Attention and what we should expect from theories of the mind

Aeon, in their weekend newsletter, highlighted an old article from Carolyn Dicey Jennings on attention and the self.  I recall reading this article when it was published, but apparently didn’t share or discuss it, I suspect because I had mixed feelings about it.  I still do.

Consciousness scientists have a tendency to look at attention science with envy.  Attention is taken more seriously.  The reason, I suspect, is that attention is a more tractable problem, one more amenable to empirical research.  Its definition isn’t particularly controversial, so studies of it don’t have the issues that studies of consciousness often seem plagued with.

But attention is a complex collection of phenomena, existing at numerous levels in the brain.  Read about the neuroscience of attention, and you’ll find details on processing in the midbrain, thalamus, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and prefrontal cortex.

As Jennings discusses, it’s commonly broken up into two broad categories, top down attention, such as your decision to focus on this blog post, and bottom up attention, such as the impulse to focus on something crawling up your arm.  Although I think the reality is more complex, with there being at least reflexive, habitual, and cognitively controlled attention.

To what degree attention is separate from consciousness is an interesting question.  Some researchers insist they’re different, others see them as equivalent to varying degrees.  Much of the debate, I think, is related to the different levels of attention, and the distinction between its mechanisms and contents.  With that in mind, it seems like the contents of top down attention are very tangled with, perhaps equivalent to, the contents of consciousness.

Anyway, my ambivalence about Jennings’ piece has more to do with her views about the self.  I think the self exists, but only in a weakly emergent (epistemic) fashion.  Jennings seems to see it as existing more substantively, in a strongly emergent (anti-reductionist) manner, and cites speculation about quantum physics and downward causation.  (I’ve considered reading her book to see if this comes out more grounded, but it’s expensive, more than I’m willing to bet.)

But this raises an interesting question.  Should we ever be satisfied with a conclusion of strong emergence in a scientific theory?  I personally don’t think so.  To me, if a theory is going to explain attention, the mind, consciousness, or the self, it has to successfully reduce those concepts to constituent concepts that aren’t the original.  It has to reduce the mental to the non-mental, the conscious to the non-conscious, etc.

So far it seems like attention has proven the most amenable to that reduction.  But I suspect it might be because we’re more accepting of reduction in that area, and more resistant to it in the others.

Daniel Dennett has made the point numerous times: if your theory of consciousness still has a component labeled “conscious” or something similar, you’re not done yet.  I think that’s right.  The theories I tend to favor do at least attempt that reduction.  The ones that simply conclude that consciousness or the mind is strongly emergent or fundamental in some mysterious and unknowable sense, strike me as dead ends.

But maybe I’m missing something?

101 thoughts on “Attention and what we should expect from theories of the mind

  1. Well, you might have to settle for a conclusion of strong emergence, but I would call it a position of last resort. It is definitely a more complex overall theory, so it can only win if simpler theories all fail to explain the data. And “all” is a big search area.

    Regarding attention, it seems like no matter whether driven top-down or bottom-up, it amounts to the same or at least very similar thing. Whereas under “consciousness” we have: qualia, belief-like states (I am conscious that the cat is on the mat), and wakefulness. And I have probably forgotten others. “Conscious” seems like a more ambiguous, blanket term. So that is one potential source for people to talk at cross-purposes and generate unnecessary arguments.

    Although really, of the three sub-meanings I just mentioned, qualia stand out by a mile as a source of furor. I’ve previously explained where I think the confusion comes from – namely, mistaking conceptual divisions for ontological divisions (or ontological integration for conceptual integration) – so I won’t repeat the details here.

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    1. I agree we might find ourselves in a situation where we have to live with a strong emergence explanation. But I don’t think we should ever be satisfied with it. In the language of philosophy, we have an a posteriori understanding of the emergence, but not an a priori one. Until we have that a priori understanding, we don’t really understand it. And I don’t think we should ever accept that the a priori understanding is impossible. (In principle it might be, but it doesn’t seem productive to assume so.)

      I agree that attention, whether bottom up or top down, has the same function, focusing resources on particular stimuli. But at higher levels, that focus seems to be heavily involved in what is conscious vs unconscious.

      Qualia is a major source of contention. I think it boils down to the fact that we don’t have internal first person access to their construction, only the results. That makes them seem disconnected from any physical processes. The mistake, I think, is in reifying that epistemic limitation into something ontological. (Which may be another way of saying what you said.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, your explanation of the Hard Truth (aka “Hard Problem”) of qualia is extremely similar, if not the same as mine. That’s why I’m stealing the Hard Truth label, with minor varation (I like “Hard Fact”).

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  2. As far as emergence goes, where is the last turtle in the explanation? Once we know where the last turtle is, then everything above would have to be emergent in some sense, wouldn’t it? Whether it is strong or weak may be a meaningless distinction.

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    1. Definitely everything is emergent from the most elementary reality. And even what we take to be elementary today (quantum physics, fundamental interactions, etc), may itself be emergent from something else. Conceivably, it could be emergence all the way down.

      But I think the distinction between strong and weak matters. With strong, we essentially don’t have an explanation for the emergence. For weak, we do, or are at least open to one. That’s why I think evoking strong emergence as an explanation isn’t really an explanation. Putting it forth as one seems like an argument that it’s unknowable. Maybe it is, but assuming it is doesn’t seem productive.

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      1. “evoking strong emergence as an explanation isn’t really an explanation. Putting it forth as one seems like an argument that it’s unknowable.”

        But if

        “it could be emergence all the way down”

        Then you never have an explanation either.


        1. I think the best we can hope for in an understanding is that it be in terms of the underlying concepts, and that the understanding gives us predictive power, making it reliable knowledge.

          In other words, we don’t have to have perfect ultimate knowledge down to the foundations of reality (which we may never have) in order to have useful knowledge at certain levels of abstraction.


          1. You talk about reducing the “mental to the non-mental, the conscious to the non-conscious” so you are squarely in the realm of exactly what give us knowledge.


          2. I am. But just because we don’t have ultimate knowledge doesn’t mean we don’t have knowledge. If we can successfully reduce consciousness to computation, neuroscience, biology, chemistry, and electricity, then we’ve done enough for that subject matter.


          3. Faith is a belief held in the absence of evidence. Currently the evidence points in this direction. What seems far more faith based is holding out for speculative exotic solutions that, at best, can be fitted within the gaps in the current evidence.


  3. “Should we ever be satisfied with a conclusion of strong emergence in a scientific theory?”

    It might boil down to whether it ends up involving literal strong emergence or effective strong emergence. I’m a little skeptical of the former, but I’m increasingly thinking there’s something to the latter.

    I was impressed by Carlo Rovelli’s example of how “above” and “below” are concepts that only emerge in the presence of a gravity gradient (or imitation thereof). Some ideas may only make sense at the system level.

    There may be things that cannot really be studied in the pieces, but only in the aggregate. It may be possible to account, at least in general, for how the pieces produce the effects of the system, but it may be forever beyond reach studying the system at that level.

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      1. Literal would be truly ontological emergence; something the physics of the pieces can’t really explain.

        Effective would just look that way due to complexity (or lack of math or whatever). There would effectively be no way to account for the emergent behavior without approximation.


    1. I’m actually okay with that. We don’t study thermodynamics in terms of particle physics, even though we understand how temperature emerges from that lower level. It’s just too cumbersome. Our brains are forced to switch models in order to work with the higher level concepts.

      But if we have that accounting, then we always have the option of exploring a small subset of the higher level processing at that lower level. Modelling the entire system at that lower level may be hopelessly impractical, but dropping to the lower level for small pieces of it may provide insights.


      1. Absolutely. We have to study the pieces, no question.

        Just to be clear, I’m talking about systemic behavior beyond “hopelessly impractical” (unless you mean what I mean by “effectively impossible”). There may be system behaviors for which we have fundamental low-level laws, but no way to ever apply those laws large scale.

        We end up being able to look down the chain of reduction and see that, yes, there seem physics at each level that accounts for higher level effects, but we’d be stuck trying to see up the chain on first principles due to the complexity involved.


        1. I’m tempted to see “hopelessly impractical” as equivalent to “effectively impossible”, although the latter has a ring of permanence to it. I’m very cautious with the i-word. History hasn’t been kind to people who use it. But I do agree we can have epistemic emergence that we know how to pierce in principle, but can’t in practice.


          1. Acute observation; exactly why I raised the point about the phrasing. I definitely do mean to imply the same kind of permanence suggested by Heisenberg, Gödel, or Cantor — the sort of “in principle” limits science has established.

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  4. Hi Mike,

    You wrote that a successful scientific theory of attention, mind, self, etc., for you, must reduce to “concepts” that are themselves non-mental and non-conscious. There’s a lot packed into that sentence, but my understanding of weak emergence is that the behavior of a higher-level system could ostensibly be calculated or modeled from the known physical properties of lower-level elements, without adding any new fundamental properties at the lower level, but it’s probably quite difficult or tedious to accomplish. The higher level system characteristics may are surprising, but entirely consistent (in hindsight) with the properties of the lower level order. We can understand how the higher-level system behaviors without the addition of any heretofore unknown physical properties.

    Assuming that is correct, then I think what you are saying is that when the theory that accurately reflects reality is found, the awareness of being, without which we wouldn’t even be having these conversations, will be demonstrably calculable from the fundamental forces of nature. Though it may be a very complex model or calculation, it will require only those elements. And since the units of any calculation or modeling result will be expressible in kilograms, Newtons, seconds, Amperes, or the like. The challenge for me is that there is nothing about attention, or consciousness, or the awareness of being, or the experience of a self that is measurable, until a step is introduced that must equate subjective experience with an objectively measurable quantity. In this way, subjectivity would be “explained” by suggesting this equivalence.

    But how is such a step not the introduction of a new property to nature?

    For weakly emergent systems it is relatively straightforward to comprehend how they could be explained in terms of known forces, it’s just not so very easy to work out the details. A weather pattern is just matter being accelerated, and so it’s not all that difficult to comprehend that if you have matter, and you have forces, then particular patterns or well-tuned interplay could produce certain outcomes. Exactly how you get a vortex-like structure traveling at 7 mph in the opposite direction to the Earth’s rotation requires a fair number of details to explain. Reductionism works brilliantly here.

    But if you wish to say that certain regimes or classes of physical systems produce experience, then at some point in the process you must equate experience itself with units of matter and energy. The only alternative is to say that experience does not exist, which for me is an absurd position. When we speak of there being many examples in science in which our intuition was incorrect, or for which we believed strongly that something was true–like the Earth is flat–only to be shown through evidence that this was incorrect, we are not speaking of moments in which the very medium of thought in which reason occurs was suggested to be non-existent. The naive perception was simply inaccurate. But perception itself was never challenged.

    And so I cannot see how one escapes one of two paths with reductionism relative to subjective experience: one must either introduce a new concept to lower-level systems, by equating this concept with the already mapped units of matter and energy, or one must argue that argument itself does not exist. I do not see that it is logically possible to form a reductionist theory of subjective experience that does otherwise.

    Is there a third alternative?


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Michael,
      I think the answer is to be precise in what we’re trying to understand. Words like “consciousness” and “experience” aren’t precise. They are actually vague and ambiguous, with people using them in a wide variety of ways. Consider, what is experience? It’s really just a synonym for consciousness. When pressed, people say things like “something it is like”. Using these synonymous phrases tell us nothing new.

      The nice thing about attention, particularly selective attention, is it does have a fairly uncontroversial definition: the selective focusing of resources on a particular stimuli or activity. That makes studying it relatively straightforward. (Note “relatively” here, since it remains an enormously complex collection of mechanisms.)

      With experience, we have to be willing to break it down, to pierce the veil. From Chalmers’ paper where he introduced the “hard problem” term, he lists several “easy problems” that he agrees are scientifically tractable:

      the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
      the integration of information by a cognitive system;
      the reportability of mental states;
      the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
      the focus of attention;
      the deliberate control of behavior;
      the difference between wakefulness and sleep.

      My contention is that these things are major components of experience. (This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a decent overview. It’s missing, for instance, the ongoing feedback from the body through the peripheral nervous system.)

      Chalmers goes on to say that he doesn’t want to talk about these, but about CONSCIOUSNESS. The problem is this is like talking about trying to understand pizza, but banning any discussion of flour, sauce, cheese, sausage, seasoning, or oven cooking times. If you preemptively exclude the solutions, the problems indeed become very hard.

      Now, you might ask why I think these things make up experience. All I can say to that is consider to what degree experience is possible if they’re all absent. It’s possible one or more might be absent (such as, for instance, reportability) and we’d still refer to the resulting processing as “experience”, but the more that’s missing, the less willing we’d be to use that term.

      Now, you might say that experience is something separate and apart from the sum total of those functional capabilities. In which case my question is, what?

      Studying consciousness is difficult, very difficult, but it is possible. The real difficulty is the set of psychological barriers we erect because this is us at the most primal level, and like many things in science, we won’t find what we’re expecting. Out intuitions won’t be flattered. (Although they do eventually need to be accounted for.)

      Well, this comment ran long. I’m not really expecting it to convince anyone, but I hope it at least adequately explains the viewpoint.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mike,

        I don’t think it would be worthwhile to try and engage on what the “what” is necessarily. And I do understand the relevance of trying to break a difficult problem into pieces. I think it will lead to insight and understanding into many things. My comment was meant to be a response to your statement that a sound theory on these topics would reduce completely to non-mental and non-conscious elements, and to suggest that a theory that accomplishes this–if it is to avoid altogether strong emergence–will either contain some statement of equality between the fundamental elements of reality as described by science, and an element of subjectivity, which introduces (in my opinion) something new to those elements, or it will need to assert that subjectivity simply does not exist.

        All sorts of correlations may be found between physical organs and particular activities of consciousness, and leaving aside the issue of what such correlations prove or disprove, it remains the case from my perspective that the theory you are seeking must ultimately describe how those physical mechanisms produce the experience itself. Do you disagree with this assessment?

        I view the statement you made that a successful theory will reduce to non-mental or non-conscious elements as being predicated on one of several choices one might make when investigating these topics. We’re faced with the unknown, and to grapple with it we need to put a stake in the ground to create a point of reference. This notion of comprehensive reducibility is your preferred point of reference, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Regardless, some starting point has to be asserted, and it will do just fine for generating fresh understanding. My point is that this particular orientation simply does lead logically to the outcomes I’ve described in these comments: a theory that explains consciousness without strong emergence will have to cross the bridge to subjectivity somewhere, or attempt to argue away subjectivity altogether.

        It will certainly lead to insights along the way, which I do not dispute.


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Michael,

          “the theory you are seeking must ultimately describe how those physical mechanisms produce the experience itself. Do you disagree with this assessment?”

          I do (with all the stipulations made above about precision). I won’t be satisfied until a theory does do that. A prospective theory that doesn’t at least attempt it isn’t particularly interesting to me.

          “a theory that explains consciousness without strong emergence will have to cross the bridge to subjectivity somewhere, or attempt to argue away subjectivity altogether.”

          This gets into what we mean by “subjectivity.” I know it seems like I’m being pedantic, but the language here is a real barrier. But the theory, more likely the large collection of theories, do need to explain all the details of the subjective experience, or at least why we think those details are there.

          To be clear, understanding how the experience is produced does not itself need to produce the experience. That may seem obvious, but a lot of people often seem to have it as an unconscious requirement.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            I don’t think you’re being pedantic. There are certainly challenges with our present vocabulary, and by extension, our understanding. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you’re simply not interested in other perspectives, and my reply would be that such a disinterest has no relevance to the validity of what is observable from other vantages.

            I think when the dust settles, in however many years from now that is, there will be a harmonious picture of reality that emerges that encompasses multiple vantages. I think all roads lead there eventually, so travel the road you prefer. I’m not opposed in principle to breaking consciousness into pieces to see what can be learned; I just don’t think the whole picture will be assembled from that approach alone. But if such a path is followed truly, with an open mind to its conclusion, I think we’ll end up at the same place. My own interest in the short-term is understanding what multiple vantages have to say. In the short term that may appear divergent, but ultimately I don’t think it is.


            Liked by 1 person

        2. Michael, I’m trying to get a handle on what you mean by strong emergence. Is a baseball team strongly emergent? Is a baseball game strongly emergent? For me, Consciousness is like the baseball game: emergent because it’s a high level description of what low level things are doing.


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          1. Hi James,

            My understanding of how the terms “weak” and “strong” emergence are used is as follows. Weak emergence explains a phenomena that is surprising to us, or that we would not have predicted from the properties of the lower-level system alone, but which once discovered, may be explained fully by the properties of the lower-level system. There’s probably nothing in quantum mechanics or particle physics per se that predicts air blown through a read will produce a whistling sound, but once we hear the whistle, and think about it, we can understand that because of the electromagnetic charges between air molecules, air could act like an elastic medium and convey pressure waves. The pressure waves could probably be wholly calculated from the properties of atoms if we had the time and acumen to make this calculation.

            Strong emergence is when the behaviors or properties of the higher level system cannot be explained in terms of the properties or behaviors of the lower level system alone. They exhibit some phenomena or property that we cannot readily derive from the lower level elements alone, without introducing something new at one of the levels to do so. It’s harder to give examples because to Mike’s point, it’s unsatisfying, and most all of us would point to strong emergence as instances where perhaps we simply don’t understand enough yet about the lower-level systems.

            Baseball is a tough one because it’s (for me) so obviously predicated on human consciousness. Given how mysterious human consciousness remains, I couldn’t say that baseball is weakly or strongly emergent without being arbitrary about it. If we had a working theory of human consciousness, then this determination could be made, at least relative to that theory. My point in responding to Mike is related to what I wrote in the second paragraph: I think at the moment consciousness (setting semantics aside) would fall into the strongly emergent category, which means either new properties or qualities are required at the lower level that we haven’t discovered, or we have to argue that it doesn’t exist at all. Otherwise, we’re left with strong emergence for the time being…



          2. Michael, an excellent explanation, thanks. So, to be sure, I’m translating that as: “Strong emergence is emergence which we can’t yet explain from the smaller parts, in which case there are two possibilities: 1. we gain understanding such that we now have weak emergence, or 2. there is some magic (physically inexplicable) property involved.”



          3. Yes, James, that is essentially what I was pointing out. That’s the situation today as I perceive it, in regards to a theory of consciousness that reduces to the physics of elementary particles, or quantum field excitations, or even to biomolecular chemistry. I should say that I would probably be considered a magical thinker by the standards of Mike’s site and usual readers. I don’t disagree that the expressions of consciousness, or qualia, or elements of experience and perceived volition are and perhaps always will be found to be concomitant with the mechanical instantiations of physical systems, so I don’t think we’ve found anything that will really have to be undone. I just don’t think that the mechanical instantiation element as we presently think of it is the whole picture.

            Right now we don’t have the tools to differentiate between the scenario in which thought is the product of mechanics, or mechanics is the marker of thought. I think at the end of the day it’s probably a bit of both–and it may not be possible to tease it apart definitively. At least for a while. But when we presume it is one or the other we do one very important thing: we create the parameters for the research program we will support, which defines the questions we ask, the evidence we will vouchsafe, and the answers we will accept. And the answers from the other research program will be foreign and nonsensical to us. This is, from my seat, simply the rules of perception at play.



          4. Michael,

            “,,,we create the parameters for the research program we will support, which defines the questions we ask, the evidence we will vouchsafe, and the answers we will accept. And the answers from the other research program will be foreign and nonsensical to us.”

            Your candid assessment does appear to be the state of consciousness research, no question about that fact. That fact is even self-evident in forums such as this one. The ability to be objective seems to be a foreign abstraction for primal homo sapiens. It will require the emergence of a completely new species in order for these mysteries to be resolved. As Robert Pirsig might say, the natural migration of static quality, as it continues to discover dynamic quality is far from finished. Whoa……….!!


            Liked by 1 person

      2. Mike,
        This was not my thread, but I can’t help but to jump in and dismantle your aggressively assertive, straw man position.

        “My contention is that these things are major components of experience.”

        This is certainly your contention Mike, no question about that; but those assertions are completely arbitrary.

        “Now, you might ask why I think these things make up experience. All I can say to that is consider to what degree experience is possible if they’re all absent.”

        For starters, I would assert that any organically based, self replicating organism has a very robust experience. The only way this would not be true is if one choose to limit the very definition of experience to being like Mike Smith. And this is exactly what you have done. It is a subjective, anthropocentric assertion, an opinion that is far cry from even being a facsimile of objectivity. Talk about psychological barriers… You must be having a bad day :).


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lee,
          I’ve laid out my definition of experience and why we can study it.

          What then is your definition of experience? If you think DNA has it in abundance, tell me what it is and why DNA has so much of it. Until you do, you’re not dismantling my position, just booing it.


          1. Mike,
            I’m not booing your definition, I’m simply stating it’s an arbitrary position that constrains the definition to correspond to your own personal biases; and yes, one can study that preferred arbitrary position if one chooses. But to clear, it’s a study of an isolated system, not a study of the nature of systems. It may garner some results about that particular isolated system, but it will tell us nothing about the bigger picture of systems in general, emergence, or this thing called consciousness.

            I’ve already laid out my definition of experience in previous posts, but in case you cannot remember; the properties of a system are the experience of that system and inversely, the system experiences those qualitative properties that make up the system. It’s called emergence. Emergent systems are an aggregate of the individuated properties that make up the aggregate. It’s a fundamental engineering principle; as a physical construction, the form of any given system follows the function of the same given system. And to be succinct, both the form and the function are determined by the properties of the system, and again, those properties are the experience.

            Based upon my definition of experience your question about DNA becomes benign. Try self-replication for starters. As a system, DNA builds physical, material constructs, and it’s quarry is the natural world. Inorganic life does the same thing, but that construction is not as robust nor as acute. Mind itself is also a system, and that particular system builds intellectual constructs, and through its intricate relationship with its grounding biological system, mind and body can build physical constructions just like any other system be it an organic system or inorganic system.

            Do you fail to see this correlation of systems and the unique feature of systems in general, i.e. the ability to build constructions? It’s not magic at work here, it’s fundamentals, and that fundamental is grounded in life and consciousness. Arrogantly dismissing those fundamentals as a valid starting point is fake science.



          2. Lee,
            Thanks for laying your your version of experience. It does make it clear we’re talking about different things. I don’t think mine is arbitrary, but reflects the systems that make us interested in consciousness in the first place. I am interested particularly in those systems and what distinguishes them from the systems that don’t trigger out intuition of consciousness.

            That’s not to say I’m not interested in the things you mention, but I think they’re already being studied by physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences. For sure, the neurological and computational systems I’m interested in can’t be considered in isolation from those systems. A strong case can be made that natural consciousness is in fact an elaboration of homeostatic and other biological value systems. But that conclusion required studying the systems in question while also being aware of their underlying support structures.


          3. Mike,
            You’re welcome. Recently, I’m beginning to appreciate to a greater degree that the system of mind ultimately has to be a quantum system. As with the quantum realm of particle physics, that’s a boundary we have not been able to breach due to the measurement problem, and I do not see any movement on that front moving forward with either particle physics or mind.

            As I see it, faced with the obstacle of the measurement problem, a pragmatic approach would be to take what we already know from the sciences and plug that data into other models, models such as life and consciousness being coextensive as one and fundamental. Then systematically work through the intellectual progression to determine whether that reference point is tenable.



          4. Lee,
            What leads you to conclude it has to be a quantum system?

            The measurement problem is an obstacle to us understanding what ultimately is happening in a quantum system. And depending on which interpretation you favor, it could have far ranging consequences for reality.

            On the other hand, how quantum systems interact with the observable environment is well understood. The measurement problem doesn’t present any problems in that regard. If the mind is a quantum system (in the sense of making use of quantum superpositions in some manner) then it will still follow well understood rules in interacting with the environment.

            That said, neuroscience is making a lot of progress with only working in terms of classical physics: electricity, chemistry, etc.


          5. Mike,
            Conclusion is a very rigid position. I’d be more inclined to quantify it as a profound assumption, one that I can plug all kinds of data into.

            “If the mind is a quantum system (in the sense of making use of quantum superpositions in some manner) then it will still follow well understood rules in interacting with the environment.”

            Absolutely. As a system, the mind is more than capable of not only accommodating quantum superpositions, but actually selecting from those immense resources of probabilities which coalesce (or collapse) into ideas or even what we experience as quailia. And if one thinks about mind in that way, that’s exactly what mind does. It’s classical interface would be the brain. Any way, it’s a novel theory…


            Liked by 1 person

  5. Like James, Wyrd, and Michael, I’m pushing back on this as well.

    Daniel Dennett says that if your model presents something like a “consciousness” classification, then you’re not none yet. But where else has science ever been “done”? Shall physicists be chastised for presenting models which contain a “gravity” classification that hasn’t been reduced into more basic components? Of course not. They’ve done an excellent job of helping us figure things out in this regard, and despite any “you’re not done yet” criticism that could theoretically be made. It’s clearly presumed that there is something “of this world” which causes gravity, and regardless of our perhaps perpetual associated ignorance.

    So let’s take this model over to those who explore “consciousness”, or the medium through which existence is experienced. I even consider it useful to refer to this stuff as “qualia” itself. Just as we realize that mass attracts mass, wouldn’t it be amazing if we were to figure out that certain causal dynamics create qualia, whether in biological or technological formats? If we had a physics based recipe for creating qualia/ consciousness in our bag, I’d consider this tremendous progress, and despite Dennett’s remaining “You’re not done yet” dismissal.

    Furthermore I’m able to note that this is a supposed naturalist who proposes qualia to exist beyond mechanical instantiation. Thus I can see how he might consider himself “done” given such emergence (which without mechanical instantiation might effectively be assessed as “strong”), and yet use his quip to defend against theorists who do seek mechanical instantiation accounts (and thus the weak emergence associated with naturalism).

    Given how screwed up our mental and behavioral sciences happen to remain, and brimming with charming and gifted rhetoricians like Daniel Dennett, there seems to be little hope until a respected community of professionals is able to provide some basic principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to better found these fields. One task here will be to expose supernaturalists who bill themselves as naturalists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric,
      Newton, when he came up with his laws of gravitation, admitted that he didn’t know at a fundamental level what gravity is. His theories were still extremely useful, but they were fundamentally about the effects of gravity rather than an explanation of gravity itself. Einstein, on the other hand, established that gravity is the warping of spacetime by various forms of energy. He successfully reduced gravity to non-gravity. Newton’s theories pushed the horizon back, as did Einstein’s. But the horizon remains. (It likely always will.)

      In terms of consciousness, it’s possible for someone to come up with a theory about the effects of consciousness, but one that doesn’t fundamentally explain it. Such a theory though, should be as honest as Newton was about its limitations, yet still provide demonstrable value.

      Dennett actually doesn’t believe that qualia exist beyond mechanical instantiation. He actually doesn’t think qualia exist, period. He sees it as a mistaken concept. When people insist they exist as something separate and apart from the information processing, yet can’t explain why, I’m sorely tempted to agree with him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        I was wondering how Dan would respond to my “thumb pain” thought experiment. So you think he’d say that when my thumb gets whacked, there actually isn’t any associated qualia of pain to experience? The damage wouldn’t actually feel bad to me (or information on paper that’s processed into other information on paper) but rather just instruct me to do various associated things, such as cry out? If so then since Descartes is dead, perhaps Michael could go bitch him out for such a silly assertion! (Of course in truth I suspect that Dennett would twist things around in all sorts of ways to still come out as some kind of great thinker. The man obviously has great talent with words.)

        Regarding honesty about not asserting that one “fundamentally explains” qualia, I’ve never done anything of the sort. All that I have done is assert that as a naturalist, I require reductions to involve mechanical instantiation. Gravity would be one of countless such examples.

        From here I see no reason for you to threaten to agree with Dennett. Like gravity (and all else that I know of), qualia would exist as a product of causal dynamics. Here there’s no statement of how it’s effective to describe this stuff fundamentally (like all else), but rather its effects (again, like all else). If I haven’t yet been clear, the reason that I believe qualia exist beyond information processing alone, is because as a naturalist I consider every bit of reality to exist in this specific way.

        Let me also clarify that if you do decide that information processing alone should not be sufficient to create qualia in a causal realm, there’s no need for you to directly decide what it is that does create this stuff. This would be like gravity before the emergence of science. But if causal instantiation is required, then the electromagnetic radiation which is associated with neuron firing does seem like a likely candidate to me. Beyond this well known dynamic, what could preserve sufficient neuron firing fidelity?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          I don’t agree with everything Dennett says, but he lays out his logic for all to see. In his takedown of qualia, he acknowledges that there are deflated versions of it, but concludes that philosophers have bloated and ruined the concept. I will say this, a lot of philosophical conceptions of qualia don’t exist. But I’m with Schwitzgebel in starting with a pre-theoretical version.

          Anyway, I do see qualia as information processing, but since information is causation, qualia are causal dynamics too. They are the same.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Alright Mike, let’s move from a superstar who knows nothing of either of us, to Eric Schwitzgebel, philosopher of psychology at UC Riverside. Fortunately he’s familiar with each of us. In an apparently offhand remark to me in March countering my thumb pain thought experiment, he said:
            “Arguably, information is just causation. There need not necessarily be a conflict between a causal model and an information-based model of consciousness.”


          2. You seem to hold onto his assertion as validation for a long standing belief. Thus you wrote a post about his assertion, followed by one which sought to discredit philosophical thought experiments in general (presumable like my thumb pain version of Searle’s Chinese room). So I wrote a post in response to those two, found here:

            Beyond all that I suppose we could directly address whether or not defining information processing to exist as causality itself in support of its naturalism, as Schwitzgebel did, does happen to exist as a mere tautology? Do you see it as such, or are you able to effectively argue that his statement does not beg the question?

            As I see it, we can define generic information to be causal and thus natural, just as we can define a god to have created us, though neither are required to be useful definitions. Maybe a god created us, and maybe information on paper that’s converted into other information on paper can create something that feels what I do when my thumb gets whacked, though I don’t consider either to be “of this world”.

            As I said in my response to Schwitzgebel, our computers do things based upon information processing, only when mechanical instantiation exists as well. But here we have a case where no mechanical instantiation is proposed. Thus an enormous stack of paper which contains the information of my thumb getting whacked, which is quickly processed into another enormous stack in a way that correlates with how my brain processes its information, should not create something which feels what I do when my thumb gets whacked.

            To indeed create something that feels thumb pain in a natural world, I believe that we’d need to input the second stack of information laden paper, into a machine armed with the right kind of mechanisms. I suspect that the proper em fields would do the trick, though causality demands something.

            What’s Schwitzgebel’s pre theoretical version of qualia?

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Eric,
            If you look through the archives of this blog (for instance: ), you’ll see I’ve long held this view. Eric S., who obviously has a similar view, just found a succinct way of describing it. So don’t blame him for my position, only for the succinct expression.

            Not all tautologies are obvious. In any case, if it is a tautology, then it’s true by definition. Are you conceding that? If not, the simplest way to refute it is to list examples of things that are in one category but not the other. (James of S did an admirable job of testing the boundaries of this, but wasn’t able to escape them.)

            “But here we have a case where no mechanical instantiation is proposed.”

            Who has made such a proposal? I haven’t. This is a strawman you keep bringing out and arguing against. But you’re not arguing against any position I or any computationalist I know of has held. In the case of your neo-Chinese room thought experiment, you’re describing the mechanism: someone working with the paper symbols.

            On Schwitzgebel’s pre-theoretical view (he calls it a theoretically innocent view), he explored it in a paper in that journal edition Keith Frankish organized on illusionism. But the paper doesn’t currently appear to be online anywhere. (At least outside of a paywall.) The closest recent description on his blog that I could quickly find is this post:

            Liked by 1 person

        2. There’s a lot of nonsense associated with this whole quailia business. If quailia is information processing as Mike asserts, then theoretically one could build an inorganic, technologically based machine that would have the same experience as humans. That assertion is shear foolishness. Why? Because there is something very special about organic life when it is contrasted against inorganic life. A single strand of DNA has a more dynamic, elegant and robust experience than the most sophisticated, technologically advanced machine that could ever be imagined.

          I do not necessarily agree with Philip Goff’s version of panpsychism nevertheless, I am in full agreement with his own assessment of the physical sciences. Here’s a quote from his latest post on his blog site:

          “I believe we are currently going through a phase of history in which we are blown away by the success of physical science, and this leads us to think that physical science is the only source of knowledge, that everything else is superstition. The irony is that physical science has been so successful precisely because it was designed to be a partial description of reality, abstracting away from those aspects of reality that can’t be captured in mathematics.”


          Liked by 1 person

          1. Lee,
            I agree with the spirit of what you just said a lot more than I’d like to. The creations of evolution are ridiculously amazing (and I mean life in general rather than the human particularly). When our teleological creations are compared against life, I consider them utterly pathetic.

            But here’s the thing. If in a theoretical sense we make a distinction between “life stuff” and “non-life stuff”, then we effectively (though maybe not actually) become substance dualists. It would take a lot of heat off Mike right now if he could raise that accusation against me, just as he long has against Searle and others. But no, in a theoretical sense I say that we must not take technological systems off the table. Evolution did create qualia, and so if we ever do get the physics right, then we must be able to create sentient entities as well. It simply shouldn’t be magic, or the explanation I perceive informationists to covertly be proposing.

            Then as for Goff, we’re certainly in agreement that we’re currently being “blown away” by hard sciences. I consider this humanity’s fourth and final great power revolution (the first of which being language, followed by specialized occupations, then written language). I believe that our greatest revolution however, will occur when our mental and behavioral sciences are able to harden up an so teach us how to effectively lead our lives and structure our societies.

            My own explanation for why our hard sciences have been able to progress, unlike softer varieties, is because they’re naturally less susceptible to failure in the field of philosophy. Thus I seek to help fix philosophy, which should in turn help fix science, and so hasten a revolution that should help us advance in a new way. Instead of providing us with power, this revolution should help teach us how to effectively use our power.


          2. Eric,

            “Instead of providing us with power, this revolution should help teach us how to effectively use our power.”

            I couldn’t agree with this statement more. This revolution should lead humanity away from the rule of law paradigm and into an era of management. You probably read my previous posts about the master/slave morality, so I will not bore you further. There has to be rules certainly, but the enforcement of those rules should be secondary to maintaining the dignity of the human being. There is a time and a place for everything under the sun, and the act of enforcement, prosecution and penal action should be the last resort, not the first. Dignity has to be preserved and that is what the under privileged are fighting for is dignity, not power.

            The barbaric, draconian rule of law paradigm will never change Eric, because the ruling class does not believe that the peasants should be treated as equals regardless of who or what is in power. The only thing that ever changes is a revolving ruling class, perpetuating the master/slave paradigm.



  6. Mike,
    I think I’ve been aware of your beliefs here for at least a couple of years. I believe it was a Chinese room discussion at your site where you flat out said that you believed that this hypothetical Turing test passing machine centered on Searle looking up answers and writing notes, actually would “understand” spoken language. This finally helped clue me in to a paradigm in modern science that I consider quite troubling. (This might have been slow to sink in given that the movement uses the misleading title of “computationalism”. A far more appropriate term should be “informationism”. To understand its meaning we seem to need practical demonstrations of what’s believed, whether Searle’s, mine, or others. Not that many beyond yourself seem to have enough integrity to admit the position.)

    You’re quite right that I shouldn’t call Schwitzgebel’s statement a tautology. I certainly don’t consider it true by definition that “information is causation”. Thanks for catching that mistake.

    A better assessment would be under the other heading that I recently used. An argument “begs the question” when a premise mandates a conclusion. My point is that the idea of qualia as information processing itself, transcends causal dynamics. If you counter this by claiming that information processing is causation, then your premise mandates the conclusion that you sought — naturalism gets baked in. Notice that one could just as well say “Astrology is causation” to then wind up with associated naturalism here. So I think that you should at least go back to your former position rather than say that information is causation.

    I accept your point that there are mechanisms associated with information laden paper converted into other information laden paper. So I guess I should technically clarify that these mechanisms should be very different from the sorts of mechanisms found in the head. What I consider unnatural here is the virtually arbitrary mechanism component. I guess as long as the information does get correctly processed, then associated qualia is suppose to result.

    To your point about listing the things that are in one category but not the other, I believe we’ve tried this before. I know of nothing which exists as information processing beyond the mechanism by which it’s expressed. Thus I’ve asked you for some examples, and as I recall you last said that you didn’t need to provide any because information is causality itself. But that was before my above demonstration that this position begs the question.

    So for clarification let’s approach it like this: We know that certain information may animate speakers to produce music. Here the speakers themselves do matter since it’s not only about the information provided to them. Thus different speakers produce different sound, no speakers produce no sound, and so on.

    But beyond the qualia proposal, can you think of a known case where only the information itself matters? Thus the mechanism can be anything able to produce that information? (That’s what I’ve meant by qualia without a producing mechanism – it’s like sound, or screen images, and yet without a medium from which to exist. But if you want to say that the processing itself will exist as the mechanism, then what else exists as processed information alone?)

    On Schwitzgebel’s “innocent” conception of qualia, where I guess no metaphysical baggage is added in as well, yes I do consider that to be a useful way to go. I leave any extra assertions to my single principle of metaphysics, two of epistemology, and one of axiology. Thus as far as I know, my own conception of qualia is also quite innocent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric,
      “But beyond the qualia proposal, can you think of a known case where only the information itself matters? Thus the mechanism can be anything able to produce that information?”

      All of computing technology. How many different devices have you used web browsers on? Or done text editing with? Missile control systems were once handled by analog computers, but are now handled with digital ones. The functionality of many mechanical devices, such as old-time thermostats, have been replaced by computational processors. This list is endless.

      If your beef is with the intermediate location of qualia in the flow from sensory to motor output, then all of the systems above have intermediate data structures, structures that are crucial to their functionality, that are causal, just as qualia are.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        Is it true that informationists propose that all computer technology functions in the manner that they propose qualia to? This would put the bar extremely low for refutal, but let’s take a look.

        My perception is that sound waves, for example, are produced by energy that disturbs matter emanating from the energy source. One way that such physics is implemented, is to have a computer send signals to a loudspeaker for its animation — the driver movement causes such outward wave energy. Thus here we have a reasonable mechanistic account of sound waves. From an informationism account however, the processed information of the computer alone would need to create that wave energy — no animated speaker.

        For sound waves this is of course silly. This does however demonstrate that not all computing technology functions the way qualia is proposed to. Furthermore it provides a basic model from which to search for actual contradictions. Can you think of anything at all which is known to exist as information processing alone, though without mechanistic output beyond the information processing itself? From web browsing to text editing machines, to mission control systems, to machines which incorporate thermostats, I can’t think of one that functions as qualia is proposed to. Could any of them be reproduced by the act of converting paper with information on it to other paper with information on it? No, I think, because this should violate causality. I see this proposal as a convenient but false solution to an otherwise “challenging” problem.

        In the past I’ve proposed heat and entropy as exceptions, though I now consider them essentially like the loudspeaker. The processing of information could of course create heat and entropy, though as a function of its kinetic energy and such rather than the information processing itself. This becomes apparent when a more efficient way to processing certain information does not produce the same heat or entropy, as theoretically it would need to.

        I do not make these observations to embarrass anyone, and certainly not you. I make them because I consider tremendous structural failure to exist in the institution of science today. This “informationism” business seems to be one of many adverse results of that failure. And even though your investments cause you to oppose me here, this has mainly helped sharpen my case. And given your naturalism, perhaps some day you’ll end up abandoning those investments for new ones.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          “Is it true that informationists propose that all computer technology functions in the manner that they propose qualia to?”

          Since that’s a category you created above, you’ll have to tell me.

          “Can you think of anything at all which is known to exist as information processing alone, though without mechanistic output beyond the information processing itself?”

          I gave an answer above. The data structures in the device you’re using right now, data structures that are caused by inputs and have causal effects on the outputs. Those data structures are analogous to, albeit far simpler than, the neural representations in our brains.

          “Could any of them be reproduced by the act of converting paper with information on it to other paper with information on it?”

          They could. Your intuitive inability to accept that is the whole issue here.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike,
            I’d appreciate some clarification here. It seems to me that either you misspoke, or we aren’t understanding each other. When you say that information on a stack of paper that’s converted into another such stack, could conceptually do virtually anything that the device that I’m now using does, what do you mean? Do you mean that the conversion here could, for example, produce the music that I’ve come to expect from my device? Or do you mean that the produced information could represent such music, and thus if it were in electric signal form, could cause a speaker to produce similar music? Or perhaps a third option?

            The second option seems right to me. Furthermore I perceive informationism to be consistent with the idea that qualia could theoretically emerge by means of the first, though probably not music and various other operations that my device is capable of. The only reason that qualia is able to be proposed to exist as such today, I think, is because it’s still a tremendous mystery what brains do to produce it.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,
            “Do you mean that the conversion here could, for example, produce the music that I’ve come to expect from my device?”

            Of course not. An output device would be needed, just as the central nervous system needs the peripheral nervous system and musculature for motor output. Obviously in the case of someone manually manipulating the information, timing would be an issue, but as I’ve noted many times, timing is the achilles heel of these thought experiments.

            Your implication is that qualia are like sound waves, but your reason for that conclusion seems to only be a strong intuition that it must be so. The “tremendous mystery” mostly amounts to wondering why intuitions like these haven’t been validated by the data. The answer is obvious, but only if we’re willing to face it.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Mike,
            It’s great to hear that “of course” you don’t think it’s possible for information that’s processed into other information, to do the sorts of things that my computer does. I was worried for a moment.

            So okay, here we have a basic model for how technological computers do things, as well as the computers in our heads. Information is accepted by them, it’s algorithmically processed into new information, whether through silicone chips or neuron firing, and that new information animates output mechanisms, whether something like a loudspeaker through electrical signals, or muscle function through the peripheral nervous system. This all makes perfect conceptual sense to me.

            What doesn’t make conceptual sense to me, is to use a different model for qualia exclusively. If brains produce qualia by means of nothing more than information processing, unlike anything validated in science, and thus anything that does such processing quickly enough will also produce it, like information laden paper that’s converted to other information laden paper, then it seems to me that we could only be talking about “a second kind of stuff”. This could also be considered a convenient solution, since scientists would only need to discover certain patters rather than any instantiation mechanisms. An added bonus would be that all sorts of sci-fi and futuristic scenarios would remain on the table. So everyone seems to win here, that is except for the metaphysics of naturalism as I see it.

            I mean to help expose this situation to a world that seems to have fallen prey to some very clever marketing. (“Computationalism” my ass!). And do so by means of arguments which you’ve helped me develop.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Eric,
            I might reignite your worries by pointing out that, technically, music is information, just in a format tailored to a specific receiver, the human ear. All the output device does is convert it from one medium to another, into patterns of air vibrations. And the human ear converts it from that to electrochemical signalling, the format our nervous system uses for its processing of information.

            So really, it is all information processing. We could conceivably reproduce the experience of the music with a brain implant, bypassing the air vibrations and ear stage. (Imagine a Cochlear implant with a radio receiver!)

            So the distinction you keep trying to draw isn’t one between information and non-information, but between different types of information. Your real issue seems to be that you just can’t accept that qualia are complex patterns of electochemical signalling. Why EM fields seem more plausible to you as a medium for that I don’t know, but only the electrochemical one currently has evidence behind it.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. But Mike, what you’re doing here (and I don’t believe that you consciously understand this, though you’re doing it nonetheless), is delving a bit deeper into this process, and then presuming that my model doesn’t account for such depth as well. My model does go there, and it also extends further.

            Yes music may be said to exist as information, and the ear exists as a receiving mechanism that accepts such information laden energy, which in turn is converted to information which becomes input to the brain in its own electrochemical way. So all information here animates associated mechanisms under their own formats.

            Then from my dual computers model, the electrochemical signaling also animates a qualia mechanism, probably a certain kind of electromagnetic radiation. This component completes the circle that makes it consistent with all the rest of causal based function.

            From the informationist standpoint as I conceive it however, there’s no need for any mechanical instantiation for qualia to exist. Here information itself exists as qualia under any medium whatsoever. So the information could exist in neuron firing patters, or sheets of information laden paper, and so on. That’s why informationists can be said to essentially use a dualistic shortcut rather than take their theory to a naturalistic conclusion. Furthermore we can note that this permits all sorts of sci-fi implications, such as some day uploading consciousness to a humanly fabricated computer and so existing in a virtual world. I’m not saying that human made computers can’t also be conscious, but it would take supernatural dynamics for them to be conscious if they weren’t armed with special qualia producing physics, just as we have for sound based information, neuron based information, and all else that I know of.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Eric, I actually wasn’t thinking about your model. But it now seems like your attachment to “special qualia producing physics” is to support it. My suggestion is you’ll be happier if you let the data drive your model.

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          7. Well one thing that I am sure we agree on here Mike, is that we all interpret data in our own subjective ways. So I am happy that the data drives my model, just as you are happy that the data drives yours. Of course at least one of us is wrong about this. In any event, what I think would please me most here is for my “thumb pain” thought experiment to be considered widely, and so force the status quo to defend itself from my charge that it has covertly presumed a supernatural premise. I’d consider that great fun!

            Liked by 1 person

        2. Eric, I’d like to try again, using your stacks of paper.

          Let’s assume the system has a “thumb” as well as other things, including “fingers”, “toes”, etc. Something physical happens to the “thumb” such that we would call it “damage”, and that “damage” results (causally) in a stack of paper. That stack has a mathematically derivable value called mutual information with respect to the damage by virtue of the causal relationship. This relation between the stack of paper and the damage will eventually be called the qualia of the experience, but there is no experience yet.

          The stack of paper is fed into a machine which produces another stack of paper which contains a plan of one or more actions, a response. Now there is an experience, but it’s not interesting if nothing else happens. There is no “feeling” if nothing else happens. This second stack, by virtue of physics, also has mutual information with respect to the first stack as well as to the damage in question.

          The second stack is fed into a machine and various actions are performed, perhaps including playing “Ouch!” through a speaker. These actions constitute the “feeling” associated with the experience. These manifestations likewise have physically derived mutual information with respect to the damage.

          So qualia is a term for the referent (in this case, the “damage”) of the mutual information associated with an experience. As a subjective system, the system has no way to know subjectively about the stacks of paper, but it can distinguish between the cause of one experience (thumb damage) and the cause of a different experience (toe damage).

          Whatcha think?


          Liked by 1 person

          1. That sounds good James. Your scenario does seem pretty clear to me, though I’ll go through it using my own words so that you can assess whether or not I’ve got it about right. Furthermore if so, then you can consider my commentary on your position. Or if not then you can correct me, though I think you’ll say that I’ve got it about right.

            Here you have some sort of robot with various appendages. One of them gets damaged and this causally signals something that creates a stack of paper with information associated with that damage. (We may as well call this its “brain function”.) Secondly the brain uses that data to produce another stack of paper with output oriented information on it, as in for producing distress sounds. I believe you’re saying that as the output information animates associated action mechanisms, like the distress sounds, the robot would thus feel the qualia of pain. So is that about right?

            It seems to me that this position is quite epiphenomenal. If the computer is able to algorithmically figure out what to do, with the qualia as a mere side effect experienced as decisions get implemented, then why would evolution have bothered with it at all? Why would we build a robot with qualia, if the qualia didn’t effectively instruct it? But you’ll probably tell me that the reason for such qualia would come later and simply haven’t gotten into that yet. Thus the initial cry would not be conscious behavior. I suppose that’s sensible.

            Do I consider this “informationism”? I guess not, since this wouldn’t be processed information alone that creates qualia, but rather various types of qualia would exist as a side effect of various motor action responses. So if your robot could sing, then the act of singing might cause it to enjoy this experience. But then it seems to me that it couldn’t enjoy the singing of another, since it wouldn’t be doing the singing that creates such an experience. And it does seem a bit funky to me that countless motor actions would also have the causal effect of creating qualia.

            Regardless, here’s my own conception of a qualia experiencing robot:

            When an appendage is damaged, associated electrical information about the damage gets causally streamed to its own “brain”. (Of course stacks of information laden paper would be cumbersome, so for it I’ll go with another medium.) The brain uses this information to algorithmically produce another set of information, and this one incites all sorts of mechanism based reactions, maybe an audible distress call. But one of these countless reactions would be to animate the physics of nature’s qualia mechanism, probably in the realm of electromagnetic radiation. Here qualia animation causes something associated with the robot to be “conscious”, and regardless of whether or not the engineers who added this feature gave it any practical function. This is to say that it might simply suffer.

            If the engineers did develop a functional conscious computer that exists by means of these em fields however, then this entity might interpret the punishing input to figure out how it might alleviate it. If the em field conscious entity decides something, then the associated em waves would need to have causal effect on the silicone chip based computer in a way that implements such a response. So here it might also non-consciously cry out initially, though under my model there is some potential for it to override that impulse and remain silent given the conscious mode of function which only seeks to feel good. Furthermore hearing music might make it feel good, since the physics of feeling good would be separate from its motor function.

            So that’s my own “dual computers” model. It could function through stacks of information laden paper as well, though ultimately such paper would need to be fed into a machine armed with the proper qualia producing physics.


        3. Eric, glad to know we’re on the same page with regard to the process. Now comes the hard part.

          Let’s say we build the robot, and use electric circuits instead of stacks of paper, and give it every capability a human has in terms of information processing. I say we’re done. The qualia are necessarily there. The qualia are not some substance that need to be created by an extra process. If you build the robot as described, the robot will say that it experiences qualia. It won’t be able to describe what qualia *is*. It will just say that it can tell the difference between thumb pain and toe pain. And when you ask it what the difference is, it will say a difference in qualia. One just *feels* different from the other. It won’t be able to explain why it *feels* different (unless of course it knows about unitrackers and causality and mutual information and representation).


          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks for providing your model in such an understandable way James. Ultimately it’s very different from mine. I guess I’d say that while informationists presume that information creates qualia without associated qualia mechanisms, you say that all activity associated with qualia, has in itself qualia producing mechanisms. So crying creates sadness. Isn’t that sometimes called behavioralism, as in the ideas of B.F. Skinner? Regardless, may the best theory prevail!


          2. I was gonna let you end it there … but I can’t. You need to at least understand my position that qualia are *not produced*. Qualia are part of a relation.

            Consider this: an experience is associated with qualia as a home run is associated with a batter. The experience does not produce the qualia and the home run does not produce the batter. When an experience happens, we can ask, what was the qualia? When a home run happens, we can ask, who was the batter? You cannot have an experience without a qualia. You cannot have a home run without a batter.

            It’s like that.


            Liked by 1 person

          3. Also, I am a behaviorist, but in Dennett’s sense, which is all science is about behavior. Physics is about the behavior of fields and particles, chemistry is about the behavior of molecules, biology is about the behavior of cells and organisms, etc.


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          4. Hi James,

            I guess I couldn’t resist either. Is this qualia at work!?

            You wrote to Eric, qualia is a term for the referent (in this case, the “damage”) of the mutual information associated with an experience. I am trying to parse this statement, and honestly it is difficult for me to do so. When I couple this to your baseball analogy, what I hear you saying is that qualia is the cause of experience to the extent a batter is the cause a homerun, so we can’t have an experience without qualia. And then I think from the statement I’ve just quoted you are suggesting that ultimately qualia is the relationship that exists between cause and effect, e.g. between the batter and the homerun. So, if there is an inciting “cause” and we go through the two or three step sequence you outlined to process that information, then a relationship will exist between the various stacks of paper, a continuity that relates the damage to the pain. And that is qualia.

            I think you are saying that qualia are not produced–they are inherent in the relationship–but that experience, should we have one, is produced by qualia.

            Do I understand?



          5. Michael, almost. To extend the analogy a little, qualia is more about who is the batter. Qualia is not about whether there was a batter. You can talk about a home run, and describe what the pitcher did, and what the batter did, and what the ball did, without ever talking about who was the batter, just like you can talk about all the mechanical things that happened in an experience without ever talking about the qualia. The word “qualia” is a question word in Latin, meaning “what type”, “what category of thing”, “what kind of thing”. When asked about the batter of the home run, you could point at the particular player and say “her”, or you could say her name, if you know it. When you’re asking about an experience, you can’t really point at anything in your head, but you can have a label for it, like “I see red”. That label will have a similar mutual information with respect to the experience.

            So it’s not correct to say that qualia “causes” anything, or produces anything. Instead, it is just a feature of certain causal relationships.


            Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Mike,

    Question for you. I’ll try and stick with scientifically interesting questions. You suggested to James, if I interpreted your statement correctly, that the brain is predominately an electrochemical organ, but not an electromagnetic one. Not trying to put words in your mouth. That’s what I took away from your remark above about I’ve often thought as I noted here once before that coherence probably plays a role in the physically measurable aspects of consciousness. I found this paper (the title is “Entanglement and Phase-Mediated Correlations in Quantum Field Theory. Application to Brain-Mind States”) and was curious if in your personal neuroscience reading this sort of discussion came up much? It seems to me that until we have experiments that explore the global electrodynamic/resonant relationships of neurons AND the electrochemical concurrently, that we are probably dealing with only filtered views.

    This paper contains the statement that, “The analysis of the observed time scale and space extension of the AM [amplitude modulation] patterns leads to excluding that they might be generated by propagation of chemicals, which would be too slow.” I have seen in other sources discussion of the notion that many critical functions in organisms occur on timescales too fast to be explained by electrochemical interactions alone. The example I recall was related to the timescales associated with the breakdown of ATP to make energy available for muscular contractions, and the timescales at which the constituent elements of the muscles actually work.

    At any rate, I’m asking if your own reading sheds any light on this timescale issue. Couldn’t the brain be both at once? Both an electromagnetic and electrochemical organ?

    An interesting quotation from the paper, “Umezawa, referring in particular to the problem of memory recording, observed [38] that ‘in any material in condensed matter physics any particular information is carried by certain ordered pattern maintained by certain long range correlation mediated by massless quanta. It looked to me that this is the only way to memorize some information; memory is a printed pattern of order supported by long range correlations …’.”


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    1. Hi Michael,
      Sorry to disappoint you, but quantum phenomena aren’t discussed in any of the neuroscience books I’ve read. The reputable neuroscientist who seems most inclined to speculate about exotic solutions, Christof Koch, mentions it only to dismiss it as a serious line of investigation.

      These people aren’t being dogmatic. The problem is that nothing in the data is pushing them in that direction. The lowest levels necessary to understand this, at least based on current evidence, appears to be at the level of molecular chemistry, proteins, and classical electricity. I’m sure neuroscience will go quantum if it needs to, but right now there’s nothing indicating that need.

      Search for “quantum” or “electromagnetic” in any of these books, and you’re most likely to hit a discussion about the various scanning technologies.

      That statement from the paper, that the time scales demand more exotic solutions, shows a lack of understanding on how signalling works in the the nervous system, and / or exaggeration of the purported problem. That, plus the fact that the paper was published in MDPI, a pay to publish service with a poor reputation, doesn’t incline me to take it very seriously.

      Quantum phenomena, and other exotic physics solutions, appears to be something a lot of people intensely want to be true. But the evidence for it just isn’t there, at least not yet. And the warm, wet, messy environment of the brain doesn’t seem conducive to preserving superpositions, which means anyone claiming it does has a lot of issues to reconcile.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mike,

        I think I probably cherry-picked a paper that led you down the rabbit hole of a preconceived notion on your part–that the application of quantum mechanics to neuroscience in a particular way–which I didn’t intend to do. I’m intrigued by observations of coherence in biological systems–which can be both a classical and a quantum phenomenon–and which applies to a great many scales and types of systems. The paper I described was an attempt to explain some observations in empirical experiments by using QFT theory.

        One of the experimenters noted in the paper I linked to was Walter Freeman, who showed in his work that “the olfactory bulb, and later the olfactory, visual, auditory, and somatosensory cortices, produces meaning-dependent cortical states represented by an amplitude-modulated (AM) pattern of a strongly coherent LFP oscillation across an array of 64 electrodes.” That statement comes from a quote on’s site ( in a tribute essay to Freeman’s life and work. I hope this meets your reputability criteria. The same paragraph says, “Olfactory bulb mitral and tufted cells that receive direct input from sensory receptors in the nose express in their firing rates more what a rat is doing and what the odor means than what the odor is (Kay and Laurent, 1999). AM patterns manifest highly synchronous dynamics, while transitions correspond to desynchronization. Because of this, Freeman called the cortex a bistable system, switching between a coherent transmitting phase and a non-coherent receiving phase.”

        I think you indicated that the statement about time scales involved being simply incorrect may have come without reading the paper itself. Or at least perhaps you didn’t follow the thread to the core work. What I think was actually observed by Freeman is that the cells in olfactory bulb work in concert to produce global patterns essentially instantaneously, as recorded using classical electrodynamic instruments, which happens too fast for the individual receptors to chemically relay cell-to-cell their stimuli. This can occur because of coherence–classical coherence even, but possibly quantum coherence.

        The issue of quantum coherent effects in living systems at room temperature is an open one in my opinion. There is a difference between the environment within an organism, and the particular conditions of a physics laboratory outside of the organism. The notion of quantum dissipative systems is I think an interesting one, and the mechanism of metabolic pumping of the organism into globally coherent states was suggested by Frohlich in the 1960’s (in the International Journal of Quantum Chemisty). We are only just beginning to understand those, and I think it is premature to conclude the mounting observations of coherent electromagnetic waves and oscillations in the brain, and in living organisms, is all reducible to pseudoscience.

        I’ll close with one more. If you look this one up you’ll find an abstract on Physical Review E, published by the American Physical Society. “Amplification of coherent polar vibrations in biopolymers: Fröhlich condensate” I do think there’s something to the notion of coherence in living systems. And I do think we’ll find even more examples throughout the body, as well as in the brain. But only if we look.


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        1. Hi Michael,
          Thanks for the clarification, and the link on Walter Freeman. Interesting. I see nothing in that description that seems particularly implausible. (Although I’ll admit a good deal of it is above my head.)

          But importantly, I also didn’t see anything to indicate that global patterns are produced “instantaneously”. That’s an assertion also made by EM theorists (like the one Eric linked to), but it doesn’t show in the actual data. Look at a raw EEG track (google “raw eeg” and look at the image tab), and you’ll see synchronization, but not perfect synchronization, and not instant synchronization. (Be careful, sometimes the timelines have been artificially synced to make matching patterns more obvious.) There’s plenty of variance and delay for normal pyramidal axon transmission times. (Remember, nerve impulses in large axons travel hundreds of feet per second, so we’re not talking about vast stretches of time here.)

          On looking for quantum coherence in biology, how exactly would one go about that? Quantum coherence, by definition, is never observed, only inferred, and it requires very isolated systems or very quick time scales. The difficulty engineers have in maintaining coherency in quantum computing systems emphasizes how difficult an effect this is to maintain, even for microseconds. Any interaction with the environment causes rapid decoherence, on a time scale far shorter than anything that happens in biology.

          Given what we know, long lasting quantum coherence in biology is an extraordinary claim. We should require extraordinary evidence before accepting it.

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          1. Hi Mike,

            So, I think I agree with you on quantum coherence. I think the “buzz” around everything quantum obscures the fact that coherence is observable all the time in living systems, but it is not necessarily quantum. Quantum can mean a couple of things right? Is a laser classical or quantum coherence? I’m thinking it’s more classical in terms of what you’re suggesting above, although it is quantum in the sense that the frequency of light emitted has to do with quantum transitions rather than smooth transitions in electron energy levels. I think what you’re cautioning about is the type of coherence associated with a superposition of states, right? And that’s not really what I’m thinking about here. At least not generally.

            But classical coherence is more than sufficient for producing long range order. And quite plausibly in biological systems I think. (I don’t recall saying it was instantaneous, just virtually so, but clearly an established synchronous relationship between a population of electromagnetic oscillators would allow the communication of information at light speed through EM fields, and this would be faster than point-to-point-to-point relaying. No?)

            I’m not expert either, but I thought the interesting point about Freeman’s data was that diverse points that were sampled using an array in the EEG data were in phase–e.g. coherent. According to the article he found strongly coherent oscillations across 64 electrodes. If you just look at generic EEG data it is probably not the same thing? EEG is just a means of making a measurement, so it obviously matters what is being measured? I don’t understand how looking up generic data is going to clarify this?

            But we’re getting off track I think. My initial intent was to ask why the brain wouldn’t or couldn’t be both a chemical and electromagnetic organ at the same time? The quantum thing threw us off track. But aren’t there pretty clear neurological studies that relate measured coherence in brain waves and EM states of the brain to waking / sleeping states of awareness?



          2. PS Mike, I found a better quotation from another paper referencing Freeman’s work on EEG with rabbits and cats that addresses the speed issue directly:

            “The nature of the communication between each neuron in the case of neuronal synchrony in brains is less clear. Walter Freeman has argued, based on his extensive work on rabbit and cat brains, that gamma synchrony, a particular type of neuronal sync, is achieved too quickly to depend only on electrochemical neuronal signaling, and must thus also depend on electrical field signaling. Freeman and Vitiello 2006 states:

            High temporal resolution of EEG signals … gives evidence for diverse intermittent spatial patterns … of carrier waves that repeatedly re-synchronize in the beta and gamma ranges in very short time lags over very long distances. The dominant mechanism for neural interactions by axodendritic synaptic transmission should impose distance-dependent delays on the EEG oscillations owing to finite propagation velocities and sequential synaptic delays. It does not.

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        2. Michael, a few points.

          First, you have to be careful about mistaking correlation with causation. The fact that EEG signals are coherent over a large area might (probably does) simply mean that neurons over that region are synchronized to some extent. There are ways to do this that do not require an EM signal. If you hang a bunch of pendulum clocks on the same wall, pretty soon all of the pendulums become synchronized. Similarly with metronomes, I’m not saying the same thing is causing neuron synchronization. I’m just saying there are other considerations.

          Second, while the mechanism of neurons creating EM effects are well known, there is nothing known that suggests a mechanism for distant neurons to read and EM signal, much less convert such signals into precise information. Given that the EM signals from two neurons nearby to each other would be pretty much indistinguishable, especially given a noisy environment, while their information content could be very different, and exquisitely distinguishable via synapses, it’s hard to imagine how some EM signal mechanism would be naturally selected.

          Third, the known mechanisms for transmitting information via neurons are well established and consistent with data re: the timing of information transfer, etc. It’s not clear what an EM signal could add. Some might say it would provide some part of an explanation for Consciousness, because Consciousness is mysterious and so is an EM signal, but some of us think consciousness can be explained quite nicely with the standard neuron model, no extra sauce needed.

          I’m not as well read as Mike on the neural literature, so please point me to anything that would contradict the above.


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          1. Also Michael, in response to your last post with this quote:

            “ The dominant mechanism for neural interactions by axodendritic synaptic transmission should impose distance-dependent delays on the EEG oscillations owing to finite propagation velocities and sequential synaptic delays. It does not.”

            This conclusion assumes, I think, a source of the synchronization mechanism which is not approximately equidistant to all the areas being measured. This assumption would be invalid if the source of synchronization were central, such as the claustrum. Remember , Koch and Crick were looking at the claustrum and suggesting a role of synchronization in consciousness.


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          2. Hi James,

            I looked up Kochand the claustrum and found his 2005 paper entitled “What is the Function of the Claustrum?” Granted it’s old, but already in the footnote he described his opinion that “We do not like the term ‘field’ since it is so easily misunderstood to imply the working of an electro-magnetic field that carries this integrated information in the brain. For biophysical reasons, this is unlikely to be the case.” So at this time, he wasn’t seeing EM fields as primary carriers of information.

            Nevertheless, in the same paper he wrote, “It has been hypothesized that gap junctions help synchronize the firing of interneurons, enabling the entire population to fire in lock-step in the 30–70 Hz (gamma) range. Rhythmic firing of claustral interneurons might be critical to help synchronize far-flung populations of cortical neurons.”

            I’m not saying he would agree with the note I just wrote you, but I think it’s clear that long range synchronization of neurons is certainly considered to be an important element to neurological function. There is nothing here that either affirms or denies the possible role of EM fields and/or mechanical (acoustic) coherence in contributing to this function.

            Also, I think you may have assumed the quote I sent Mike was about neuron signaling in general, but it was not. Freeman’s empirical work was on the specific sensory apparati of a rabbit and a cat I believe, and what he was describing was the fact that even though only certain neurons in the olfactory bulb would detect the molecules they have evolved to detect, and of those neurons only random ones given the concentration of “scent molecules” in the air, the response of the olfactory bulb neurons as a whole appeared to him be inexplicable by conventional signaling mechanisms. That is very much different than saying neuronal signaling can’t explain anything in the brain. That’s not something I believe I ever said, and admittedly you didn’t either, but your reply seems to be about general signaling and not relevant to the specific experimental work that is being described.



          3. Hi Michael,

            James makes a number of good points.

            I’d also add that the local electrical field potential does likely make a difference for neural processing in edge cases, where a neuron is just below its firing threshold but the field pushes it over, or is just barely achieving that threshold, but an overall inhibitory effect makes it stumble at the finish line. But these are perturbations, perhaps slightly increasing or decreasing the firing rate of a neuron, but with the signals coming in from synapses dominating the overall activity.

            It’s also worth noting that in measurable EEG events, such as the P300 wave, most of the neural circuits are being inhibited. This is due to a mechanism known as lateral inhibition, where excited neural circuits try to inhibit each other. It’s part of the competitive process for attention (and possibly consciousness). A key fact here is that the excited circuits are physically interlaced with the inhibited ones. In other words, they’re going against the direction of the local field potential, yet they’re the main action.

            Similar to quantum physics, there is a cavernous lack of discussion on most of this in the neuroscience books I’ve read, including college textbooks. Christof Koch does mention an interest in the possible communication going on via electrical fields in his 2012 book, but seems to have dropped it by his 2019 book. As the president of the Allen Brain Institute, I’m sure if he wanted electrical fields studied, they got studied. I suspect his dropping of that topic may be indicative of the results.

            (He also, James, dropped similar musings about the claustrum, and on this one, I do know there have been multiple studies that failed to replicate the effects of that one study showing the claustrum’s effects on consciousness.)

            Even a contrarian like Matthew Cobb, who seems convinced neuroscientists are just doing it wrong, hasn’t found a reason to go into electromagnetic field speculation.

            Maybe it’ll eventually turn out that the science has to go that way, but right now more conventional explanations seem to be sufficient.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Hi Mike,

            I think my previous notes above to James explain and address what you’ve described here as well. Your first paragraph seems generally in keeping with one of the possible utilities of coherent EM fields. I should also point out that coherence can be found at every level of the material-energetic scale, and may involve mode-shifting by which energy that is electric is transduced to mechanical or acoustic (phonons), or vice versa, which transduction biomolecules may be involved in doing due to their physical properties all the time.

            At any rate, I think you’ve focused on whether or not EM fields are the primary or explicit carries of information in the brain, and again, that wasn’t something I was intending to imply. I was asking why the brain can’t be functional in both the chemical and electrical domains simultaneously. There’s nothing about that statement intended to discredit what we know already. I’m not suggesting there’s anything incorrect about the biochemistry or the neuronal “hard-wiring” or chemical inhibitors or any of that. It’s just to say that potentially it’s not the entire picture yet.

            As to Christof Koch’s or his institute’s research interests being the ultimate bellwether on this type of thing remains to be seen. It’s hardly scientific to presume any particular researcher, who will of necessity have time to explore only a limited set of topics in detail, which would be affected by his or her past interests and successes, would select precisely all of those topics and only those topics which will be found meaningful over the course of scientific evolution. That’s sort of like the inverse of an ad hominem argument. I think you’re using this argument to suggest why it’s reasonable to think EM fields are not the primary means of information processing, and I think I’ve addressed that I’m not trying to say it is definitely one thing or the other. I’m saying EM fields, and coherence in general, mostly of the classical form, are relevant to the overall picture.


            Liked by 1 person

          5. Hi Michael,
            Well, it seems like I’ve let past debates on quantum consciousness and electromagnetic field theories cause me to misinterpret your remarks. Sorry.

            If all you’re asking is whether electromagnetic fields are part of the mix, I think they are, and I gave the science as I understand it above. I see EM fields as one of a number of factors that perturb neural processing, adding noise and a degree of stochasticity to the overall process. (It’s worth noting that the nervous system seems to incorporate mechanisms to minimize the effects of this stochasticity, but it doesn’t eliminate it completely.)

            I definitely don’t think Koch is the end all be all for neuroscience. (I continue to see his embrace of integrated information theory as unfortunate.) I just mentioned his views because he’s pretty much the only mainstream neuroscientist who mentions EM fields. A few others have the briefest of references, usually in an expansive list of possibilities, but never go into any detail. The more hardcore material eschew any mention entirely, except within the context of scanning technologies.

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          6. Thanks, Mike. Many interesting questions out there! And your note brings up a topic that is intriguing–you see EM fields as noise, which they obviously could be, and I see EM fields when they are coherent as possibly providing channels that “cut through” the noise. My limited understanding suggests both could be true depending on what is happening…


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          7. Hi James,

            Regarding your first paragraph about metronomes and pendulums and such, that is coherence. Since my previous note to Mike I should note I’ve discovered little experimental evidence for “Frohlich condensates” in the quantum sense have been found, but that groups recently have found evidence, both experimental and theoretical, for the classical equivalent. (This is just general biophysics not specifically related to neuroscience right now.) More on this perhaps later or some other time. I think, to keep this simple, one point to consider is there is both in quantum and classical theory an appreciation for the fact that a population of synchronized oscillators can enter a ground state that exists at a lower energy level than the surrounding environment. The effect of making the transition into such a state is to a) free up energy for other systems nearby, since energy must be removed from the individual oscillators that participate, b) to isolate the constituents from the environment in various ways, admittedly limited depending on circumstances, and c) to enable rapid sharing of energetic states across the population, including such as may occur through mode-shifting.

            As to your second paragraph, we keep getting sidetracked into particulars. I’m probably partly responsible. My core suggestion is that the brain is both a chemical and electromagnetic organ. This doesn’t require me to believe that EM fields are explicit carriers of information such as you and Mike appear to be thinking. But EM fields can very definitely do things like, a) provide the medium for synchronization of neurons, which could be quite important; b) through the mechanisms described in my previous paragraph free-up energy at critical points across the system, such as may be used to rapidly overcome activation energy barriers or increase the coordinated sensitivity of molecules that otherwise may not respond and c) create specific “channels” of coordination amidst an otherwise noisy environment. Again, these channels don’t have to be broadcasting the BBC, but they could keep molecules that are engaged in a common process engaged together over broad regions of the brain through the relationship that derives from coherence.

            It’s not hard to envision how coherence would be naturally selected. It’s hard to envision how coherence could be absent from the conversation. Water itself has been shown to display coherent dynamics over remarkably divergent timescales, and life is built on water. Natural selection would have had little choice but to build upon the pre-existing rhythmic conditions of the primordial soup. A conversation for another day perhaps, but there are limitations to the descriptions of living matter that fail to account for precisely tuned resonant conditions that are pivotal to overall process.

            As to your third paragraph, I think I’ve addressed this now. Coherent EM fields may not carry information explicitly, but they may nonetheless play a pivotal role in the overall process of brain function. I don’t recall saying that I thought coherent EM fields were solely or even primarily responsible for thought, and I think you and Mike could have misinterpreted me on that. I’m asking if the brain can be fully explained as a chemical system alone, becaues I don’t think it can. I think you would be hard pressed to have a functioning brain without the coherent EM fields. And not only without the EM coherence, but the various other forms of classical coherence at work in living systems.



          8. Michael, that was really well said, and I better appreciate your position now. For myself, I have mechanisms (my hammer) on the brain, so to speak, so everything looks like a problem of nails. I’m open to EM doing “stuff” other than processing information, but I would want to know “how that works”. Actually, since it’s a little farther from my interest, I would want someone else to know how that works, and then I’ll be happy that someone does.

            Keep on keeping on.


            Liked by 1 person

    2. Hello Michael,
      I’m pleased that you’ve kept following the conversation. I’m skeptical of quantum mechanics being responsible for macro brain function, or something on the scale of neurons and synapses, but not in the micro sense of basic material dynamics. Apparently the function of our microchips depend upon the quantum dynamics of electrons, for example. But given your curiosity that brains might not just function by means of electrochemical dynamics, but the electromagnetic radiation associated with neuron firing, I have some speculation that you might consider interesting.

      My theory is that the entire brain functions as a non-conscious computer, though one of its countless forms of output, is to create a qualia experiencing entity in the form of electromagnetic radiation associated with specific neuron firing patterns. I suspect that this qualia experiencing entity effectively evolved to become an auxiliary form of brain function, or what we now refer to as “consciousness” — the medium by which existence is experienced.

      Arguing for this perspective of consciousness as electromagnetic radiation, is UK professor Johnjoe McFadden. Here’s his 2002 paper on the topic.

      He’s also very much into quantum dynamics, though specifically in relation to biology rather than consciousness.

      It looks like you’ve got something substantial going over at your blog with “The feminine science of water, part 4”. I’ll have to look through the previous editions as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Eric,

        Thanks for the note. I skimmed James’ site and found it intriguing. Will go back for more soon. Here’s a paper I found recently you may enjoy, “The Easy Part of the Hard Problem: A Resonance Theory of Consciousness.” Google the title and you should find it easily. It’s an interesting corollary I think to what you’ve just shared.

        I can’t speak to the notion of a qualia experiencing entity being produced by neural patterns, but I wouldn’t arbitrarily discount it. The more I think on this the more it seems clear that matter-experience have to be directly joined somehow… meaning I don’t think we can get too far saying one produces the other, or vice versa. But that paper I just referenced has some (for me) very interesting hypothetical solutions to the combination problems of panpsychism. And may well be in line with what you’re suggesting.


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      1. Yeah, I really wish there was a way to turn off this “feature”. It’s an inline frame on larger screens, which gives you a download link in the upper right corner. But I didn’t realize until now that it was an inert image on mobile. Just edited your comment to make it an anchored link.

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  8. (To minimize further timestamp disorder, I’m dropping down.)

    Thanks for suggesting that paper Michael. I’ve been somewhat familiar with Tam Hunt as an extreme panpsychist through his commentary over at the physics blog Backreaction. (I have enormous respect for the owner of that blog, German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder.) I wasn’t familiar with his partner, moderate panpsychist Jonathon Schooler. I don’t have much sympathy for their perspective, which I’ll discuss, as well as contrast with my own.

    One question to ask here, is have they begged the question by explicitly beginning from the premise that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature, and then used that foundation to conclude that panpsychism is true? I won’t say that they explicitly did so, since they didn’t formally state that panpsychism is true in the end. But to me they did very much imply this to be the case, and somewhat by citing all sorts of papers which aren’t at all aligned with their cause (such as the one by McFadden which I cited earlier). While I suppose it’s standard in academia to do this sort of thing, I don’t like the practice, and certainly not for a stance as incredible as their’s.

    I suppose that one could also claim that I beg the question by beginning from the premise that not everything is conscious, and then conclude that consciousness ultimately emerges from causal dynamics. Well maybe… but come on! That’s the position of all who believe that they needed worry about “hurting” a rock when it’s crushed. I consider it sensible. And indeed, panpsychists don’t trouble themselves about that either, since they consider rocks conscious to an extremely minor degree. But what their position technically does do is eliminate a “hard” problem by changing it into a question of how countless consciousnesses in nature become unified to become you or me. So it amounts to the same thing that other theorists try to do, though with a convenient head start of consciousness being fundamental. It’s either tricky or spooky as I see it, though I’m not inclined to go either way.

    Regardless, have you noticed how consciousness theories in general today are all about how to build it neurologically, though don’t much get into human nature itself? To me this approach is entirely backwards. Why not begin from the premise that evolution (or even a god) built us, and then try to develop useful models of what it is that was built? Since psychology supervenes upon neuroscience, it’s psychology which should ultimately provide neuroscientists with various particulars of what neuroscientific theories will ultimately need to address. And because psychologists have no broad general theory regarding our nature (including no useful and agreed upon definition for “consciousness”), neuroscience lacks a basic platform from which to work.

    The main reason that psychology fails in this regard, I think, is because it’s naturally more susceptible to the failure of philosophy. This is to say that without a community of respected professionals armed with generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, true progress cannot be made in the field, thus dooming associate neuroscience as well.

    What I’ve done is develop a psychology based “dual computers” model of brain function, and it’s supported by my single principle of metaphysics, two principles of epistemology, and single principle of axiology. So there’s a great deal that needs to be fixed as I see it. What conceptually brings me into neuroscience, is that my psychology based dual computers model of brain function, demands there to be a consciousness substrate. Thus I practice what I preach — philosophy supports psychology, which again supports neuroscience.

    Apparently for a moment Mike and James mistook you for me regarding your position on em fields. I don’t mind when people propose ideas beyond the realm of causal dynamics, though I do mind when they fail to acknowledge the supernatural nature of their stance. Thus the development of my “thumb pain” thought experiment. I would hope for it to help straighten some things out in these troubled fields some day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Eric,

      First, I should say I appreciate Mike’s willingness to let us continue this dialogue here.

      I sent the paper primarily because I thought it had some interesting info on the role of coherence in brain function, and because I personally “like” in some vague way some of their notions. What I never like in conversation on complex topics is the assumption that because you provide a link or reference, it means you align with the reference start-to-finish. I don’t know if I do or not, but I like some of their ideas.

      I don’t know all that much about your model, but I think we could all agree that one of three things is true: the matter-energy continuum as currently understood is fundamental, and consciousness is somehow produced by it; consciousness is fundamental and the matter-energy continuum as currently understood is somehow produced by it; or the matter-energy continuum and consciousness are both equally fundamental–two sides of the same coin as that paper expressed it.

      My personal position is that reality is likely in accord with the second or third hypothesis of the preceding paragraph, but not the first. Those whose position is the first will find the second as a belief in supernaturalism, I suppose, and the third awkward at best. But if the possibility is reasonably in play that the second or third position are in fact correct, then the assertion that they are based on some form of supernaturalism is simply a statement of allegiance to the first. Everyone has opinions. To require people to declare themselves as supernaturalists, or materialists, or emergentists, or monists, or anything else, before expressing themselves in a formal paper, is in my mind silly. I mean, it taints the notion that arguments stand on merit, rather than philosophical allegiances.

      The notion, by the way, that those who see consciousness as fundamental are hypocritical when they step on rocks is predicated on an anthropocentric and narrow view of what consciousness is, or might be. All I have to say to refute that is that rocks quite like to be stepped on, as it is in their nature and inherent in their very being to accommodate such. It may in fact, be an affirmation of their being.

      Where does your notion that consciousness must be a substrate place your model in the three categories I described above?


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      1. “First, I should say I appreciate Mike’s willingness to let us continue this dialogue here.”

        No worries Michael. I like conversations like this, particularly when they’re relevant and interesting.

        I’m definitely in the first camp by the way. (But I’m sure you’d figured that out already. 🙂 )

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m shocked, Mike! Haha. I’m not as interested in a world where all agree on everything as I am a world in which we can respect and appreciate each other’s views, and enjoy understanding how we’ve come to the points we have. Then we can learn something.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. Michael,
        Yes cheers to our host, who lives for this stuff. And given the subject matter, our good friend Lee Roetcisoender should be itching to get in here as well if the opportunity arises.

        I do not take you to believe anything beyond what you tell me, and regardless of which papers interest you. I also found the one you shared interesting, though don’t adopt the position myself. What we have here is the opportunity for an exchange of ideas, so let’s speak our minds freely and confidently without worry of harsh judgement. My own brand of rhetoric is influenced by the great Mahatma Gandhi. While some have frustrated themselves by battling me in anger, others have been far more resourceful.

        As for your trichotomy, I’m not sure that I’d quite put myself under any such category, though I will try to more expansively explain what my beliefs here happen to be.

        Is consciousness produced by a matter-energy continuum? I find terms like “qualia” and “sentience” to equate with my own conception of consciousness, though I think without quite as much baggage. Furthermore I’m not sure that a matter-energy continuum is a general enough description. Instead I prefer “causal dynamics of this world”. Then there’s my single principle of metaphysics to factor in. It states, “To the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to understand”. So given that I (conveniently) desire nature to be understandable (thus preserving the institution of science), I presume that qualia exists by means of causality. If my own metaphysics does fail however, then qualia would thus exist supernaturally. So I present this dichotomy.

        From here, how might everything be sentient to some degree? This could be through definition, since causality itself might be defined as sentience (which I believe Mike has referred to as “naturalistic panpsychism”). Though I don’t consider this to be a useful perspective, I also don’t consider it supernatural given that causality would remain. But another way to go would be to take qualia to exist fundamentally on at least some level, and so be something beyond causality, (which I believe he’s called “pandualism”). This would be the supernatural variety. I suppose your second two options roughly fall here, though they don’t seem to translate well. I’m not sure if anyone would say that sentience creates causality for example. Regardless I suspect that Tam Hunt would say that I’ve presented a false dichotomy and refuse to choose between the naturalistic and dualistic kinds. Thus we’d need to explore that. It could be that he’d provide a third option that I haven’t considered.

        On my “thumb pain” thought experiment, this is my way of potentially challenging a vast array of naturalists in science. I believe that they’ve mistakenly adopted a supernatural position, and so I’d like to effectively illustrate this to them. Note that I don’t mind their position being beyond the realm of causality, though I do mind that they presume otherwise. So just as John Searle angered countless scientists with his 1980 Chinese room thought experiment, and yet failed, I have a thought experiment which I hope will better illustrate the meaning of their position. It essentially demonstrates that the idea of qualia as information processing without associated mechanical instantiation, unlike anything else known to be produced by a computer, is not “of this world”. So this is a test of whether or not a mainstream position happens to be firmly grounded, not some kind of ideological manifesto.

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        1. My own take on Michael’s trichotomy:
          1. matter + energy -> consciousness
          physicalism / materialism (including emergentism, illusionism, naturalistic panpsychism)

          2. consciousness -> matter + energy

          3. consciousness coequal with matter + energy
          various forms of dualism, including pandualism (dualistic panpsychism)

          I’m in the physicalism / emergentism camp myself. (Although I’m a weak emergentist, which makes my position ontologically equivalent to illusionism, but with different terminology.)

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        2. Here’s my take on Michael’s trichotomy:

          “…the matter-energy continuum and consciousness are both equally fundamental–two sides of the same coin as that paper expressed it.”

          This option corresponds with the definition of consciousness I outlined in a previous post. I’m aligned with this third option with the following qualifier:
          Door number three would certainly fall into the category of various forms of dualism under the current paradigm of SOM. Nevertheless, choice number three would not be a form of dualism under the architecture of RAM. Reality/appearance metaphysics is the only metaphysics that has the capacity to eliminate dualism in all of its prevailing forms. I’m speculating here, but I think that Michael understands the fundamental distinction between SOM and RAM; if he does, that would be why he choose to express it as two sides of the “same” coin.

          The fundamental problem I have with this research paper is that consciousness is directly correlated with the phenomena of mind. That is a fundamental mistake. What nobody seems to understand is that mind is just another physical system, just like any other physical system. Unless or until panpsychists are willing to move away from the phenomena of consciousness being some form of “mind”, panpsychism will continue to be untenable.


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          1. Hi Lee,

            I do run out of the words to describe this. But the RAM (reality/appearance metaphysics) is closest to what I feel is so. And what it means to me is that temporality, and all of the transitory phenomena that arise within it, are expressions that run on, are formed of, and enabled to exist by the underlying timeless unity (which you term consciousness) in which they all reside. The expressions are short-lived compositions of what already is, like waves in a field or swirls in taffy or something. As compositions, they give dimension and duration to what otherwise has none, at least for a little while. But they are not separate from the whole–the reality. Words do not do it justice.

            But because I think “local” experience is the “third” thing that arises, I think it will be impossible through analytical methods to determine with certainty that either Option 1 or Option 2 in my trichotomy are correct. I think a relationship must obtain between the whole and the part for experience to obtain. Experience is the perspective of the part as glimpsed by the Whole. Or something like that. Or maybe nothing like that at all. 🙂



        3. Hi Eric,

          Lots for me to parse here, and given our limited exchanges in the past, I’m finding it slightly challenging to go beyond words to the real meaning of what you’re writing in a couple of places. But all the more reason to continue. I also think the reply I write to Lee below may shed light on some things.

          In interpret your first paragraph as reframing my “matter-energy –> consciousness” (option 1) as “causality –> consciousness,” to borrow Mike’s helpful simplification of the language. In this scenario, consciousness (e.g. qualia and/or sentience) are the product of causality. This is obviously an insightful thought because it brings up all kinds of things for me. The first might be this question: (if you’ll permit me) is what I’ve described as the matter-energy continuum causal in nature? Let us say I have a long, straight strand of dominoes (a deterministive universe) and I tip the first one over (the Big Bang), then I think you can see there are perhaps two types of causality one could consider. I’m not a philosopher, so don’t know how to describe the two, and undoubtedly someone already has, but the act of knocking over the first domino is in some sense the “ultimate cause” and then there are all the “proximate causes” that relate one dominoe to the next. When I proposed that one option for understanding consciousness was that it might be produced by the matter-energy continuum, I meant by all the proximate causes of a physical universe set in motion. I interpret your reframing to suggest that this view may be myopic. I wouldn’t disagree, but I also think for the purpose of general conversations here, the interest level is primarily on how the chain of falling dominoes (a very complex chain, albeit) produces consciousness. And so I was kind of thinking on that level. All that said, in your reframed option 1, qualia and sentience would be the “products of causality”, right?

          My second option would be that consciousness does indeed produce causality in the sense that observers of the matter-energy continuum would understand it. In this second option, something called consciousness produces the matrix of conditions in which causality may meaningfully exist. Those conditions are the dynamic relationships of “here”-to-“there” on which causality depends (in the proximate sense). So, something which is equatable with consciousness, though not exclusively with any particular form of it, and which may partake of forms we cannot imagine, is responsible for providing the means by which causality can occur. There’s all sorts of nuances we could discuss, and which I’ve just written about and deleted like sixteen times. But to keep it simple, the second option was simply an attempt to say it could be the reverse of one. I realize as I write this, I don’t really think this is how it is.

          The third option, and the one I would personally espouse at this point in my thinking, is hard to explain. I think Option 1 and Option 2 are both in a sense correct. If you imagine a consciousness that produces the conditions of causality as I have described, then you are left to wonder where the hell such a consciousness went, if after that time all the dominoes just fall over one after another as ordained at the beginning. But if that consciousness is still active, then how can we account for the profoundly unwavering workings of the natural laws? They just never. Even. Blink. So what’s the point of discussing anything outside of or beyond them?

          Well, for me, the answer is experience itself. Experience is the reason why the conditions of causality would be created. I don’t have this all worked out by any means Eric, but my sense is that the entire point of producing the conditions of causality is to provide the venue in which experience may arise. Experience then might arise when a coupling occurs between the Something and various elements of the matter-energy continuum (which was produced of its own essence, whatever that is; call it light for lack of a better term). I know this is a bit clunky as I don’t really have the words for it Eric. The reason, to Lee’s point, is that it just doesn’t compute in SOM metaphysics. It ends up being duality. But it’s also a unity. My body may be acting entirely deterministically, but it is the coupling to presence itself that allows for the specificity of experience. So you can’t have experience without information processing and mechanical instantiation any more than you can have it without this coupling to the Something that exists outside of time.

          I’ll try a simple example. Remember the Wonder-Twins from Hannah-Barbera? They touch hands and unify, and release their power, and then let’s say one becomes wind and the other becomes a windmill. Then the wind blows through the windmill and you produce a third thing. And that thing is experience. And it could look like duality, for sure. But that’s just if you look at it from a certain perspective. Because you could also comprehend that an underlying unity holds and informs the entire temporal apparatus so that experience may come into being. Is the experience the product of the windmill? Sure. Is it the product of the wind? Yes. Is it in some specific place? Probably if you look for it there.

          So… apologies for the long note, Eric. I do appreciate the chance to delve into these things. Can you send me a link to your thumb experiment so I can find it easily enough?


          Liked by 1 person

          1. Sounds good Michael. On altering the first of your three options, I merely did this because if I’m putting my own stamp of approval on something, then I may as well get it the way I like it. I didn’t consider your option one myopic or beyond causality. It’s just that I’m not entirely sure that matter – energy (as the terms are commonly understood), happen to be expansive enough in themselves. Perhaps they are, but don’t we need to include things like “time” and “space” for example? So the “causality” substitution was an attempt to make sure nothing relevant was left out of the system.

            Then the qualia or sentience substitution for consciousness was an attempt to help specify what I personally mean by the term. Anything that feels good or bad is “conscious” as I define it, and not otherwise.

            I personally don’t get into any initial cause speculation, but rather just proximate.

            So your second option was meant to be the opposite of the first? Yes that does help clarify the idea for me, or that sentience creates the causal world. I guess Mike’s “idealism” suggestion corresponds as well. Apparently you’ve decided that you’re not a fan of this option. I’m pretty sure that Lee isn’t either.

            As for the option that you did choose, or number three, I can’t say that I quite grasp your explanation, though in past discussions with Lee I do know of a substantial difference with my own perspective. I perceive him to be concerned about using Reality itself to further determine what to believe. Though I’d love to do so as well, I see myself as a mere subject of what’s real, so the only Reality that I should ever be able to grasp with perfect certainty, is that my subjective existence itself does exist (or qualia/ consciousness). Thus I do not seek what’s Real in the end, but rather what seems to be real given my subjective experience. Here we use a provisional institution which builds upon ideas that seem to work, or “science”. So this is epistemic, while option three seems to try to be ontological, though I’m not sure this is possible from a subjective of plain such as my own.

            Thanks for noticing that I didn’t provided my thumb pain thought experiment in this thread, and even though I’ve referred it several times. So here goes:

            When my thumb gets whacked, it’s generally presumed that information about this event is provided to my brain by means of connecting nerves. Furthermore it’s presumed that the brain accepts this information and then creates a new set of information through associated neuron firing. Well apparently many who study the brain today thus posit that thumb pain probably exists as processed information alone — or a conceptual solution to an otherwise challenging problem.

            Note however that if qualia exists when certain information is converted into other information, or without dedicated qualia producing mechanisms, then conceptually we could produce qualia with information laden sheets of paper associated with a thumb whack, that’s processed into other information laden sheets of paper which correlate with resulting neuron firing. I don’t however know of anything which is produced in nature, without animating associated output mechanisms. For example, your computer does not produce screen images by means of information processing alone, but rather by providing electrical signals which animate an actual screen. Producing a screen image by means of information on paper that’s converted into other information on paper, would of course be considered supernatural. So it seems to me that proposing qualia to exist that way should be as well. I know of nothing documented which functions as such — associated mechanisms seem to always exist.

            (Note that objecting on the basis of information quantity should fail, because these stacks of paper could be arbitrarily large. Then objecting of the basis of processing speed should also fail, because the computer which processes such information into a new stack, could be arbitrarily fast.)

            My qualia solution is to take that second stack of paper, and feed it into a machine which is armed with qualia producing mechanisms, whatever they may be. Recently I’ve become quite intrigued by the possibility that the electromagnetic radiation produced by neuron firing, effectively serves this purpose. I don’t know what else could preserve sufficient neuron firing fidelity. Furthermore this fits well with my psychology based dual computers model of brain function. Here the entire brain is a non-conscious computer, though it’s often able to create a second computer by means of the em fields that it creates.

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          2. Thanks for the clarifications above, and recount of your thumb experiment, Eric.

            I see what you mean about time and space being include, and in my own term “material-energy continuum” I would include both, largely because they are variables in relativity theory on level ground with matter and energy. They are “parameters” of the physical universe. So I’d say we’re on the same page after these clarifications.

            I think it would take a whole book to clarify my thoughts on Option 3. Lee has written his, and it’s worth checking out. I’ve not gotten that far as of yet. But I’ll just say that for me there are many forms of science. Other cultures, for instance, that have evolved ceremonial practices over thousands of years, in my mind, have an epistemic accounting of reality different than our own mainstream views. I’m reluctant to suppose, given my own encounters with other such vantages, that such considerations are moot because they don’t fit. People who inhabit such spaces are, like yourself, build upon ideas that work, and are evidenced in their daily-individual-subjective experience. When we consider such, it creates (for me) a very different accounting of nature than one would find from the “mainstream” perspective.

            As to your thumb experiment, I do think I see what you are saying. I think it’s hard to set information on sheets of paper as being equivalent to the active information processing that takes place in both computers and human brains. Maybe this is your point. The “magic” is not in the information recorded on the paper, it is in the process that takes one set of parameters on a sheet of paper, does something with that information, and writes another set. Qualia would, in your mind, if I understand, emerge only from such a process, and not from the static remnants of that process that may be archived on paper.


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          3. Michael,
            Lee and I go back a couple of years. I did initially read a good bit of “The Wizard’s Reign” to get a better sense of him. I’m a simple guy however and the theory parts didn’t give me something that I personally could grasp. And surely it’s extra challenging for one theorist to interest another given somewhat diverging messages. I certainly did enjoy the motorcycle trip parts. He and I are kindred spirits in the sense that we’re each extremely passionate about this stuff, as well as find it difficult to be heard.

            On the traditions of various non-standard cultures to potentially be “scientific”, well sure. But of course they don’t seem to provide anything as empirically successful as physics, chemistry, biology, and the like. “Hard science” however is not what most concerns me, and it could be that various non-mainstream cultures have some potential to teach the mainstream a great deal about effective metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. I suspect that our failure here has largely doomed our mental and behavioral sciences.

            On my thought experiment, I very much appreciate your consideration — this sort of thing helps me work out the bugs. You seem to nearly have it — one of the two positions is exactly as you’ve said. But instead of mine, that’s the mainstream perspective. It’s thought that brains create qualia by dynamically converting one set of information into another. So I make this position explicit with my thought experiment by saying if that’s the case then it might just as well occur by means of a paper to paper conversion.

            My belief is that all causal emergence requires more than information in any format whatsoever, that’s processed into another such set. I know of no examples of this in the causal world. Thus I presume that in the brain there must actually be physics based mechanisms which processed information animates in order to create qualia. I mentioned how it would be considered supernatural if my computer’s processed information were to produce screen images, though without animating a screen. Similarly it would be considered supernatural if its processed information created music, without being fed to something like a loud speaker. In fact, all output models that I know of depend upon an output mechanism. Thus there should be qualia producing mechanisms in the brain which are animated when my thumb gets whacked. If my position were to become widely understood, I suspect that it could succeed where John Searle’s famous Chinese room, has failed even given 40 years of prominence.

            His is quite different in the sense that it depends upon people grasping the meaning of “understanding” a language. Could a hypothetical computer that passes the Turing test, “understand” what I’m writing by merely converting certain information into other information? Apparently this has been a fuzzy enough idea to doom his thought experiment in a practical sense. So mine uses something that should be very difficult to misinterpret, or the experience that we have when our thumbs gets whacked.

            Furthermore while he doesn’t propose an explicit solution to the problem, or that there must be brain mechanisms which are animated by processed information, I do. He essentially didn’t give people a simple way out of their supernatural position, and so has effectively been ignored. (And if I could somehow get my version out there for general consideration, I’d use it as a springboard to challenge the status quo in even more revolutionary ways!)

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