pixelated eyeYou’ve heard of splitting the atom: W. Alex Escobar wants to split the quale. His recent paper (short article here) proposes that in order to understand subjective experience we may need to break it down into millions of tiny units of experience.  He proposes a neurological model which to my naive eyes seems reasonable: the extraordinary part is really the phenomenology.

Like a lot of qualia theorists Escobar seems to have based his view squarely on visual experience, and the idea of micro-qualia is perhaps inspired by the idea of pixels in digitised images, or other analytical image-handling techniques.  Why would the idea help explain qualia?

I don’t think Escobar explains this very directly, at least from a philosophical point of view, but you can see why the idea might appeal to some people. Panexperientialists, for example, take the view that there are tiny bits of experience everywhere, so the idea that our minds assemble complex experiences out of micro-qualia might be quite congenial to them.  As we know, Christof Koch says that consciousness arises from the integration of information, so perhaps he would see Escobar’s theory as offering a potentially reasonable phenomenal view of the same process.

Unfortunately Escobar has taken a wrong turning, as others have done before, and isn’t really talking about ineffable qualia at all: instead, we might say he is merely effing the effable.

Ineffability, the quality of being inexpressible, is a defining characteristic of qualia as canonically understood in the philosophical literature. I cannot express to you what redness is like to me; if I could, you would be able to tell whether it was the same as your experience. If qualia could be expressed, my zombie twin  (who has none) would presumably become aware of their absence; when asked what it was like to see red, he would look puzzled and admit he didn’t really know, whereas ex hypothesi he gives the same fluent and lucidly illuminating answers that I do – in spite of not having the things we’re both talking about.

Qualia, in fact, have no causal effects and cannot be part of the scientific story. That doesn’t mean Escobar’s science is wrong or uninteresting, just that what he’s calling qualia aren’t really the philosophically slippery items of experience we keep chasing in vain in our quest for consciousness.

Alright, but setting that aside, is it possible that real qualia could be made up of many micro-qualia? No, it absolutely isn’t! In physics, a table can seem to be a single thing but actually be millions of molecules.  Similarly, what looks like a flat expanse of uniform colour on a screen may actually be thousands of pixels. But qualia are units of experience; what they seem like is what they are. They don’t seem like a cloud of micro-qualia, and so they aren’t. Now there could be some neuronal or psychological story going on at a lower level which did involve micro units; but that wouldn’t make qualia themselves splittable. What they are like is all there is to them; they can’t have a hidden nature.

Alas, Escobar could not have noticed that, because he was too busy effing the Effable.


  1. 1. Scott Bakker says:

    Peter: “Qualia, in fact, have no causal effects and cannot be part of the scientific story.”

    This is one among many things that have always baffled me. If qualia have no causal effects, if they are a bona fide ‘distinction without a difference,’ then how is this different than saying they don’t exist? For qualia to even be a point of debate, for them to exhibit the property of ineffability (or any other property), then they simply can’t be ineffable. How else could we know they were ‘ineffable’ unless they expressed their ineffability somehow?

    Think of the old saw, ‘You had to be there,’ when attempting to explain something funny that doesn’t strike others as funny at all. Since everything we experience is the result of the incalculable sum of circumstances at some time, then some degree of ‘You-had-to-be-thereness’ inevitably dogs our attempts to communicate our experiences to others. Ostensibly this is what shuts you up when listening to a Holocaust survivor explain their experience in the Camps. This kind of ‘circumstantial ineffability’ is something we encounter all the time, any time anyone communicates some experience of theirs’ in fact. It simply follows from being a stand-alone, situated information processor, *and it is always a matter of degree.* Something can always be communicated, which is why Holocaust survivors see sharing their stories as a moral duty. The actual embodied experience itself outruns the possibility of communication – of course! In fact, the actual embodied experience outruns the possibility of memory as well…

    This is why spouses are so inclined to say things like, ‘I was there, and it wasn’t funny then, either.’

    But if you were single, one of those George Costanza types, say, who never let their disparate social groups mingle – or ‘worlds collide’ – it would be pretty easy to convince yourself there was no way you could be wrong, ever, about what happened there and then. Absent error-detection mechanisms (like spouses) we have no inkling of error whatsoever. What you’re describing as absolute ‘ineffability’ seems much more easily explained as a side-effect of neglect, don’t you think, Peter?

  2. 2. Marcus Morgan says:

    “Qualia, in fact, have no causal effects and cannot be part of the scientific story.”

    Bold. I suspect everything is part of the scientific story, even allowing for the fact that the experience of qualia is key, and it is personal. Qualia interacts by my feelings corresponding to others, in hormonal species interaction, although somewhat hidden from cognition, but not entirely, as our cognition represents our biology, which is intrinsically hormonal.

    The best way in, is George Lakoff. Reduce functional interfaces with the world to embodied experiences, with meaning provided by a biology that includes qualia and hormonal experiences. Causal meaning arises from interface, and it is consistent with qualia.

    We can only use “consistencies”, because the experience is confined to the individual and any scientific process might not recreate it for us all to share in a common experience to “confirm it”. But then, the entire future of neuroscience is going to be based on “correlation”: first settle report and consensus views of behaviour as evidence of cognition; and take that settled view and correlate it to neural and genetic activity. Scientific nonetheless – the future in this area will be an accumulating compendium of correlations.

  3. 3. Peter says:

    This is always a place in which I have to play devil’s advocate because I do in fact believe that having no causal effects means exactly that you don’t exist; but that’s the correct way to conceive of qualia.

    Probably the best I can do is point out that many things that merely subsist play important roles in our mental life. Qualia must be sorta, kinda, like that.

  4. 4. Eric Thomson says:

    Note not all qualiaphiles, like myself, take qualia to be outside the causal chains of the natural sciences.

    Even granting that experiences are ineffable in some sense, that doesn’t imply they are epiphenomena or outside physical causality. For instance, it could just mean that we are dealing with incommensurate modes of expression (sorry for that expression :O). That is, it could be impossible to translate, without mutilation, expressions about one type of content (conscious experience) to expressions about another type of content (conceptual or propositional contents as expressed via linguistic strings).

    This is Ramachandran’s thesis in his ‘three laws of qualia’ article. So perhaps ‘ineffable’ just should be translated to ‘ineffable in language X’. Perhaps the mistake is privileging public ordinary language. Perhaps a theory of qualia might need to be a mathematical theory that doesn’t have a clear translation to ordinary language that doesn’t mangle the “semantics”–sort of like quantum mechanics. We could end up with a complete theory that simply never translates into ordinary concepts well, leaving traditional ordinary-language philosophy in the back yard.

    Again, I am not pushing a strong argument here, just suggesting possibilities, and especially just trying to make a case against the ‘ineffable (in ordinary language) —> noncausal’
    inference. Aren’t qualia weird enough already without accretions about causality?

  5. 5. Eric Thomson says:

    Ugh. Let me clarify one sentence:
    “That is, it could be impossible to translate, without mutilation, expressions about one type of content (conscious experience) to expressions about another type of content (conceptual or propositional contents as expressed via linguistic strings). ”

    What I mean is:
    It could be impossible to adequately describe conscious (nonpropositional) contents using a medium of expression that consists of propositional contents expressed via linguistic strings.

    From the paper ‘Three laws of qualia’ by Rama and HIrstein:
    “In fact, this barrier is the same barrier that emerges when there is any translation. The language of nerve impulses (which neurons use to communicate among themselves) is one language; a spoken natural language such as English is a different language. The problem is that X can tell you about his qualia only by using an intermediate, spoken language (when he says, ‘Yes but there’s still the experience of red which you are missing’), and the experience itself is lost in the translation. You are just looking at a bunch of neurons and how they’re firing and how they’re responding when X says ‘red’, but what X is calling the subjective sensation of qualia is supposed to be private forever and ever. We would argue, however, that it’s only private so long as he uses spoken language as an intermediary.”

    I am not strongly endorsing this thesis, but just offering it as one way in which you could have causality plus ineffability.

  6. 6. Marcus Morgan says:

    If you are considering feelings of any kind, consider hormones, they boost.What are they for? Species. What do species have in common? “Qualia”. Can humans use their qualia to feel for a dog too? Yes. Why. Qualia closely match for each species for individuals to get along, but they are not limited to species.

    If you are considering the experience of awareness itself, consider neurons. What are they for? Individual efficacy. How does efficacy combine with “qualia” or feelings? It represents them logically in cognition, to know and share. Hormones boost feelings of cells that are represented by neurons for an experience of cognition about feelings.

    Causation apples to these hormonal & neuronal processes. Even though it appears that humans can be capricious in enjoyment of “qualia”, they have a role in a bigger causal picture that science is still trying to track. Early days, early doors.

  7. 7. Arnold Trehub says:

    Eric: “It could be impossible to adequately describe conscious (nonpropositional) contents using a medium of expression that consists of propositional contents expressed via linguistic strings.”

    Yes. This is why qualia cannot be communicated to an entity that is not inside the brain of one having said qualia.

  8. 8. Marcus Morgan says:

    Qualia cannot be communicated, only ligusitics “about” qualia, which is what linguistics “is”, rather than being a limitation. Does anyone think linguistics “is” qualia?

  9. 9. Matt Campbell says:

    Yes, saw the predecessor article re Sam Harris’ writings. I posted re my thoughts on the matter of the ability of the SM to be applied well to the topic of consciousness quantification and analysis at:


    so no need to duplicate it. I got the URL to the Harris article from a friend who asked for some clarification re what I was saying and replied:

    Yes, that’s what I was getting at.  Science can’t get to anything immeasurable, repeatable, etc. in the scope of its parameters.  Those stop at space-time, at least as far as I can tell, at the moment.  Anything outside it is by def’n beyond its scope of investigation, just as Descartes said.  Using the sci. method to investigate anything outside (or in this case causatively prior to space-time, as I believe consciousness is, or hierarchically “above” space-time taxonomically, where I put it), is going to be futile.

  10. 10. Scott Bakker says:

    Eric: Interesting argument, to be sure.

    But we’re talking about the brain’s ability to cognize phenomena here. So, given that qualia are somehow the product of environmentally engaged brain activity, the question has to be one of how the brain could possibly cognize such activities. Imagine a primatologist sewn into a sack with a troop of bonobos–How different would their bonobo account be compared to one given by another primatologist shadowing a bonobo troop in the wild. Obviously, ‘accuracy’ would be the last thing we would expect from the former.

    Metacognition, like the first primatologist, has no hope of providing anything more that something radically heuristic, enough to anchor a certain limited range of vocalizations perhaps, censor remarks in various company, stuff like that. Since it’s wired in it’s not as though it can get out a kick the tires or anything. What’s it’s got is all there is, and more importantly, all that’s needed to solve those practical problems that selected it. Philosophers come along, repurpose that information, ask it to solve theoretical problems, and blind to any of the (quite to be expected) incapacities responsible, walk away perplexed.

    Ineffability a property? Aren’t we just confusing the engine light for a new order of existence here (because our head is welded to the dash)?

    The big point is that some kind of metacognitive story is required. Since ‘self-intimating’ is plainly magic, ‘radically heuristic’ is the only plausible answer out there. And as it happens, it can explain quite a bit aside.

  11. 11. Marcus Morgan says:

    Lots of opinions about awareness are contestable by not being logically framed in the first place. Others just rely on the “authority” of having the experience personally. To make progress, your best start is with George Lakoff to match neurons with events in the world. It’s all quite logical. No need to play up the fact that its personal. It is only provable by correlating linguistic ability to neural activity. Correlation is better than obfuscation. Its an actual program. The way ahead is by hard work.

  12. 12. Vicente says:

    Hi Arnold,

    Sorry to comment off topic, I just read the news about current year Medicine Nobel price for the studies on the brain’s navigation and space management capabilities, and I was wondering if they shed any light on the identification of possible brain structures that account for the retinoid space concept. Could that be?

  13. 13. Arnold Trehub says:

    Hi Vicente,

    I was glad to see the work on place cells (hippocampus) and grid cells (entorhinal cortex) recognized for their important implications. These are neuronal maps of local spaces that were learned by rats for locomotion/navigation in visited environments. The theory of retinoid space would claim that place-cell maps and grid-cell maps could not have been organized without *first having autaptic-cell representations within egocentric/retinoid space* of the local-spaces that make up the the navigational maps. For example, I would claim that something like Fig. 5 in *Where Am I? Redux* (J. Consciousness Studies. 2013. pp. 207 – 225) had to be experienced by the rats before the place and navigational maps were constructed. What do you think?

  14. 14. Marcus Morgan says:

    There is a lot more to self and awareness than foveal stimulation or spatial representation in general. This reminds me of Lera Boroditzky, who “conceptualizes” is a similar way about reliance on spatial concepts and denial of temporal. In fact, the frame we employ is complete: Me, You, Where, Whe, Stop, Go, To & From. That is the literal structure to anatomy, and anatomy uses neurons to represent it by connecting functions into a whole using metaphor. Look at Diagram 29 in my book if you are interested in progress to a general view rather than a somewhat “lost” specific view in ignorance of the general view. Use metaphor to connect existing potential in anatomy itself.

  15. 15. Eric Thomson says:

    Scott as usual I think you are probably saying something interesting that I don’t quite understand.

    My point is that perhaps the medium most people (especially philosophers) use to explain the world is in principle inadequate to the task when it comes to consciousness. This includes heuristics, and all other “cognitive” (propositional) attempts at interpreting it.

    We may end up only being able to predict and explain it using systems of very complex continuous nonlinear differential equations, for instance, of a sort that don’t conform well to symbolic modes of expression/prediction. In that case, conceptual analysis, and related standard ordinary language attempts to explain it, will simply fail. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but that our brain literally cannot cognize it using the standard tools.

    This would be a rejection of the view that all explanations must include some kind of transparent intelligible (to us) movement up an inference tree using standard conceptual/symbolic thought of the type we engage in.

    It is related to McGinn’s Mysterianism, in that his view implies that using the philosophers’ dominant model of explanation, we will never explain consciousness. I accept this, but do not accept that this is the only viable model of scientific explanation.

    Just to be clear, I am not attached to this line of thought. I am just coming to think it is worth exploring in a more sustained way (based on the Aliens).

  16. 16. Marcus Morgan says:

    In this field, there is a lot of the proverbial head banging against a brick wall, combined with ignorance. For the head banging, my prescription is to just accept the experience is personal. For the ignorance, do not look for abstruse “magic” by neurons or “computations”, just value the chemistry of your anatomy on its own terms. Those terms will change radically for society when it sinks in that our anatomy has a perfect chemical structure to provide “rational” experiences, and all neurons need to do is “represent” that chemistry in an “experience” by continual cycling.

  17. 17. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Scott and Eric,
    I’m with Eric in thinking that Scott’s last message looks interesting but I don’t quite grasp it in full.
    Apart from this, I think we are all on the same page, and grappling with the intuition that the mysterious ineffability of qualia (the standard philosopher’s type, not Ramachandran and Hirstein re-definition) have something to do with:
    – Limits of cognition
    – And/or limits of communicability
    – Possibly combined with the difficulty of translating between first and third person accounts of the same phenomena.

    I’ve just stumbled upon an interesting paper by Brian D Earp (citation is below) and think it is a fortunate coincidence: what he writes in the paper happens to be yet another way to grapple with the same arduous issue, and something I’ve tried to tackle in my previous mile-long comments.
    I’ll quote the key-proposition for the matter at hand (p14):

    The very way in which we experience qualia (that is, from a first-person, direct perspective) rules out our being able to say with certainty what they are identical to in the physical-functional world. How could that be so? It is because any physical/functional account we might devise is from a third-person perspective. By necessity, to move towards a third-person perspective is to give up the first-person perspective — you cannot have it both ways.

    and rest my case here…

    Earp, B. D. (2012). An anti-anti-functionalist account of consciousness. Annales Philosophici, (4).
    The article is available here (html) and here (pdf).
    [Full credits: I found it via the author himself on Twitter.]

  18. 18. Marcus Morgan says:

    So, its a personal experience and difficult to convey to others. Its a well-known case. Nothing is better than the self-evident. Maybe humans are even more self-evident than that. It would be obvious, by definition. But then, maybe people have inertia invested in their “stuff”. They still wouldn’t see it, being immersed in their “stuff”. The “stuff” of being human, I suppose.

  19. 19. VicP says:

    Well therein lies the rub because tables are not closed entropy biological systems, they only have importance to biological systems like ourselves who dine on them. To cats they are simply higher ground to jump on to look out of windows. What happens to qualia at the micro level is not important to “normal” people or house cats but rather what nature does achieve for biological systems is a scaling problem so they can exist in their bigger environent. Just like trees can bend without breaking in a stiff window, qualia let us deal with the bigger environment..but..but..but, trees are just zombies and they…..but trees don’t talk to other trees and most of our qualia is no longer “qualia” after we stop picking up hot burning embers.

  20. 20. Sci says:

    @Peter: If Panpsychism has a units problem – where the gap between quantitative and qualitative seems insurmountable – doesn’t materialism end up faced with a variation of that problem?

  21. 21. Marcus Morgan says:

    I cannot interpret let alone answer either query.

  22. 22. Peter says:


    Possibly (might depend on what kind of materialism) – can you explain a bit more?

  23. 23. Sci says:

    @Peter: I was just thinking of these lines:

    “In physics, a table can seem to be a single thing but actually be millions of molecules. Similarly, what looks like a flat expanse of uniform colour on a screen may actually be thousands of pixels. But qualia are units of experience; what they seem like is what they are. They don’t seem like a cloud of micro-qualia, and so they aren’t.”

    I believe this is a valid criticism of panpsychism, but it seems that if materialism is correct there must be some measurable processes of matter/energy that are yielding the irreducible units of experience you mention. So, despite the fact qualia don’t feel like a summation of microqualia, the entire feeling of a quale has to be expressible in quantitative terms.

    But it seems to me this suggests qualia have to be divisible under materialism, otherwise we just have particular arrangements of matter mysteriously producing particular qualia. As Nagel said, if all we have is the arrangements that produce consciousness there remains something magical to be explained.

  24. 24. Marcus Morgan says:

    I removed the word magic from my lexicon decades ago, except for ridicule. Its all mysterious to the ignorant, but that’s not magic, that’s normality. Explaining a subjective experience objectively is by definition impossible, but try anyway. A neuron is current across sediment that continually hormonally refreshes for fresh current to knock over refreshed dominoes – its an experience of interface between current and sediment.

  25. 25. Marcus Morgan says:

    Get into the facts. Neurons. They have gateways. Why? They have current along them. Why? They have hormones laid across them. Why? I would drop a dozen or so words from the common lexicon to ensure people avoid abstracts and stay with facts.

  26. 26. Peter says:


    Yes, I see – that is indeed an issue: a nasty new aspect of the general problem of subjectivity.

  27. 27. Callan S. says:

    I think it’s worth considering those puzzle pictures, the ones where something is photographed very close up and from an unusual angle – and how it’s hard to recognise what it is.

    Then take that and add it to the screen analogy. You know those pictures that are made up of thousands of tiny little pictures.

    So you have a screen made of thousands of objects you don’t actually recognise because they are a close up from a strange angle.

    Then just treat it as how you’ve seen it all your life and that you do think you recognise the smaller pictures, because that’s how it’s been all your life and you know them.

  28. 28. Scott Bakker says:

    Eric: “Scott as usual I think you are probably saying something interesting that I don’t quite understand.”

    My whole schtick is to reinvent ways to look at problems. Sometimes my inventions just plain suck.

    My question is simply why we should credit the explanandum as anything *requiring* explanation – a la Dennett or Humphrey or Graziano. I’m just looking at it in an explicitly metacognitive manner: if it looks apparent that our metacognitive capacities do not admit any intuitive cognition of the phenomena of the kind required to fix our explanandum (and I would argue that it does (see: ), then why make assumptions like Ramachandran’s at all.

    In a sense, I’m saying it *raises the problem of cognitive closure at the wrong point,* granting the metacognitive capacity to intelligibly fix the explanandum, then problematizing our cognitive capacity to arrive at an intuitive explanans.

  29. 30. Eric Thomson says:

    Scott thanks for the link that is a nice piece. We are on similar pages when it comes to criticism the philosophers who want “to argue for a special, emergent order of intentional functions, one that happens to correspond to the deliverances of philosophical reflection.” I too am suspicious of such claims.

    You seem to take claims about consciousness to be an almost compulsory by-product of faulty thinking, a by-product of an illusion of self transparency coupled with the fetishism for the intentional.

    I go a very different route. I take conscious experience as real, but armchair speculations, in ordinary language, are at fault. I keep the baby (consciousness), am happy to throw out the bathwater, and replace armchair musings with more mathematical theories that describe brain activity as the continuous evolution of massive systems of nonlinear differential equations. E.g., stuff like this. If we cannot cleanly translate between the two, so much the worse for the theorist who clings to natural language as the sole mechanism of theory expression.

    But to say that consciousness is not real would be worse than premature, even worse than dualism. At least dualists admit of the obvious. 🙂

  30. 31. Scott Bakker says:

    Eric: Thanks for the link! Mouthwatering.

    I’m not saying consciousness doesn’t exist, I saying that it will take a *dual theory approach* to provide a satisfactory explication, a theory of why consciousness appears the way it does to reflection, and a theory of what it is. The fact is, we don’t just make mistakes willy nilly, but in a systematic fashion, and it’s this systematicity (among other things) that convinces phenomenal realists that they have to be ‘onto something.’ My approach provides a way of seeing those errors as predictable, as precisely the kinds of metacognitive illusions we should expect to stymy us given the evolutionary history and neurobiology we have. ‘Self-transparency’ and ‘meaning fetishism’ (and the fetishism is quite literal on my account!) are merely the symptoms. The theoretical heavy lifting is done by heuristics and neglect. This was the direction I was always trying to nudge you toward with your Humphrey-esque alien thought experiment last year, btw ;).

    Blind Brain Theory eliminates intentionality and phenomenality, but not conscious experience, which it merely demystifies, renders it something that can obviously naturalized. Just how, depends on the science.

  31. 32. Eric Thomson says:

    Interesting I was taking you to be more eliminativist wrt experience. Perhaps we are closer than I previously thought.

  32. 33. Mohammad Nur Syamsu says:

    …not good.

    The solution is very simple and very widely known. In the traditional concept of free will the soul or spirit is said to choose. What is often omitted but is also widely known, is that the existence of the soul is a matter of faith and revelation, a form of opinion.

    Subjectivity is the key to a functional concept of free will. The existence of what chooses, the spirit, is a matter of opinion. And an opinion is arrived at by choosing about what it is that chooses.

    You can easily see how this works. By having a free way to identify what it is that chooses (opinion), the freedom in the concept of free will is maintained. If we would make it a fact what it is that chooses, then the decision could only turn out in accordance with what the chooser in fact consists of.

    To say this is somehow cheating, or fantasizing, positing the existence of things without evidence etc., fails to appreciate that this actually an efficient way to philosophically validate subjectivity.

    It is ofcourse obvious that subjectivity requires that the existence of some things would be a matter of opinion. As it is also obvious that objectivity requires that the existence of some things would be a matter of fact.

    The dividing line between opinion and fact is between what chooses and what is chosen. The first is a matter of opinion, the second a matter of fact.

    This is the logic that is used in common discourse as well as religions generally. In common discourse the motivation of a decision is regarded as a matter of opinion, but that a decision is made is regarded as fact. There is no inconsistency in it, facts are neatly separated from opinions. What is good, loving and beautiful and the existence of God and the soul are a matter of opinion, because they are relevant to what it is that chooses.

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