The phenomenal concept strategy and issues with conceptual isolation

I’ve often pondered that the hard problem of consciousness, the perceived problem of understanding how phenomenal consciousness can happen in physical systems, arises due to the fact that our intuitive model of the phenomenal is very different from our intuitive model of the physical, of the brain in particular.

As is usually the case, anytime you think you’re having an original observation, you should make sure someone hasn’t thought of it first.  In this case, philosophers have.  It’s called the phenomenal concept strategy (PCS).  Peter Carruthers discussed it in his blog posts a few weeks ago, but in a manner that expected the reader to already be familiar with it.  And Hakwan Lau brought it up on Twitter recently, spurring me to investigate.

It’s basically the idea that the explanatory gap between mind and body exists not because there’s a gap between physical and mental phenomena, but because there’s a gap in our concepts of these things.

Part of the value of this strategy, is that it supposedly helps physicalists answer the knowledge argument from Mary’s room: the thought experiment where Mary, a scientific expert in visual perception who has spent her entire life in a black and white room, leaves the room and experiences color for the first time, and the question is asked, does Mary learn something new when she leaves the room?  According to the PCS, what Mary learns is a new phenomenal concept, which just expresses other knowledge she already had in a new way.

At first glance, this view seems to offer a lot.  But as with all philosophical positions, it pays to look before you leap.  Under the view, the reason this works is that phenomenal concepts are conceptually isolated.  This isolation supposedly makes philosophical zombies conceivable.

“Conceivable” in this case is supposed to mean logically coherent, as opposed to merely imaginable.  And the zombies in this case aren’t the traditional ones which are physically identical to a conscious being (and simply presuppose dualism) but functional or behavioral ones, systems that are different internally but behaviorally identical.

The idea is that it’s possible to imagine a being just like you but with different or missing phenomenal concepts.

David Chalmers uses this zombie conceivability to attack the PCS.  His point seems to be that we eventually run into the same gaps in the concepts that we perceived to be in the originals.  Peter Carruthers responds with a discussion involving phenomenal and schmenomenal states that I have to admit I haven’t yet parsed.

But my issue is that the concepts can’t be that isolated, because we can discuss them.  Indeed, it seems dubious that there can be a being that is missing phenomenal concepts who can nonetheless discuss them.

That’s not to say that our concepts of phenomenal content can’t be isolated, but that isolation doesn’t seem inherent or absolute.  It’s something we allow to creep into our thinking.  It’s a failure to ask Daniel Dennett’s hard question:  “And then what happens?”

I personally think qualia exist, but not in any non-physical manner.  They are information, physical information that are part of the causal chain.  There is no phenomenal experience which doesn’t convey information (although it may not be information we need at the moment).  This information is raw and primal, so it doesn’t feel like information to us, but it is information nonetheless.

Consider the pain of a toothache.  How else should the valence systems in the brain signal to the planning systems that there is an issue here which needs addressing?  The only alternative is to imagine some form of symbolic communication (numbers, notations, etc), but symbolic communications is just communication built on top of the primal version, raw conscious experience.

This communication is primal to us because it is subjectively irreducible.  We have no access to its construction and underlying mechanisms (which ironically can be understood in symbolic terms), therefore it seems like something that exists separate and apart from those mechanisms.  In that sense, our concept of it is isolated from our concepts of those underlying mechanism.  This might tempt us to see that concept as completely isolated.

But it’s only isolated in that way if we fail to relate it to why we have that phenomenal experience, and how we use it.  If we touch a hot stove, our hand may reflexively jerk back due to the received nociception, but we also experience the burning pain.  If we didn’t, and didn’t remember it, we might be tempted later to touch the stove again.  A zombie needs to have a similar mechanism for it to be functional in the same way.  (Maybe Carruthers’ “schmenomenal” states?)

In other words, phenomenal experience has a functional role.  It evolved for a reason (or more accurately a whole range of reasons).  That doesn’t mean it may not misfire in some situations, leaving us wondering what the functional point of it is, but that’s more a factor that evolution can’t foresee every situation, and of how strange the modern world is in comparison to our original ecological niche in places like the African savanna.

So, I think there is some value to seeing the explanatory gap in terms of concepts, but not in seeing those concepts as isolated in some rigid or absolute manner.  They’re only isolated if we make them so, as we frequently do.  And they’re not so consistently isolated that we need to let in zombies.

Of course, I’m approaching this as someone who most frequently falls within Chalmers’ Type A materialist category.  Apparently the PCS is typically championed by Type B materialists, those who see a hard problem that needs addressing.  So it may be that I was never the intended audience for this strategy.

Unless of course I’m missing something.  Are zombies less avoidable than I’m thinking here?  What do you think of the PCS overall?

74 thoughts on “The phenomenal concept strategy and issues with conceptual isolation

  1. Even though I am fascinated by this discussion ad have read a great deal about it, this is above my pay grade. As always I am dubious of philosophical speculations that have insufficient data as their source. They do provide a value, that of showing the evolution in our thinking, but there is nothing conclusive here, IMHO. And again, I am fascinated that people think that consciousness has this great power and then live their lives primarily unconsciously.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the thing about philosophy. It produces theories, but generally lacks the empirical aspect that gives science its power. (Of course, a lot of theoretical science does as well.) At its worst, it can be little more than speculative fantasy. But at its best, it produces valuable questions which can guide or inspire the right kinds of science. (I do wish it was closer to its best more often.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If I’m understanding, PCS suggests our lack of understanding of how phenomenal experience arises from our physical experience is just an intuition failure. We’re just unable to really imagine how that’s possible?

    If so, I’m not generally sympathetic to “intuition” arguments. I don’t see reasoning and measurement as being quite so subjective to intuition as these arguments require.

    Put it this way: We don’t have any available intuitions to explain quantum field theory, but we do have strong definitions and — more importantly — mathematics that describes what we measure. I don’t think the problem with consciousness is our intuitions so much as our lack of data, lack of concrete theories, and lack of mathematics. (While both are speculative, there are some major qualitative differences between MWI and HOT!)

    My bottom line with qualia and phenomenal experience is: Show me the math. If these are just physical phenomenon, then show me the physics. Until someone can, I’ll continue to see it as a validly hard problem.

    There are diseases and congenital conditions that destroy the peripheral nervous system. Such people cannot feel pain and have to carefully monitor every moment of their lives. They develop self-check protocols to spot injuries. They could place their palms on a hot stove and notice nothing until they smelled burning flesh. They are literally a kind of zombie.

    And yet they survive their lives and manage. It’s an interesting data point regarding zombies. It does seem that phenomenal experience might be something extra. Alternately, of course, it may just be primal — a solution nature evolved for less intellectual creatures.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t know Wyrd. When it comes to consciousness, everything seems to start with our intuitions. I think that’s the core difficulty. This is a case where people seem to demand that the science meet their intuitions, intuitions that are hazy and inconsistent. Like much of science, I don’t think that’s going to happen. It will hopefully explain why we have those intuitions, but based on conversations I’ve had over the last few years, that’s an explanation many people will simply reject.

      On MWI vs HOT, I will say this for HOT, it makes predictions that at least have a chance of being tested in the near future. The empirical results I shared a few days ago increase the probability that HOT or GWT are on the right track. (As opposed to theories that focus on the posterior of the brain.) All of those theories might well turn out to be wrong, but they do exist in a space where empirical work will affect them. I suspect advocates of particular theories will attempt to adjust them as long as they can to meet empirical results, but eventually some will be more viable than others.

      But there’s nothing like the Schrodinger equation in HOT or GWT, and I don’t think there ever will be just one equation like that. There’s also no such equation for biological life, yet biologists are generally seen as having a pretty good handle on it. IIT takes a shot at a relatively compact mathematics, but the result leads to predictions most people don’t take seriously. It’s what happens when you try to treat something with the complexity of biological life as though it were a fundamental physics problem.

      On patients not feeling pain, there are also conditions of the brain where people feel the sensation of pain without it being registered as unpleasant. And there are akinetic mutes, people who seem to have no preferences and no motivation, to the extent of being indifferent toward pain. That last group is very zombie like, although not in the philosophical sense of behaving like normal people.

      But I draw the exact opposite conclusion from these cases. To me, the fact that they’re required to be vigilant (if they still have the faculties for vigilance), and that their life expectancy is dramatically reduced, only demonstrates the vital role the experience of pain, particularly as an averse sensation, plays in our survival. If it were something extra, it seems like those people would be able to live their lives without additional effort.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “When it comes to consciousness, everything seems to start with our intuitions.”

        My point is I don’t see it needing to end there.

        “This is a case where people seem to demand that the science meet their intuitions,”

        If that’s true, it’s not very scientific. Science pursuits might be inspired by our intuition (e.g. the benzene ring dream), but that’s just (as you just said) a starting point.

        If we can accept quantum physics, then I’m not sure what the perceived intuition problem is in consciousness.

        “I don’t think there ever will be just one equation like that.”

        No, surely not. The comparison with biology is apt, but biology — and neuroscience — do have mathematics and physics associated with them, which is exactly why progress has been made in those fields.

        Consciousness, so far, remains largely a philosophical consideration because it’s so hard to study a subjective phenomenon. Attempts such as IIT are a step in a better direction, but (IMO) nothing as simplistic as IIT can ever account for consciousness.

        “To me, the fact that they’re required to be vigilant (if they still have the faculties for vigilance), and that their life expectancy is dramatically reduced, only demonstrates the vital role the experience of pain,”

        Fair point. Certainly, as I mentioned, it’s an effective technique for less intellectual life.

        Regardless, the hard problem is simply explaining the physics behind how there can be something it is like to be a system with brain properties. Materialists have to concede such physics must exist and that there is currently an explanatory gap.


        1. “Materialists have to concede such physics must exist and that there is currently an explanatory gap.”

          I think once we accept that our intutions aren’t to be trusted, it makes the explanatory gap…explainable, and the methods of cognitive neuroscience can come into play. But without that step, yes, the gap is problematic.


          1. Again, I’m not sure what our intuition has to do with a lack of physics. You can’t make the lack of explanation go away by saying we’re wrong to look for one.


          2. Maybe I’m over-simplifying, but the problem is that we don’t currently know how something works. The intuitions seem to apply to people’s guesses about that how, which, to me, puts the horse way down the road ahead of the (empty) cart.

            Maybe we should fill the cart before we decide what kind of a horse to hitch to it?

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I think of myself as a PCS strategist, but I don’t agree with Carruthers when he says “And nor, of course, are we using [phenomenal concepts] as natural-kind terms, aiming to pick out whatever underlying property scientifically explains the referred-to property.” Au contraire, except for some deliberate logical or math constructions from more basic concepts, *all* concepts are natural kind ones until proven otherwise. (I have unusual views about natural kinds, seeing “naturalness” as a matter of degree, and on my view, the only way a concept can fail to be “natural” is to be completely incoherent.)

    So that throws a big obstacle in front of the conceptual isolation idea. Conceptual isolation can continue as long as science is insufficiently advanced, however. Or as long as a person remains unaware of that science, for that matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was wondering how you’d come down on this. I know you’re in the Type B materialism camp, but I also recall you not being taken with zombies.

      On concepts, I have to admit that I’m not clear what Carruthers’ views are. They appear to have morphed over time, and his writing seems calibrated for a well versed philosophical audience, which makes him a difficult source for someone learning about a concept for the first time. Not that I found Chalmers super clear on this one either.

      I’m totally on board with your last paragraph.


      1. For the record, my take on p-zombies is that they’re metaphysically possible, but epistemically seem possible because phenomenal concepts work roughly as Carruthers says. But “behavioral zombies” may be possible in principle, although probably not in practice.


  4. I will be retiring from work in April and have more time to spend on projects that interest me. One such will be to implement in software the mechanisms of consciousness I have written about, to see whether they still hang together when all the detail has to be made explicit. I am expecting some new interesting features will emerge from doing this, as that has been my experience in implementing parts of it already. There is no glossing over detail when it all has to work in 1’s and 0’s.

    That’s been making me think about the hard problem of consciousness recently, so your article is timely. Even if I am able to develop software that is reproducing all the functionality we expect to see in consciousness, how can I demonstrate to anyone’s satisfaction (e.g. the readers of this blog) that the lights are on inside it?

    The direction this thinking is taking me at the moment is to recognise that the subjectivity of phenomenal consciousness means that I only need to demonstrate that the thing I have created knows itself to be conscious, in the same sense that it knows anything else. That means it needs an enactable representation, of a particular sort, that includes its own mental processes.That would mean that when I say I am conscious, I am only talking about me, the self aware pattern (!), mutually dependent with my body, but not identical to it.

    I would welcome your thoughts on whether this sort of account seems sufficient, or not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Congratulations on approaching retirement Peter! I’m going to be eligible myself later this year and have to decide what I’m going to do.

      On building something that knows it’s conscious, I think you’re aiming for the highest level, metacognitive self awareness. But if you achieve it without something that has a world model or preferences about its and the environment’s state, I’m not sure if it will seem intuitively conscious, and as I noted to Wyrd, when it comes to consciousness, intuitions end up being the ultimate arbiter. When it comes to metacognition, you first need cognition.

      I think I’d aim for exteroceptive and affective consciousness first. Exteroception would mean displaying an ability to navigate around the environment and accomplish goals. (Compare to modern day Roombas.) You might be able to find code for autonomous systems like Mars Opportunity, self driving cars, or similar type systems to jump start here.

      Affective consciousnes is more difficult. It would require demonstrating the ability for global operant learning, value trade off behavior, and other flexible goal directed behavior. Coupled with exteroception, this would be a system that met the criteria for primary consciousness in animals.

      Once that was in place, you could look at building the more introspective aspects.

      That said, no one really knows the path to success. Maybe I’m full of it and your approach is the way to go. But those are my thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree that those are the layers that need to be in place. I am optimistic that complexity of the environment, sensors, motor actions and affects are not key to consciousness, as long as they give some scope for choices that make a difference. My aim will therefore be to keep all those simple enough that most of the effort goes into the architectural features and mechanisms, rather than being sidetracked into making a self driving vehicle, or passing the Turing test.


  5. The way I see the hard problem is that materialists are hung up on empirical evidence for their assumptions, theories which are predicated upon and derived a posteriori. 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. In contrast, a priori cognition is capable of pure, unadulterated knowledge because a priori is not restricted by the same constraints as a posteriori knowledge.

    Now, in my opposition to empiricism having the final say, Wyrd asserts: “I don’t think the problem with consciousness is our intuitions so much as our lack of data…” That is the official dogma of the scientific community at large. But here is the problem: Data is a posteriori knowledge whereas, a priori cognition is intuition. A priori cognition as defined by Kant is intuition. That definition is in direct contrast to our current understanding the term. According to the paradigm of what intuition means in the prevailing model is that intuitions are derived from our own creative, vivid imaginations. In other words, intuitions make up the intellectual constructions, and or concepts we carry around as prejudices and biases. And those prejudices and biases become the very stumbling blocks which prevent us from moving forward.

    In conclusion: If one is willing to correspond to the prevailing model of intuition, than I am in full agreement that our own creative, vivid imaginations are not capable of solving the hard problem. That problem will only be solved through a priori cognition which is pure intuition, not a posteriori knowledge.


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lee,
      It is true that deductive knowledge is certain, but only in relation only in relation to its premises. If the premises are wrong, then the conclusion will be also. Many premises are themselves the result of deductions, but I can’t see how the really interesting conclusions can be reached without premises that come from a posteriori sources.

      It’s worth noting that science depends on both a posteriori and a priori reasoning. It engages in empirical research which produced a posteriori data, but then scientists attempt to form an a priori understanding, a theory, based on it, which is used to make predictions that are then tested by further empirical research.

      Science, with its use of empiricism, does give up ultimate certainty, but it’s been a good trade off. We live in a world Kant couldn’t have imagined, with people like us, in disparate geographical locations, having discussions he could only have had in a high end coffee shop, because the intervening generations didn’t let a desire for absolute certitude prevent epistemic progress.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ‘…but I can’t see how the really interesting conclusions can be reached without premises that come from a posteriori sources.”

        That statement is only valid because you do not comprehend what intuition actually is as defined by Kant. Intuition gained through a priori cognition is genius at work. It doesn’t take a genius to derive interesting conclusions from a posteriori sources, just hard work and perseverance. And I disagree with your strawmanning last paragraph because we can have absolute certainty and epistemic progress.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Always enjoy your contrarianism (may I call it that?), Lee. I don’t know if you’re familar with Jacques Hadamard’s book (Princeton U.P.), The Pschology of Invention in the Mathematical Field? It’s essentially a study of how groundbreaking ideas arise ‘intuitively’ or spontaneously following a protracted period of what he calls ‘incubation’ — turning away from overt problem-solving. Here’s an extract:

          My dear colleague . . . In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able . . . The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will . . . With kind regards, Albert Einstein. [Letter to Jacques Hadamard]

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I can certainly relate to that style of thinking, and would add into the mix the role of sleep – posing a problem before going to sleep and pulling the pieces of the solution together before fully waking while the mind is still flexible and not yet anchored in the minutiae of the day.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike,
    After thoroughly researching Daniel Stoljar’s phenomenal concept strategy (PCS), I’ve come to appreciate the implications of the model. PCS essentially asserts there is an epistemic gap in our understanding of mind and matter, not an ontological one (what James Cross has expressed as a subjective gap). Since that gap is epistemic, there is no need to postulate substance dualism nor property dualism in order to accommodate mind and matter because they are essentially the same thing (monism). Using the PCS strategy, an architecture grounded in monism can remain in tact, it is only our understanding of that monistic architecture which is restricted. What the underlying feature of PCS accomplishes going forward is this: Let’s close the door to the rabbit holes of both substance dualism and property dualism and find another path. The only intrinsic problem for PCS is determining which path to take going forward.

    Another anecdote: PCS corresponds to what I’ve identified as the intrinsic limitations of rationality itself. Rationality is a discrete binary system which relies upon contrast or differences in order for meaning to be derived. An individual’s rationality relies upon it’s own data base as a reference point whenever something new is introduced. It then contrasts what is already known or perceived to be known against any new information that is introduced to see how that new data corresponds to the prevailing model held by the solipsistic self-model. Not addressing the all too often repressive prejudices or biases held by the solipsistic self-model, this system works very well as long as there is a pattern of some kind to contrast against. However, this system fails whenever an unknown, something which for all practical purposes does not exist as a pattern such as the phenomenon of consciousness. This is the very assertion Philip Goff makes about consciousness and why physics, which is an expression of the discrete binary system of rationality is not capable of dealing with the phenomenon of consciousness. Both Goff and Stoljar have identified the problem, but neither of them has come up with a solution to deal with that problem.


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Lee. Sounds like I need to look up Stoljar’s version of PCS. Would you happen to have a link to it? The ones I’ve tried to look up are either paywalled or pretty old. (If the paywalled versions are the only ones, I can deal with that, but would prefer free sources first.)


    2. PCS essentially asserts there is an epistemic gap in our understanding of mind and matter, not an ontological one. Since that gap is epistemic, there is no need to postulate substance dualism nor property dualism in order to accommodate mind and matter because they are essentially the same thing (monism).

      Good, good! No need to problematise a non-problem, eh? One coin, two sides, etc.


      1. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

        Not to get religious here, but the King James bible does have its moments.


      2. Hariod,
        Now, all that one has to do is determine what that coin actually is. Is not a coin value, and does not value come first in hierarchy? Could we have just identified the ontological primitive?


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Value is so elusive that it has an entire field of philosophy dedicated to the notion, its called axiology. The fulcrum questions of axiology: Is value an objective state of the world, or is value a subjective state of mind? This is a question derived from and subordinate to the suppressive SOM paradigm. What is the difference between intrinsic value and extrinsic value? And if there is a distinction, what criteria is used to make that valuation? That criteria is determined by the solipsistic self-model. According to the SOM paradigm, the solipsistic self-model is sovereign; whereas according to RAM, value is sovereign because value comes first in any hierarchy.



  7. Despite reading the links on PCS, I’m still not sure I understand it.

    In particular, I don’t see how it can be used to make an exclusively physicalist argument. If the “hard” problem arises from a gap in our concepts of physical and mental phenomena, how does this make our concept of the physical more likely to be correct than our concept of the mental. Reality could as likely be mental as physical.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Reality could as likely be mental as physical.”

      In a nutshell, that is the conundrum PCS faces. Having said that, the only intrinsic problem built into the architecture PCS going forward is determining which path to follow. The prevailing path is an architecture derived from the duality of mind and matter known as subject/object metaphysics (SOM). In order to completely isolate dualism as a concept, it is not only necessary to permanently close the door to the rabbit holes of substance and property dualism, but it is also necessary to jettison SOM. The path going forward should be reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM).


      Liked by 1 person

    2. PCS is strictly a defensive strategy. It says, you guys (Chalmers, Jackson) have arguments purporting to establish property dualism, but here’s why they don’t work.

      To go on the offensive, materialists need to appeal to Occam’s Razor. There’s plenty of evidence that physical events have effects on mental processes, and vice versa. Dualist mental properties don’t provide any explanatory gain. Scrape, scrape.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The argument in my view is between physicalism and idealism., not physicalism and dualism.

        I’m not overly fond of Occam’s Razor, but if we want to apply it, wouldn’t idealism make a better fit?


        1. “The argument in my view is between physicalism and idealism, not physicalism and dualism.”

          I completely agree. Just a brief anecdote for you James: The notion of Idealism is a lot like the notion of communism. In principle, they were both great ideas, but in the end they just didn’t work out.



        2. You’d have to compare the overall simplicity of the best idealist philosophy that can explain (or explain away) all observations, to the best materialist one. That’s a tall order, or two tall orders.


          1. Paul,
            What we really need is a unification theory, one which can unite idealism and materialism into a single manifold. Reality/appearance metaphysics can do just that. Now, having said that, I’m not saying that idealists and/or materialists are going to like it. Nevertheless, RAM works. And in the end, isn’t that what we are after, an architecture that works, not something that makes us feel warm and fuzzy?



  8. How is it that we seem to accept the weirdness of quantum-mechanics (super-position, non-local entanglement, etc) easier than we accept the weirdness of phenomenal consciousness? I suppose it’s because experimental physics seems decidedly to support the theory. Could there be an experimental psychology that supported the intuitions of phenomenological consciousness? Probably not—intuitions are not theories. But suppose some future science did actually establish the existence of”qualia”. So what? What exactly the import? It’s not like phenomenal experiences, were they so, could confer some especially redemptive, ennobling or redeeming character to our otherwise lowly evolved state.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A lot depends on what you mean by “qualia”. If you mean instances of subjective experience, then I don’t know that we need science to establish their existence. But I think about Eric Schwitzgebel’s point that many philosophers can’t seem to resist attaching dubious theoretical notions (such as non-physicality) to that basic idea, and that their inability to avoid doing so is what leads other philosophers to conclude qualia don’t exist.

      But I think you’re right. As long as we stick to the basic pre-theoretical version, there’s nothing magical about qualia. They don’t bring in anything other than perception from the perspective of the system doing the perceiving.


      1. Once we have an architecture accounting for how consciousness works that is capable of being tracked back to a physical implementation, we will need to align what we mean by qualia with elements of that architecture, which will make it precise. At the moment it is defined subjectively, intuitively and philosophically in words, and so is a slippery fish. It will also be amenable to a mathematical/logical description, so there can be an equivalent of the Schrodinger equation for consciousness.

        Likewise we will need to be clear about what the-thing-that-is-conscious (of qualia) is. When we learn that what we really are is a self aware pattern – an enactable representation that includes a representation of itself and its relation to the world over time – how will we feel about ourselves? Maybe a sense of relief that this is all we are, then a realisation that this means that we could learn to transform ourselves radically.


        1. “At the moment it is defined subjectively, intuitively and philosophically in words, and so is a slippery fish.”

          That’s the problem. But convincing everyone that you’ve found the objective version of that will be difficult. In fact, based on previous discussion, I can confidently predict that a lot of people won’t accept any objective account of it.

          The whole issue is why I think scientific theories of consciousness, such as GWT, focus on cognitive access and leave the phenomenal aspects to take care of themselves. If we can build a system with the same cognition as a conscious one, it will either be conscious due to that sameness, or it won’t. It only won’t if there’s some magic in the original, for which there’s currently no evidence.

          In other words, solve for the zombie. It’s as much as anyone will ever be able to do.


          1. Because (A) qualia and the (B) conscious-thing-that-experiences-qualia are both instantiated by real physical mechanisms. The information, and information processing that both imply can be analysed and reproduced. Subjective experience is then characterised by what happens when A meets B, turning A into A’ and B into B’. That includes incorporating into A’ a representation of B having encountered A.


          2. Even if qualia are instantiated by real physical mechanisms, that wouldn’t mean you can explain them with the mechanisms. Science can prove that I am able to see what we call the color red but it can’t demonstrate what red looks like to me or why it looks like it does.


          3. The science of your brain would account for all the interactions of red light with your neurons and could (in theory) account for all the resulting neural firing. If I then put a boundary round part of that and say it’s the conscious ‘you’ that experiences red, I could tell you all the information that crossed that boundary and all the changes that resulted. That would include what you are associating that red colour with, whether that felt good or bad to you, what you could do, mentally or physically as a result, and what you would then expect to sense and feel. It would look like it does to you because of the associations, feelings and possibilities that it invokes, all of which would have their representation, physically instantiated in the state of neurons. There would be nothing missing, would there?


          4. PJ,

            What you sketch out here would possibly be as close to an explanation that science could provide. It might even be an explanation with nothing missing from a scientific point of view.

            What I am pointing out is that the hard problem is a philosophical problem and, if you accept subject/object philosophically, you then can’t bridge the gap with science.


          5. James – So I could, hypothetically, have a complete scientific and neuro-engineering understanding of consciousness, such that I could explain what is happening in your brain; I could switch things around in your brain so you saw red as blue, or red as frightening, or became suddenly unconscious, and I could even make a working replica of your brain complete in all respects, and I’d still have something missing?

            Subject and object are just perspectives in an interaction, so I don’t see any special problem in dealing with that scientifically.

            What account of your subjective experience would you need in order to feel you understood it (if we have that as an aim in common)? Sounds a bit like you want it to be ineffable.


          6. “Sounds a bit like you want it to be ineffable.”

            Not really. I think for neuroscience to explain the “hard” problem is a little like explaining apples with oranges. These are different domains.

            I wrote about this once.


            In a comment on that post I wrote:

            Let’s say we have perfected brain scans to the point that we can map absolutely every scan to subjective experience. Does that explain experience? I think not in Chalmers formulation because “there is also a subjective aspect”. You can’t explain subjectivity from the outside because it is inside the experience.


          7. “You can’t explain subjectivity from the outside because it is inside the experience.”

            That’s why I would break the experience down into the experiencer and the experienced. It is the particular structure of those that determines the experience. Both are distributed over the brain, and so take a finite time to update (the cognitive cycle of a few 100ms).


          8. James C, the chair I’m sitting on has a subjective aspect that cannot be explained by physics. It has four legs, and those legs subjectively “belong” to this chair and not any other chair. Physics does not explain this subjectivity because “subjectivity” is a mental construct.

            Likewise your experience. Your experience subjectively belongs to you. That doesn’t mean physics can’t determine everything that happens during and after that experience, including the fact that you attribute a part of the experience to “something out there”, qualia, which isn’t really there, just like you attribute color and solidity to objects, even though those things aren’t really there either.



          9. “Physics does not explain this subjectivity because “subjectivity” is a mental construct.”

            Yes. That’s what I’m saying. Subjectivity is a philosophical matter but it is a key part of Chalmer’s hard problem. So you can’t explain it with science.

            I don’t know about the table/leg analogy though.


          10. I really think the “hard” problem is a gimmick to trap materialists and physicalists and I see you guys falling for it. No matter how you explain there’ll be a residue left over that you can’t explain by the way the problem is framed.


          11. The hard problem seems like the hard problem of pizza. I can steadfastly refuse to accept any list of ingredients, recipes, or preparation as an adequate accounting of pizzaness. In that sense, it very much is a gimmick, although I recognize that Chalmers and co. don’t intend it as one.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. “When we learn that what we really are is a self aware pattern – an enactable representation that includes a representation of itself and its relation to the world over time…”

          For what it’s worth, I agree with your assessment 100%. According to the RAM architecture, a pattern is a pattern regardless of whether that pattern has well defined boundaries which are determinate or whether that pattern has undefined boundaries which are radically indeterminate. That is why I prefer RAM over the SOM architecture, because RAM makes no ontological distinction between determinate patterns or indeterminate patterns, (i.e, subjects and objects), only epistemic ones. With RAM we are always dealing with a monistic system free of any form of dualism.

          Having said that, the physical sciences will never be able to make that determination because the physical sciences are grounded in a posteriori analysis. One cannot place the contents of anyone’s mind on a scale, under a microscope or in the Haldron collider to analyze it. Theoretically, it is certainly feasible to develop a bogus mathematical description similar to the bogus Schrodinger equation using metaphysics. But in the end, the only way to resolve the scientifically intractable problems of consciousness is to use pure metaphysics and rely entirely upon a priori and synthetic priori judgements, judgements which conform to the rules of logical consistency.


          Liked by 1 person

          1. Lee – I am not as familiar as you with the philosophical arguments as I come from a maths, computing and engineering background. However it seems to me that you would be doing your a priori metaphysics with words and reasoning using verbal logic. And there doesn’t seem to me to be a difference in kind in starting your a priori judgements with a mathematical equation and proceeding with calculations from it, or starting with a cognitive or software architecture and proceeding with an implementation of the architecture. All are starting with an idealised view. Later they could come into a scientific and empirical framework by being offered up against real world measurements to see how well they fit, and then iterated. I think the only different is that maths and architectural views potentially offer more clarity and deal better with complexity than an argument in words, especially with something like consciousness because our verbal reasoning is not so good at dealing with recursion and reference.


  9. Phenomenal concept strategy (PCS) focuses on and isolates concepts in order to demonstrate the epistemic failures of our ability to make sense of our world. Concepts are the intellectual constructions that we inherit from others and/or build for ourselves. Subject/object metaphysics (SOM) is the most suppressive intellectual construction that mankind has ever constructed and yet, 99.99 % of the populace have no idea what subject/object metaphysics is all about.

    Fundamentally, there are no such things as subjects and objects, just the things we do not understand. And as a direct result of not understanding those things, we label those things subjects and objects, build a construct which in the end suppresses meaning. As a model, SOM is massively suppressive and performs the role of an intellectual prison, much like the Eagles “Hotel California”.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. My point above was that once we start trying to explain qualia which are subjective with science which is objective, you have bought into SOM. So the gap is unbridgeable.

      I’m still unsure about your RAM but, if it or something like it is possible, then the issue in theory would go away.


    2. As an anecdote: A coin is extrinsic value which is a subjective state of mind, whereas intrinsic value would be an objective state of the world. Axiology is an exhaustive field of research which raises more questions that it is able to answer. After all of the dust settles, there is no way to quantify whether value is an objective state of the world or an objective state of mind. Axiology is a vicious circle of debate which ends precisely where it began.

      To end the circular debate and seal the fate of value once and for all, J.L. McIntyre in “Values-Feelings and Judgements of Value” forcefully expounds:

      “Value is never the character or quality of an object, but always a relation between an object and a subject.”

      In full compliance with the SOM paradigm, that quote is a coy response to an intractable argument to which the architecture of SOM is unable to effectively respond. In contrast, RAM is an intellectual tool which is able to avoid duality by uniting the subject and object under a single manifold which reduces to monism. Therefore, under the monistic architecture of RAM, value cannot be a relation between an object and a subject simply because there is no longer an ontological division with which to make a distinction. RAM is able to answer the compelling questions of axiology by postulating that value is an objective state of the world therefore, value must come first in hierarchy, an ontological distinction which makes value sovereign.


      Liked by 1 person

  10. Well I’ll bite. Is there a gap between mind and body? It seems to me that this is a metaphysical question. For the naturalist the answer can only be “No”, or at least as I define the associated terms. If someone believes that their phenomenal experience does not exist by means of causal dynamics of this world, then I’d consider that person less than a full naturalist. (Indeed, I believe that the institution of science should adopt the metaphysics of naturalism in order to become more solidly founded.)

    Furthermore I’m a full naturalist who believes “the explanatory gap between mind and body exists, not because there’s a gap between physical and mental phenomena [or beyond “nature”], but rather because there’s a gap in our concepts of these things.” That’s surely the case. We don’t think we understand various things… until we do think we understand them. The history of science displays this again and again.

    Apparently from here it’s being suggested that I also consider the behavioral zombie “logically coherent”. Since I’m not familiar with this term being associated with “bullshit”, which is my perception of their potential existence, I must ask how this is officially being defined? How is it that a person like myself, who believes that something must experience its existence in order to function similarly to me, also suppose to believe that there’s a logic based coherence to the behavioral zombie? Maybe I do, though to potentially agree I’ll at least need a better grasp of what “logical coherence” is suppose to mean.

    I see from Wikipedia (

    “PCS would help physicalists answer the knowledge argument because upon seeing red, Mary would have new thoughts about phenomenal concepts, even though those thoughts would only re-express physical facts she already knew. Likewise, we can conceive of zombies even if they aren’t possible because when we think about their functional/physical characteristics, we don’t also conjure thoughts about phenomenal concepts.[4]”

    Hmm… I don’t know about that. When I think of the behavioral zombie I do conjure phenomenal concepts, and specifically to denote what they wouldn’t have. Anyway I guess by “conceive of” the behavioral zombie they do mean “imagine”. Here I’m still able to believe that such a being would require the magic in order to actually exist.

    Furthermore I see that Chalmers has a “Master Argument” against PCS. This is surely a shell game. From my own metaphysics of naturalism I don’t see how the position that I’ve just laid out can be disputed. Humans do not “have psychological features that explain why we have the apparent epistemic gaps with consciousness”. Instead the issue here should be considered metaphysical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are generally two types of philosophical zombie. The more traditional one, the p-zombie, is physically identical to a conscious being, and can function like them, including discussing conscious experience, but are in fact not conscious. This version only seems coherent if we presuppose dualism. It purports to show that dualism is true, but the fact that it requires dualism as precondition makes it circular.

      The weaker type is often called a functional or behavioral zombie. Creating a b-zombie that only needs to fool people for a few seconds is trivial. Creating one that can reliably fool them for five minutes, not to mention hours, days, or weeks, isn’t yet possible. These types of zombies are coherent, but the longer the b-zombie seems like a conscious entity, the more likely that it actually is conscious, even if its internals are nothing like that of other conscious entities.

      The PCS is supposed to make the b-zombie version plausible.

      Myself, I think zombies are a gigantic boondoggle. But then, I think the same thing about the hard problem.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In Dennett’s various discussion of, “The Turing Test”, I seem to recall him proposing ( in some venue or other) reliable conversational methods of exposing (in relatively short-order) b-zombies for what they are. Any recollection of this?


        1. I don’t recall that specifically. In Consciousness Explained, he noted that heterophenomenology, his method of ascertaining things about consciousness, can’t itself rule out zombies.

          But later in the book, he discusses zimboes, zombies that are able to self monitor, and which may believe (unconsciously) that they are conscious. A zimbo could pass the Turing test, including its own internal Turing test. It becomes hard to argue that the zimbo isn’t conscious. He points out that a zombie, to be equally successful, would need zimbo functionality.

          Overall his point is one I’ve made several times before. A zombie who successfully behaves like they are conscious, has to have some kind of pseudo-conscious functionality. The question then becomes, what is the difference between pseudo-conscious functionality and conscious functionality? What reasons would we have for continuing to see them as separate things?


          1. The thing is, assuming any kind of zombie is possible begs the question.

            It seems almost certain that anything capable of passing a Rich Turing Test pretty much has to be conscious. I don’t think it can be faked.


          2. Yeah, your’e right, there, Peter: Dennett’s “reliable conversational methods” for unmasking b-zombies are for unmasking stupid b-zombies. Needless to say, there are also a lot of questions for reliably unmasking stupid People. On second thought, I’ll resist the urge to go into politics


      2. So the behavioral zombie is one that doesn’t have phenomenal experience, but is able to fool people for a while into thinking it does? Well that’s not only logically coherent, but can be said to exist in at least some capacity today. So no problem there.

        If such a thing could fool us perpetually, would it be productive to call it “conscious”? This might be fine for society in general, though not for science. Regardless I doubt it’s possible to build something that seems extremely human in general that isn’t. Phenomenal experience, I think, would be required at least.

        I don’t know that you need to consider p- or b- zombies “boondoggles”. Or even a theorized hard problem of consciousness. They’re simply terms — terms don’t cause the existence of what they’re supposed to represent. As you’ve noted, making up a term for something supernatural doesn’t cause it to exist (beyond the language itself). But at least we can try to develop effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, from which to better found the institution of science, and so potentially improve the situation that we have today. Without a respected community providing agreed upon principles, our mental and behavioral sciences should remain troubled.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “They’re simply terms — terms don’t cause the existence of what they’re supposed to represent. As you’ve noted, making up a term for something supernatural doesn’t cause it to exist (beyond the language itself).”

          The concepts might be useful for fleshing out the intuitions of philosophers. (Students reportedly have to be indoctrinated into those intuitions.) But too much of the writing about them assumes they tell us something meaningful about reality. In my mind, they’re little more than rhetoric for dualism.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. (Whoops, delete the other)

            You may be entirely correct about that Mike, but tread carefully there even still. It seems to me that substance dualists already feel persecuted in academia. Limiting their tools could give them the perception of being martyrs. I take the opposite approach. Here I’m able to afford them with all manners of leeway, but end things with the logic of my single principle of metaphysics.

            To the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to even potentially grasp.

            Thus I believe that the institution of science will eventually be restricted to perfectly causal dynamics, not because this is true, but rather because it’s the only option by which understanding might potentially be achieved. So under this principle all non-causal ideas would be jettisoned from science to some other form of study — two separate clubs rather than the current mixed up club. To achieve such a victory though, we may need the political skills of the great Gandhi himself.

            Liked by 1 person

  11. I must try not to be too critical of people like Frankish and Dennett on the one side, or Chalmers on the other. They all display philosophy as a cultural institution to potentially appreciate. Though nothing ever get’s resolved in it, their efforts do add to the richness of a vast cultural institution.

    Beyond traditional philosophy I believe that we must develop a community that has various agreed upon principles from which to better found the institution of science. With the metaphysics and axiology that I’ve developed, controversy over “hard problems” or “illusionism” ways to get around ineffable dynamics, would abruptly be dismissed. Though traditional exploration could still continue, I believe that science will need to leave endless associated discussions behind.

    The reason that substance dualism will become a non-issue for this new breed of philosopher, as I see it, is because they’ll advocate a kind of study which presupposes no supernatural dynamics, as well as a kind of study which is not so limited. To each their own, though supernatural dynamics would never be proposed in the non-supernatural club.

    I believe that this new breed of philosopher would also assert that it’s possible for a machine that is not conscious, to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic from which to drive the function of something that is. Though this inclusion would not settle the question between the natural and supernatural varieties of study, no longer would there be a dispute to argue over. Each side would simply get on with its business.

    It is my hope that certain traditional philosophers would join this new breed of philosopher. The price of admission would be to accept its principles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Though nothing ever get’s resolved in it, their efforts do add to the richness of a vast cultural institution.”

      That’s the thing with philosophy. Nothing ontological ever gets resolved. For that, we need science, and even there the resolutions will always be provisional pending new evidence. Philosophy’s value appears to be in clarifying the questions and associated definitions.

      I don’t think substance dualism is an issue in science, and it’s barely an issue in the philosophy of mind anymore. There are a few substance dualists still kicking around, but most of the dualists in this area are now property dualists.

      I think everyone wishes the whole of philosophy would just adopt their own philosophical views. If it happened, it would be the first time ever in the history of philosophy. Although new schools of though form all the time. I remember Colin McGinn once musing, somewhat in jest, that a new field called “ontics” should be formed, which all the philosophers with their head screwed on straight would then migrate to. Of course, finding agreement about who does and doesn’t have their head screwed on straight is the difficult part.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.