WorldLast time I suggested that we might approach the Hard Problem of qualia by first solving the impossible problem of why the world exists at all (what the hell, eh?). How would that work?

Qualia, of course, are the redness of red, the indescribable smelliness of the smell of fish, and so on; the subjective, phenomenal, inexpressible qualities of experience, the bit that the scientific account always leaves out. They are often described as the ‘what it is like’ of an experience, and have been memorably characterised as what Mary, who knows everything about colour, learns when she actually sees it for the first time.

My case is that a large part, perhaps all, of the strange ineffability of qualia arises because what we’re doing is mismatching theory and actuality. It should not really be a surprise that the theory of red coloration does not itself deliver the actual experience of redness, but there is some mysterious element in actual real-life experience that puzzles us. I suggest the mysterious extra is in fact haecceity, or thisness; the oddly arbitrary specificity of real life, which sits oddly with the abstract generalities of a theoretical description. So it would help to know why the actual world is so arbitrary and specific: why it isn’t a featureless void, or a geometric point, or a collection of eternal Platonic archetypes. If we knew that we might know something about qualia; and also, I think about ourselves, since we too are arbitrary and specific, not abstract functions or sets of information, but real one-off items.

So can we therefore answer Jim Holt’s question for him? Some caution is certainly in order. Speculative metaphysics is like hard drink; a little now and then is great, but you need to know when to stop or you may find your credibility, if not your coherence, diminishing. But I think we can sketch out a tentative view which will clarify a few points and indicate some promising lines of inquiry which may well be rather helpful.

Let’s step back and look at the overall cosmic problem more empirically: the world does in fact exist and does seem to be rich and complex. What kind of overall chronology would make sense for a world like that? It could be one that starts, putters along for a finite time, and then stops. It could be one that stretches back indefinitely into the past but eventually stops at some point in the future, or one that started at a definite point in the past but goes on indefinitely. It could be indefinitely prolonged at both start and end. Or it could be one that goes round in a permanent loop.

The thing is, in different ways all these options seem to give us a universe which is unmotivated. If there is a final state in which the universe stops, why not go to that state in the first place – why spend time getting there? If the universe goes in a circle and ultimately reaches the state in which it started, why bother leaving the initial state? Our current view paints a picture of a Universe wound up by a cataclysmic Bang and then steadily running down through expansion and increasing entropy, to nothing, or as near nothing as makes no great difference: but it seems odd to start the world with a flagrant contradiction of the principle of decline that afterwards governs its development. The only world that makes sense in these admittedly vague terms is one that is going somewhere, but somewhere it will never finally reach: the only one that does that, I think, is one that starts and then goes on, not merely expanding, but transcending its earlier states and rising to higher levels of complexity indefinitely.

That doesn’t quite tell us why there is anything at all. What caused this indefinite existential transcendence in the first place? Some kind of ontic horror vacui? An inherent cosmic desire for there to be more stuff? One of the things I noticed in reading Jim Holt’s book was that there are one or two gaps in our conceptual toolkit when we embark on this quest. One of those is that we are looking for a causal explanation but we don’t really have any clear idea of what causation is at a fundamental level. Let me here just breezily offer the suggestion that the laws of causation assert the identity of one state of the world with a later state of the world: so for example to say that the world featured me striking a match in certain appropriate conditions at one moment is equivalent (under these laws) to saying there was fire at a slightly later moment. Now if that is true, the only possible causes of the existence of the cosmos at its first moment are either its non-existence at any earlier moment or its own existence at that first moment (if you allow simultaneous causation). I think this says the universe is either necessarily gratuitous or gratuitously necessary, but I’ll leave it with you there for now.

Why do the contents of the world seem so arbitrary and random? I suggest there are two reasons. First, the ongoing transcendence which drives the universe is nomic as well as ontic. It’s not just that there’s more stuff, there are more, and more complex, underlying laws. Our view of the long-term past and future is therefore obscured: the ancient universe was not just physically smaller but metaphysically impoverished or cramped, too, and long-term extrapolations are systematically thrown off by this. If we could understand the process properly, it may be that things would look less random – though I grant that for the moment this must be an optimistic article of faith rather than a rigorously deduced conclusion.

Let me just pour myself a bit of a digression here on the nature of the laws of nature. It is common to speak of the laws of nature or the laws of physics although this is clearly a metaphor, and a very old one. Few people, I would guess, suppose that the laws of nature are literally written down in some cosmic text and enforced by angelic police officers – although it is not uncommon to suppose that the mathematics we use to describe the world is actually what controls it, which I think may be a similar error.  So what are these laws? One problem for us is that not only are they not written down in any cosmic text, they’re not written down on paper in earthly texts either: so far as I know, no-one has ever set down a comprehensive list of the Laws of Nature. Physics textbooks set out a number of laws, indeed, but these tend to be the non-obvious ones, rather in the way that early dictionaries included only ‘hard’ words. The nearest thing to a full statement might be in those efforts to produce a Naïve Physics that ended up (in my opinion) producing something that actually struck the normal mind as far weirder than mere Newtonian physics; but they were explicitly setting out a misconceived version of the laws.

It’s consequently hard to feel assured that all relevant examples have been covered: but again I will cut boldly to the chase and suggest that all laws of nature are in fact laws of conservation. They can all be reconstituted as assertions of the continued existence of an underlying entity in different cases, usually at different times. Certainly it seems that any law which can be stated in the form of an equation must be of this kind, because the equation of x with y essentially tells us that the quantity of underlying z of which they are both expressions remains the same whichever form we take it in. Laws which assert, or contain, a constant, clearly state the existence of a continuing fundamental entity in even clearer form.

If that’s true, then perhaps the laws of nature could be restated as a list of existential assertions (though some of the entities whose existence is asserted would be a little unfamiliar), which with a list of values would give us a comprehensive anomic account of the world.

Be that as it may, and getting back to the main point, it is at any rate clear that besides any confusion arising from any nomic evolution which may be going on, certain features of the world arise out of the operation of causality over time. Now it could be that time itself is actually constituted by the ontic growth of the universe (the steady drip of extra stuff providing the steady tick of the moments); but in any case that growth clearly requires time. It may be that some of the deep constant features of the universe are sustained in their existence directly by the same inscrutable principle which caused the universe to come into existence in the first place; but others definitely depend on a long stream of complex causality, and this is surely where the haecceity primarily comes in. We could say that everything is necessary, but that while some things are necessary in the light of metaphysics, others are necessary in the light of history.

To restate that: it may well be that the universe in which we find ourselves is actually the only possible one, and the product of a necessary ontological (and nomological) evolution; but the necessity of the details is both obscured from us by the nature of the evolution itself and also genuinely different from the direct necessity of the underlying features in that it derives its necessity through causation over time.

That’s why actual experience and actual qualia seem so strange and so difficult to capture theoretically. I hope that makes sense of some kind and perhaps appeals to some degree: I’m away now to sleep it off.


  1. 1. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter, in response to this year’s EDGE question, I wrote the following. I think it is relevant here:

    The Anthropic Principle

    Why does the universe appear to us as it does? Why are the observations and measurements of the physical properties of our world compatible with our own existence in space-time? The anthropic principle explains this as a natural consequence of the fact that only in a universe that includes our kind of world could we live to observe, measure, and formulate theories about the universe we live in. But like any good explanation, it highlights other serious questions that are implicit in its own answer. Notice that the anthropic explanation hinges on the fundamental concept of our living existence in space-time. So how are we able to even begin to think about our existence in space-time to pose the anthropic principle? Here I must stop before I violate the stricture of discussing one’s own explanation in response to this Edge question.

    Arnold Trehub

  2. 2. DiscoveredJoys says:

    ‘Prgmatist’ argues over on
    that Natural Laws are human descriptions – an interesting post I am still working through. It contains the quote “Laws are just particularly salient redundancies, ones that permit us to construct useful compressed descriptions of reality.”

    When it comes to qualia you could consider this terse chain of argument:

    Stuff happens

    Some stuff reglarly happens

    Regular stuff can become complicated enough to react to what happens in local events, and replicate itself.

    Complicated enough stuff can react differently to what happens, depending on the prior history of events.

    More complicated stuff can filter and discard local events, and react only to the events that will affect its internal states. Lots of ‘not thisness’ not responded to.

    Really complicated stuff can modify the filters, assigning salience and associative meaning based on prior history, with the aim of maintaining or changing intenal states in an appropriate way.

    Really, really, complicated stuff can modify the response filters without the need for immediate events, based on the ‘memory’ of internal states.

    There you go. The embodied brain as an associative response filter, generating ‘thisness’ from events, past, present and future.

  3. 3. scott bakker says:

    Kind of reminds me of Chalmers: a metaphysical explanation for ‘thisness’ that pins its apparent irreducibility on some fundamental–and quite unknown–wrinkle in physics. You begin by suggesting that *something* fundamental has to be missing from our account of the universe and its workings, that our knowledge of the basics is incomplete. You suggest, for instance, that the cosmological principle perhaps does not hold over time, and that some principle of ‘nomic cosmological evolution’ is at work in addition to the ontic evolutionary stories like big bang and inflation. You then offer this as an inkling of some set of ‘metacosmological laws’ governing the cosmology of physics as we presently conceive it.

    (I’m inclined to be skeptical, but the kind of (‘anthropic principle’) reasoning you use is one that an awful lot of physicists who are an awful lot more intelligent than me seem to be using to make what seem to be more and more multiverse claims! (For perverse reason of my own I’m more interested in Chaitin and his ‘Omega account’ of physics and the universe: he turns questions like yours into algorithmic questions, of what is calculable.))

    So the idea would be that ‘thisness’ is a ‘deep law’ artifact that can only be obscured by our ‘surface law’ understanding of the universe. Is this a fair characterization, Peter?

    This is the structure of the problem, isn’t it? Thisness stymies empirical cognition, so the question is, Why? ‘Monistic Incrementalist’ like Dennett (as well as Trehaub and many, many others) take Occam’s route: empirical cognition as it stands simply lacks theoretical clarity and experimental data. ‘Monistic Segregationists’ like Chalmers or Penrose think that empirical cognition as it stands requires some kind of conceptual breakthrough. ‘Monistic Mysterians’ like McGinn think that the neural equipment of empirical cognition is simply not up to snuff. ‘Monistic Revisionists’ like myself *fear* that empirical cognition is well and fine, and that ‘thisness’ is largely ‘hallucinatory’ the degree to which it resists it. The position you’re developing here might be called ‘Radical Monistic Segregationism’: empirical cognition as it stands requires some kind of *revolutionary* conceptual breakthrough, something so exhaustive as to entirely rewrite our understanding of physics.

    This is actually the best case scenario I’ve been *hoping* for since the 90s: that we will somehow pull the veil away from our present understanding of the ‘natural’ and discover something more fundamental and meaning friendly. I say ‘hope’ because of the human exceptionalism implicit in this claim–human consciousness is the expression of something more fundamental than science knows). Science has a long track record of disabusing us of our hopes.

    In other words, we all agree that we’re taking a wrong turn somewhere. My question is, given the way science has continually pricked our bubbles, what are the chances that the fork in the road will be a happy one?

  4. 4. Roy Niles says:

    “Now if that is true, the only possible causes of the existence of the cosmos at its first moment are either its non-existence at any earlier moment or its own existence at that first moment (if you allow simultaneous causation). I think this says the universe is either necessarily gratuitous or gratuitously necessary, but I’ll leave it with you there for now.”

    You’ve still ended up with a theory of how something must have come from nothing. Which, again, is logically impossible, while on the other hand, the theory that there has always been some motivating force in our cosmological environment is at least a logically possible consideration. Because of course, we can’t logically deny that here we are.

    Consider also that we can’t deny that we’re intelligent, and we can deny that we invented the intelligence that without any otherwise on hand to do so would be logically impossible. We then might find it hard to deny that intelligence has preceded us in the universe, but then again, was there a non-intelligence that somehow, by uncausable accident perhaps, fashioned it?
    (I’m not hinting at the intelligence of a God, since our concepts of Gods has them creating themselves from scratch as well.)

  5. 5. Joseph Smith says:

    You write well, but I think the texts could be more objective, less redundant…

  6. 6. Vicente says:

    Yes, this is the question. Current quantum theory interpretation includes the observer, the experimenter, as an important part of the system, of the resulting measure. This is a conceptual pillar that constitutes one of main breaches between quantum and classical physics (well, not to say that the breach completely surrounds the theory). But, the theory itself is still unable to formally include the observer in the system. Consciousness remains reluctant to join the club of physical theories. The next step forward, will probably be a new view, in which consciousness will be formally set as a basic ingredient of the model. Probably, we’ll need a new brain (neurogenetically ingeniered to improve abstract reasoning?) for that, we have not progressed much in this sense since Parmenides.

    My guess is that the concepts of space and time (main obstacles) will be revisited in an astonishing manner. We will have a philosophycal body in which ontology and epistemology will be expressions of one singly reality. To be is to know, and knowlwdge is part of the Universe fabric.

  7. 7. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “We will have a philosophycal body in which ontology and epistemology will be expressions of one singly reality.”

    I like this thought. It seems to me that this implies that we have to dig more deeply into the implications of the cognitive brain. I keep coming back to the image of a mobius loop when I try to decide the primacy of conceptual constraint. Is it the biological basis of all cognition (our brain) or is it our scientific understanding of the brain and the world around us?

  8. 8. scott bakker says:

    Vicente: “The next step forward, will probably be a new view, in which consciousness will be formally set as a basic ingredient of the model. Probably, we’ll need a new brain (neurogenetically ingeniered to improve abstract reasoning?) for that, we have not progressed much in this sense since Parmenides.”

    I’m not sure that ‘consciousness’ will be the basic ingredient so much as the ‘cognitive brain’ as Arnold calls it, with ‘consciousness’ constituting a series of ‘elimination rules’ to allow us to sort what has explanatory power from what simply belongs to what we happen to experience. Of course, engineered brains would probably have all of our evolved kinks and kluges removed and revised. So I guess I’m saying I totally agree.

    When you set aside all the intentional claptrap (or as I like to call it, ‘philosophy’) what we’re talking about is a system that is capable of recapitulating salient structural processes of Nature in ways that allow it to effectively intervene in those processes using only the information and capacities available to it. Once that system can recapitulate the salient structural processes of itself (include the ‘cognitive brain’ as a basic part of its model), then it seems to me that things must get combinatorial – like in those AI doomsday scenarios discussing what happens when our computers gain the ability to write and revise their own software and hardware.

    Stuff like this gets me humming REM tunes…

  9. 9. Fantasist says:

    I am reasonably certain that one cannot understand “the Laws of Nature” or “reality” on this side of the fence so to speak. Our consciousness is too entangled within the very thing we seek to understand to make any real sense and thus keeps swimming in circles.

  10. 10. Fantasist says:

    Genetically engineered brains wouldn’t be of any help at all. I believe the problem of understanding we face isn’t even an intellectual one rather one of short circuiting intellect and experiencing reality on another plane of consciousness.

  11. 11. Janet Kwasniak says:

    Your blog is one of my favourites and so I have mentioned it for a Versatile Blogger Award here

  12. 12. Peter says:

    Thanks, Janet; great list you’ve got there!

  13. 13. jacob says:

    could it be that the mind dreamed up different qualia so that it could judge between them? it dreamed up a body — many bodies actually — whose continued existence/success seem to depend on that judgement and so the system seems closed and inescapable. maybe judgement is the ultimate source of qualia. good bad better. this would certainly tie together some of the major religions (in terms of judgement leading to suffering, or “the fall”). in his “autobiography of a yogi,” paramahansa yogananda describes the vision of the yogi as an “undifferentiated mass of light” which may be getting closer to the truth.

    thanks for your blog peter

  14. 14. ? Recent viewpoints on consciousness and the self « Mostly physics says:

    […] continues on to tackle the hard problem from this angle in his next post: Last time I suggested that we might approach the Hard Problem of qualia by first solving the […]

  15. 15. Shankar R says:

    To me, the fact that I live in a totally different world or canon in my dreams prevents me from making the basic assumption that what I observe in the waking state is “real”,to be taken for granted. To me, therefore the question is “Why me and my qualia?”. The universe is secondary.

  16. 16. Charles Wolverton says:

    jacob –

    FWIW, I’m inclined to view qualia somewhat as you describe. I see the basic entity in perception as being a distinguishable marker (pattern, if you will) of neural activity. By “distinguishable” I mean only that there can be different reliable responses to different markers. In the simplest case, one uniform field of color is distinguishable from another if the responses to their occurrences are different, eg, “That’s “green” and “That’s “blue”.

    With those responses in place, one has the means for doing something analogous to “paint-by-numbers” except that rather than creating a visual representation (rendered in what medium and seen by whom?), one would create a physical representation implemented in motor neurons as a behavioral disposition to reproduce the visual scene in one or more media – speech, writing, a plastic art, music, other? – suitable for external consumption. It seems a possibly short additional step also to create the illusion of a phenomenal experience for internal consumption.

  17. 17. Charles Wolverton says:

    Coincidentally, I just now got to §367 of Phil Investigations, which seems to be somewhat along the lines of my previous comment:

    A mental image is the image which is described when someone describes what he imagines.

    This is somewhat convoluted, but it seems arguably consistent with my hypothesis that the fundamental entity in a phenomenal experience is a description, not the experience.

    §368 is rather cryptic, but I think it is arguably consistent as well. A describes a room to B who then paints a picture of the room in accordance with A’s description. A then details how the picture differs from his description in significant ways but then declares the painting to be “Quite right! That’s what it looks like.” A way of explaining the apparent paradox is that A is assessing the accuracy of the painting not relative to his description but relative to the mental image B formed based on A’s description. And B’s “description” (ie, the painting) of her own mental image (formed based on A’s description) is indeed quite right – by definition per §367.

  18. 18. Callan S. says:

    They are often described as the ‘what it is like’ of an experience, and have been memorably characterised as what Mary, who knows everything about colour, learns when she actually sees it for the first time.

    I kind of feel I’d be off topic in arguing the use of the word ‘learn’ there. But that’s what I’d argue – I mean, are you learning anything any more than if someone pokes you with their finger, you’re learning something?

  19. 19. Nick Byrds Blog» Blog Archive » Philosophers’ Carnival #142 says:

    […] “Nothing Could Be Better…” and “…But Something Seems Necessary” (metaphysics, mind) (first post)…the question that drives this enquiry…: why all […]

  20. 20. Allistair Graham says:


    Oh, but that explanation, despite its logic, is taboo, isn’t it?

    So let dull, conformist, incoherent philosophical naturalism struggle on…

  21. 21. Peter says:

    If it’s an explanation it needs some expansion. Set out that logic.

    In fact, you could take the view that in the passage above I talk about nothing but the nature of God (albeit without using the word, frivolously and inadequately). I wouldn’t really object to that way of looking at it.

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