Picture: Nicholas Humphrey. Nicholas Humphrey is back with what he presents as a new attempt to knock that Hard Problem of qualia on the head once and for all. Soul Dust is not, however, a brand new theory: rather he has dusted down (or dusted up) the ideas he presented in Seeing Red, added some new points and a lot of persuasive advocacy, much of it in the form of quotes. He has many really good, interesting quotes, the sort that impel you to look up the original for more: but on the whole I think it was a mistake to invoke the ‘raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ of The Sound of Music when extolling the splendiferous nature of a qualia-filled world.

The basic proposition of the book has two parts.  The first is an account of perception and the self. Perception begins with a simple response to a stimulus – ‘redding’ if we’re seeing red. There are no qualia involved in that, but when we form a loop by perceiving our own redding it adds a special vividness which we project back on to the perceived object; seen as a property of the object, this reverberation in our brain (Humphrey speaks of ‘soul-hammering’)  naturally seems somewhat mysterious: it’s like one of those paradoxical objects in an Escher picture (Humphrey uses as his example the 3D object made by Richard Gregory, which from one angle appears to be an impossible Penrose triangle). The looping also contributes to the construction of ‘thick time’, the perception of the present as something with significant duration rather than an infinitesimal line dividing past and present.

The enchanted quality of experience sheds the same illusory magic on the perceiving self, and by extension on the thinking Ego which goes with it. All this is why the world seems so worth experiencing and why we seem to ourselves so well worth preserving: a qualia-free zombie wouldn’t have any great relish in life nor any particular reason to fear death. That’s the second part of the case: this business of ‘artificial’ qualic impressions has come about through evolution because the extra zest it confers gives the possessor of qualia a survival edge over zombie counterparts.

The book is an engaging and persuasive read: you feel you’ve spent some time in friendly conversation with a very civilised and erudite man who has seen deeply into some of the issues.  But there are a few problems.

The first is that the book isn’t really about qualia at all. Humphrey, reasonably enough perhaps, dismisses the idea of ineffable qualia that can’t be described and play no causal role in the world. Since he wants to give an evolutionary explanation, he has to take this stance: ineffable qualia couldn’t have survival value. But if they ain’t ineffable, they ain’t really qualia, and what we’re talking about ain’t really the Hard Problem. It’s the ineffability that’s hard to explain; take that away and explaining why sensations are vivid may be non-trivial, but it’s part of the Easy Problem.  I’m not altogether sure he realises it, but Humphrey has pitched his camp with Dennett and accordingly all he is really entitled to say is “what qualia?”.

Although they’re not ineffable, Humphrey still wants his qualia to be illusions, a magic lantern show rather than a radar system. Why is that? If our perceptions are not of ineffable qualia, can’t they just be of real qualities of actual things? One reason Humphrey wants them to be illusions is that he wants to use the fact to validate that much-quoted phraseology about there being “something is it like” to experience things: the thing it’s like can be the thing itself.  But also lurking somewhere in the back of Humphrey’s mind is, I suspect, that terrible old argument from error: because some of our perceptions are not of real things, none of them are – they’re all of proxies in our heads.

So everything that makes life seem worthwhile is actually an illusion? It’s a grim conclusion to reach, though Humphrey doesn’t seem to read it that way: he talks about the delight of experience and the wonder of the world as though he hadn’t begun by insisting that all these things are confidence tricks, quite false in fact. If Humphrey takes his own views seriously, he must be forced to conclude that in sober fact the zombies would be right: there actually is no particular reason to go on living and everything we value is in fact worthless. In fact, perhaps he does realise this, because he closes with an examination of the reasons why we go on living in the face of our undeniable mortality: not the actual reasons why we should go on living, but the deluded considerations that stop us topping ourselves immediately.  He concludes that belief in an afterlife, supported by such things as our experience of waking every day, as if from death, is a natural part of the human outlook and the main thing that keeps most of us going. I think in fact that the majority of people, faced with the fact of eventual death, simply don’t waste time worrying about something they can’t change. Humphrey seems to think that a natural reaction to the inevitability of eventual death is immediate suicide: that might be one emotional reaction but I think to most people the lack of logic in bringing forward the very thing you fear is too salient to make that an attractive course. Myself I think it’s possible that if we attain sufficient maturity we might come to realise that one good life is enough. You don’t have to be a pessimist or severely depressed to think that rightly understood, the law that everything has its termination amounts to a promise, not a threat.

What about the second point, that qualia are here because they have positive survival value? I like the idea of looking for an evolutionary explanation, but I don’t think Humphrey ever makes this really convincing.  The main argument seems to be that the extra pleasure given by qualia means we’re better motivated than zombies would be, and pay more attention.  Yet there are surely many unpleasant and repulsive qualia; logically one might suppose as many of those as pleasant, attractive ones.  Malthus tells us that most animals naturally live on the brink of starvation; having their constantly frustrated desire for food intensified doesn’t seem as obviously a good thing for them as it might be for us well-fed historical anomalies. Above all, aren’t qualia distracting? Isn’t it all too likely that while the qualophile animals are admiring the sunset they are more likely to be caught by the sabre-toothed tiger?

I think there is actually a potential argument here that Humphrey doesn’t use.  Most animals get by very largely on instinct and other relatively hard-wired behaviour; only humans have really broken free to do whatever their rational deliberations – or their irrational whims – suggest to them.  It could be argued that humans need qualia exactly to make the traditional sensory rewards for ‘good’ behaviour more potent in compensation for our greater ability to over-ride them. We need food to be more exciting and sex sexier to make us attend sufficiently to the basic biological imperatives instead of simply starving to death while reading or playing computer games (or committing suicide out of misplaced philosophical angst). That would make a certain kind of sense, anyway.

It may sound from the foregoing as if I radically disagree with everything Humphrey says, but that’s not the case at all: the book is a good rational effort in the right area, and it expresses some complex insights with marvellous lucidity. But  (alas, how many times have I said this over the years?) it’s not quite the Answer.


  1. 1. Kar Lee says:

    I only read “Seeing Red” last year, so it is still quite fresh in my mind. I just think Humphrey has a different notion of qualia than I do. And for sure, he is not addressing the Hard Problem. I believe from his point of view, the zombie brain and a conscious brain are indeed different. I think he somehow believes that his version of qualia have something to do with utilization of information. The GAP is still there.

  2. 2. Tom Clark says:

    You and Humphrey seem to want to explain the existence of qualia on some sort of evolutionary, adaptive, behavior-controlling grounds:

    “… this business of ‘artificial’ qualic impressions has come about through evolution because the extra zest it confers gives the possessor of qualia a survival edge over zombie counterparts.” And: “It could be argued that humans need qualia exactly to make the traditional sensory rewards for ‘good’ behaviour more potent in compensation for our greater ability to over-ride them.”

    The problem with this of course is that one has to explain phenomenal causation: how do qualia, as distinct from their neural correlates, add their causal power to what neurons and muscles are doing, or make rewards for good behavior more potent than what neurotransmitters deliver? There’s no story to be told here I’m aware of. Of course if one *identifies* qualia with their physical correlates, then the problem disappears, but then they aren’t adding anything extra to the neural causal story that explains better survival, increased motivation, or better impulse control.

    Biologist Anthony Cashmore says (http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#cashmore ): “…there must be a mechanism by which consciousness does influence behavior. There must be a flow of information from consciousness to neural activity.” But he doesn’t suggest what it might be. This is best explained by the hypothesis that there *is no such mechanism*, and that consciousness doesn’t and can’t play a role in 3rd person explanations of action, strange as that might sound, a thesis defended at http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm

  3. 3. Allen says:

    On the ineffableness of qualia – it seems to me that there is no real significance to this.

    Qualia are irreducible and fundamental – they can’t be defined or expressed in terms of anything else.

    If qualia could be defined in terms of something else, then they wouldn’t be fundamental. Instead, whatever they were defined in terms of would be fundamental.

    But there is no mystery here. This “inexpressibility” is just the nature of all fundamental concepts and entities.

    However, in addition to being fundamental, qualia are also private – Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-the-box. So not only can qualia not be described in terms of anything else…you also can’t point to them and say, “Right there – that’s what I’m talking about.”

    I know that my qualia exist…but everyone else just has to take my word for it. Qualia don’t interact with the world in ways that leave fingerprints.

    I would say that this is because qualia (as an aspect of conscious experience) are not *in* the world, but rather are the window through which we view the world. For all practical purposes, they *are* our world. The world of your conscious experience is the only world that you will ever know. Everything beyond isn’t known – it’s merely inferred.

    So, if consciousness is an illusion, then what we are conscious *of* is part of that illusion. Which basically brings you back to the Kantian division of reality into phenomena and noumena. Phenomena being the illusion, and noumena being the utterly inaccessible thing-in-itself that lies behind the illusion.

  4. 4. Tom Clark says:

    Allen: “The world of your conscious experience is the only world that you will ever know.”

    I’m not convinced we know our qualia as objects with which we could have an epistemic relation, since we subjectively *consist* of them. We are not at any sort of perspectival, observational distance from our experience which would permit knowledge of its basic elements in the way we have knowledge of the world, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm . Rather, we know (represent) the *world*, and experience is the categorically private (as you point out) representational reality of qualitative states through which the world appears for the conscious subject (as you put it, “our window through which we view the world”). I call it a representational *reality* since we can’t deny or escape the “what it’s like” of experience – even hallucinations are undeniably real participants in this private reality. The *represented* reality is the world, conceived as existing independently of representation, as it appears to us subjects via experience and to intersubjective science via concepts. But of course although we *conceive of* reality as representation-independent, it never reveals itself to knowers undressed, that is, independently of the representational architecture that a cognitive system instantiates, we humans being one class of such systems, science another. Reality necessarily always *appears* via representation, a fact that might bear on the hard problem, http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm

  5. 5. Tweets that mention Conscious Entities » Blog Archive » Soul Dust -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Philosophy RSS, argaldo's arXiv feed. argaldo's arXiv feed said: consciousentities Soul Dust: Nicholas Humphrey is back with what he presents as a new attempt to knock that Hard… http://bit.ly/hJdfSX […]

  6. 6. Peter says:

    You and Humphrey seem to want to explain the existence of qualia on some sort of evolutionary, adaptive, behavior-controlling grounds

    Not really: I appreciate that real qualia are ineffable and acausal, and therefore don’t have any place in an evolutionary story. But if we’re talking about the kind of ‘qualia’ Humphrey wants to discuss – ordinary naturalistic psychological features – then looking for an evolutionary explanation looks a reasonable strategy.

    I should perhaps have referred to Humphrey’s qualia as hqualia or something like that to avoid confusion.

  7. 7. Tom Clark says:

    Ok, so when you say “it could be argued that humans need qualia exactly to make the traditional sensory rewards for ‘good’ behaviour more potent in compensation for our greater ability to over-ride them” I take it you are referring to hqualia.

  8. 8. Peter says:

    Yes indeed.

  9. 9. Charles Wolverton says:

    The approach I’ve taken in trying to make an evolutionary argument for “qualia” (a primary example of which, I assume, is the mental image of the environment) is to look for functions that couldn’t be effected without them. Obvious prospects like detection of the presence and motion of objects – or recognition of them – in the visible environment don’t qualify because those functions can in principle – and sometimes have been in practice – implemented by electro-mechanical sensors and computer processing of the sensors’ outputs.

    A function that appears to require the mental image is describing a visual scene to another person. That can’t be done via neural correlates since they aren’t available to such a descriptive function – at least not in our current evolutionary state. However, the ability of patients who exhibit what is called (I think) hemispatial neglect to exhibit a preference for one of two objects identical except for a distinguishing feature the patient claims not to “see” (ie, mentally image) calls even that function into question.

  10. 10. Charles Wolverton says:

    “I appreciate that real qualia are ineffable and acausal”

    That’s a pretty definitive statement. Has that really been demonstrated to your complete satisfaction? If so, by whom and how?

  11. 11. Kar Lee says:

    Hi Charles [9], So you don’t think an AI program can be written to describe a scene verbally? Or if such an AI can be written, you will describe the AI as having qualia?

  12. 12. Tom Clark says:

    Charles: “A function that appears to require the mental image is describing a visual scene to another person. That can’t be done via neural correlates since they aren’t available to such a descriptive function – at least not in our current evolutionary state.”

    One wonders how the mental image – something non-identical to its neural correlates, thus presumably non-physical – is able to influence the neural mechanisms that control speech when describing a visual scene. Any ideas?

    Kar’s question is a good one too.

  13. 13. Charles Wolverton says:

    “So you don’t think an AI program can be written to describe a scene verbally?”

    I would indeed assume that an AI program would have access to the information analogous to neural correlates and therefore could include a function that takes as input some data from a processor that constructs a model of the FOV contents from the sensor data and outputs a description of recognizable components of those contents. But it doesn’t seem that the current human design includes such a function, although the “hemispatial neglect” stuff possibly suggests a latent ability somewhat along those lines.

    And I understand Tom to be asking how the function we do have – the ability to describe the contents of the mental image – might be implemented. To which the appropriate response is, I assume, that if I could answer questions like that I’d be famous. But I’m neither that ambitious nor capable and am simply looking for evolutionarily useful capabilities that are facilitated by mental imaging however implemented.

    “the mental image – something non-identical to its neural correlates, thus presumably non-physical”

    I find this a confusing phrase. What would it mean for the mental image to be “identical to its neural correlates”? And in any event, in what sense is it “non-physical”? (And I’m not challenging those assertions – I honestly don’t know how to parse them.)

  14. 14. Doru says:

    Charles, I wouldn’t call it a function but rather an ability to imagine yourself having a mental image and according to Humphrey is how humans qualify imaginary experiences.
    From an evolutionary stand point, even though a tiger may have a better shoot at a human contemplating the sunset, it certainly have a much harder time to outsmart the conscious hunter armed with its “higher feedback loop”/“cerebral reality simulator” constantly projecting in his head the outcome of his decisions. Also humans with confuse and poorly trained qualia ability, have hard time mating.

    Kar, the AI program cannot describe a visual scene to itself as there is no entity to make sense of the description. In the far future we may imagine a computer programs that will be able to synthesize brain like machines that will be able to visualize images as if they were embedded in the initial program (recognition).

  15. 15. Vicente says:

    One wonders how the mental image – something non-identical to its neural correlates, thus presumably non-physical – is able to influence the neural mechanisms that control speech when describing a visual scene. Any ideas?

    Have a look a Eccles psychons… he tried to answer the general case of that question: how can an inmaterial mind act on the brain?

    Maybe, the mind could act on the brain biasing random processes in the neurons. The problem on this side (brain) is the conservation of energy… But acting somehow on the pure random processes (like the ones you mentioned), maybe, this could be overcome. I am working on that at the moment. So far I haven’t even been able to identify candidate processes in the brain to play the “receiver” role. Eccles thouhgt the synapse would be the most appropriate place. Maybe the tubules structures postulated by Penrose/Hammeroff as quantum brain system would a possible place too….

  16. 16. Peter says:

    Has that really been demonstrated to your complete satisfaction? If so, by whom and how?

    Charles – I see it as a consequence of the definition of qualia as that part of experience not covered or coverable by the scientific account (Mary knows every scientific fact about colour that could be known, but she still doesn’t know qualia).

    Some people (like Humphrey) do have a looser conception, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chalmersian Hard-Problem qualia lack causal power.

  17. 17. Vicente says:

    “but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chalmersian Hard-Problem qualia lack causal power.”

    Not even indirectly? A person’s subjective tastes might determine many choices.

  18. 18. Yogi Mat says:

    Isn’t the discussion in danger of a backslide into discussing some “Chalmersian Hard Problem” when the problem is hard enough already? The hard problem, as far as I understand is not so much about some-other-qualia or some-other- consciousness, but those which Humphrey defines (on page 7) as: “phenomenal consciousness” and “features of sensations”. I think we should start out from a more charitable perspective when criticisng this book – or at least attempt a deconstruction of those (arbitrary?) definitions he gives and see if where that might help understand the problem, or the lack of solution in this book. Are we ON THE SAME PAGE as to consiousness and qualia? If not – we need to be for this discussion to be at all meaningful?

  19. 19. Charles Wolverton says:

    Thanks, Peter. Of course, one can define anything as “that part of X not covered or coverable by the scientific account”. Like, uh, God. But in both cases there is a very good possibility that the residue will “lack causal power” simply because it’s a nullity.

    Just wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed a breakthrough.

  20. 20. Peter says:

    I am, I think, guilty of being too breezy and approximate. It might be better to put it this way: the Hard Problem is about how qualia can be accommodated in a monist materialist view of the world. Humphrey doesn’t really have anything to say about that.

    But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t say have anything worthwhile to say. So by all means let’s talk about what he does say.

  21. 21. Tom Clark says:

    Peter: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chalmersian Hard-Problem qualia lack causal power.”

    This is epiphenomenalism, I take it. But consider: for us conscious subjects it’s uncontroversially true that pain causes us to wince, avoid hot stoves, etc. But from a 3rd person perspective pain can’t play a role in causal explanations since it can’t be observed along side its neural correlates – it doesn’t exist in 3rd person explanatory space, in which case it isn’t even epiphenomenal.

    The other problem epiphenomenalists have is that there’s no explanation I’ve seen for how the brain produces or causes qualia. This suggests to me that psycho-physical parallelism is a more plausible understanding of the mind-brain relation, where there’s a *non-causal* entailment from being a cybernetic control system at a certain level of recursive complexity (that we are examples of) to being conscious subjects. See my previous comments in this thread for links defending these obscure claims.

  22. 22. Michael Baggot says:

    Could someone please explain what “psycho-physical-parallelism” is, preferably in 50 words or less. Frankly this term sounds rather like a neologism posing as an idea.

  23. 23. Peter says:

    “Psycho-physical parallelism” is the “pre-established harmony” de nos jours.


  24. 24. Tom Clark says:


    Psycho-physical parallelism as it figures in my likely mistaken stab at the hard problem is the idea that the phenomenal and physical are two parallel representational, explanatory spaces, where the phenomenal is (somehow – the hard problem) a function of our being individual cybernetic (behavior-controlling) representational systems, and the physical is a function of the collective, intersubjective representational project we call science (or less grandly, simply the activity of describing the world conceptually to each other – qualia drop out in 3rd person explanations). See http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm and http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm#part1

  25. 25. Arnold Trehub says:

    I’ve argued that simple brain correlates of phenomenal experience are too weak to ground an explanatory theory of consciousness. On the other hand, analogs of phenomenal experience must have some kind of similarity relationship to salient aspects of consciousness. This enables us to try to formulate brain mechanisms that can generate biophysical events that are similar (analogous) in some meaningful way to the phenomenal content of experience.

    Our subjective 1st-person perspective (aspect 1) is always a “view” from within our personal brain. Our objective 3rd-person perspective (aspect 2) on consciousness must be a “view” of other brains. From an empirical point of view, it seems to me that aspect 1 and aspect 2 demand two different levels of description and cannot be reduced to a single level of description. They can, however, be usefully related by the bridging principle of corresponding analogs. This is consistent with the philosophical stance of dual-aspect monism.

  26. 26. Vicente says:

    biophysical events that are similar (analogous) in some meaningful way to the phenomenal content of experience

    Hi Arnold, have you got in mind any a possible biophysical process that could serve such purpose?

  27. 27. Charles Wolverton says:

    Tom –

    I’ve started reading some of your papers and can now make a stab at answering your earlier question.

    Like Metzinger (per your review of ET, which I haven’t read), I suspect self and consciousness are in some sense illusory. Furthermore, I suspect consciousness in general, and phenomenal experience in particular, serve a posteriori reporting functions. So, I wouldn’t describe the relationships in the process of verbally describing a phenomenal experience as “causal”. I assume that we could – in principle – verbally respond to sensory stimuli even if we had no phenomenal experience. From that perspective, the visual phenomenal experience perhaps serves something like the enhancement role Peter describes in the post, and in that sense might affect – though not effect – the motor command phase of the process.

    I had previously considered something along those lines(in the context of thinking about Noe’s OOOH). Except instead of describing the mechanism as “soul hammering” that creates a “reverberation in the brain”, I’d use the terminology of electrical and mechanical systems analysis: there is perhaps a “positive feedback loop” from a representation subsystem to some earlier point in the visual processing system’s functional chain that in some sense “intensifies” the neural activity consequent to the initial stimulus. (It’s been decades since I’ve dealt in that kind of analysis, but as best I recall there is a delay parameter in the analysis of feedback loops that perhaps quantifies the idea of “thick time”.)
    OT question: I see in your dual psycho-physical “explanatory” approach echos of the approach taken by Sellars’ mythical “Jones” in Empiricism & Phil of Mind and am therefore especially receptive. Any “causal connection” there, directly or via any of Sellars’ later followers?

  28. 28. micha says:

    I’m missing something. Doesn’t the /definition/ of qualia require them to be ineffable? Qualia is the experience of red when looking at a rose in contrast to knowing the predicate “that rose is red”. It is — again, by definition — that aspect of my seeing the redness of the rose that can’t be assigned symbols and thus can’t be assigned words.

    I therefore would think the Hard Problem is inherently doomed never to be answered. Any solution would be based is trying to do predicate logic on the subject of quales and how they work. Which requires jumping a gap from the ineffable to the effable, and however small we get that gap, we’re going to end up describing it with something like “but the REAL Hard Problem remains”.

    Different topic:
    “Soul hammering”, “reverberation in the brain” or Charles Wolverton’s (comment 27) “positive feedback loop” is the central thesis of Hofstadter’s description of consciousness. No? While I see the need of a feedback loop in order to avoid positing an infinite regression of homunculi, I fail to see how they create the single step of a quale-posessing homunculus.


  29. 29. Tom Clark says:

    Charles, thanks for having a look. Quick responses:

    Agreed that the self is an illusion, in that as Metzinger says there is no thing inside us that the sense of being a subject refers to. But I don’t think *consciousness* is illusory, since after all we can’t deny the concrete reality of experience, e.g., searing pain.

    Not sure what a posteriori reporting is. But to make the claim that experience plays an enhancement role you have to have some account of mental-physical interaction, and no one has been able to demonstrate how that might work. Of course when you talk about a positive feedback loop in the system’s functional chain you’re completely within the physical domain, so the interaction problem doesn’t arise. But then qualia don’t appear in the account.

    I’m not familiar with Sellars’ paper (at http://www.ditext.com/sellars/epm.html ), so will check out, thanks!

  30. 30. Mike Cox says:

    On the causal power of qualia.
    Whether illusory or not, aren’t concepts like,free will, self consciousness,empathy,phenomenology,justice, meaning, democracy etc,along with such artifacts as music, poetry and painting,cultural products of which qualia are a necessary condition? If so, don’t you think the investigation of such, provides an indirect but valid means of investigating consciousness and qualia.

  31. 31. Charles Wolverton says:

    Tom –

    Two caveats about EPM. Go straight to Parts 15 & 16. Although the essay is a coherent argument against “the Given”, the possible relevance to your project won’t be apparent in the earlier parts. And to the extent that the essay can be read at all (it’s notoriously difficult), the last two parts can be read independently.

    Rather than the essay itself, start with:


    (recommended on this very blog at http://www.consciousentities.com/?p=612#comment-163271)

    And if that stimulates your interest, I’d suggest “Knowledge, Mind, and the Given” by deVries and Triplett, a 180 page explication of Sellars’ 70 page essay, both in a single inexpensive paperback.

  32. 32. Peter says:

    micha – well put (I don’t think you’re missing much). On the second point, Humphrey credits Hofstadter (“because of Douglas Hofstadter’s groundbreaking work in a related area, I believe there’s an answer we can take right off the peg”)

  33. 33. micha says:

    Sorry Peter, I thought you were in search of a solution to the Hard Problem, not a statement that it’s inherently unsolvable.

    I might use this opportunity to ask about what seems (subjectively) to be qualia-based reasoning. Here’s something from my blog, which I’ll cut-n-paste and translate rather than link to, since the point of that blog entry has more to do with explaining some verses in Genesis and some points of Jewish Law about cruelty to animals:

    By my own experience, conscious thought happens two ways: the internal monologue we call a “stream of consciousness” [SoC], and by setting up thought-experiments to run through. For example, there are two ways to think through the question “Does an elephant have hair?”

    SoC, are a common tool of an author’s trade because it’s thought in the form of words. A solution based on this mode of thought might run something like this: Elephants are mammals, all mammals have hair, and so unless elephants are the exception to the rule, they must have hair. Elephants are well known and discussed animals. Could they be an exception to the rule and I don’t know it? Nah, they must have hair.

    On the other hand, when I see someone, and realize he has red hair, I don’t simply pick up another fact about the person, I have the experience of seeing red hair. I can remember and reproduce the image of him and his red hair in my mind. The knowledge isn’t reducible to words, it involves qualia, attributes of internal experience. And when I imagine what he would look like with black hair, I manipulate an image, not simply reason with concepts reducible into the words of my SoC. There is a shared feature to seeing and hearing something when it happened, remembering the event, and imagining what the event would be like. When I remember my son’s face, I do not simply remember facts about it translatable into my intellect, the flow of words in my head. I actually recreate the experience of seeing it. When I remember last Yom Kippur’s opening liturgy, I reproduce the experience of hearing the cantor sing it, the congregation singing along.

    This is the “koach hadimyon“, “the ability to make likenesses”. It is usually translated as “imagination”, but this translation is anachronistic — the word “imagination” changed meaning since first coined by Aristotilians (such as the Rambam). But since I can’t stick to the Hebrew in this reuse, I’ll use the word anyway. Imagination is the laboratory of my thought experiments.

    Solving the elephant problem through Imagination, you can remember elephants you saw, or saw pictures of. The detail may be blurry, so you may have to manipulate the picture a bit. Finally, a version of the picture which has a tuft of hair at the tail, maybe (if your memory is good) some downy hair around the eyes and ears, strikes you as the most familiar, the most real. And again you could reach the conclusion that elephants have hair.

    Back to new material… But I could picture that there cases where I haven’t worked through all the predicates necessary for a SoC resolution. What would I do if I didn’t have a concept of “mammal”? I could still solve the elephant hair question visually. And I would bet there are numerous cases where qualia comparison is the only way for me to solve a problem before that lion eats me.


  34. 34. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente – you ask if there is a brain process that can give us biophysical analogs of conscious experience.

    Yes there is. Consider the changes in your conscious experience of the size of a visual after-image as you look at surfaces near you and far from you. If you look at a far surface the after-image expands in size, and if you then look at a near surface the after-image shrinks in size. The neuronal structure and dynamics of the brain’s putative retinoid system generate neuro-spatial analogs of these conscious experiences. For a brief description and explanation of this brain process see pp. 318-320 here:


    There are many other examples of how the retinoid mechanisms give us biophysical analogs of conscious experience. Taken together they provide strong empirical evidence for the validity of the retinoid model.

  35. 35. Vicente says:

    Arnold, thank you for the clarification, I now remember having read your very interesting paper.

    IMO, when you use the idea of similarity or being analogous, you introduce a degree of looseness for which the idea cannot be used to tackled the consciousness hard problem, despite its value and interest for neurology or perception science.

    In addition, I don’t really understand your idea as a biophysical process, rather a computational architecture model that represents the retinoid system. I believe if the qualia are to be placed in the brain, to come down to a much lower hierarchy (i.e. biophysical processes, molecular level) would be needed.

  36. 36. Charles Wolverton says:

    micha –

    My reference to feedback loops has nothing to do with homunculi. It appears that you – and Tom – misinterpreted by use of “representation” as meaning something like “mental image”, ie, as referring to phenomenal experience. That wasn’t my intent. In order to produce a some physical responses to changes in the content of the, say, visual FOV there needs to be some kind of processing of the associated sensory input. One option for that processing is to create a “computational” model of that content. The hypothesized feedback would alter that model, perhaps emphasizing some parts of the content over others, effecting movements that would change the positioning of the fovea, etc. All physical processes, all transparent to “consciousness”.

    Tom –

    My allusion to “a posteriori reporting” refers to the possibility (perhaps probability) that so-called “conscious” functions such as decision making are executed without reference to phenomenal experience – which comes later, if at all. I think that’s one interpretation of Libet, and seems to be suggested by this:


    The answer to the question “what evolutionarily beneficial capability does phenomenal experience enhance?” seems to always come up “none that are obvious”. That’s why I think Peter may be on to something. As everybody notes, it does seem to enhance emotional reactions, even if not purely practical ones. Maybe it’s as simple as that for some things, “more is better”.

  37. 37. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, the molecular level won’t work because consciousness requires subjectivity — an experience of something somewhere in relation to oneself. For this to happen, a particular kind of organization/structure of molecularly constituted biological components (neurons) with particular kinds of dynamic properties is needed. Also the activity of neuronal mechanisms must be biophysical processes. What else could they be?

    The looseness that you mention must exist because the subjective 1st-person perspective “sees” one’s personal brain from the inside, while the objective 3rd-person perspective “sees” other brains from the outside.

    If you think carefully about it, you discover that all scientific explanation has a “hard problem” at its core. But science is a pragmatic endeavor and understands that its explanatory theoretical models are not identical to the events that are modeled.

  38. 38. Vicente says:

    Arnold, I agree with you (#37), and I probably go much further, given the current scenario, a dualistic approach seems the more plausible to me (discarding other options…). For that reason I asked about the biophysical processes you were thinking of.

  39. 39. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, property dualism seems a non-starter to me. On the other hand, dual-aspect monism seems OK. In this philosophical framework, the subjective 1st-person perspective (conscious content) and the objective 3rd-person perspective (operative brain mechanisms) are complementary aspects of an underlying reality that we are unable to describe.

    By the way, I believe that consciousness confers an enormous evolutionary advantage. Without consciousness we would have no phenomenal world, and without a phenomenal world we would be unable to imagine and create novel worlds according to our needs and desires.

  40. 40. Vicente says:


    without a phenomenal world we would be unable to imagine and create novel worlds according to our needs and desires.

    without a phenomenal experience we don’t exist.

    To me, the evolutionary analysis of consciousness is quite meaningless.

    Then, for the time being, bacteria or insects are much better than us in evolutionary terms. Of course, if we had to move to another planet to survive, things would be different, but again we would confusing intelligence with consciousness in the analysis. An idiot is as conscious as a genius, not as intelligent, lower awareness, but the same consciousness, where is the advantage?

  41. 41. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, you wrote:

    “without a phenomenal experience we don’t exist.”

    Not true. When someone is in a deep sleep or coma he/she certainly exists even though the person has no phenomenal experience!

    V: “Then, for the time being, bacteria or insects are much better than us in evolutionary terms.”

    This is questionable at best. In terms of competitive survival, when it has been to our advantage, man has done a much better job of eradicating dangerous bacteria and insects than these creatures have done to man.

    I agree that intelligence should not be confused with consciousness, but consciousness is an intelligence multiplier. If you read *The Cognitive Brain* you will see why this is the case.

  42. 42. Vicente says:

    Arnold, in the first point, I disagree, to me they don’t exist as them, at least during the time they are in coma, regardless the latest results that show cognitive response and consciousness signs in some of these patients. Anyway, I was trying to make a more general point.

    Unfortunately, for the time being, virus and bacteria pose a very serious threat to us, and let’s hope that a huge pandemia won’t sends us to hell in the future. Not to say financial scandals like Tamiflu. And of course, bacteria has been able to adapt to many more enviroments, from ice to sulfuric acid lakes…

    Then, humans, the species with the highest level of conscious awareness, is the only one that quite often decides (or can decide) to avoid reproduction, which in biological and evolutive terms is one of the greatest disasters that after mass extinction can happen.

    Regarding the last point, I would say yes, consciousness (as an agent, causal enabled) can act as a lens or a pointer for intelligence application. Therefore increasing efficiency with a multiplying factor.

    I’ll try to follow your recommendation and put the book in my reading list.

  43. 43. micha says:

    Sorry Charles, I didn’t misunderstand, I disagreed. I think feedback loops only have meaningful value — when speaking of the “mind” level of abstraction — in discussing homunculi and why you don’t end up in an infinite regress. I do not see their role in creating qualia within that first homunculus.

    On the neurological level, feedback loops keep the brain just under (usually) a chaotic system. Which in turn enables it to implement certain higher structures. But again, I don’t see any of those structures actually reflecting that implementation detail.

  44. 44. Tom Clark says:

    Charles, many thanks for the pointers and advice re Sellars, will do as you suggest. Disagreeing with what you say the majority holds, I’m not sure how qualia can enhance emotional reactions if those reactions are measured by such things as response times and task persistence, which after all are completely physically mediated. Again, it’s the same problem of mental-physical interaction that needs solving.


    “I believe that consciousness confers an enormous evolutionary advantage. Without consciousness we would have no phenomenal world, and without a phenomenal world we would be unable to imagine and create novel worlds according to our needs and desires.”

    The same point applies here. I can see how the neural processes associated with consciousness might confer enormous evolutionary advantage, but not phenomenal states themselves, since there’s no story at all about how those states (conceived as non-identical with neural processes) could add causal power to what the processes are doing. Of course if you *identify* the phenomenal with the physical, then of course consciousness has causal power, but it doesn’t contribute anything beyond what the neural processes are already doing. See http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm#barring

  45. 45. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom: “Of course if you *identify* the phenomenal with the physical, then of course consciousness has causal power, but it doesn’t contribute anything beyond what the neural processes are already doing.”

    In my view of dual-aspect monism, consciousness (subjective aspect) is *constituted* by a particular system of brain mechanisms (objective aspect), so it has causal powers. Since, in this case the, subjective and objective are simply complementary aspects of an underlying unknown reality, neither can be said to *add* anything to the other. However, the subjective (phenomenal) aspect and the objective (brain) aspect must be *described* in different terms and systematically related by the bridging principle of corresponding analogs. The deciding test is whether the theoretical brain model can explain and predict salient aspects of targeted phenomenal events. There is no mental-physical interaction in this conceptual framework.

  46. 46. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold, I’ll have to take a look at your papers, sounds like we’re on similar tracks to some extent. You’re saying the phenomenal and physical are two different aspects of an underlying reality, so of course there can’t be mental-physical interaction in such a conceptual framework. My (somewhat obscure and in-development) suggestion is that the phenomenal and physical are entailed by two different sorts of representational systems that track the world, one which the human organism instantiates in service of behavior control, the other constituted by intersubjective, 3rd person descriptions of the world. These don’t causally interact since they comprise two different representational realities or explanatory spaces within which parallel causal and explanatory accounts get adduced. My talk of two non-interacting representational realities generated by two sorts of representational systems looking at the world *might* be somewhat equivalent to your talk of two aspects of an underlying reality which as you say (and I agree) can’t be directly known, http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm

  47. 47. Vicente says:

    Even more, considering the adaptation capabilities that technology confers and the new biotechnology and biomedicine means particularly in genetical manipulation, we could say that human intelligence (and consciousness?) has put and end to evolution (in several ways) as we know it.

  48. 48. micha says:

    Tom wonders: “I’m not sure how qualia can enhance emotional reactions if those reactions are measured by such things as response times and task persistence…”

    However, in practice, we are more moved by qualia than by dry concepts. So perhaps we should be looking at intensity.

    This is why poetry uses imagery to reach us emotionally, how visualization is used meditationally.


  49. 49. Kar Lee says:

    On “However, in practice, we are more moved by qualia than by dry concepts. So perhaps we should be looking at intensity.”, I think maybe you are referring to emotions, not qualia.

    Emotions have intensity, strong versus weak. But qualia is qualitative in nature. It either exists or it does not.

    When you are emotionally moved by a poem, for example, you have a strong emotional reaction. There is also the associated quale (or qualia in plural) of the emotional reaction.

    When you are listening to a logical deduction, you may be emotionless, completely rational so to speak, but you still have the associated qualia of sound coming into your head, of knowing that you are going through the thinking in your head, etc.

    Yes, sometimes the term “qualia” is used interchangebly with “feelings” and feelings are describable by “strong” and “weak”, but “qualia” is really the qualitative part of the feelings, and not the quantitative part of it.

    The reason that qualia is a redundant concept in terms of its explanatory power is because human behavior can, in principle, be accounted for by the brain’s neural circuitory, in the way the behavior of a computerized robot can be explained in terms of its hardware/software structure. If a robot retracts its hand from the fire after its sensor sensing the high temperature, you may be tempted to say that it retracts its hand because it feels the heat. But that is actually a metaphoric description. You are either projecting your own feeling into the robot and describe it in “human terms”, or you are simply trying to make the description more vivid. Either case, that is not truly what happens. There is no “quale” associated with the sensor input due to the heat. All that is happening is the data from the heat sensor is analyzed by the software in the form of 011000111… and subsequent action being performed. There is no qualia whatsoever associated with this event. I know because I programmed this kinds of robots before. Contrasting that with a human retracting his hand from fire, despite the fact that in the neurological level, the action can be completely explained, you do have this “feel” that something is hurting your hand if you happen to be the person whose hand is burned by the fire. Qualia exist for you.

    The claim that “qualia” is explanatory irrelevant refers to its uselessness in the “third person explanation” of the event. Frequently, the existence of qualia is equated to the existence of this “first person view” and the mystery to explain is “Why is there such a first person view to such an event?”

    To me, this question is equivalent to asking “Why do I exist?”, and I am claiming that the so-called “hard problem in the philosophy of mind” is really the question for “personal existence”.

    To see that it is true, just think of a world where there is no “first person view” none whatsoever.

    What will such a world be like? It is a Zombie World, in which there is no “I”. And this is also the “God-eye-view” of the universe.

    Even though there is still an “I” in this view which is God, you have to take God out of this equation in this discussion unless you believe the existence of this “first person view” in a non-zombie world is part of this “God-eye-view”.

  50. 50. John Davey says:

    I am always intrigued by the line that qualia are ‘illusions’ – i think Dennett has said similar things in the past. But the scientific reality is there is no such thing as an illusion, or rather that if qualia are illusions they still need explanations, leaving the ‘hard problem being the question ‘how do the illusions work’. The AI people always claim to be adding rationality to the debate, but they seem to be the only ones calling on magic tricks to answer their questions.

  51. 51. Google says:

    1- Find a product to promote, something you feel passionate about and that you
    know people will want to buy it. It has the highest ROI (Return of Invesment) in all
    advertisement channels. There are other ways to improve your ranking in Googlemaps,
    the purpose of this blog post is not to tell you EVERYTHING
    Frederick Web Promotions can do to improve your ranking, the purpose of this particular blog post
    is to:.

    Feel free to surf to my blog :: Google

Leave a Reply