Picture: shrouded in mystery.
Picture: Blandula. I’d like to say a word for mystery. I think Haldane summed it up:

…the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Picture: Bitbucket. I hate that quote so much!  The complacent fake modesty; the characteristic Oxford attitude of mingled superiority and second-ratism:  don’t you go thinking you can apply your mind to these weighty issues, little man; the best you can do is listen reverently to the words of our mighty predecessors. Footnotes to Plato! Footnotes to Plato!

Picture: Blandula. Good grief, what a reaction! Well, then, let me quote someone you ought to like better; Leibniz:

…it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which push one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.

It’s interesting, incidentally, that Leibniz should have picked a mill. In these days of computers, it’s natural for us to talk of thinking machines, but it must have been a much less obvious metaphor then; especially a mill, which doesn’t produce any very complex behaviour… though Babbage called the central processor of the Analytical Engine the ‘mill’ didn’t he… and of course Leibniz himself designed calculating machines, so perhaps a mechanical metaphor was more natural to him than it perhaps was to his readers… Anyway! The point is, this is a good example of a recurrent theme where someone holds up for our examination a mental phenomenon – in this case perception – and holds up as it were in the other hand the physical world, and says it’s just obvious that the latter cannot account for the former.

Here’s Brentano.

Every mental phenomenon is characterised by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.

This time we’re not talking about perception as such, but about intentionality: though Brentano claims it’s characteristic of every mental phenomenon.

Then again, Nagel.

If we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue how this could be done. The problem is unique. If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery.

It would be easy to find similar sources in which people contrast the pinkish-grey jelly in the skull with the sparkling abstract mental life it apparently sustains. These claims tend to have two things in common. The first is, they are essentially ostensive. There isn’t really an argument being offered at this point, more a demonstration; we’re just being shown. Look at this; then look at that;  see?

Second, the claims are emphatic: they insist. It’s obvious, they say, just look: no-one could think that this was that.  These things have nothing whatever in common.

Picture: Bitbucket. Of course they’re emphatic: they want to hurry us on past the sketchy part before we pause and ask why this shouldn’t be that. They’ve bundled the idea into its coat, thrust its hat into its hands, and are shoving it out the front door because they’re afraid that otherwise we might entertain it for a while.

Picture: Blandula. If they didn’t want us to entertain the idea, why would they write about it? No. The absence of argument here isn’t a weakness; on the contrary, it’s a demonstration of the case. The very fact that we can’t give arguments for the existence of our mental life proves its utter distinctness; we can’t prove it, we can only notice it. But, and this is the reason for the emphasis, what noticing!  ‘In your face’ doesn’t begin to get it; phenomenal experience is inside your face; it’s so emphatically there you could fairly say it defines the word.  

What I’m saying is that these claims have a special quality; simply to pay careful attention to them is itself to experience their validity. The reality and distinctness of the mental world really deserve for once that much-misused term ‘self-evident’.

Picture: Bitbucket.  It’s going to be very convenient if the absence of argument is taken to make a claim self-evident. Proving six impossible things before breakfast will be child’s play.

Actually, I think you are giving us an argument, but it’s so feeble you prefer it not to be recognised: the argument from bogglement. It runs: I can’t see how this could be that; it follows that it’s somehow cosmically distinct. The falsity of the argument, once stated is too obvious too require further comment, but let me just remind you of all those people who couldn’t imagine how the earth could possibly be moving.

Dennett has pointed out in a similar context that mysterians rely on passing off complexity as ineffability. Of course we don’t know all the details of how particular physical events in the world trigger neuronal events in the brain, let alone how that vastly complex series of functions constitutes experience. Even if we had the information, we couldn’t hold it all in mind at once. But our inability to do that, and any bogglement which may arise, does not in any way tend to show that there is no complete story.

Now Dennett would say that if only we could hold in mind all the details of the physical account, all this fantastically complex stuff, then the bogglement would vanish. But I’m not sure about that. Let me confess something: I too, boggle at the task of understanding the incomprehensible complexity of mental phenomena. But I boggle at other things too. Take computers. Now I think I can say without claiming to be an expert that I know how computers work.  I’ve played around with one or two high-level programming languages; I’ve dabbled in machine code; I’ve run up a couple of routines for imaginary Turing machines. In short, I know how it works. And yet, it still sometimes looks like magic; my mind still boggles sometimes at what I see computers doing. Now if I can get bogglement from something I understand quite well and know is a 100% physical process, it follows that my boggling at the brain and what it does shows nothing. 

Picture: Blandula. It’s not the bogglement that matters; it’s the undeniable direct experience. It’s not because we don’t understand experience that we say it’s something distinctly non-physical; it’s because we can see it’s distinctly non-physical.  To me I confess it seems to need some kind of educated perversity to deny this. Colin McGinn has pointed out that conscious experience is non-spatial: it has no position or volume.  I don’t know quite what we should say about that – abstractions like numbers are non-spatial too in what seems a different sort of way (if I mention Plato, will you start shouting again?); but it captures something about the obvious – patent – irreducibility of the mental.

I mean, just give it fair consideration; lift your eyes out of that two-dimensional world you’re cycling round and round and just notice that there’s another whole aspect to the world. To think it possible is in this case to realise it’s true, I believe.

Picture: Bitbucket. You know, you’re right.

Picture: Blandula. You see it?

Picture: Bitbucket. No, you’re right that with you there is no argument.


  1. 1. Joe Duncan says:

    Straw men, no matter how mysterious, are still a logical fallacy.

  2. 2. Arnold Trehub says:

    The universe is full of mysteries. But Colin McGinn is wrong. Conscious experience is always spatial. We are not conscious if we do not have an experience of something somewhere in relation to ourself. I have a phenomenal experience of characters on a computer screen in front of me as I read your comments and my reply. Furthermore, I have a conscious experience of inner speech somewhere in my head as I read and type. When I am awake, I always have an experience of being in a spatial surround. We are conscious if and only if we experience something somewhere in egocentric space.

  3. 3. quentin says:

    I think the little angel is right, and complexity has nothing to do with the problem: explaining the brain will never explain the conscious experience. However it’s not a matter of physical/not-physical nature that could/could-not hold a conscious experience, rather a matter of physical/not-physical explanation that can/cannot account for a subjective experience. A physical explanation (e.g. identifing a perceived object with a mathematical formula) is not – and will never be – an explanation in terms of experience for that object, but only an explanation in terms of experience for me.

  4. 4. Vicente says:


    Conscious experience is always spatial.

    We have to differentiate between the content and the support. A landscape description has a content related to a spatial scenary but the description itself is verbal, non-spatial.

    Look this “X” and give me the spatial coordinates of its centre in your phenomenal experience image, taking coordinate origin at you nose tip, with +/- 1 inch error.

    If you feel sad, tell me space sadness distribution formula related to the feeling.

    Assuming it were spatial, what does the experience itself has to do with the spatial location of glutamate molecules or neuron axons, or a particular retinoid system state?

    Neural correlates don’t explain the experience at all, in part for the same reason that a remote controlled toy movement is not explained by remote control joystick movement, you need many other considerations and knowledge about the toy itself.

  5. 5. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “look at this “X” and give me the coordinates of its center in your phenomenal experience ….”

    The X is about ten inches in front of and slightly to the left of my nose tip.

    Vicente: “If you feel sad, tell me space sadness distribution formula related to the feeling.”

    I can offer no sadness distribution formula, but when I feel sad I feel it within the egocentric space of my body. Everything that I consciously experience is experienced somewhere in space in relation to to my self as the spatiotemporal origin of all phenomenal experience.

  6. 6. Vicente says:


    I understand your approach, but I cannot accept it.

    – If you watch a TV documentary about the North Pole, does that mean that the TV set is at the North Pole? Are the objects in the screen the same size as the real ones?

    – If while you are watching the “X” your visual cortex area is somehow perturbated the experience is likely to be subsequently pertubated….

    – If you close your eyes and picture the “X” on top of the Eiffel Tower what are the coordinates then.

    – What about optical illusions…or delusions… you can simulate a visual stimulus with no real object behind. You could stimulate directly the visual cortex….

    – Extent your right arm, close one eye, and try to touch one of your right hand finger tips with your left hand index finger. There is something wrong with the coordinates, isn’t it.

    I understand that you are kidding when you say that the “physical X” and the “phenomenal X” are in the same place, are you not?

    If what you are saying is that we can understand our phenomenal visual experience as some sort of “inner space”, that could be, and that quite often we can set up a mapping (quantifiable for perception and navigation purposes, ok), between the outer space and the inner space, I agree. But that inner space is not really a physical space. Let’s say that you perceive or detect or sense the “X” at those coordinates, but where the “phenonemal X” really is cannot be said.

    I agree with you and with Kant, that us, as human beings, cannot escape from space and time as fundamental categories of perception. That is why (among other reasons) consciousness is so puzzling and boggling, because probably it includes some “properties” incompatible with human cognitive capabilities, that paradoxically rely on consciousness (in part). I believe that we do suffer cognitive closure, at least to some extent.

  7. 7. Arnold Trehub says:


    I have never said that the physical X and the phenomenal X are in the same place. I say just the opposite! They are not in the same place. The physical X is always somewhere out there in the physical world, and the phenomenal X is always somewhere in the brain’s egocentric retinoid space (our phenomenal world). I hope this is clear.

  8. 8. Burt says:

    Vicente & Arnold,

    The physical “X” and the phenomenal “X” are in the same place. They are both in the mind (not the brain). The external (physical reality) is a construct (representation) from the mind (as is the brain.)

  9. 9. whew… « stuff and things says:

    […] while talking about things I know nothing about maybe this post might interest you.  It’s one of those blogs that when new posts come up in my news reader, I kinda shy away […]

  10. 10. Shankar says:

    Nice that the angel and the abacus have made a comeback after a long time. Actually this particular post could have well been the very first post of this wonderful blog, and it would have just as well been apt. Which goes to show that the conventional schism of thinking gets us nowhere but in circles.

    I agree with some of the comments here, esp. that of Burt (8). In an attempt to solve the mystery of qualia, I have re-framed my own question of how a ‘mill’ or some other physical object could produce qualia. It didn’t take too long to dawn on me that mills or any other so-called hard physical entities are constructs of my own mind. You don’t need to be a solipsist to realize this, this delusion occurs even to materialists when they dream.

    So, at the end, I am looking at a completely different problem, which is basically, what are qualia. The enigma ends there. The connection to physical objects (including my supposed brain) is largely irrelevant.

  11. 11. Lloyd says:

    BitBucket and his quotees almost pinned it: One of the most fundamental things we do mentally is to abstract away from the details and then say we understand because we understand the abstraction. I have no problem with that. We can always go a level deeper when necessary.

    Arnold and Vicente: All this about “8 inches in front …” misses the point that the brain constructs its own internal coordinate system. The philosophies of intention are a bit too literal for my taste. The internal representation is not the external thing, but is directly related to it (dependent on it). It is the internal that we are aware of and, for each of us, represents the external.

    OK. My comments don’t help. I know that. I guess that’s why I haven’t been around lately.

  12. 12. Lloyd says:

    And Burt: Hi. Yes, for you of course they’re the same.

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Lloyd, 8 inches in front !!?? he he

    I didn’t miss the point it was Arnold, and then he tried to get away with it.

    So glad to have you back.

  14. 14. Arnold Trehub says:

    Lloyd: “.. the brain constructs it’s own internal coordinate system.”

    Yes. This coordinate system is what I call the retinoid system. See *The Cognitive Brain*, Ch. 4 , “Modeling the World, Locating the Self, and Selective Attention: The Retinoid System”. You can read it here:


  15. 15. Arnold Trehub says:

    Lloyd: The link again:


    The previous link didn’t show the full address.

  16. 16. Charles Wolverton says:

    “My comments don’t help.”

    Well, Lloyd, that definitely was never my experience. You’ll always have at least one eager reader, so comment away.

    In particular, if you care to elaborate (or cite an elaboration) of …

    One of the most fundamental things we do mentally is to abstract away from the details and then say we understand because we understand the abstraction.

    …, then I’m all eyes.

    And who/what is “Bit Bucket”?

  17. 17. Lloyd says:

    Arnold: I’ve just had a quick look at chapter 4. Looks good. I don’t presume to be able to judge the correctness or even the appropriateness of the neuronal details. My sense of it comes from a better knowledge of computational mechanisms than of biology. And from that point of view, what I have seen so far looks good.

  18. 18. Lloyd says:

    Charles: BitBucket is the one that looks strikingly like an abacus. I forget the name of the more angelic of the two protagonists. Peter used to have a bunch of background explanations of such things, but he seems to have run out of space for those.

  19. 19. Lloyd says:

    Blandula is the other one. It took some digging.

  20. 20. Peter says:

    We missed you, Lloyd – good to hear from you.

    Sorry if the details about the dialogue characters were hard to find. Blandula is named after the Emperor Hadrian’s little verse addressed to his own soul: it’s carved on his tomb.

    Animula vagula blandula,
    Hospes comesque corporis,
    Quae nunc abibis in loca,
    Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
    Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.

    This is my translation – a bit free, obviously..

    My little pale and wandering soul
    My body’s guest and friend,
    Wherever will you go to now,
    When we have reached the end?
    So white and clenched now you’re outside,
    No covering for you;
    No body now to share some fun
    The way we used to do.

  21. 21. Vicente says:

    I believe I didn’t make my question clear.


    Peter, Hadrian was a poetical dualist as can be uniquevocally derived from his epitaph. I just realised that in Seville (Hadrian’s birth town), there is a very common popular expression used to address people which is “my soul”, like: “how are you, my soul?” or “don’t worry my soul”

    What is funny is that in christian literature, and in many expressions it looks like the soul is the independent part, that will part after death, while the subject identifies itself with the body, like in Hadrian’s text. He addresses the poem to his soul, that will wander away, that implicitly means that he does not consider himself his soul… I wonder if it is just a language effect or for what reason the soul is always referred to as some external thing that is somehow owned by the person, not being really the person. More surprinsingly the same applies to the body (the flesh), considered the origin of all disasters… and we have the complementary approach, like “to punish the body to purify the spirit”. So eventually the sheer individual is left in nobody’s land, is not the soul, is not the body… I believe this fact shows how confusing is human existence for human beings.

  22. 22. Arnold Trehub says:


    I claim that phenomenal experience takes place in the Z-planes of our brain’s retinoid system. These egocentrically organized neuronal arrays occupy a definite space within each brain that can have a conscious experience. See my paper “Space, self, and the theater of consciousness”, *Consciousness and Cognition*, 2007.

  23. 23. Kar Lee says:

    Lloyd, glad to see you back in the discussion! I am playing a little bit catch up lately.

  24. 24. Vicente says:

    Peter, what is BitBucket’s story?

  25. 25. Vicente says:


    Thank you for the concise and direct answer, I think it was brave, I appreciate.

    I read your paper but it sheds no light on what I want to know.

    Assume that I accept that the phenomenal visual experience takes place in the Z-Planes of the RS.

    Then, let’s take a simple image, (like those used by Crick to study the cat’s visual cortex), a white sheet with vertical colored lines.

    Could you tell me, precisely, what anatomical structures of the PZ planes of the RS or what physiological processes underpin the corresponding phenomenal image.

    Is it that each pixel corresponds to a functionally coherent set of synapsis? or a particular firing sequence? or how. What is there that slightly ressembles the image?

    What about the colors? correct me if I am wrong, but there is a set of neurons (somewhere else, sorry I am too tired and can’t bother myself to look for the referene) that seem to support color processing. So how is it that shapes and colors are fused in one single phenomenal image.

    In general the physical image is decomposed and sent to different processing structures in the visual cortex, isn’t it? How is it then perceived as the original image?

    Even if you could find something that ressembles the image(which you won’t), who is observing it? sorry for those that want to kill the observer, mind you! maybe when you kill the observer you commit suicide.

    Could you tell me the dimensions of that image in the Z-Planes, how are you going to measure it? (I mean the image not the tissues, unless you could provide a precise mapping between each image element and the corresponding anatomical element)

    Think of the brain in physicochemical terms, or as a network, where can you fit an image? or a sound? or a feeling, nowhere.

    I am sorry to say, but I see no reason to believe that the phenomenal (visual) experience takes place in the Z-planes of the RS, despite the function it could play to produce the brain states that subsequently lead to sight.

    I will not deny the neural correlates of phenomenal states, but they are just processes that induce the phenomenal experience (or are induced by), where? I don’t know. I really wish I knew.

  26. 26. Peter says:


    ‘bit bucket’ is actually a jocular name for the ‘null device’, a place where you can send output you want to dispose of harmlessly. (Now I come to think of it both names are rather insulting, really.) The picture is an abacus, but a cut-down one – I couldn’t get a small enough picture of a full-sized one to be recognisable.

  27. 27. Arnold Trehub says:


    Any phenomenal image will be represented by an analogous spatiotopic pattern of autaptic cell discharge on its proper Z-plane coordinates in the egocentric space of the retinoid system. Empirical evidence in support of the retinoid model of conscious content comes from many different sources. In particular, the power of the structure and dynamics of the retinoid mechanisms to predict the details of the artificially induced conscious experience in the seeing-more-than-is-there paradigm is very strong empirical confirmation. The challenge is to explain the same experimental results on any other principled grounds.

  28. 28. Vicente says:


    I understand, but when you say:

    Any phenomenal image will be represented by an analogous spatiotopic pattern of autaptic cell discharge on its proper Z-plane coordinates in the egocentric space of the retinoid system

    What does represented mean? to me, just a term to show ignorance about the phenomenal “reality” (I mean general ignorance not yours).

    Analogously your screen image is represented in the videocard memory, a few bytes per pixel. But that video data -per se- does not explain the image at all. I am being generous, I don’t believe there is any image on the screen either, the image is only in your mind, images are only phenomenal. On the screen you have matter and radiation, it is only in your mind when that particular sensed physical arrangement adquires a meaning and becomes and image.

    or when you say:

    to predict the details of the artificially induced conscious experience

    what do you mean? in any case, as you said it is induced, so induced WHERE?

    A induces B somewhere.

    The “retinoid system” induces “phenomenal experience” WHERE?

    In summary, we know the brain has visual processing areas, good, but how does phenomenal visual experience arise from those biological structures, that is the question. For the time being, good work has been done to establish correlates between neural states and “reported” phenomenal experience, but that’s all.

  29. 29. Arnold Trehub says:


    Finding simple brain correlates of conscious content is not good enough to explain phenomenal experience. I’ve proposed that the following bridging principle is needed for theoretical explanation of phenomenal experience:

    *For any instance of conscious content there is a corresponding analog in the biophysical state of the brain*

    The scientific problem is to find brain mechanisms tha can generate such brain analogs of conscious content. The retinoid system is competent to do the job.

    In the SMTT experiment, the visual phenomenal experience does NOT “arise from those biological structures” of the retinoid system; autaptic-cell activity in the Z-planes of egocentric retinoid space CONSTITUTE the visual phenomenal experience from the objective perspective (3pp). The same event is experienced from the subjective perspective (1pp) as a visual object in lateral motion. This must be understood within the framework of dual-aspect monism.

  30. 30. Lloyd says:

    I believe you are asking just a little bit too much. I can put everything you ask into computational terms up to the point where you insist that there is something else beyond the results of the computation. Is the final number in a memory location, on the video screen, on the printer? Or is there something else beyond all of these? Of course, of the number is being used to run a milling machine tool or the like, then the answer is there. But I suspect that still does not satisfy you. What more do you want?

    OK. Suppose the machine had an extra processing layer to keep records of what it had computed. So the result is now there. In addition to being all those other places.

    But I have the feeling that you want to imagine a more ethereal plane where “results” live on. I find it hard to grasp.

  31. 31. Vicente says:


    Well this is the mystery post…

    Let me take advantage of T. Clark’s comment in the next post.

    We aren’t in an epistemic relation to experience; we don’t inspect it or observe it, rather we consist of it as experiencers. There’s no distance between me the experiencer and my experience

    I have always suspected that this approach could be the right one to overcome the infinite regression problem. We are the experience. Subject and Object are one single entity. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to handle this idea, it is counter-intuitive.

    For some reason we experience a dicotomy, it is like Arnold describes he’s spatiotopic scenario. We feel as if we are observing the reality with certain perspective. Why do phenomenal content, consciousness, produce this effect?

    Schopenhauer expressed it as the “World’s knot” or Peter as “if the self is an illusion who is it that’s being fooled”

    What I don’t take is dual aspect monism, one has to be really thick skin to support it.

    You asked: Is the final number in a memory location, on the video screen, on the printer? Or is there something else beyond all of these?

    Everything is beyond all of those. Those are the starting points. When a conscious entity senses them they become real in some mind. Before that they are nothing, proto-elements? or as some say they might have dispositional properties, this one is funny. I thought Aristotle being in act and in potency was not fashionable any more.

    Regarding the ethereal part, no, is not what I think, I believe the answer has to do with the global structure, the very nature of reality, is not like a vapor… But I haven’t got a clue how it works.

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