish between particular colours (e.g. red and green) that I can distinguish – and there is a physiological reason for their colour-blindness. But for all reasonable purposes (and similar genetic profile) my reddish is similar to your reddish.

    So what is left of the Hard Problem?

    “The Hard Problem, as regulars here will know, is how to explain subjective experience, the redness of red, the ineffable inner sense of what experience is like.”

    Some people have argued that the Hard Problem only exists because we are asking the wrong question. See http://www.humphrey.org.uk/papers/2008QuestioningConsciousness.pdf . While I don’t agree with everything he says, he suggests that instead of treating consciousness and qualia as individual experiences we have to explain, we should ask if the general human illusions of consciousness and qualia have evolved to modify and motivate our behaviour. If so, no new brain stuff is required, no hidden processes, no special privileged view, only similar evolutionary history.

  23. 23. Shankar says:

    Trevor- I am not sure if hearing is an evolved trait. Many Japanese cannot only prounounce ‘r’, they cannot even hear that consonant.

    DiscoveredJoys, you are right. For me, my left eye has a slightly bluer tinge as well, when compared to my right eye. But even for someone who wears a real dark shade of sunglasses, the mind compensates for it and the color of blood appears to be the same ‘bright red’ as without those glasses, although in absolute terms the color experienced with the shades might be close to maroon. It all depends on the context in which the brain perceives it.

    In the case of music, I am not sure if everyone perceives pitches identically. A semitone or two in perception will not make much difference to the subjective experience, since music is transposition independent, at least for small intervals. Unlike color, where there are only 3 basic types of cone cells, there is a continuum of auditory filters in the case of sound, which makes fine calibration almost impossible, given the wide sizes and shapes that ear canals come in.

  24. 24. Lloyd Rice says:

    DiscoveredJoys and Shankar: You both make good points about physiological reasons why there must be differences between various people’s percepts. But I suspect that most of the “hard problem” advocates would say that there is an underlying “true” redness, which is universal, regardless of differences in the perceptual mechanisms. That seems to be what DJ is saying when you claim that our “rednesses” are similar. My claim is stronger. I say that the raw red itself, underneath any individual variation, is uniquely constructed by each individual to meet the needs of perceptual distinction, when the differences were first perceived.

    Shankar is very close to this point in talking about vowel perception. It has been well researched that the vowel spaces we learn are language-specific. Based on the perceived formant patterns which have linguistic meaning, the boundaries between the different sounds adapt to the toddler’s language experience. But surely, when you hear “ah”, that qualifies as definitely as “red” as a real “hard problem” quale.

  25. 25. Shankar says:

    Lloyd, I believe in a slightly different theory. I do feel strongly that the underlying “red” is the same for everyone. Slight variations in shade may occur because of differences in the cone cell responses in the eyes between individuals. But if you factor that out and stimulate the neurons that correspond to ‘red’ in a direct manner, the subjective experience might well match exactly.

    A case of such direct stimulus that everyone has experienced at one time or another is the white flash when one bumps one’s head. Now I maintain that this white is the same shade of white between all individuals. If one wears pink sunglasses for a long time, his concept of ‘white’ might actually be a slight shade of pink. But when he bumps his head, he will notice the difference between what he perceives and what he assumed to be white.

    I don’t think the exact shade of red or blue is determined much by large scale neuronal architecture. I think there might be something more fundamental and elementary like a particular molecule or protein. The three primary colors are the three choices of paint colors available in the palette (much like in computer displays). Of course, the brain does the rest, in terms of mixing them and forming figures. But under unusual circumstances (like bumping the head or directly stimulating a ‘pixel’ in the field of vision through probes), we can subjectively experience what those underlying palette colors are. Now how to compare those palette colors between two individuals is another matter!

  26. 26. Lloyd Rice says:

    Shankar: The only way I can interpret what you’re saying is if the sensed quale itself is somehow physically and physiologically distinct from the percept. That is, as if various percepts somehow trigger these independent “built-in” qualia. But my philosophy of the universe does not provide any source for such things. I can only imagine the qualia that we sense to be direct results of the percepts themselves, faded pinks, and all. One of the many conclusions of this is that I’m not convinced that the flash of white that I would see under the conditions you describe would be identical to yours.

  27. 27. Joao Rodrigues says:

    There is a big (and I mean BIG) mistake in any articles, discussions and thought experiences which deal with qualia comparisons. How do we compare things? Let´s say I show you two pictures of trees and ask you to tell me if they represent the same tree. What your brain will do is: decompose the images in sets of simpler features and make comparisons on these simpler feature. You will see yourself saying (even if not consciously)things like: picture A has the same leaf density as picture B; picture A is a bit larger than picture B; picture A is as green as B, etc, etc. Now the question is: what kind of features could be used to make comparisons between qualias representing the same object (e.g., colour red) in two different people? A qualium, a subject experience, is a unique type of object. It can not be classified, sub-classified, decomposed, sub-divided, compared, etc. Qualia can not even be compared to themselves in different points in time: if I keep looking at something red all the time all I can say is that the physical object which causes that qualia has been unchanged for that period. Putting in a different way: qualia are decorrelated in time.

  28. 28. Lloyd Rice says:

    Joao: I partly agree. I do agree that there is an indescribable, personal aspect to the qualia (singular quale or qualium?) which we will never be able to communicate, compare, or contrast between individuals. But there are also other characteristics which can be described and compared. I first became aware of this earlier this year and discussed the issues on this blog (see Cryptic Consciousness, comments 41, 43 and 46. Since then, I have pursued this by asking a number of people about their experiences. It has been a most interesting summer.

  29. 29. Kar says:

    Wow, I have just been offline for two weeks and I almost missed this Big Party. 27 comments! And then Joao Rodrigues pointed out the Big Mistake. I second this view.

    In fact, I am going to re-formulate the hard problem. The usual way of stating the hard problem is to point out the existence of qualia (or as some like to say “there is something it is like”). My claim is, an equivalent way of stating the hard problem is to point out that “I exist”. Reason below.

    We keep talking about existence of qualia, but whose qualia are we talking about? We have a tendency to talk about other people’s qualia, as if it is an objective thing that we can all talk about. The fact is, other than our own qualia, we simply have no base to even talk about any qualia other than our own. What exactly am I doing when I am talking about your qualia? I project myself into you and imagine being you, then transplant my own experience, maybe with some variation that I can imagine, such as changing blue into less blue, or even red. But is it your qualia? No. It is my imagination of my qualia if I become you. Fundamentally, I am completely ignorant of what I am talking about (may be your red is like my smelling roses? or something I cannot even imagine?). Therefore, for me to talk about your qualia is simply a leap of faith. Not only that I am completely ignorant of your qualia, I cannot be certain that there is such a thing as “your qualia”. From a functional standpoint, the ability to project oneself into another person’s viewpoint has a lot of benefit. “If I were him, I will give up because it is too hard for a human” Indeed, he gives up, as you predicted, and you benefited from predicting the right behavior. But functionality is one thing, whether it is the truth is another thing. People takes sugar placebo pill and get a good night sleep, and does so consistently. Functionally, the placebo is as good as a sleeping pill, but it does not work the same way. So, being able to talk about other people’s qualia and help you predict other’s behavior does not mean you are talking about something real. So, to be logical about it, one has to limit his/her discussion to his/her own qualia. The hard problem is than the seemingly impossible task of finding a mechanism to explain how my own brain can cause the existence of my qualia. If I am trying to figure out how your brain can generate your qualia, then I am way overboard. But that is what many people are trying to do, and generated so many confusions in doing so. For me to try to figure out how your brain can generate your qualia is for me to project myself into you, and then explain the existence of my own qualia, if I take on your body. Eventually, I am still trying to explain my own qualia, just in a different body. So, why not just stick to my own qualia?

    So, if this point is acceptable. Then my claim is, the hard problem can be stated in two ways:
    1) How does my brain generate my qualia (Wny my qualia exist)?
    2) How does my brain generate my own existence (Why I exist at all)?

    The proof is as follows:
    1) If my qualia exist, then I exist. (Because if not, who is the owner of my qualia? It has to be someone, and that is me)
    2) If I exist, then my qualia exist. (Because if you don’t have qualia, what does it mean by “you exist”? Can you exist without qualia, without raw feels, without experiencing anything?)

    So, it implies both ways. Therefore, “existence of qualia” iff “personal existence”. So, if one wants to solve his or her own “hard problem”, he or she has to solve the “mystery of personal existence”. My existence is the hard problem.

    To me, my own existence is the most fundamental problem there is to solve. A slight variation of this problem is the problem of “why am I me?”, which pre-suppose my existence (which Peter has posted before).

    If someone tells me that computer science or neuroscience is going to eventually explain to me why I exist, I will say, nice try. Even the Bible (of any religion) cannot explain that.

  30. 30. Shankar says:

    Kar, nice points you have made. Do you then seriously believe that others are zombies, or only that it is meaningless to talk about others’ qualia?
    One can take your arguments a step further and claim that our physical brain is a manifestation of our mental states, not the other way around. An everyday example is our own selves in dreams, and if we believed while dreaming that our brain (in the dream) is responsible for our conscious state (in the dream), it would seem a silly proposition on waking up! Who knows, what we assume as reality now might well turn out to be something similar!
    I too concur that we need to solve the basic mind-body problem before we start discussing the qualia of others. One step at a time.

  31. 31. Joao Rodrigues says:

    Kar: this existence issue is the core of all this discussion. Sometime ago I wrote an article, a humble piece, where I exposed my opinion that the self-consciousness has evolved from the need to possess things. If you use a raw piece of stone as a tool you can just get rid of it right after and get another when you need it. However when we talk about more handcrafted and elaborate tools forgive the poor English) like the ones developed by Homo habilis, once you have built it you need to preserve it for future use: you need to POSSESS it (possession means feeling pain when you lose it, so you will fight to avoid losing it). It´s my opinion that the exercise of the verb TO POSSESS over an object requires the existence of a subjective point of reference in the mind of the individual who possesses the object. In other words he/she must recognize himself as a separate entity (he/she EXISTS). It´s no coincidence that children (those of us who are parents know what I´m talking about) usually express “this is mine” for the first time towards an object around 3 years old, precisely at the same age when it´s supposed to arise the first manifestations of self-consciousness. It´s just the same phylogenetic phenomenon in an ontogenetic level.

  32. 32. Doru says:

    Hi everybody,
    I’m just curios, do we have any evidence that neurons make connections based on the sensorial inputs? Anybody been able to recognize any patterns in the infinity of possible connections? Let’s say, a taxi driver in New York and a Tibetan monk, any difference ever observed?

  33. 33. Kar says:

    This is an interesting question. My original intent was to take the position that it is meaningless to talk about something that I have no way of measuring. I also realized that there are objection to this position because equally valid is the scientific method that looks at both cases separately: 1) If all other people are zombies, then……. 2) If other people are not zombies, then…….. and discuss them separately.

    So, I will trying to answer this question in this light. If I assume 1), then I become a solipsist (almost because it can still admit the reality of the physical world, just that there is no other agents in it). But being a solipsist is quite devastating emotionally. One risks being wrong, with detrimental result, at the same time, losing all the joys of communicatiing with his peers. By commenting here, emotionally I am already committed to treating others as non-zombies, even though logically, I can never be sure. So, if I assume 2), then I am forced to admit that it is meaningful to talk about other’s qualia because the existence of other people’s qualia is the assumption. I will then be forced to talk about something that I am absolutely ignorant about. This is an equally uncomfortable situation. So, I need to avoid it as well. So, am I stuck?

    Let me also point out that there is a third option: 3) Other people are not zombies, but their qualia are mine. We are used to projecting our own version of qualia into other people and then talk about “their” qualia. But what if those “other people’s qualia” are indeed mine?

    This is possible if there is one and only one consciousness, and we are all different manifestations of this universal consciousness, a concept that you are very familiar with and have written about.

    Metaphorically, if we are different software programs, being run by the same CPU, then we are just different roles played by the same (CPU) consciousness who is the ultimate owner of all the qualia (Don’t ask how a CPU can have qualia. You are carrying the metaphor too far). When the CPU is running one program, it is exclusively that program. It only knows that it is that program because its access to other programs is temporarily cut off (think about pre-emptive multitasking) during that particular time slice allocated to that program. When it runs another program in a multitasking environment, it becomes exclusively another program because the CPU’s access to the first program has been cut off. If there is a universal consciousness, and if it metaphorically works in the same way, we will have a universal qualia owner who does not know it is running the entire show, but keep wondering “why am I me?”, through the different programs it is running. So, Peter would wonder why he is Peter, and I would wonder why I am Kar, without knowing that we are just different roles played by the same Universal Mind, if there is such a Universal Mind, that is.

    As far as I know, I have not seen this metaphor anywhere else in the mind-body (the mind is to the CPU, and the body is to the software) discussion. I think it is quite a beautiful speculation.

    I think the need to possess something is just part of the make up of the physical body due to evolution. Without this characteristic, an individual will just not survive very long. If I may use my CPU-software metaphor for the mind-body interaction, the tendency to possess is encoded in the software part (the physical body), but the CPU (the mind) ended up receiving the corresponding quale when it runs to that section of the code.

    Please check out this piece of news (http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2009/jul/09072902.html) about a half brain girl whose visual nerve cells rewired to the same hemisphere and achieved almost normal conscious vision (as opposed to blind-sight). In normal people, left visual field of both eyes are connected to the right hemisphere and the right visual field of both eyes are mapped to the left. So, if you have half of the brain missing, you are going to lose half of your visual field in both eyes. But this girl overcame that, presumably due to the light stimulation at a time when the brain is still plastic enough to rewire.

  34. 34. Kar says:

    More on the CPU/software metaphor for the mind/body interaction.
    We are used to treating software as the mental part, and the hardware the physical body. This is quite ok if you are talking about a VCR or items of that sort. For example, you can make a machine smarter by doing a software upgrade. “Smarter” is considered a mental property.

    However, if you are going to simulate consciousness in a piece of software, the mapping should be reversed. The software is just a set of rules that the CPU has to follow. It is almost like the set of physical laws in the real world. So, if we are going to do a mapping between the physical world and a simulated virtual world, say, mapping a real building in the real world to a simulated building in SimCity, the physical laws the real buildings have to obey are “realized” in the virtual world by the laws/instructions in the software. The real building has dimensions. Well, the virtual building has dimensions too, defined by the software. The real building has human occupants. Well, in SimCity, you can have simulated humans too. The behavior of the real human is determined by the physical body structure, and the behavior of the Sim human (virtual body) is determined by the parameters in the software, still part of the software. There is an almost perfect mapping between the physical world and the simulated world. However, where is this consciousness (the mind thing) we have in the real world mapped to in the virtual world?

    We know that this mind thing is not physical. If there is one thing that the Virtual Sim world has and is not inside the software world, it is the CPU that is running the software, but outside of it. So, it looks like it is a natural choice to map the non-physical minds of the real world to the CPU which is outside of the software world. Then we end up with the CPU mapping to the mental, and the software mapping to the physical part of the real world. And if in the real world, we really have a universal mind that serves as the ultimate owner of all qualia (which are non-physical), the CPU is the counterpart in the virtual world that can serve this role. The mapping is perfect.

    A universal mind as the owner of all qualia is therefore a beautiful possibility that can solve the hard problem. Our nature is this universal mind, just that we are not aware of it. When we take an introspection within a particular viewpoint/body (read, when some physical body takes an introspection), we got cut off from other bodies and are not aware of their existence, just like when the CPU is running one program, it is exclusively focusing on that program and is not “aware” of the existence of other programs that it will run some time. In other words, we are this “CPU” of the real world, who plays out different people simultaneously.

    The question is, can this metaphor be carried far enough to imply that the Universal Mind is the entity that is running the entire universe, including the advancement of the “now” moment, just like the CPU is running the entire computer system with the computer clock defining which “now” is being run now.

  35. 35. vakibs says:

    I believe that meaning is not contained in a form but in the boundary of a form and its complement. In other words, neither A nor not(A) is meaningful but only the boundary between A and not(A) contains the meaning of what it means to be “A” (or equivalently not(A))

    redness and not(redness) together have a meaning, but independently considered they are meaningless.

    Can two people be in agreement in their discrimination of two forms (or colors) ? Yes. And this proposition can be tested.

    Under such a constraint, can we associate a unique mapping of the color spectrum to subjective experience ? I think the answer is no, because any rotation (phase-shift) of the entire color spectrum would produce identical answers from both people being tested. But the answer is also yes, because every random reordering of colors would not satisfy the constraint of agreement in discrimination holistically over all colors.

    Thus, if we accept that there are multiple “observers” in this universe, then they would have “related” (and not completely divergent) subjective experiences.

    However, I am with Doru in his monistic argument. I believe that there is only one single conscious observer in this universe. So in this case, the subjective experience would be unique because there’s just one agent jotting down the observations.

  36. 36. vakibs says:

    is a little too quick to dismiss anything not strictly reducible to physics as mysticism

    This kind of scientists amuse me very much. They are just like the church in medieval times. The agility and eagerness with which they put their heads in the sand would shame an ostrich.

    If I throw a bird in the air and it doesn’t fall down to the ground in a parabolic path, does it mean it is violating Newton’s laws of motion ? No. It just means that Newton’s laws are incomplete to describe the universe in question.

    But according to these neo-“scientists”, the bird is not flying. It is just suffering an illusion of flight. In reality, it is just hitting the ground headlong in total accordance with Newton’s laws of motion. Welcome to the brave new scientific world !

  37. 37. Lloyd Rice says:

    I am in agreement with vakibs on one point: it is the distinctions that lead to qualia. However, my take on the number of observers in the universe would be at least 6 billion. So the color distinctions are pretty well distributed. On the other hand, we would all have to sit down together and compare notes and, to my knowledge, that has never happened. And anyway, that’s only counting homo sapiens. Actually, I believe you need to count everything down to at least mice, probably further. So we’re at minimum up into the trillions. And that’s only counting this planet.

  38. 38. DiscoveredJoys says:

    Doru, @32

    London Black Cab Taxi drivers, spend two years learning ‘the Knowledge’ – how to navigate between thousands of places in the city – before they can be licensed. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. See http://www.pnas.org/content/97/8/4398.full .

    It seems likely then that different lifestyles may alter brain ‘geography’ by use and disuse. I have also read of the pitch discrimination of expert musicians being much more accurate than non-musicians (although I don’t have a link to hand).

  39. 39. Lloyd Rice says:

    You are correct, DJ. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of Amer has had a number of articles over the years on perfect pitch. It is a fascinating subject. And the qualia for sounds are equally fascinating. The experience of a pure sinusoidal tone is so “clean and pure” it is hard to imagine that anybody else hears it any differently than I do. But what do I know? I’m only me.

    My pitch memory is pretty good, but not “perfect”. I can imagine that someone with a sharper pitch memory hears the tone as somehow “narrower” than I hear it. Or “thinner”???

  40. 40. Lloyd Rice says:

    I can perhaps imagine an experiment where the subject is asked to compare the “width” of a pure tone percept with the distance between two tones. Yes, given careful thought, I do believe there are ways to coax out the nature of another person’s qualia.

  41. 41. Doru says:

    DiscoveredJoys – Thanks for the article, I always thought that the brain is like a muscle, (use it or loose it). As far as observing different patterns of connectivity in the brain from subject to subject, I am still a skeptic.

    Let’s have this hypothetical experiment. A human subject grows up in a world where everything is in shades of green and blue. This subject has absolutely no conscious memories about seeing red color. And then he is given two identical objects. One is green, and the other is red. What is he going to be describing?
    Two green objects of different shade?
    One green and the other in different color that he never saw before and cannot describe?
    Will he describe the red object as blue? (Because everything that is not green is blue in his mind)
    A green object and a color less one?
    Maybe invisible?
    My belief is that what ever answer he will give, maybe a combination of the above or none of those, that answer will be the same if the experiment is repeated with another subject that grew up in the same green/blue world.

  42. 42. Lloyd Rice says:

    My belief is that he will (internally create and) see some color that he has not yet seen (assuming that his eyes still work essentially the same as ours) and that his report of what he sees will be pretty much that same as that of anyone else in his situation. But that does not mean that all those people are seeing the same shade. I believe that each person will create a new shade that uniquely serves to distinguish it from previously experienced shades. Given thousands of people in the same situation, the results may be quite similar, but not necessarily identical.

  43. 43. Luis García says:

    Here it is another hypothetical experiment, this one combining vision and sound waves (I admit that I don’t know if it can lead anywhere but I’ve thought about it several times and I’d like to submit it to your opinions). The subject is someone born completely color-blind. Eventually, we provide her with a pair of high-tech glasses equipped with a) an eye-tracker device that continuously detects where the subject is looking at, b) a mini video camera that uses the eye-tracker to point in the same direction as the subject’s sight, thus getting an image of the center of her field of vision, c) an electronic transducer device that transforms the color signals from the camera into a signal in the audible frequencies, following some fixed rules and d) a headphone that makes this signal audible by the subject. I guess that, by looking at objects and being told what color they are, the subject will learn to distinguish colors, to “see” them in a way (well, not in noisy places), to experience them consciously and to being able to talk about them to other people. I guess that she would even acquire her own aesthetical sense of color.
    Which part of the subject’s brain will process her color vision? How would it be her color experience? Could it be compared to ours?

  44. 44. d says:


    As far as I know anyone with no experience of ‘red’ will still see a red object as red, although I suspect it may make more of an impact through its novelty. Colour blind people see red objects – they just think the red object is the same colour as a brown object.

    Some South American Indian tribes live most of their life under the green canopy – their world is predominantly green. However they can and do see ‘red’ in blood, fruit juices, berries and flowers, so the red-less experience is not a pure experiment.

    I’m not certain, but I don’t think red-sensing cells in the eye atrophy through disuse in the individual. If you kept an entire population from seeing red for enough generations then the capability of seeing red might diminish (by natural selection).

    There is also synesthesia (see Wikipedia for details) where people associate numbers with particular colours, or sounds with particular motions etc. People who have synesthesia usually realise (as they grow older) that they don’t sense things the same way as other people.

    My take on the qualia question is that people receive broadly similar signals from their sense organs. These are processed in various complicated ways by their brains, and they reach a conclusion about what they have sensed which includes their prior personal experience and their prior perception of what others report they have sensed. There is no ‘thing’ called ‘redness’: the ‘redness experience’ has no separate existence outside the brain that generates it. We merely associate the internal experiences of seeing objects that reflect red light with the socially agreed tag of ‘red’.

  45. 45. peter reynolds says:

    I was thinking – if the brain has a billion neurions and each has 10000 possible connections, then in order to see a complete neural correlate of for example red, – that thought might involve myriads of connections of varying strength. In order to make sense of this correlate, we would have to systematically identify connectivities and intensity of actions related to red. i.e. – there would be signals syphoned off of the brains activity to produce feelings associated with each significant connection.
    So that red would be the sum of feelings which led us to perceive red and the attentiveness chahges associated with seeing light of a particular range of wavelengths. eg pupil dilation.
    So red would not just be experienced in the brain. It would cause changes in physiology aswell. Presumably these physiological changes become availble to our conscious self so that we can report what it feels like to see red.
    And presumably red makes us all feel similar in this respect. One could record these physiological changes and map them.
    eg seeing red causes a change in temperature of 0.001 degree, heart rate 1beat per min pupil dilate 5%

  46. 46. peter reynolds says:

    And what it feels like to see red is our own personal description of these physiological effects.
    We call it Red – and we can qualify it.
    And perhaps we are in fact very good at assessing our own bodies functionality without having to measure it.

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