For animal consciousness, is there a fact of the matter?

Book cover of Human and Animal MindsPeter Carruthers has been blogging this week on the thesis of his new book, Human and Animal Minds: The Consciousness Question Laid to Rest.  I mentioned Carruthers’ book in my post on global workspace theory (GWT), but didn’t get into the details.  While I had been considering taking a fresh look at GWT, his book was the final spur that kicked me into action.

Carruthers used to be an advocate for higher order theories (HOT) of consciousness.  He formulated the dual content version that I thought was more plausible.  As an advocate for HOT, he seemed skeptical of animal consciousness.  But in recent years, he’s abandoned HOT in favor of GWT: the idea that conscious content is the result of processes that have won the competition to have their results globally broadcast to systems throughout the brain.

Most GWT proponents will admit that it’s a theory of access consciousness, that it doesn’t directly address phenomenal consciousness, which usually isn’t seen as a problem because most people in this camp see them as the same thing, with phenomenal consciousness being access consciousness from the inside.   In other words, the idea that phenomenal consciousness is something separate and apart from access consciousness is rejected.

Carruthers isn’t completely outside of this view, but his is a bit more nuanced.  He sees phenomenal consciousness as a subset of access consciousness, the portion of it that includes nonconceptual content, content that is irreducible, such as the color yellow.  (Of course, objectively the content of yellow is reducible to patterns of neural spikes originating from M and L cones in the retina, but only the irreducible sensation of yellow makes it into the workspace.)  This is in contrast to conceptual data, such as the perception of a dog, that is reducible to more primitive experience.

So Carruthers sees phenomenal experience as globally broadcast nonconceptual content, in humans.  Why the stipulation at the end?  He points out that phenomenal experience is inherently a first person account, in that discussing it is basically an invitation for each of us to access our own internal experience.

Asking whether another system has that same internal experience is asking how much like us they are.  Other species may have processes that resemble our global broadcasting mechanisms, to greater or lesser extents, and the collection of competing and receiving processes may resemble our own, again to greater or lesser extent.  In both cases, the farther we move away humans in taxonomy, the less like us they are.

Which means that no other species will have the exact same components of our experience.  Whether what they have amounts to phenomenal experience, our first person experience, depends on which aspects of that experience we judge to be essential.  In other words, there isn’t a fact of the matter.

I pointed out to Carruthers that this also applies to many humans, notably brain injured patients, whose global broadcasting mechanism or collection of competing and receiving processes no longer match that of a common healthy human.  Carruthers, to his credit, bites this bullet and acknowledges that there isn’t a fact of the matter when it comes to whether human infants or brain injured patients are phenomenally conscious.

Carruthers’ overall point is that it doesn’t matter, because nothing magical happens at any stage.  Nothing changes.  There are just capabilities that are either present or absent.  In his view, the focus on consciousness is a mistake.  Broadly speaking, I think he’s right.  There is no fact of the matter.  Consciousness is in the eye of the beholder.

But it’s worth discussing why that’s so, arguably the reason why anything ever fails to be a fact of the matter: ambiguity.  In this case, ambiguity about what we mean by terms like “phenomenal experience”, for it to be “like something”.  “Like” to what degree?  And what “thing”?

As soon as we try to nail down a specific definition, we run into trouble, because no specific definition is widely accepted.  The vague terminology masks wide differences.  It refers to a vast, hazy, and inconsistent collection of capabilities we’ve all agreed to put under one label, but without agreeing on the specifics.  It’s like lawmakers who can’t agree on precisely what a law should say, so instead write something vague that can be agreed on, and leave it to the courts to hash out later.

And yet, I think we can still recognize the ways various species process information will be similar to the way we do, to varying degrees.  As Carruthers notes, there is no magical line, no point where we can clearly say consciousness begins.  But great apes are a lot closer to us than dogs, which are closer than mice, which in turn are closer than frogs, fish, etc, all of which are much closer than plants, rocks, storm systems, or electrons.

And there’s something to be said for focusing on systems that do have irreducible sensory and affective content that are globally integrated into their processing.  This matches the definition many biologists use for primary consciousness.  Primary consciousness appears to be widespread among mammals and birds, and possibly among all vertebrates and arthropods.

But primary consciousness omits aspects of our experience many will insist are essential, such as metacognitive self awareness or imaginative deliberation, capabilities that dramatically expand our appreciation of the contents of primary consciousness.  Such a view dramatically reduces the number of species that are conscious, perhaps only to humans and maybe some great apes.  Which view is right?  To Carruthers’ point, there is no fact of the matter.

Incidentally, even primary consciousness gets into definitional difficulties.  For example, fish and amphibians can be demonstrated to have both sensory and affective content, but the architecture of their brains makes it unclear just how integrated the affective contents are with much of the sensory content.  Does this then still count as primary consciousness?  I personally think the answer is yes since there is at least some integration, but can easily see why many might conclude otherwise.

What do you think?  Is Carruthers being too stingy in his conclusion?  Is there a way we can establish a fact of the matter we can all agree on?  Or is the best we can do is recognize the partial and varying commonalities we have with other species?

75 thoughts on “For animal consciousness, is there a fact of the matter?

  1. I’ve been reading Carruthers posts and I am finding them hard to follow and either wrong or trivial.

    If the focus on consciousness is a mistake, why does he (and others) keep doing posts and writing books about it? Please stop if this is a mistake. If there isn’t a “fact of the matter”, then he can’t tell me anything and I can’t tell him anything. End of discussion.

    It seems much too clever. I think when we are asking or thinking about the qualities of consciousness of other people and other species, we don’t have the expectation it will be exactly like our experience. But we are wondering if there is some kind of experience, a sense of being in a body in a world with a capacity for agency in that world.

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    1. Why still talk about it? Well, if everyone stopped talking about it, then there might not be anything left to discuss. I suspect Carruthers talks about it because it’s still very much talked about by the likes of Chalmers, Goff, and Kastrup. Does he just cede the ground to them? In other words, I think he talks about it for the same reason atheists talk about God, or skeptics talk about UFOs, Bigfoot, or alt-med.

      “But we are wondering if there is some kind of experience, a sense of being in a body in a world with a capacity for agency in that world.”

      Okay, but can you see how the word “experience” and “agency” are ambiguous? If not, can you define them without using synonymous (and equally ambiguous) phrases?


      1. I suspect he keeps talking about it because it’s too late to change careers.

        “Experience” and “agency” may be ambiguous by themselves but they can be made more precise in experimental settings. We can design tests, for example, to test for the range of colors that animals can see. We don’t know if the yellow a monkey sees is the same as what you or I see but we can determine if the monkey has some sort of experience of yellow.


        1. We can see if the monkey’s behavior changes when the only difference is the presence or absence of yellow. In other words, we can establish whether it can discriminate yellow from non-yellow. But if we can build a robot that can also make that discrimination, does that imply it has an experience of yellow? If not, what else is needed to establish yellow experience?


          1. How about biological eyes and brain?

            If you don’t think they are critical, where does your experience of yellow come from? If you don’t have any experience either, then maybe you have a point. If only you have experience, then you are in the realm of solipsism.

            But let’s not detour the discussion into the side argument about conscious machines. The book is about human and animal minds.

            The more I think about it there a fact of the matter. In my latest post, I talked about Edelman’s critique of Hoffman and how perceptions can be veridical in that they can determine relationships between objects – order, similarity and difference, causality. By the same argument, animals can perceive relationships that in cases are the same relationships we can detect. So there is a fact of the matter.


          2. With eyes and brain you’re falling back on anatomical similarities. Which works okay for monkeys, but gets skivvy the further we move away from humans.

            The reason I bring machines into it (conscious or otherwise) is to point out the limitations of what people take to be evidence for experience in animals.

            So, sorry, but again, if a machine can detect the same relations that we or animals can detect, does that indicate the machine has experience? I’ll save us some time by noting that machines now have exteroception. My laptop logs me in by recognizing my face. So using sensory perception as a guide will continue to invite machine comparisons.

            But there’s no sign yet that they have affects, and there are various tests for affects in animals: global operant learning, value trade-off behavior, frustration, self delivery of analgesics or reward, play, etc. So, you can say, yes, that is experience. But it brings us back to the issue I noted in the post. Not everyone agrees that experience shorn of self awareness and imagination is “real” experience. And what do we make of fish experience which may only include smell and affect (with visual and auditory senses only reacted to reflexively)?


          3. “Not everyone agrees that experience shorn of self awareness and imagination is “real” experience. ”

            How do we know anybody has self-awareness or imagination? What in my experience of another person would tell me that they do?

            Are you really sure you are self-aware? Merely being able to report it doesn’t constitute proof. You could think you are and not be. Maybe you aren’t self-aware and don’t have real experience either. Maybe your experiences are just implants from the mind at large. Maybe they are not what they seem to be and you are deluded about your experience.

            George Gurdjieff developed a whole system based on the idea we as humans are actually not self-aware.

            What tells you for sure that fish are not supremely self-aware? Perhaps the most self-aware of organisms?

            Everything can be questioned including your own experience once you go down the subjectivity rabbit hole. At that point there are no facts, just some maybes, nothing for sure, and no basis for discussion.


          4. So, just because I identify an area where people don’t agree on definitions, leading there to being no clear fact of the matter, it doesn’t follow that I’m implying there are no facts of the matter at all.

            In the end, all we can do is formulate models of the world, and see how predictive they are. In that framework, the model that humans have at least some degree of metacognitive self awareness and fish don’t is pretty predictive. We can posit alternate models all day with convoluted explanations of what we actually observe, but they wouldn’t be the simplest explanations available consistent with our observations.


          5. Isn’t yours and Carruthers argument “that phenomenal experience is inherently a first person account?”

            I thought that was what you were saying. If so, we don’t really have any way to know whether other people or any other entities have phenomenal experience. If that’s the case, it seems the whole question is outside the realm of science which deals in observations we can agree on between ourselves and are not inherently subjective.


          6. It’s not that we think that it’s unknowable whether these other creatures have the same first person experience we do, it’s that it’s a meaningless question.

            That said, there is a difference here between me and Carruthers. I still think it’s productive to talk about primary consciousness. I get the impression he’d prefer to see even that kind of talk go away. And frankly, most of the hard core neurobiology books avoid that kind of talk like the plague anyway, even when exploring relevant functionality.

            And Carruthers replied this morning that he disagrees that it’s about ambiguity. So we’re not completely of one mind on this.


          7. I wouldn’t say they’re meaningless for systems that can communicate their experience. But when we start talking about other systems that are missing the deep apparatuses to enable that communication, it does lose meaning.


        2. > I suspect he keeps talking about it because it’s too late to change careers.

          That’s wholly unfair. Peter Carruthers has written extensively in recent years on core issues in cognitive science, such as mindreading, metacognition, cognitive architecture, affect, to name just a few. He’s not a “consciousness” philosopher like Chalmers and Golf are, for example. (Of career paths he’s closer to Block, for comparison.)

          > If there isn’t a “fact of the matter”, then he can’t tell me anything and I can’t tell him anything. End of discussion.

          This is sorely mistaken, I’m afraid. That there’s no fact of the matter to a domain of inquiry is a substantive claim. In a way, Carruthers’s position does resemble yours a little bit: he’s saying that the question isn’t one worth pursuing by scientists and philosophers—let’s move on. But that claim, that proposal, needs to be made; one can decide for oneself if one buys his arguments.


  2. Re “Is Carruthers being too stingy in his conclusion?” I think this subject is still in its scientific infancy, possibly contaminated by thousands of years of human speculation. I think anything one “concludes” has to be labeled as a Provisional conclusion as there are way too many “ifs.”

    So, on what basis might one critique a “provisional conclusion”? I think the only criticism one could offer is if such a conclusion didn’t provide additional questions to be answered, that is the conclusion didn’t serve to advance the investigation. That a provision conclusion conflicts with other provisional conclusions only prompts people to find differences between the two that are testable … and that is all to the good.

    So, my suggestion is: carry on, carry on. Try not to be too critical when everything is this provisional.

    PS This is one of your best posts (of the ones I have read, of course), good work!

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    1. Thanks!

      I think it’s also worth remembering that all scientific conclusions are provisional. Even the most well tested theories never move beyond that category, although many achieve long periods of stability and reliability.

      Myself, I often wonder if anyone will be talking about consciousness in 500 years, at least in the manner we do today. It might be that it’s destined to go the way of biological vitalism, an elan vital that we eventually decide is just extra metaphysical baggage we can move on without. Of if it persists, it will mean something different by then than it does for many today.


      1. Quick point: Consciousness is not like elan vital. “Consciousness” is to “life” as “(some provably wrong theory of consciousness)” is to “elan vital”. The concept of Consciousness will not go away in the same way that the concept of “life” will not go away. But it will be broken down into a collection of processes, some of which will be found in many systems and some of which won’t. And then the question will be which of those processes are absolutely necessary for consciousness. And there will be no fact of the matter for that question because it’s simply an individual choice as to which processes are necessary and sufficient.



        1. Maybe. The concept certainly isn’t going away anytime soon. But we’re talking about future cultural developments, so there’s no guarantee about how they will go. Consciousness as a concept separate from the soul didn’t exist until a few centuries ago, starting with John Locke, whose definition of it was far narrower than most used today. In 500 years, everyone might be more worked up about beingness, informationness, platonness, or some other concept we’re barely aware of today.


  3. (In this case, ambiguity about what we mean by terms like “phenomenal experience”, for it to be “like something”. “Like” to what degree? And what “thing”?)

    Ambiguity is a big deal and there is no way to circumvent ambiguity’s affect without definitions. Definitions are nothing more than a circle of mutual definition and agreement within any given community, definitions which have to be respected if a cogent discourse is to emerge. Phenomenal experience is a term derived by and subsequently used by the scientific and academic communities at large. The very terms phenomenal and/or phenomena were canonized by Immanuel Kant into our culture, and each term is well defined and clearly understood within the communities of science and academia. Those are words with clear distinctions and very little ambiguity as to what they mean.

    Therefore, if one is going to use term “phenomenal experience” to underwrite the meaning of consciousness, (an expression which I consider to be correct), then within the context of Kant’s ontology of reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM), all phenomena, without exception will have an experience. It is really that simple.

    Therefore, within our own culture, which is a circle of mutual definition and agreement, the term “phenomenal experience” reduces to irrevocable panpsychism.


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    1. Thanks Lee. I totally get that phenomena automatically entails experience. It doesn’t seem like you can have one without the other. And experience seems to entail an experiencer, or an observer. But what is an observer? What is necessary and sufficient for something to have an experience?

      Of course, the panpsychism answer is for it to simply exist. Fair enough. But then my question becomes, what is necessary and sufficient to have an experience of the type we have as opposed to the type a rock or storm has?


      1. (But what is an observer?)

        An observer is a derivative of subject/object metaphysics (SOM). Once the SOM model is jettisoned and replaced by RAM, the only thing that is left is phenomena, all of which by mutual definition and agreement has phenomenal experience.

        (…what is necessary and sufficient to have an experience of the type we have as opposed to the type a rock or storm has?)

        Those are the same questions that stymie the idealist camp in their attempt to reconcile the mind/matter divide. If one can agree that phenomena automatically entails experience, then one is compelled to consider that the experience of mind, the experience of a rock or the experience of a storm has to ultimately reduce to something that is fundamental for all phenomena without exception.



      2. One final anecdote: Philip Goff’s claim to fame is his assertion of panpsychism. Nevertheless, “Goff’s Error” is that he is unable to articulate nor identify a core experience that is fundamental and shared by all phenomena without exception. Without providing that articulation, even though panpsychism may be true, panpsychism is D.O.A.



  4. Well, you stole my thunder – there is a semantic fuzziness, which you call ambiguity, which prevents there being a crisp fact of the matter. I would follow you (if I read you right) in pointing out that there can be a fuzzy fact of the matter, however. Not every statement needs to score a perfect 0 or 1 on the truth-o-meter to be worth thinking about.

    Minor terminological quibble: I think we should distinguish between ambiguity and vagueness. Paradigmatic ambiguity: “bank” can mean a financial institution, or one side of a river. Vagueness: there’s no magic number of sand grains that suddenly becomes a heap of sand. The word “consciousness” suffers from both kinds of semantic sloppiness. And I think we should clear up the ambiguities by distinguishing, e.g., self-consciousness from primary consciousness. Vagueness, on the other hand, is here to stay. As macroscopic beings, we are not concerned with precise counts of fundamental particles (never mind that “particles” are themselves a vague approximation).

    Yudkowsky’s A Human’s guide to words includes a pretty good explanation of how vagueness can enter language and cognition and not necessarily do significant damage. But for understanding semantics, Ruth Millikan is the master.

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    1. Setting aside quantum stuff, what would be an example of a fuzzy fact of the matter? Or did you mean quantum stuff?

      I hadn’t heard about that distinction between ambiguity and vagueness before. Interesting.

      I agree that vagueness, in the sense you describe, is inevitable, although it seems like whether it’s a problem is related to our purposes. A heap of sand might be fine for some purposes, but for others I might insist on knowing how many ounces or pounds of sand, even if the precise number of sand particles remains vague.

      I’ve been hearing a lot about Ruth Millikan lately. James of Seattle has read her stuff and been talking about it, and Dennett mentioned her in an interview.


      1. At 100 grains or so, there is a fuzzy fact about whether that sand is heaped. At 1000, it might be about 0.99 true (well – even representing it like a probability may convey too much precision, but as a metaphor it will do). And so on.

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  5. I donno… It’s like looking at everything from bicycles with baskets to giant cargo ships, including big trucks, little trucks, cargo planes, cars with trunks, people with backpacks, etc. and then asking where the true cargo-carrying capacity is in all those.

    In all cases I think there is a fact of the matter (even if beyond our current grasp). In my view, ontological anti-realism only applies to abstractions and fictions. You can always at least reach for reality.

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    1. That’s the notion that the concept of primary consciousness tries to get at, the minimal concept of consciousness, an attempt to get at something similar to cargo-carrying capacity. Of course, if my definition of “cargo” is an intermodal shipping container, then the options constrain significantly.

      “In all cases I think there is a fact of the matter (even if beyond our current grasp).”

      So, to Paul’s example above, how large is a heap of sand? Or if you say that movie X is great, but I find it awful. Is there really a fact of the matter in these cases?


      1. “So, to Paul’s example above, how large is a heap of sand?”

        Paul asks when some number of grains, or weight of sand, becomes a “heap” of sand. That seems a matter of opinion — how one defines a “heap” of sand. (Which might differ from their opinion on a “heap” of money or a “heap” of herpes.) Likewise, an opinion about a movie’s greatness is an opinion.

        That said, there are criteria in both cases that people might apply and agree on. With sand, it’s likely to be pretty arbitrary with likely consensus on the extreme ends of big and small.

        There are some objective criteria for movie quality, but “greatness” is a more vague concept. Great successfully? Great artistically? Great in my eyes (even when no one else agrees)?

        I do very much agree “vague” and “ambiguous” are different concepts.

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  6. Just because there is no fact of the matter regarding a definition for the “consciousness” term, doesn’t mean that Carruthers is right about GWT. That’s purely tangential. If we had a community of respected professionals in the field of philosophy who agree that there are no true or false definitions, but rather only more and less useful ones in a given context (or my first principle of epistemology), then we wouldn’t even be talking about this. Instead we’d say “No shit Peter. Why not try helping rather than obfuscating?” As things stand today however, a sufficiently talented academic is able to hold what should be an obvious position, and then twist things around to their own purposes by means of proficient academic speak. It’s like the way Dennett and Frankish are able to essentially just say “Hey everyone, subjective experience only really exists subjectively”, but become seen as great thinkers by means of all sorts of challenging terminology. This is the nature of philosophy and our soft sciences today. And as the amazing Sabine Hossenfelder continually demonstrates, it’s also the way the field of physics functions when physicists run out of evidence.

    Since no respected community of professionals has yet developed any accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, or axiology, science today should naturally have associated structural problems. The reason these problems seem most sever in our mental and behavioral sciences, I suspect, is because of their much greater association with a self interested being which thus has incentive to publicly deny its self interested nature.

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    1. Carruthers’ point and GWT are related, but separate issues. For example, most GWT proponents are fine talking about animal consciousness. Indeed, I’m still fine talking about it, although I try to remember to stipulate what kind of consciousness is under discussion.

      Based on the commentary at the Brain Blog, as well as here, I don’t think we can conclude that his point is obvious. Indeed, I’ve been making a similar point for years with the hierarchy, often with ferocious pushback for implying that there isn’t one and only one type of consciousness.

      “It’s like the way Dennett and Frankish are able to essentially just say “Hey everyone, subjective experience only really exists subjectively””

      Actually they don’t say that. Frankish’s position is simply that phenomenal consciousness doesn’t exist. Dennett vacillates somewhat on this point so I’m not sure what his exact position is, but it’s far to say he has illusionist sympathies.

      I’m actually the one who says something like it, driven by the acceptance that if phenomenal consciousness is an illusion, then the illusion is the experience. But the experience is a construction, the subjective side of access consciousness.

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      1. Mike,
        I didn’t say that my first principle of epistemology was obvious. Clearly it’s not. I said that it should be obvious. Some have even protested about it by telling me that my EP1 is true by definition — a mere tautology. If a definition happens to be defined, can it possibly not exist as such? Of course not. Thus there should only be more and less useful definitions in a given context. So I agree that they’re right… and yet they’ve protested when I’ve noted that my EP1 has been violated! Because philosophers in general haven’t grasped this quite obvious principle, let alone the beneficiaries (which are scientists), all sorts of associated problems should exist in academia today. What’s the most popular competing position? I believe that the ordinary language philosophers hold this title, such as the late Ludwig Wittgenstein.

        Frankish’s position is simply that phenomenal consciousness doesn’t exist.

        You mean the guy who you quote on your twitter feed from time to time saying what I’ve considered to be intelligent things? He believes that he doesn’t experience phenomena such as “pain”? Or does he instead believe, as I do, that phenomena such as pain only exists for an experiencer of it?

        This all gets to my point. These are tricky bastards who have learned to make their livings by being deceptive rather than being clear. That’s how the game is played in our soft sciences and philosophy. Given the circumstances, what chance is there for people who speak clearly, such as you and I, to gain any true distinction? What chance is there for Sabine Hossenfelder?

        It seems to me, however, that this is the standard short term sort of problem that science has always overcome in the past. Philosophy should ultimately develop a small community of respected professionals with their own accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiolology, and the strengths of their ideas should help this community grow to better found the institution of science. I hope that we here can help facilitate such a revolution, and given that it’s the tricky bastards who instead seem to become renowned today in these sorry fields.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          We agree that definitions are an issue. In fact, my post this morning is yet another issue about definitions. It seems like most disputes in philosophy reduce to definitional ones, which means they’re actually meaningless. Yes, it should be obvious, but we keep getting evidence that it’s not for many people, and that the need to point it out remains.

          On me quoting Frankish, I’ll quote him when I agree, but not when I don’t. Me quoting some of his tweets is not an endorsement of every view he holds. I’ll just note that illusionism is trivially easy to strawman, as is panpsychism. I’m not onboard with either, but I also think the notion that they’re obviously wrong is a failure to really engage with them.

          And calling proponents “tricky bastards” seems like unproductive ad hominen. I find many philosophers beyond exasperating (including some you like), but I rarely get the sense they don’t believe what they’re selling.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. (Scratch that last one)

        Well said Mike. It’s good to hear that you consider this definition problem to be as important as I do. And of course you choosing some of Frankish’s better lines would naturally render him more appealing to me than otherwise.

        Usually when we strawman a position it’s by portraying someone to believe something stupid that they don’t actually believe. Conversely what I’ve done is say that this illusionism business is simply telling us what educated people already understand. So my criticism is that these people seem talented enough to essentially “sell ice to….” umm, indigenous people of the far north. Of course me not tending my filter settings hurts me rather than them. I don’t know much about Frankish, but Dennett is certainly a beloved figure. That recent podcast with Sean Carroll fawning over him for two hours seemed all too appropriate. Sean seems well on his way to becoming the worlds next Daniel Dennett (and even dragging a multiverse along).

        You had me stumped for a moment pondering which philosophers I like. You must mean John Searle. But then who else? Hmm…. I suppose that from time to time I myself might be termed “beyond exasperating”. 🙂

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    2. “seen as great thinkers by means of all sorts of challenging terminology.”

      Or combining terminology in “challenging” ways.

      In one post, he writes:

      “Phenomenal consciousness is access-conscious nonconceptual content.”

      In another post, he writes:

      “As I emphasized on Wednesday, phenomenal concepts are, in a sense, private.”

      Aside from the fact he didn’t post on Wednesday, how are we supposed to understand “phenomenal concepts” if phenomenal consciousness is nonconceptual?” Would it consist of ‘nonconceptual concepts”?


      1. James C, I also had that problem. I’ve concluded that Carruthers was reserving “conceptual” to refer to non-sensory based abstractions, so sensory based concepts would be nonconceptual. His point is that non sensory concepts would not be associated with a “feel”, thus no qualia and no phenomenal Consciousness. I disagree with him on that point. If I recognize myself having a thought, that recognition comes with a “feel”.



      2. He did post on Wednesday:

        I’m not sure I’m on board with his restricting phenomenal consciousness to nonconceptual content, although after reading his paper on it…

        Click to access Consciousness%20operationalized.pdf

        …I can see where he’s coming from. Nonconceptual content is content that is irreducible, like the color yellow or a toothache. We can use concepts to refer to it, but it itself is nonconceptual. Such content can be sensory or affective.


        1. [Heh. Just started the abstract and got as far as this: “For example, they invite us to reflect on the difference in experience between a French speaker and a non-French speaker listening to one and the same sentence (that is, with and without understanding).”

          I literally did just that in my comment on his blog, except using Japanese.]

          [or was that on this blog? Or maybe twitter?]

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        2. Okay, I’ve read (although not studied) the paper and I think I understand my position relative to his. Like you point out, Carruthers is saying that only non-reducible content can have phenomenal content. I’m going to read “non-reducible” as content that could be represented in the global workspace which has no sub-part that could be represented in the global workspace. I’m pretty sure there will be some content that is combinations of other content, or else the only visual phenomenal content would be red, green, and blue pixels.

          But interestingly he allows for some phenomenal content to be non-sensory, as long as that content is irreducible. Specifically he discusses valence (hi Eric), time, and numerosity.

          I have a problem with his idea that the way to determine if something can have phenomenal content is whether you can conceive of a zombie as to that content (or an inversion). He says irrudicible content cannot be so conceived, but reducible content can. This discussion made no sense to me, but apparently there a number of other authors who are on board with the idea that something has phenomenal content if it generates a hard problem, as determined by zombie thought experiments or the like.

          Also, I detected the suggestion that his theory is more likely because it is more parsimonious, in that a theory that says only A has X is more parsimonious than a theory that both A and B have X. Which is goofy, like saying only mammals are alive because that’s more parsimonious than saying mammals and birds are alive. (I could be wrong about his view, but this was my gut reaction)



          1. Yeah, as I noted above, I’m not sure I’m on board with restricting phenomenal content to just irreducible content. It seems like it’s like something to experience concepts. The paper notes that these typically come with flashes of nonceptual content, and I think that’s true, but it’s more than just the flash of that content. So to me, phenomenal content is workspace content.

            But these experimental results have me wondering if the workspace is as unified a concept as canonical GWT claims. Carruthers focuses on the fact that phenomenal contents is all or nothing, but it seems possible that our judgment about that content may be what is all or nothing. It seems possible that only a portion of the system can lay down memories of an event not subject to report. Which just increases my feeling that there isn’t any one finish line.


          2. Oy vey. Sounds like “to experience” needs an agreed upon definition, too.

            I guess I’m okay with saying phenomenal experience is non-conceptual… it seems to require a definition of “concept” so I’d rather stay with irreducible. We were just talking about how there is shared circuitry between experiencing and remembering, so, yeah, I’d agree there is something it is like to think about ideas (even in a sensory deprivation tank). I suspect those are irreducible, too.

            Lots of blind men exploring a very big elephant with many strange parts. 😉


      3. Any person who uses a pet term like “non-conceptual content” as much as Carruthers does, really ought to provide some examples of what this is suppose to mean from time to time. Or at least if they do want to be understood. Sometimes obfuscation can better serve a soft scientist or philosopher.

        As much as I’d like to believe that “non-conceptual concepts” are required to potentially grasp “non-conceptual content” (per James Cross), I suppose that Mike got this one right. I personally was ignoring this stipulation as something obvious, like he meant that while the mental content of pain can be phenomenal, the mental content of the number five can only be conceptual.


        1. I’m not sure there is any sharp line that can be drawn around content to say some is conceptual and some isn’t.

          Let’s use Mike’s explanation as an example:

          “Nonconceptual content is content that is irreducible, like the color yellow or a toothache.”

          Both yellow and a toothache always exist in a context. Yellow doesn’t exist by itself but it exists as an attribute of something else. What’s more the actual sensual content of yellow doesn’t always appear yellow but can appear gray in various optical illusions. Again the yellow placed against the right sort of background may not appear yellow. The point is the mind is not passively receiving color content but is actively forming the content based on context. Toothache (or pain in general) is more complicated but even there the experience of a toothache is likely to vanish in the context of a dramatic event like your favorite team wins the Super Bowl or you become involved in a car accident. Under hypnosis pain can go away. Obviously people have different reactions to pain. Some are more sensitive than others.

          Color and pain are mental representations that exist in a context of current and past experience. They may be more “concrete” than the idea of the number five but it seems we have continuum of abstraction rather than a sharp line. Take the experience of a seeing a yellow table. There is a more sensual aspect of the color and shape of table. But when we see a table the experience is that not only of the sensual aspect but also of the conceptual notion of a table which probably is closer in the continuum of abstraction to the number five than the color yellow.

          Still when he writes “phenomenal concepts are, in a sense, private”, he is making a trivial observation unless he is suggesting that some concepts like the concept of the number five is not private.


        2. To put this another way.

          Our phenomenological experience is for the most part experience of things. Things are conceptual, although they are not abstract. There isn’t a raw non-conceptual experience.


  7. Mike,
    I addressed your concerns of how phenomenal experience would be inclusive for both mind and matter when I stated: “… the experience of mind, the experience of a rock or the experience of a storm has to ultimately reduce to something that is fundamental for all phenomena without exception.” Do you disagree with that assessment, and are you opposed to phenomenal experience being veridical?



    1. Lee,
      I’m not sure if I understand this sentence:
      “If one can agree that phenomena automatically entails experience, then one is compelled to consider that the experience of mind, the experience of a rock or the experience of a storm has to ultimately reduce to something that is fundamental for all phenomena without exception.”

      How does agreeing that phenomena entails experience logically lead to the conclusion that everything has experience? Or are you saying that the potential phenomena of all noumena entails experience? If so, I’d need to have more of the dots for that connected for me.


      1. “Thanks Lee. I totally get that phenomena automatically entails experience. It doesn’t seem like you can have one without the other.”

        That’s your statement Mike. I was simply following your lead by expanding further on the notion of phenomena having experiences. Predicated upon a circle of mutual definition and agreement within the scientific and academic communities, phenomena is not an ambiguous term. Phenomena means “everything” so, I’m not sure why you misunderstand what I am saying??

        Your apparent confusion leads me to believe that you may not understand the meaning of phenomena and/or noumena as clearly defined by Kant and definitively understood by the scientific and academic communities. Unless I am missing something…


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lee,
          I’m probably not understanding it in the proper Kantian fashion. To me, phenomena just refers to how things appear, and there are only phenomena when there are observers. So, at the Sun’s core, there is only noumena since there are no observers there. (Unless we want to count the models of it deduced by scientists as phenomena of it.)

          That was the sense in which I was relating phenomena and experience above.


          1. Mike,
            Your understanding of Kant is incorrect. But fear not, because there is no crime in not understanding Kant’s architecture of reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM) with its intrinsic ontology consisting of noumena and phenomena.

            I’m shooting from the hip here, but my best guesstimate would be that well over 98 percent of the populace do not understand Kant’s ontology. And the scientific and academic communities are not exempt from that 98 percent guesstimate. Hell, even David Chalmers readily admits he doesn’t know enough about Kant to address questions related to his ontology.



        2. Lee,
          My own opinion is that Kant thought that phenomena exists as what’s experienced by a conscious entity, while noumena exists as what exists in itself. Does that sound about right? And if not then what’s your answer?


  8. Eric,
    Kant is the most misunderstood and therefore, the most misrepresented philosopher of our modern era. Everything, and I mean every “thing” that exists in our universe, with or without an observer present, including our own phenomenal experience is Phenomena. In contrast, Noumena is the ultimate reality or, the “thing-in-itself”. It is an objective reality of which we have no access. That insight of two differently, distinct realities is what makes up reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM). The RAM architecture makes reality contextual, where every “thing” is real (including ideas, dreams and/or delusions), but that real-ness is contextual. According to RAM, Reality is contextual all the way down, there are no turtles simply because every “thing” is intrinsically linked to the “thing-in-itself”.

    Parmenides was the first person in recorded history to articulate the reality/appearance distinction through his Proem. Plato, Aristotle and all of the Greek philosophers of that era were blown away by Parmenides Proem and the profound implications of RAM. Since RAM relegates our own universe, including ourselves to mere appearances and/or literally expressions of reality, Plato and Aristotle rejected RAM and constructed their own ontology of subject/object metaphysics (SOM). SOM is predicated upon our universe, including ourselves being REAL, not merely the appearance of being real.

    SOM has stood the test of time and is the preferred ontology to this very day. Naturalists claim that the physical world is “the” Reality and Idealists claim that the mental world is ” the” Reality. The result of the age old debate is an ontology of dualism of one form or another. The only way dualism can be avoided is to jettison SOM and replace it with RAM.

    Here’s a quote from Kingsley off Kastrup’s website where he references the profound implications Parmenides ontology: “facts are of absolutely no significance in themselves: it’s just as easy to get lost in facts as it is to get lost in fictions. … All our facts, like all our reasoning, are just a façade” (R: 21-22), they hide something more essential behind them. And this ‘something’ is reality: pure stillness, a realm in which nothing ever moves or changes, in which everything is intrinsically connected to everything else in an indivisible whole, and where no time but the eternal present exists.” Now, both Kingsley and Kastrup use Parmenides insight to justify their own ontology of idealism, which is bullshit.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lee,
      Truth be told, I couldn’t care less what Parmenides, Kant, or even the bloggers that you’ve mentioned believe. To me none of that will add any substance to a given position. So let’s go through this ourselves.

      You consider it useful to define every “thing” in our universe, as Phenomena. This is to say not just the image of the tree that I perceive in front of me, as is standard, but also the causal dynamics associated with that entity beyond any perception of it at all? You also call that Phenomena? Most would call that noumena. I wonder if you find this useful to say because you consider all noumena to perceive its own existence? That would make sense to me as the “phenomena” term is generally used, not that I consider all noumena to perceive its own existence. To go that far I’d have to define causality itself as “perception”.

      Anyway beyond all elements of reality existing as Phenomena, you’re also saying that Noumena exists as a given thing in itself. Well that part works for me. And I’m also good with a reality versus appearance metaphysics as the terms are generally used.

      Let me know if I don’t yet have your position right.


  9. Eric,
    Your middle paragraph is incoherent, so I will recuse myself from commenting on that one.

    I can add clarity to your last paragraph a couple of different ways. First, Noumena is the Reality, what Kant refers to as the “thing-in-itself” and/or, what religion refers to as God. Second, Phenomena is the appearance of Reality which consists of “things”. Those “things” are literally an expression of “the thing-in-itself” and/or, what religion refers to as the creation (things) and the creator (the thing-in-itself).

    What fucks up the religious community, (and I include idealism within that community), is that those individuals assign qualitative properties to God (Noumena) and/or, have opinions of God (Noumena). Since materialist’s are human beings, and as human beings are also unable to distance themselves from the psychical predisposition to assign qualities and/or properties to the notion of a God, they reject the notion entirely and postulate that matter is primary.

    Idealism and materialism are immature, incoherent arguments, both of which reduce to absurdity. And to be honest here, I don’t know which ontology is worse, materialism or idealism. Even though both models are incoherent, I do believe that idealism can stake claim to the moral high ground in that debate. Nevertheless, Noumenalism, with it’s reality/appearance metaphysic is the most mature, intellectually honest and coherent architecture. That is why Kant referred to his ontology as Transcendental Idealism, simply because it is an “ideal model” for solving the mysteries which underwrite our experience, mysteries which include but are not limited to consciousness itself.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lee,
      That second paragraph was me trying to paraphrase what you said, and then make sense of how all “things” could exist as Phenomena. I agree that it didn’t make much sense though. So yes, let’s forget that. I guess what I don’t understand is why materialism makes no sense. It makes plenty of sense to me. Here’s my own brief account:

      There are causal dynamics. Then life arises from these dynamics. Then brains arise from life, and still there is nothing phenomenal. But these organisms don’t function all that well under more open environments. Well it just so happens that there are causal dynamics which are able to produce affective states for conscious entities, and so the brain implements such physics to gain teleological function from which to better deal with more open circumstances. This created entity thus has perceptions of its world, unlike any other kind of life or any of the robots that we build today, though the perception is naturally like a cartoon representation. It can only be phenomena rather than noumena.

      What’s your explanation for phenomena in a realm of noumena? Are the causal dynamics which support materialism wrong, or does your Noumena approach take this path as well?


  10. “There are causal dynamics.”

    I understand that this is beginning for all naturalists, but that premise deliberately ignores the obvious question, at least idealists make an attempt to address the elephant in the room. I have great respect for that effort even though they get it wrong. And I also get that materialists have no interest in addressing the elephant in the room because they believe it’s an exercise in futility.

    “Well it just so happens that there are causal dynamics which are able to produce affective states for conscious entities…”

    There it is again, a grandiose assumption which deliberately ignores the obvious question. And the obvious question is what? What is causation?

    “What’s your explanation for phenomena in a realm of noumena?”

    It’s clear by the question you ask that you do not understand the distinction between Noumena and Phenomena, most people don’t. Noumena is the Reality and Phenomena is literally an expression of that Reality. It’s the appearance of reality and to us, it’s as god damn real as it can get.

    “Are the causal dynamics which support materialism wrong..”

    That’s the point Eric, materialism does not and cannot identify causality. Causality is deliberately ignored and taken as a given. We substitute causality for the so-called laws of physics which are nothing more that descriptions of what we observe. The inability to account for causation is the insurmountable gap in the science of physics. Causation and consciousness are both mysteries and yet, causation and consciousness are intrinsically linked. Solve the riddle for one, and the other one will fall like a bowling pin.

    “…or does your Noumena approach take this path as well?”

    No. The Noumena approach explicitly asserts that the great mystery of both causation and consciousness can be discovered and understood. That’s why Kant called his model Transcendental Idealism, simply because it is the “ideal model” for solving those mysteries. Kant didn’t solve the riddle himself, but he got pretty damn close, and he gave us an architecture that we can continue to build upon.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Causation is hugely problematic. I find it Julian Barbour’s take on it interesting. In a timeless universe, causation as ordinarily understood loses meaning since causation is dependent on time. Causation must be re-conceived not as one thing causing another but as everything causing everything else, which may really be equivalent to saying there is no causation.

      Lee, I am starting to get a feel from where you are coming although I’m not quite there yet.


      1. I just watched some of the 2019 IAI interview of Barbour, and I think I am sympathetic to his view. I didn’t hear anything incompatible with what I’ve posted elsewhere. And if he said anything about causation, I missed it.



    2. Lee, I was right there with you until you said “Solve the riddle for one, and the other one will fall like a bowling pin.” We don’t have any reason to believe that Consciousness isn’t simply what the brain does, i.e., what is caused by the stuff in the brain. In that sense it’s like digestion, which is caused by the stuff in the gut. “Consciousness” is just a reference to a class of phenomena, a class of things that happen.

      As for causation, I would make these proposals:

      1. “Phenomena” refers to any event, any change in the relations of material things

      2. Every phenomenon, everything that “happens”, can be diagramed thusly:
      Input (in1, in2, …, inN)—>[mechanism/system/noumenon]—>Output(out1,out2,…,outN)

      3. Regarding causation, we can say “the mechanism/system/noumenon CAUSES the output when presented with the input.

      So when someone says “X causes Y”, X equals the combination of the input and the mechanism. The effect is the output.

      These proposals line up with Lee’s description, with Kant’s noumenon, etc. if the question is “What is causation?” , the answer is “Causation is the relationship in a given event of the mechanism (or mechanism + input) to the output (effect). If the question is “how does causation work?”, which is the same as asking “how can one physical thing interact with another?”, that answer is up to physics.

      But there’s no reason to believe the role of Consciousness in causation is significantly different from the role of digestion, respiration, etc., relative to causation.

      [and BTW, Aristotle’s four causes nailed it. Figuring out how is left as an exercise for the student]


    3. Lee,
      I only began by presuming causation given that people are usually fine with that foundation. I don’t mind also getting into causality itself however.

      First note that according to my EP1 there isn’t some kind of great mysterious truth to discover here. We’re merely talking about a humanly fabricated term. Thus we shouldn’t ask “What is causality?” as if it exists out there to potentially discover. Instead we should ask “What’s a useful definition for this term?” It’s commonly used to reference when something forces something else to be what it is, and I do consider this to be a generally useful definition. For example oxidation can cause a piece of metal to thus degrade. Pushing me could cause me to fall. We naturalists believe that everything which happens is caused to happen by means of the exact dynamics of what came previously in nature. Here nothing shall occur randomly in the end, and nothing outside of nature shall affect what happens inside it (that is if any “outside” to nature exists at all). Thus we’re ontological determinists. (Some physicists interpret Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle to mean that causality does fail in the end, and thus according to me, forfeit their naturalism in this regard.)

      Noumena is the Reality and Phenomena is literally an expression of that Reality. It’s the appearance of reality and to us, it’s as god damn real as it can get.

      I’m not sure what I’ve said to make you think that I dispute this, but I don’t. That’s exactly my understanding of how educated people use these terms, and I do consider them useful in general as such. Noumena is meant to reference what exists itself. Phenomena is meant to reference what the conscious entity perceives. And while I can state with perfect certainty that Phenomena does exist (my own, of course), for me Noumena shall always remain theoretical.


  11. Eric said: “Phenomena is meant to reference what the conscious entity perceives.”

    I agree with that statement adding an important caveat: phenomena also includes the conscious entity itself. Now, let’s address this statement in the context of what I’ve already pointed out. If one is going to use the term “phenomenal experience” to underwrite the meaning of consciousness, (an expression which I consider to be correct), then within the context of Kant’s ontology of reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM), all phenomena, without exception will have an experience. It is really that simple.

    Furthermore, if one can agree that “phenomena automatically entails experience”, then one is compelled to consider that the experience of a mind, the experience of a rock or the experience of a storm has to ultimately reduce to something that is fundamental for all phenomena without exception. That’s the point of my original contribution. Furthermore, if one can isolate isolate what all of these phenomenal experiences share in common, one is that much closer to identifying causation.

    Under my architecture, since everything is phenomena within our phenomenal realm, then according to your statement: Phenomena is meant to reference what the conscious entity perceives, including the conscious entity itself; then one is compelled to conclude that consciousness “must” be universal. Therefore, if consciousness is universal, then consciousness becomes fundamental in describing the relationships which underwrite motion and form within our phenomenal realm. That is an architecture which irrevocably reduces to pragmatic panpsychism.

    Causation and consciousness are intrinsically linked, solve the riddle for one and the other will fall like a bowling pin. Now, one can choose to disagree with that statement Eric, but no amount of consternation can negate the conclusion derived from the synthetic a priori cognition.

    One final anecdote shrouding the mystery of Kant’s brilliance: According to Kant, empiricism is not the most reliable form of knowledge, regardless of how much the scientific community might wring their hands with perturbation and weep. And this is why: Knowledge gained a posteriori through the senses would never impart absolute necessity and universality. This is because it would always be possible that we might encounter an exception. Synthetic a priori is pure cognition because it is not subordinate to those restraints. Synthetic a priori is pure and trustworthy knowledge as long as the conclusions derived for this form of cognition do not contain any exclusions, contradictions or paradoxes.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lee,
      I believe that noumena in general does not experience its existence, though there are causal dynamics by which noumena can create a phenomenal dynamic. It seems pretty clear to me that my brain processes information by which associated output mechanisms produce the conscious entity that you know of as Philosopher Eric. And I presume that similar dynamics create the Lee Roetcisoender that I perceive. I can’t know for a fact that all of reality doesn’t experience its existence as well, but I have no evidence of this. Furthermore I don’t believe that this sort of thing can possibly become established a priori. That you believe you’ve developed a priori proof of this suggests to me that you’ve missed something.

      For example, statements such as 2 + 2 = 4 may be true by definition, though only because they exist beyond the parameters of causality. These instruments are products of language, and so whatever truths they hold should exist independently of whatever world they find themselves in.

      Though apparently we won’t reconcile this here, there is another way that we could take our discussion if you like. Let’s say that you’re entirely correct, and ultimately become renowned for straightening academia out in this regard. What then? How would your understandings be helpful? What would we learn to do differently than we do today? I commonly discuss this sort of thing regarding my own ideas, though I’m currently a bit hazy about the practical implications of yours.


  12. Eric,
    Try this one on for starters:

    Zarathustra declares:

    “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”

    “All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.”

    “Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict and cross between plant and ghost. But do I bid you become ghosts or plants?”

    “Behold, I teach you the overman! The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go!

    — Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, §3, trans. Walter Kaufmann


    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like the welfare of any animal needs to be considered, but there is something to be said for giving extra consideration for those that have a longer term autobiographical self, something only a few species have, such as apes, dolphins, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It seems like it’s a matter of degree. Chimps and gorillas seem very relatable. I think most people can relate to mammals, such as dogs, cats, etc, although when it gets down to mice and rats, it becomes easier not to. Fish and amphibians even easier. And arthropods have few defenders.

          Liked by 1 person

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