Regular people: What hard problem of consciousness?

The hard problem of consciousness, a term coined by philosopher David Chalmers, asks how physical systems can produce phenomenal consciousness.  Chalmers’ term, coined in the 1990s, applied to an older problem that’s been around for along time, the mind-body problem.  More recently, Chalmers noted his intuition that the hard problem is widely and intuitively held by most people, at least people who are self reflective.

His intuition stands in contrast to observations from people like Keith Frankish and Peter Carruthers, who argue that they often have to work to convince their students that there is a hard problem.  In their experience, it’s not something students intuitively feel until they’ve become grounded (indoctrinated?) in philosophical arguments.

There have been some studies in recent years that tried to test these intuitions.  One asked people whether a robot could see red or feel pain.  Philosophers surveyed said no, however non-philosophers thought the robot might see red, but were less likely to see it as feeling pain.  Although there have been arguments that the formulation of the questions might have skewed the results.

A preprint is out about a new experimental philosophy study by Rodrigo Díaz, testing people’s intuitions about the hard problem.  The study conducted a series of surveys designed to get at people’s intuitions, focusing in particular on pain.

In the initial survey, people read two stories.  One was about science linking the feeling of pain to neural activity in a particular brain region.  The other, a control case, about science linking water to H20.  They were then asked how much they agreed with each of two statements about each story, an epistemic reduction statement and a metaphysical reduction statement.

The epistemic reduction stated that the properties of (pain / water) were fully explained in terms of the (neural activity / chemical composition).  The metaphysical reduction stated that the (feeling of pain / substance water) just is (neural activity / chemical composition H20).  The respondents rated how much they agreed or disagreed with each statement for each story on a number scale.

The results were the same for both pain and water on the epistemic reduction statement, and close on the metaphysical reduction statement, indicating the the respondents didn’t see consciousness as a particular problem.

However, someone could argue that the story, as an authoritative statement about what science had accomplished, could have been leading the respondents.  So follow up surveys made the story less certain, and then eliminated it altogether, just asking new respondents cold about the reduction statements.  The results stayed consistent.

A second group of surveys told a slightly different story, one that noted how controversial the connection between subjective mental states and objective brains states were.  This led to a sharp decrease in the number agreeing (from 80% down to 47% on the epistemic reduction).  When the reasons for the disagreements were analyzed, about half did seem related to concerns about consciousness, but the other half stemmed from concerns about how complete the science was.

I imagine people will be dissecting the results and methodology here, but the results seem to indicate that, unless prompted by a description of mystery, people don’t see a problem with the experience of pain being reduced to physical processes, and so, don’t seem to see consciousness as irreducible.  After being prompted, more do seem to see it as an issue, but many others either don’t, or only do from concerns related to the science.

So most regular people don’t seem to see the hard problem of consciousness.  Although the change in results with the prompt may indicate that at least some of them can pick it up easier than Frankish or Carruthers implied.

When pondering these results, it’s worth noting that the modern concept of consciousness only goes back to the 17th century.  (The ancient Greek discussions about the soul are often now taken to be discussions of consciousness, but that’s us retconning our own concepts onto theirs.)  And even the early modern references are more about the access aspects rather than the phenomenal ones, which don’t become prominent until the 20th century.

All of which is to say, maybe the philosophers have just psyched themselves out on this.  The problem with phenomenal consciousness could just be a backlash to the death of dualism.

Or maybe I’m missing something?

88 thoughts on “Regular people: What hard problem of consciousness?

    1. I don’t think that’s how it is implied here. I don’t think Mike nor Frankish and Carruthers are making the argument that because the majority think there is a hard problem. In my understanding, they are trying to see what percentage of the population are even aware of the problem.

      Maybe I am missing something?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. To be fair, neither I, nor Frankish or Carruthers actually think there is a hard problem, at least aside from the sum total of the “easy” problems.

        But in this ongoing debate, if there was a side more likely to cite popular opinion, it was the one arguing for hard problem realism.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Intuition, or even just popular opinion, might be the starting point of an argument, but has any serious thinker ever just left it there?

          And what about the intuitions of Franish, Carruthers, or yourself? These appeals to intuition always seem to involve the other guys. Don’t the same limits and errors apply to all?


    2. Well, to be fair, Chalmers used the “Joe the plumber” argument first.

      When the argument is based on objective facts and logic, then the intuitions of the population don’t matter. But when the argument is only based on intuition, then arguably they do.


      1. “Well, to be fair, Chalmers used the ‘Joe the plumber’ argument first.”

        “He started it!” 😀

        We were talking about subjectivity recently, and you quoted Chalmers’s list of “easy” problems that can be defined functionally. Later in that same paper he writes:

        “What makes the hard problem hard and almost unique is that it goes beyond problems about the performance of functions. To see this, note that even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience – perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report – there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? A simple explanation of the functions leaves this question open.”

        Which is a point you and I have gone around on for years. People in general have gone around this since forever. There are intuitions and arguments on both sides.

        At this point, the bottom line is still that there is no reductive physical explanation for subjective experience.

        “But when the argument is only based on intuition, then arguably they do.”

        That might be the starting point (of many arguments) but it’s only the starting point. I think it’s unfair to imply there aren’t reasonable and valid arguments on both sides. The debate wouldn’t be so hard to resolve if that weren’t true.

        As I said in our last discussion, I want reductive physical principles explaining subjectivity. If type-A materialism is correct, then such principles must exist — subjective consciousness has to be an objective phenomenon of a mechanism. Therefore its principles of operation can be determined.

        Give that any label that works. I don’t care what we call it; I care about figuring it out. Has anybody’s research been either constrained or supported by the label? Why does the label matter so much?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Above, you stated that intuitions are only starting points. I fully agree.

          Who leaves it there? Well, let’s discuss Chalmers. My question is, where, in the quote, does he move beyond intuition? Where in the entire paper does he move beyond it for the core question? I went carefully through that paper last year and looked for it in vain.

          In the followup paper, he seems to admit that he never does:

          Dennett might respond that I, equally, do not give arguments for the position that something more than functions needs to be explained. And there would be some justice here: while I do argue at length for my conclusions, all these arguments take the existence of consciousness for granted, where the relevant concept of consciousness is explicitly distinguished from functional concepts such as discrimination, integration, reaction, and report. Dennett presumably disputes this starting point: he thinks that the only sense in which people are conscious is a sense in which consciousness is defined as reportability, as a reactive disposition, or as some other functional concept.

          But let us be clear on the dialectic. It is prima facie obvious to most people that there is a further phenomenon here: in informal surveys, the large majority of respondents (even at Tufts!) indicate that they think something more than functions needs explaining.

          That last part is particularly striking given the current paper’s results.

          On my, Frankish, and Carruthers’ intuitions, here I can only speak for myself. We have mountains of evidence for functionality, and none for anything else. And I personally think we do find explanations for experience in the functionality. Granted, we don’t understand all that functionality yet, but it’s all scientifically tractable.

          I probably did have an intuition at some point that there had to be more. As we’ve discussed before, I think it’s a natural innate one. But if so, it disappeared long ago in the face of the referenced evidence. Of course there’s no evidence for a lack of something else, but there’s also no evidence for a lack of the luminiferous aether, phlogistan, or an elan vital, but we stopped looking for those things once we realized we didn’t need them.

          Not sure what you’re asking about on labels. We can say that neuroscience studies of functionality continue and make progress every year. (Well, maybe not so much in this miserable year, but in normal years.)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “My question is, where, in the quote, does he move beyond intuition?”

            Where do you see him invoking intuition in that quote? He says functionality leaves subjective experience unexplained. Which it does. As he says, the question is currently open.

            “Where in the entire paper does he move beyond it for the core question?”

            If the question is both hard and open, how could he provide an answer? The paper is about the question.

            “That last part is particularly striking given the current paper’s results.”

            I don’t take any survey terribly seriously, and I agree with Disagreeable Me’s thoughts about this survey. I do think Chalmers’s assessment is probably correct — informed opinions do tend to see an explanatory gap. Illusionism is a minority opinion.

            “Of course there’s no evidence for a lack of something else, but there’s also no evidence for a lack of the luminiferous aether, phlogistan, or an elan vital, but we stopped looking for those things once we realized we didn’t need them.”

            Exactly. Once we fully understood those systems, we didn’t need them. We aren’t at that point with consciousness, yet. We don’t have a reductive physical explanation.

            “Not sure what you’re asking about on labels.”

            Just that I have never understood this arguing over the “Hard” problem vs the hard-ish problem vs the easy problem vs no problem at all. Has it ever actually mattered? There is a question to be answered: Where does subjective experience come from? That’s all it is: a question to be answered.

            “And I personally think we do find explanations for experience in the functionality.”

            I’m surprised a reductive functionalist who believes in type-A materialism would accept what seems a vague emergent explanation of something as complex and rich as subjective experience.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. In the first quote, Chalmers just asserts that the problem is beyond functionality as though it’s obvious. He doesn’t run through any logic or cite any evidence. And in the second quote, he admits that he never does. It’s just “prima facie obvious.” Not to me. I need that statement justified. Instead the most common reaction is accusations of denial.

            On hard vs easy problems, since to me the hard problem is just the easy problems combined, it doesn’t matter to me. But it seems to matter to a lot of other people who insist that learning about functionality provides no traction on the problem they care about.

            Who said anything about being satisfied with vague emergent explanations? I want every detail of experience accounted for. I see partial broad accountings so far, but nothing in principle preventing the rest, nothing that will require new physics or other exotic solutions.


          3. “In the first quote, Chalmers just asserts that the problem is beyond functionality as though it’s obvious.”

            Okay, fair enough, maybe he’s only saying that he doesn’t see how functionality explains subjective experience, but plenty of informed people agree. As far as we know, both are valid views.

            I agree with his assessment and I’ve put forth a specific requirement: a reductive physical explanation. (It sounds like we agree one is needed.) You seem to consider it more of a done deal than I do.

            I kinda wonder, if we have all the pieces, why is that is that explanation so hard to find?


          4. As I said above, we’re constantly learning more. The picture is incomplete, with some sharp parts, others blurry, and gaps where I don’t doubt there will be surprises, but not the kinds I think a lot of people are hoping for.

            Liked by 1 person

    3. Intellectual snob that I find myself sometime to be, I too might look askance at the inclusion of the sort of people gulity of voting in the absurd Trump as president. Oddly though, I suspect such people, shorn of pretension as they are, might have something useful to add on a question as universal as consciousness. On which subject I find our philosophers guilty of muddled bigotry and closed minds.


    4. Oddly enough the people who voted in the absurd Trump might just have views worth listening to on this subject. Guilty of intellectual snobbery and usually wont to refer to such people in a rather unfair and prejudicial manner, I find the bigotry and pretensions of the philosophers of mind such that I welcome the view of the man on the street. The hillbilly, the gun toting nutters. The ordinary and decent working classes. As conscious beings, they might just have something to say which the bickering clowns speaking loudly on this subject might benefit from listening to. Perhaps I am getting too old and leaning far to far to the radical.


    1. Mark,
      On a more serious note there is also “the hard problem of gravity”, as well as the three other such known forces. Regardless of what humanity does ultimately learn, there should always be a final answer of “…because that’s how nature works”. So subjective experience (though merely stranger to us than the rest since it is us), doesn’t seem all that funky to me. I’m perpetually astounded by modern arrogance in science, as if what we can’t understand would be special. My own sentiments are the reverse.

      Just after our last conversation here in October I learned about theory that the brain might produce qualia by means of the electromagnetic radiation associated with neuron firing. Apparently it’s not taken all that seriously. I was wondering if you and your embodied cognition friends have something against this idea as well? To me it seems plausible enough, and at least isn’t another standard supernatural account. Thanks!


  1. Hi Mike,

    Great article as always. I really should participate more here as it’s a lovely community with very interesting posts by yours truly. Just a lot busier these past years with my son.

    The main point I have to offer on this is that it’s perhaps less interesting what ordinary people might fill out on a survey out of the blue and more important what arguments or thought experiments they might find convincing.

    So it might well be that most ordinary people would reflexively agree that there’s no reason a robot could not be programmed to see red, and indeed some might think robots already can (because we can for example build self-driving cars that know to stop at red lights). Most philosophers would agree that it would be a mistake to take such a car as an example of something which actually perceives red in the way we do. But to me that doesn’t suggest that philosophers are out of step with laypeople so much as it suggests that laypeople are not really fully understanding or thinking about the question.

    Those same people who answer surveys in a manner incompatible with the hard problem might yet find thought experiments such as inverted qualia, the Chinese Room, the Knowledge Argument (Mary) and philosophical zombies to be pretty convincing. I suspect this is in fact the case. If I’m right, then while it may be true that most people don’t see the hard problem of consciousness, this is probably only because they haven’t given it much thought. When they do give it thought, then it may be the case that they would see the problem after all. I would take this to be a vindication of the view that the hard problem of consciousness is an intuitive one latent in the lay population. It’s just that it may take more than a quick survey question to reveal it.

    For what it’s worth, even I have a problem with reducing pain to its physical correlates in a way I don’t with water. If something very much like water were realised on some other substrate (e.g. some other compound with similar properties), then I wouldn’t consider it to be water. But if something very much like pain were realised on a substrate other than the firing of C-Fibers (e.g. the pain of a robot realised in software), then I might yet consider it to be pain. So for me, and perhaps for you, pain is not a physical phenomenon but a functional one. So even we should answer the survey to disagree with a physically reductionist account of pain.

    > The ancient Greek discussions about the soul are often now taken to be discussions of consciousness, but that’s us retconning our own concepts onto theirs.

    Well, maybe and maybe not. I don’t know enough ancient Greek philospophy to discuss this in specifics, but I feel like a claim like this might need some more justification, especially when you seem to be taking issue with the interpretations of others who are perhaps familiar with the Greeks. What I’m trying to say is that it is not necessarily the case that all that’s going on here is bad retconning. I would be slow to dismiss such interpretations simply because the Greeks were talking of souls thousands of years ago rather than consciousness in a modern context. I’d want to take each interpretation on its merits.

    We know a lot more than they did so we can’t have exactly the same concepts. But it seems likely to me that for a lot of Greeks, the notions might be sufficiently analogous to justify interpreting them to be talking about consciousness, especially for those among them who had an atheistic/naturalist/physicalist inclination. They may have made their arguments about souls then for similar reasons to why people make arguments about consciousness now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks DM!

      I totally understand the time demands. No worries. Your views are always welcome whenever you have the time. BTW, I heard you moved to New Zealand? If so, that seems like a very good move in light of the state of the world.

      Generally I agree that there’s limited value in putting too much stock in folk theories of consciousness. But if there’s a side in the debate more likely to cite folk theories, it’s the hard problem realist one. I think most Type-A materialists feel like they’re going against the conventional wisdom. These results are notable because the common assumptions of folk intuitions aren’t necessarily correct.

      I think you’re right that if you have them read philosophical thought experiments, some will be convinced by them. The question is, when that happens, are they receiving new insights, or simply memes. We know memes can spread without any basis in actual fact. It may simply be that they’re being read into the dominant biases and prejudices of the current philosophical profession. This sort of thing is much easier to see when we look at historical periods, and the zeitgeist of those times (consider how much racism permeated everything, including science, in the 19th century), but very difficult to see for our own times.

      I actually would have had serious problems with their pain reduction statement myself. The science in it was just plain wrong. (It’s not that the region they focused on isn’t involved, they just oversimplified it past any degree of accuracy.) But that comes from someone who knows more about it than the average person. I think you’re in the same camp.

      On Greek philosophy, I can’t claim any expertise in it myself. But I have read claims that they discussed consciousness. From the portions I’ve seen, they talk about the soul. (With “soul” meaning different things to different writers.) But as you said, there’s a lot they didn’t know. For that matter, there’s a lot Descartes didn’t know, yet his views still have enormous influence.

      It’s also worth noting that many people, when they talk about consciousness, actually are talking about the soul. When people talk about something irreducible, that is either fully present or completely absent, that seems to hover around the head rather than be the functionality within it, etc, I think they’re talking about a soul more than the functionality of an animal’s control center.


  2. Hello! I just found your site and have been very pleased so far. Congrats on your !000th post. Prolific.
    I am not up to date on all the modern terms and thought experiments, even phrase “hard prob” was relatively new to me. But in older philo terms this is like you say mind-body, or even older the place of and character of Abstractions in our life. This is then, the issue of Functions and their Structures, I guess, as said above. I still get a kick out of seeing on line some of the Designs of “modern” chairs. Crazy looking ‘chairs! Plato’s Idea, “Chair”, that archatype, has it finally been Realized?

    Anyway, how to think about ‘seeing red’ and ‘feeling pain’ and their physical correlates is an interesting issue; maybe we could function well enough referring to them all in physical terms, but when we give Reasons for our beliefs about even more abstract issues, like what we are talking about now, My Intuition fails me on how that could be done in neural terms. It seems to run into self-contradiction. At some point and somewhere in our Phenomenal World, some’thing’ just has to be what it seems to be!

    Or as I say, “Have I missed about a thousand ‘things’? Thanks, I’m sure I can learn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Greg,
      Thanks for stopping by, and welcome!

      It’s a common sentiment that intuition fails on trying to understand how those experiences can be expressed in neural terms.
      Unfortunately, I think too much in the philosophy of mind only exacerbates that issue. In m experience, learning more about neuroscience makes that connection easier to understand.

      But definitely, we all have much to learn.


  3. Wyrd stated:

    “I want reductive physical principles explaining subjectivity. If type-A materialism is correct, then such principles must exist — subjective consciousness has to be an objective phenomenon of a mechanism. Therefore its principles of operation can be determined.

    Give that any label that works. I don’t care what we call it; I care about figuring it out. Has anybody’s research been either constrained or supported by the label? Why does the label matter so much?”

    The label, and that objective phenomenon is Power. Power is the wild card of subjective experience and like any wild card in a deck of cards, power takes on all forms of the expression. Furthermore, that power is intrinsic to the properties of matter, energy and space; from the most fundamental particles up the scale of complexity to the phenomenon of mind, mind being the most powerful of all phenomena.  Because power is radically indeterminate, power is not open to direct inspection. As a force, power is radically indeterminate because power is the cause of all determinations.

    But hey, it’s a label and I’m just some obnoxious hillbilly, gun toting nutter; what do I know?


    Liked by 1 person

      1. Only when I play dress-up. But every time I mention the word power the keyboards go eerily quiet. Why is that? 🙂


    1. Mike,
      Power is the elephant in the room that type A materialists want to ignore: But is power a natural phenomena that is ubiquitous and immanently intrinsic to all physical systems or is power considered to be supernatural? Is power an objective state of the world or is power a subjective state of mind?

      Physics acknowledges the four forces of nature, but are not those “forces” intrinsically power by another name? If one is willing to address those fundamental questions regarding power, then my paragraph may not be so ambiguous.



      1. Lee,
        That’s the thing. That use of power just becomes another way to refer to anything that causes or is capable of causing change. We know nature is full of such forces, ultimately thought to all be combinations of the fundamental ones. I guess the question is, what does the power narrative add to the typical ones? Why use “power” instead of “force” or “energy”?


        1. Because power is the wild card of subjective experience. Subjective experience is literally the objective experience of power, and that power is intrinsic to the properties that construct our biology. As a mind, we use that intrinsic power to make determinations. It is this use of power that’s makes our experience subjective simply because we have the power to determine what things mean or do not mean, accurately or inaccurately. Determinations are subordinate to what the solipsistic self-models says they are until they are not, aka subjective experience.

          Wyrd wanted a label for subjective experience, so I just gave him one. 😦



        2. People are funny creatures. A celebrity like David Chalmers could say the same thing I just stated and people would think that was the greatest thing since apple butter. But if an obnoxious hillbilly, gun toting nutter makes the same assertion, everyone scoffs at the notion.

          Reading Anthony Garner’s comment made me think about it, that’s all. I think I’ll take my favorite thumb and go find a corner somewhere, I’m sure Eric would approve of my remediation measures 🙂



          1. Lee, for what it’s worth, I think almost everything you said so far in this thread is exactly right. I say that because I can map it to my understanding. Where you say Power, I would instead say causal power so as to distinguish concepts like force and energy. But what I can’t map to my understanding is what you mean by “experience” and “subjective”.

            So for me, to exercise causal power is to take an input and generate an output. Is every such exercise an “experience” for you? For me, only particular such exercises are “experiences”. Specifically, for me, an experience is such an exercise where the input is a representational vehicle, and the output is usefully described as a valuable response to information associated with that vehicle.

            As for subjectivity, that’s just reference to the thing doing the exercising. For any given experience, there is a subject that causes that experience. But subjects, as I think you noted somewhere, can be nested. So there also may be a higher order subject which can be said to “have” the experience, which means a subject that can refer to to the “experience”, either in terms of the “feel” of that experience, which is the output and its sequellae, or reference to the informational content in the representational vehicle of that experience.

            So how does my understanding differ from yours?



          2. James,
            Let me address one thing at a time here. Subjectivity is a reference thing for sure, but for the practical purpose of understanding; subjectivity explicitly and exclusively means subordinate. Subjectivity is not correlated in any way to the ontology of subject/object metaphysics (SOM).

            In a hierarchy that has subordinates, the only question is who ultimately holds (owns) the reins of power in that hierarchy. As far as the locus of our own conscious experience is concerned, we, the experiencer holds the reins of power and we use that power to make determinations. Therefore, all of the determinations we make are subordinate to what we, the experiencer say they are, true, false, right, wrong or indifferent, aka subjective experience. Our experience is fundamentally an experience of relationships, and that relationship is with power; the power intrinsic to the representational vehicle (input) and the expression of our own power to make determinations based upon those inputs aka, the output.


            (For any given experience, there is a subject that causes that experience.)

            Eschewing SOM this statement would read: there is a system that causes the experience. Since there are no subjects, the only thing causing the experience is systems.

            (So there also may be a higher order subject which can be said to “have” the experience, which means a subject that can refer to to the “experience”, either in terms of the “feel” of that experience, which is the output and its sequellae, or reference to the informational content in the representational vehicle of that experience.)

            Eschewing SOM, this would mean that the system having these experiences would be the system of mind aka you, me or any other human being. I will address your question regarding experience after I sleep on it. I hope what I’ve stated so far helps.



          3. Ah, I see. I’m not eschewing subject/object metaphysics, I’m embracing it. This allows me to give very definite physical descriptions of subject, object, experience, self, etc.

            I’m hoping you can give similarly definite descriptions of what you mean by subject, self, etc.



          4. James,
            Now you are swinging into the domain of idealism, you know, the cosmic subject, M@L, the grand Pu
            Ba??!!?? According to SOM the use of the word subject is a direct correlation (synonymous) to mind; that’s SOM 101. SOM creates an ontological division between mind (subject) and everything else that is not mind (object).

            To avoid all of the confusion created by the mind/matter dichotomy I group every phenomena into a single category called a system, a system which consists of ancillary systems and sub-systems. The self is just another intricately complex sub-system that interacts with other systems. If you grok Michael’s post, you will see that he does exactly the same thing.

            (So for me, to exercise causal power is to take an input and generate an output.)

            This would be true for me too, but I like to break the experience into the aggregate of its parts also. For example: the input ( a representation vehicle) has power that impinges upon me. That power can impinge upon my biology as well as psychically. Then one exercises casual power as a mechanism in your trifecta where your intrinsic power as a mechanism expresses that power represented by the output.

            The only thing I do not like about your input, mechanism, output model is that it’s isolated from the whole. Again, if you can grok what Michael is attempting to convey you will understand. You computer programming folks have the tendency to mechanize everything. This methodology leaves huge gaps in the picture of reality. My background is in thermodynamics where I dealt with abstract things like heat (energy). Later I moved into the disciple of controls with the input, mechanism, output vocabulary. It was a transition I found easy in contrast to thermodynamics. So you might say that I have been conditioned to think in the abstract, like its a part of my DNA.

            That was a great comic strip……



          5. JoS
            You must not be interested in furthering the conversation so I’ll close with a final anecdote;

            (“I’m not eschewing subject/object metaphysics, I’m embracing it.”)

            You are not unique in this regard because everybody else essentially does the same thing. This is what it fundamentally means to embrace SOM:

            First, there is a “me”; that is one thing and second, there is “everything else”; that is another thing. If reality is a united whole (which it is), then taking an intellectual knife and carving it into two distinctly different things distorts the entire image. Is it any wonder we can’t figure this place out?


            Liked by 1 person

  4. I am reluctant to jump in—Mike and Wyrd are so clearly above my meager grasp on this issue. I would like to add that I think it not worth while to speculate on what the ancient Greeks might have meant by “soul.” The English word “soul” for the Greek term ψυχή (psychi/psuchê) is, at best, confusing to English speakers. It means too many things depending on who we cite.

    Aristotle is easiest to explain. Aristotle’s soul or psychi was translated into Latin as “anima” which might be easier for us to grasp free from other confusions since we get the English concept “animate” from that word. That’s close to his meaning. For Aristotle all living things have a soul. That is, plants, animals, mankind all have a soul—what animates each. Soul gets more complex as we move from plants to mankind. One should also know Aristotle’s four causes (explanations) and two in particular for this discussion—matter and form. A living thing (plant, animal, man) has matter and form—the soul being the form. So, yeah, consciousness is in there somewhere. But, I doubt we’d get much insight in a study of Aristotle or any of the other ancient Greeks on consciousness. In addition to huge translation confusions, Aristotle’s understanding of the natural sciences was so much more primitive than what we have in the 21st Century. And that seems essential when discussing consciousness.

    Although I strongly believe Aristotle is helpful in other philosophical discussions, perhaps not here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Excellent points Matti. Of course the word “soul” has German origins, so it is itself very much a translation.

      Interestingly, the Greek “psyche” originally referred to breath, which to ancient people was probably the main difference between life and death. (Genesis 2:6 has God “breathing life” into Adam’s nostrils.)

      Aristotle’s views have their issues, but his conception of the soul probably is closest to the scientific one of the mind today. I did a post the other day on his hierarchy for the soul as the first part in a series on a book on the evolution of minimal consciousness.

      From what I’ve read, Plato’s conception of the soul is probably closer to the one most people today have of it.


  5. Hi Mike,

    Just based on what you shared, this type of research strikes me as trivial—meaning, there are so many ways to interpret this type of thing it hardly does much besides start a conversation. Which makes it a great blog topic, of course. 🙂

    Asking about consciousness is a little like asking about energy. Does energy exist? If we slice it thin enough we have to say it’s an illusion: only things happening exist. There’s never this thing called energy that we can get our hands on, and it’s not necessary to explain what happens. It’s a useful concept for predictions, but not for explanation.

    If the term energy was controversial, we could have endless debate about whether it even exists or not. We don’t need the concept of energy to explain a bouncing ball, for instance. We just need equations of motion. We need forces and masses. We don’t really need energy. But there’s something about nature that leads us to believe energy is a real thing, and that is the fact that when we analyze any physical event in a certain way there is always a balance. That balance is ultimately what we call energy. Does it exist? Depends how you define it, who you ask, and how you frame the question.

    I think consciousness is like that. We can argue it’s a superfluous concept, but in the end we are struck by the fact that we possess a certain type of knowledge. That knowledge is akin to a type of balance: no action we take is really taken apart from it, and no action we take fails to produce it. Knowledge can be considered an unnecessary or even superfluous concept. We can never isolate it. And yet it informs and is informed by every action we take. And even though our every movement and response pivots around it, it remains utterly irrelevant to the forces and accelerations that describe the pivoting. All that said, there is something about knowledge that bounds the domain of actions we are capable of taking.

    So in this analogy, consciousness is just what we call a deeper, underlying relationship between events. Just like energy is.

    Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so it’s meaningless to argue whether it came first and produced matter, or matter came first and produced energy. It’s just always been there. But it is expressed differently in different systems.

    By analogy, I’d say consciousness is an underlying relationship associated with phenomena that is expressed differently in different systems. But it may not be appropriate to say those systems create it, or that it creates those systems. It is simply bound to and deeply related to, the arising of phenomenon itself.
    It would make no more sense to say that the movement of a million bouncing balls is energy any more than it would make sense to say that a million bouncing neurons is knowledge, or consciousness. It is only appropriate to say that there are deep relationships expressed in these systems that are neither created by those systems, nor that exist apart from those systems.

    In this sense, consciousness, or knowledge, may be expressed in a vast array of ways in all sorts of systems, just as energy can. The intuition that is false is not whether subjective consciousness or knowledge is separate from or integral to our bodies, but the notion that we are isolated systems to begin with. This causes us to imagine we are ‘creators’ of something called consciousness. But we are no more “containers” of it, or “generators” of it, than the solar system is a “container” or “generator” of energy. We are simply a system that possesses a ‘balance’ that we call consciousness.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Michael,
      I think energy is hard to dismiss from science. It may in principle be possible to redo all the equations that include it with other phenomena (although E=mc^2 seems hard without just using another word for E), but energy earns its keep in that its inclusion makes things simpler.

      You’ve discussed this idea of consciousness before. Reading it, I’m struck by the fact that if I replaced “consciousness” with “information” in much of what you wrote, I’d agree completely. Which is to say, I think you’re talking about something real, but I don’t see it as consciousness. Granted, you could define “consciousness” so that it is.

      An objective account of the mind seems very difficult without access consciousness, that is, the information processing aspects of it. It’s seems very difficult to account for subject reports, decisions, language, or many other things without it.

      Phenomenal consciousness, on the other hand, seems much easier to simply dismiss, at least objectively. But it can’t be dismissed completely, because we discuss it. So we have to account for why we discuss it. Here I like Michael Graziano’s answer: we have an internal model of our processing, the contents of which are a simplified and not entirely accurate account of that processing, albeit an evolutionary effective one.

      I don’t think all the contents of phenomenal consciousness are in that model. Most of those contents come from the overall access processing. But our judgments about that experience, about how it can’t be something physical, do come from it.

      Of course, people can insist that there’s still an additional something there, but they can’t specify exactly what it is. That, I think, we have little reason to see as anything other than one of the judgments from that internal model.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mike,

        If this is tedious, I apologize! I just want to make sure my analogy was fully processed before diving into the implications. Please understand, to your first paragraph, that I’m not suggesting the concept of energy is entirely without value when making predictions. I’m just using the concept of energy as an analogy to consciousness, knowing at the outset it is an imperfect one, but I think an interesting one. The basis of the analogy is that energy could be viewed as a ghost in the machine. It is never the cause of anything; it merely has accounting value. If we really drill into energy, we are forced to conclude that everything in the universe has it or is it, or that nothing has it or is it. It is an abstract mathematical concept that is useful, but I still believe the very fact of the matter is that energy is not a causal physical agent in any physical events. In that sense, it cannot be more than an accounting convention invented by humans.

        It’s quite easy to intuit that energy is real, but we cannot posit any accounting mechanisms in the universe that keep track of all this, or we get into real trouble. So we have to say that the accounting always works out, but there is no accountant. And we know there’s no accountant because everything and anything we ascribe to energy can be described through other mechanisms that are in fact causal. Since there is no obvious way to explain how the accounting is perfect without an accountant, we just say it’s natural. It’s just how it is.

        This is the “hard problem of energy.” To borrow your words, but apply them to energy, you can insist there is an additional “something” there, but things can always be explained without it, and no one can specify exactly what it is. Physics cannot say anything about how energy comes into being, so in a sense it is supernatural. The question of my analogy is this: why are you okay with that when it comes to energy, but so opposed to it when it comes to consciousness?

        The answer is mathematics, I think. I realize I am putting words in your mouth, and I welcome correction of course. But I think the math works, so it’s attractive to persons who find other forms in which reality expresses to be muddy or troubling or self-indulgent or whatever. Meanwhile, here is where the analogy breaks down: consciousness is only—depending on how we wish to define it I suppose–experienced through qualities. And so what this whole debate is about is whether or not quality actually exists. Because quality is only assessed by consciousness, and consciousness is only truly known as qualities.

        Your position as I see it is that the world is much simpler to explain if qualities are just a special case of quantities. But I don’t see that as simpler. At least not yet. You need some means of bridging them, and right now the only posited mechanism for the production of quality is a vast amount of “quantities” (billions of them, composed of billions of them) conjoined in an extremely complicated and dynamic apparatus that hustles and bustles and produces an executive summary of what it’s actually doing that can be experienced without an observer, and voila. Meanwhile, a child can understand the logic of quality without any difficulty whatsoever.

        This isn’t simpler, I don’t think. It’s actually profoundly complicated. But it’s calculable, or will be one day, and that makes all the difference. That is this debate as I see it. And when you say, “people can insist that there’s still an additional something there, but they can’t specify exactly what it is,” you are merely restating the difficulty of equating quality with quantity. You are asking a question that cannot be answered on the terms you’ve stipulated, and then concluding a person like me must not have an answer. But I think if we’re honest there are a great many things we all experience that we cannot reduce to quantities without jettisoning the experience.

        Is there really no ground whatsoever for reasonable people to entertain differing positions on this issue and still be reasonable?


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Michael,
          I understand what you’re saying about energy. I’m reminded of something Thales, the first known philosopher in the western tradition, was reported to have concluded, that souls (or gods) were in everything. Stephen West, on his podcast, pointed out that he probably didn’t mean what we today might take him to have meant. In Thales’ time, the vocabulary didn’t exist yet to talk about fundamental forces, so he probably used one of the few words available at the time to convey animating forces.

          So energy is weird. We do have to remember that we don’t fundamentally know what it is, at least beyond the accounting principle you mentioned. Yet, whatever it is, it appears to function according to rigid rules, rules that can be understood and, as you noted, mathematized. I think that’s why we’re comfortable regarding it as natural.

          On qualities, from our direct perspective, they are simpler than quantities. But as far as I can see, that’s only because of the hidden layers of functionality at work in our nervous system. Those hidden layers produce predictive frameworks, mental images, that can be utilized by our action scenario simulation engine. These predictive frameworks come with properties that, for the simulation engine, are irreducible, but that’s only because the engine doesn’t have access to the hidden layers that constructed these mental images. It only has access to the results, which it associated with the label: “qualities.”

          On asking a question that can’t be answered on my terms, I actually try not to set any terms. All I ask is for a description of the purported missing ingredient that I can’t do what I just did above, relate to functionality. Or maybe I should ask, what is missing from what I did above?

          I am asking that the description be put into language, and language always ultimately reduces to shared experience that we recognize. It may be extremely difficult to put into language. For example, I can’t describe the raw experience of yellow to someone born blind.

          But I can describe the things that are yellow, and what feelings perceiving yellow arouses in me, at least the conscious ones. Here again, the hidden layers will get in the way, since there are probably lots of associations of yellow I hold unconsciously. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, at least in principle, describe all the effects of a stimulus from light with a wavelength of 580 nm has on someone’s nervous system, including all the associated memories and affects triggered.
          It’s impossible for the blind person’s nervous system to be put into that state because they lack the necessary functionality, just as it’s impossible for my laptop to be in the state my iphone is currently in. But I can’t see any deep metaphysical mystery about that impossibility.

          There’s always ground for people to entertain different propositions. And it’s exactly to hear why people hold those propositions, or why they think mine are wrong, that I blog. The thing to do, it seems to me, is for us to share the reasons for our positions. I try to share mine and hope to learn other’s.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            I will try to share why I think the way I do further down. But first I want to note a couple of things about your explanations that I think are axiomatic—or expressed as ‘givens’—which I don’t think are obviously so.

            One is when you say, “I am asking that the description be put into language, and [emphasis added] language always ultimately reduces to shared experience that we recognize.” This is quite simply not the case, in my opinion. I was recently having a discussion with a friend about the loss of indigenous languages, and we found ourselves discovering through our dialogue that languages contain all sorts of culturally embedded perceptions that do not translate from one to another. There are simply no corollaries. This is so even within our shared language of English, when two people with very different points of beginning in experiential, non-verbal reality, attempt to crystallize those ‘knowings’ into words. I wouldn’t say that language is the thing that reduces. Experience is what must be reduced into language, and unless there is a considerable runway between persons of differing vantages—nevermind cultures—language is at best a crude tool. For two persons in debate about what lies behind language, it is useless. So when you suggest that something non-existent in your particular language game ought to be conveyed to you in words as you receive them, you are asking something that is not nearly as simple as you posit. It is not, in truth, theoretically possible if you think about it. You and I simply don’t have any shared words or symbols for certain experiential differentiators between our lives, so it cannot be done… unless there is an act of love involved, which is the desire to understand completely, directly and truly. If such a desire truly exists, the words will be found I believe, but it will take time. If we are using language like fixed, discrete quanta of logic, no real meaning can be conveyed unless we both already understand the meaning intended. That is problem one.

            My second difficulty is that your entire description of what happens when we experience quality takes as axiomatic the following: at the highest level, experience is produced by hidden layers of functionality of our nervous system. Once you assume this, everything else follows. I don’t disagree necessarily with where you take things from there. But to think that what follows proves the assertion is circular logic. It’s merely how things appear once the starting point is given. Further, your vision of quality involves “hidden layers of functionality,” “predictive frameworks,” “mental images,” and an “action scenario simulation engine.” To get back to our base problem of language, I have no idea what any of that means, actually. These are themselves high level terms—and space here is obviously limited, so that is not intended as a slight—that refer to very complex mechanics in your model. Again, it largely hinges upon the initial assumption, as does any logical structure. That’s just how it is. But it doesn’t prove or disprove other points of beginning and the logical structures to which they would, in turn, give rise. All of these ideas in quotes have a meaning to you that is potentially quite different than the meaning they have to me because you are committed to the opening proposition.

            The third assumption is that the entirety of experience can be explained in local terms only. Consciousness as you propose it is always a closed system. Certainly there are stimuli received from the environment, so in that sense these systems are not closed, but I think the point stands because that is not what I mean. What I mean is that your model posits that consciousness is “invented” or “produced” from scratch billions of different times in isolation, and no consciousness thus invented or produced partakes directly of any other. This is an assumption. It is the assumption that systems of consciousness are closed and discrete. I think this assumption is incorrect.

            So, not much is missing from your explanation, once you take as your starting point the “given” that consciousness exclusively exists in/as closed, isolated systems (e.g. no two centers of experience can directly share such experience), as produced by hidden functional layers of an organism’s nervous system, and containing only those elements that can be conveyed by language. What’s missing is anything that does not fit into the conceptual structure this point of beginning will logically support.

            The question then is why anyone might wonder if these axioms are completely correct. These would be the reasons why a person might think differently. And these reasons are for me, in no particular order or weighting, and certainly not given exhaustively: Walter Russell, Lao Russell, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Fools Crow, my experience of indigenous ceremony, Beethoven, the role of chance in the formation of complexity, Thich Nhat Hanh, the role of chance in my being here today, Ken Carey, the Buddha, Mozart, Rumi, Tesla, Peter Huebner, Johann Grander, dissociative identity disorder (my mother), Anthony Peake, Hafiz, my wife, experiences of forgiveness, Yasuhiko Kimura, Zen Buddhism, this conversation, Edgar Cayce, Harriet Tubman, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Parmenides, Empedocles, Swami Rama, Martin Luther King, a Huichol shaman’s sacred fire talk one evening, Mari Perron, Helen Schucman, Viktor Schauberger, Wilhelm Reich, Rudolph Steiner, Jose Arguelles, Black Elk, my friend Marie, Hildegard of Bingen, the Tibetan Oracle, events surrounding the current Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet, events surrounding my wife’s experience of indigenous ceremony and indigenous families, events surrounding the death of my grandmother, a quote or two from Sun Ra, two or three specific dreams I had, and most importantly, the deep relatedness between the contents of my heart and the manifest representations of the physical world. These are but a few pointers to what lies outside of the bounding assumptions you have given.


            Liked by 1 person

          2. Hi Michael,
            On language, my statement about it was a bit ambiguous, and that ambiguity, I think, gave you the wrong impression. When I said that all language reduces to experiences we can recognize, I didn’t mean that it’s inevitable that we will recognize it. Perhaps a more accurate way of saying what I meant is that all language ultimately references experience and is only effective if it’s common experience that we mutually recognize.

            My broader point was that language can be a barrier here. But it’s not a hopeless one. It just means overcoming it may require a lot of work.

            Certainly love doesn’t hurt. Empathy is definitely required. Unfortunately, people seem to take any reduction of their experience as an insult, as trivializing it. That’s not my intention. I’m pretty sure it’s not the intention of the vast majority of scientists. But understanding the rainbow inevitably means ruining some of the magic and mystery associated with it.

            On the hidden layers being axiomatic, again, my choice of words here, in an attempt to convey a lot of information quickly, may be causing confusion. “Hidden layers” is a term from artificial intelligence neural networks. Generally such networks have an input layer, an output layer, and one or more “hidden” layers between them, the workings of which are often not obvious, even to the designers.

            By using it in this discussion, I was just referring to the work that the brain does that we don’t have conscious access to. A lot of work happens between the initial sensory neurons and the conscious perception, a lot of hidden layers. I don’t see that idea as controversial or a big assumption. There is pervasive scientific evidence for it.

            Much of that evidence is in neuroscience. You seem extremely well read, including on subjects, like quantum physics, that take a lot of work to understand. I think you should seriously consider reading some neuroscience. I wont say you’ll find all the answers to your questions there. There’ll be some, but definitely far from all. But you will find how the problems can and are being scientifically investigated.

            I’m not sure what you mean by closed system here. Certainly, as you note, the brain takes in information from the environment and utilizes that information for action decisions. Those action decisions may involve communication with other conscious systems. Certainly we are all part of a culture, an ecosystem, and an overall biosphere. And that needs to be part of our analyses. But I’m not sure if I’m addressing your concern on this one.

            The long list of people, documents, and experiences seem to amount to you saying your life experiences are why you think I’m wrong. Fair enough. Although it seems to give me little insight into the nature of my supposed wrongness. And my own life experiences obviously lead me to different conclusions. I try to always be prepared to revise those conclusions, but only for specific reasons.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Hi Mike,

            I have read some neuroscience, though not extensively, and have listened to a number of podcasts such as Ginger Campbell’s. I’m by no means current or familiar with the entire body of work. That said, it seems to me that your opinion is that if I understood the mechanisms of the human brain the way we do the mechanisms of the rainbow, that I would then agree that all instances of consciousness are closed–bounded to and by the very complex aggregations of matter that produce them. I’ll leave out the language part because I understand what you meant better now and it seems we would agree on that.

            So let me just address this one point: if neuroscience were to show, for instance, a new phase or property of matter only present in conscious systems, this might go a long way towards advancing our knowledge of the relationship between consciousness and material systems. I simply don’t think we know enough yet to say that material systems as we understand them today produce serial instances of closed consciousness. This requires ignoring other evidence, but is the underpinning basis of the effort (see next paragraph). I once tried to suggest that coherence in biological systems might be such a candidate, but didn’t communicate very well and you thought I meant exclusively quantum coherence, and then I was very quickly cast as pseudoscientific, and that was that.

            For the time being, neuroscience as you’ve presented it here and I’ve seen it presented to date is primarily attempting to flesh out the details of a particular program–the project of establishing that consciousness is a local phenomenon produced by physical systems in a mechanistic way. As I tried to outline in my previous comment, this project is based on several assumptions I think can be argued in good faith by reasonable people to be incorrect. So I would modify the project just a bit and ask some different questions is all. I wouldn’t throw the whole thing into the river.

            There are several issues we could isolate, but I propose to focus on a simple question: are all known instances of consciousness closed? And here I need to explain what I mean by closed. I mean that no two instantiations of consciousness can be correlated in any way, except through environmentally-mediated, unconscious signals such as sound waves, EM waves, etc. To make this clear, gravity is something of which all matter partakes, and we posit a gravitational relationship between all forms of matter and energy in existence, regardless of distance, subject to the speed of light restriction. So, the sun is not “closed” gravitationally, but is “open” and is influenced gravitationally by all other masses in the universe (subject to the speed of light restriction). When I say consciousness is closed, I am saying that an assumption of the model you are espousing is that there is no field analogous to the gravitational field that would allow localized conscious vehicles to be influenced by one another or any greater systems of consciousness. Each person is a closed container of consciousness, whereas each star is an open conduit of gravitational relationship.

            So, the first question one must answer in addressing such an assumption is this one: are there any examples of consciousness being open? What would that look like? I submit it would mean that such a consciousness receives information or knowledge it could not have known about or received through conventional channels. Are there instances of this? Yes. There are quite literally millions of instances of this, but no one instance is taken to mean anything because an argument is made in each case (by some) that the event could be explained entirely by chance, and they are not accepted in toto because they cannot be controlled and repeated at our beck and call. It is as if a hurricane toppled my house, and someone said it’s impossible, air molecules are so small you can’t even feel them or see them. You walk through them all the time and they part with hardly any resistance. And I said yes, but a whole lot of them all going in the same direction? And the reply is, well, we know each one is basically nothing at all, and if you add up a whole lot of nothing you still get nothing, so it couldn’t be so.

            I will give you a couple of examples. Walter Russell, the first name on my list, was an American polymath who began to have visionary experiences roughly every seven years, beginning when he was a boy. When he was around forty, he had an experience that lasted for forty days and nights, during which he received a great deal of information about the universe. His wife was very concerned for him because, as you can imagine, she had lost access temporarily to the husband she loved, but the family doctor and lawyer agreed: we don’t know what is happening, but it doesn’t appear harmful, and looks quite interesting in fact. Call us if the situation worsens. Walter Russell was primarily an artist—a portrait artist for American presidents and leaders of industry, a painter (I believe he had a painting in the Louvre at one time), an architect (he designed parks and buildings in NYC and around the country), a sculptor, a composer, etc.

            During this visionary process he was shown that the elements (e.g. hydrogen, nitrogen, etc.) may be arranged into a periodic table based on the octave. He was also shown how each element is a stable resonating wave pattern of light, and that all matter is fundamentally the same material. Each element was merely a “condition” of that substance, which he called light. I’m reducing a great deal of material, but he produced a periodic table of the elements that predicted the existence of deuterium and tritium–(isotopes in the scientific sense, but in Russell’s conception they occupied the vacant slots in his octave conceptualization adjacent to hydrogen)–prior to their discovery. He also posited the existence of three octaves of matter “prior” to hydrogen that he called the “space octaves.” These elements fill all of space he suggested but lay outside our current perceptual range. This preceded by many years the discoveries that have led us to posit the existence of dark matter and dark energy. Russell first published his treatise around 1910. Zwicky posited the existence of dark matter around 1933 I believe, and deuterium and tritium were first isolated around that same timeframe, plus or minus a couple years.

            It’s easy to dismiss Walter Russell’s work—to suggest that his assertion in the early 1900’s that heretofore unknown elements of matter fill space is just a wild statement, that his prediction of new elements closely related to hydrogen was just lucky and anyone could have said it, but such a discounting of Russell’s work can only be made without giving time to appreciate the comprehensive extents and beauty of his work. It would ultimately be based on this: Russell’s ideas and vocabulary are not in with those used in current scientific research, so he must be wrong, or lucky. But there’s no way the universe works as he suggests because he couldn’t possibly know this.

            My second example I have already given in a previous comment, which is the story of Sitting Bull’s vision. His foreknowledge of the battle with Custer could also be dismissed as a lucky guess—it wouldn’t have been crazy to think they would battle white people again, or to hope against hope that they would win one—but at the same time Crow scouts accompanying Custer, upon reaching the sun dance grounds where the vision had occurred, sensed/understood/observed that a powerful event of consciousness had taken place, and understood the implications. Some abandoned Custer; others continued with him knowing there was great risk. This is documented in historical books of the time.

            Like the story of Walter Russell, to dismiss these accounts out of hand is to dismiss in one fell swoop the cultural philosophy of an entire indigenous nation. To suggest Sitting Bull was just hopeful is not to understand him as a person, or the context of the sun dance and it’s powers as expressed in that particular time and place, or the many instances of premonitory vision that had guided the community at various times. There is quite literally a physiological effect that occurs in places where ceremony has occurred, particularly where it has repeatedly occurred. I can attest to this personally as can countless others. The Crow, like the Lakota, participated in a worldview that accepted this reality no differently than we accept that we can see colors. They understood what they felt and experienced in the sacred grounds Sitting Bull’s community had occupied, and understood that events were not aligning in their favor.

            So these are two examples in the public record that at least suggest consciousness is not closed. I won’t say they argue one way or the other about how organisms produce or sustain consciousness, but I do think they suggest it is more than the current scientific paradigm wishes to admit. And once it’s not closed, there are a great many interesting questions to be asked.

            Are these reasons specific, Mike?


            Liked by 1 person

          4. Hi Michael,
            Thanks for the explanation. We have different philosophies. I think you know mine, and based on comments you made, I think you know what my responses would be. But I don’t want to be in the position of debating your culture and beliefs. We’re all doing our best to try to figure out our way through reality.

            I’m grateful for the interesting conversation.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Energy is being created at a furious and accelerating pace in our universe, at least according to the best explanation of the universe’s accelerating expansion, centering on the cosmological constant. That term in Einstein’s equation for general relativity that he once called his biggest mistake, but was anything but.

      None of this prevents your analogy from being useful and insightful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Paul!

        I think the jury is out on the energy balance of the universe to be honest. Literally ten minutes before you posted I came across this article.

        We’re getting beyond my analogy, which had a specific purpose that I’m now going beyond to quite possibly the detriment of the earlier analogy. But I’ve long felt the sum total of “energy” in the universe is probably zero. If we take a zero we can create an infinite array of pluses and minuses and aggregations of each, the sum total of which is nothing at all. Is this creation of energy?

        I’d argue it is the movement of wholeness, and that the fundamental power of the universe–shout out to Lee–is this ability to produce ephemeral somethings out of nothing. In my first post to Mike I suggested the conservation of energy suggests a deeper order to things–a relationship or relatedness that exists but is not reducible to any individual components without considering the whole.

        To clarify that, in a very simple model: what we call force is a stretched spring desiring to return to the original balance. What we call energy is the sum total of relationships that constitute the whole, or to say it another way, the accounting of all the ways the spring has been stretched. They all balance out in the end. And what we call consciousness is the string itself. Power is the ability of the spring to stretch in countless novel ways. What we call human consciousness is a quite profound and novel thing, or can be anyway: the sweet spot at which the stretched string is aware it has stretched.



  6. “58 participants (34 male, 23 female, 1 other, Mean age = 36.46, SD = 11.34, age range = 18 -70) were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk and completed the survey for a monetary payment.”

    “64 participants (42 male, 22 female, Mean age = 33.44, SD = 8.96, age range = 21 -58) were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk and completed the survey for a monetary payment”.

    Oh, yeah. I totally buy this sampling methodology. NOT..

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Self-selected. Amazon users hence probably educated computer savvy. Disproportionate sex ratio. Don’t know anything about background or motivation. May have been disproportionate in any number of ways. May have been philosophy majors for all we know or people hustling for bucks in India or Laos.

        Of course, the question would be what are trying to demonstrate. If we are trying to study a broad population, the group would need to be randomly selected from a big population of people and probably need to be considerably larger. At least equal in sex ratio but probably need other data to see if differences in college educated vs not, older vs younger., etc. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to draw anything of value in conclusions.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not sure on self selected. I don’t know that AMT lets you peruse the studies and decide which ones to participate in, at least not in a way where someone could choose to only participate in studies about consciousness. It does indicate a population that probably needs money, but I don’t know that that skews the results.

          But I do agree that results would have been stronger with a larger pool and taking account of demographic factors. However, I think the results are pretty strong. It would be different if the first group of survey had landed around 53% and we were arguing whether we could take that as a majority. But 80%, even if the real number varies somewhere between 70% and 90%, is still a significant finding. I don’t think completely dismissing the results is warranted.


          1. The results are only strong with a small self-selected group of people who participated. They can’t be applied to “most regular people” if that means anything at all.

            Fundamentally they are trying to do something similar to political polling and for that you need a randomly selected group of several hundred from the population you want to learn about (registered voters, for example, in a lot of political polling) to get to an error margin of +- 4. It’s not even clear here what exactly is the population we are trying to learn about. It just seems to be a population of convenience. But surely it leaves out an enormous number of “regular people” who wouldn’t be able to understand the terminology of the cases that were presented.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. In political polling, the margins are often tight, making efforts to get the error margins down crucial.

            But if someone did a poll showing one candidate was at 80%, there could be a lot of problems with their sample and they’d still be accurately showing which candidate was ahead. Conceivably they might have accidentally polled only people in one party, but three successive times?

            Anyway, maybe this will spur someone with a bigger budget to do another study with 500 respondents.


          3. “they’d still be accurately showing which candidate was ahead.”

            How do you get that? If you’re still employing the same bad sampling technique, doing it more times doesn’t improve your information.


          4. I think you’re viewing it as a binary thing. Either the results are good or they’re not. I’m viewing it more along the lines of a spectrum. The results would be better with a larger sample and demographic balancing, but given how lop sided and consistent the answers were, I don’t think that effect would disappear with the extra treatment. We might find it’s higher or lower than what’s shown here, but it seems very unlikely it would fall enough to change the conclusions.

            Doing it three times reduces the probability that the results are a statistical fluke.


  7. I think you are spot on.

    I think the real question is: is philosophy the right tool to study consciousness?

    To get the discussion going … can you name one similar, or even any, problem that philosophy has solved in the past? If you can, you are better than I at this, but if you can, does your example indicate any degree of success is possible in the consciousness problem?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good question. I think philosophy’s chief contributions are establishing logical and consistent definitions, identifying the problems and questions, and hypotheses on what the answers might be. Unfortunately, that can include identifying pseudo-problems. It can’t go any further however, unless it crosses over into empirical work, where it becomes a type of science.

      But I’m struck by the fact that a lot of the philosophy of mind I find plausible is about debunking large swathes of the philosophy of mind. The problem is that hypotheses can be developed and discussed, but without the reality check of empiricism, it’s very easy for it to devolve into loose and empty speculation, speculation often biased in favor of conclusions people simply want to be true.

      Personally, I think the answers are coming from cognitive neuroscience. But CN tends to focus on specific well defined capabilities. Many of those capabilities pertain to consciousness, but consciousness is such an amorphous concept that people can always say it doesn’t explain their version, and continue to move the goal post around to preserve mystery.


    2. Because this is important to me let me address the “practical” need expressed in your inquiry. Philosophy’s broader form of inquiry has been the nursery of many practical, problem-solving disciplines, e.g., economics, sociology, psychology, and linguistics come to mind. These specific forms of inquiry, and others, developed within the broad inquiry of philosophy have, I submit, solved many a practical problem over the course of history.

      But, wait there’s more! There is a much deeper purpose to philosophy. For economy of space, I will merely refer one of my favorite philosophers, who died a few years ago, Mary Midgley. Midgley describes philosophy as not optional. And I agree. We all do it, either well or badly. It’s the foundation of all thought. She compared it to plumbing.

      “Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs to those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole.”

      I don’t think philosophy, on its own, can solve the problems of consciousness. I think it’s purpose is, like other fledgling disciplines, to help CN leave the nest with the right skills.


      1. Matti,
        I understand your point, but I doubt that CN will ever have the right skills let alone the tools to even leave that nest. It’s called the measurement problem; because as far as this obnoxious hillbilly gun toting nutter is concerned mind is a quantum system that emerges from the classical system of the brain.



    3. I think in large part what these sort of studies are pointing out is maybe these questions about “consciousness” are really socio-cultural. They don’t relate to any objective scientific measures, for which there are none as best I can tell, but boil to opinions that various groups have. Philosophers apply typically some sort of a priori reasoning and logic to the problem and can answer the either way or both ways according to their particular bent on the problem. Normal people in Western society might apply a more practical or pragmatic approach.


  8. Yes Mike, you are missing something, at least when it comes to explaining why philosophers have wandered down this, ahem, wrong path. What you didn’t reference but what I believe explains a lot, is a series of epistemological and philosophy-of-language mistakes that were widespread within “analytic” philosophy. The term “conceptual analysis” is usually a dead giveaway for the presence of these mistakes.

    In caricature form (but caricatures riff on reality), the conceptual analyst claims to perform an a priori inspection of our concepts to determine their necessary and sufficient conditions. This typically involves thought experiments, followed by the questions, can we rule in or rule out the presence of property F in the imagined scenario? Thus, Chalmers constructs a molecule-for-molecule duplicate of you and asks whether we can intuit the presence of phenomenal pain in duplicate-you’s foot (given that you just stubbed your toe and it hurts).

    This sort of thing should have gone out the window after Wittgenstein showed that family resemblance concepts abound – which lack nontrivial necessary and sufficient conditions. It did start to go out the window when Quine pointed out that analytical truths found to that date by philosophers were trivial at best, tendentious at worst, and that the criteria for “equivalence of meaning” were lacking. But it’s taking a long time for the old guard to give up their corrupt ways.

    Here is a critical review of a recent defense of conceptual analysis. The battle rages on.

    Now I happen to believe that the Hard Truth (no objective description of a person will automagically bring to mind a subjective characterization of their experience) is real, but not a Problem. But I have serious problems with the way many philosophers – those who haven’t gotten the Wittgenstein/Quine message – approach it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul,
      I’m completely on board with the language issues. I’m always struck by how many disputes in philosophy are actually just definition disputes, where ultimately there is no fact of the matter. And the language used does throw up cognitive roadblocks, often implying intractable mystery when, in reality, it’s just that the wrong language is being used.

      I also agree with the hard truth. We can’t have the experience of a system we’re studying from outside. It’s an uncrossable boundary that sounds profound, until we remember that it actually amounts to saying that my nervous system can’t be in the precise state yours is in, no matter how closely I study it objectively.

      It’s very similar to the fact that my laptop can never be in the precise state my iphone is in. It can simulate the iphone via an emulator, but that would be an iphone state within a laptop state. I could, in principle, simulate the state of a simple animal in my mind, but it would just be that animal’s nervous system state within my nervous system state. It would not be my nervous system in the same state as the animal’s.


  9. “Is there really no ground whatsoever for reasonable people to entertain differing positions on this issue and still be reasonable?”

    This is a poignant question tabled by Michael Mark, a question that everyone wants to ignore. Nevertheless, it cries out loud to be addressed. The reason the answer to this question is an affirmative NO is because of subjective experience. Now, we can easily lay that blame at the feet of subjective experience but the underlying problem is fundamentally power and how a system uses power.

    If power lies at the heart of consciousness, why is subjectivity such a disruptive, divisive and powerful force? Here is the answer to the question of the day kids: (note: consciousness does not mean mind in the following explication)

    Systems fundamentally use power, the power that is intrinsic to the properties of that system to maintain the identity of the system even when all other meaning and purpose is lost. What this synthesis means is that systems not only express the power of their own unique underlying properties when they engage in meaningful relationships with other systems but that they fundamentally use that power to resist change. This is what we observe about human nature as noted above and we also observe it across the entire spectrum of systems at large.

    Because consciousness is a universal continuum, all physical systems have a limited degree of self-determination within an otherwise deterministic system. It is because of this feature of limited self-determination that physics arrives at the conclusion of randomness. Wherein all actuality, it is not randomness that is being observed but the intrinsic property of a system to resist change because of its limited degree of self-determination.

    The radioactive isotope U-235 is the best illustration of a deterministic system that through the process of change becomes lead. The observation of decay is considered to be random because there is no means of predicting when the event occurs. What is really being observed is the limited degree of self-determination of a system identified as U-235 as it uses the power intrinsic to its own properties to maintain itself by resisting change. Nevertheless, as with our own personal experience as a physical system, change is inevitable.

    Have fun kids……. and above all else be kind and courteous to each other when defending one’s own right to resist change. I for one would never ask anyone to give up their cherished beliefs for the negation of reason; for that bold and prodigious act would result in a change, and who wants that? 🙂


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lee,
      Thanks for laying that out. I now see where you’re coming from when you say you think the mind is quantum. You associate quantum randomness (or apparent randomness in your view) with self determination.

      My own view is that self determination requires more dynamics than is available in quantum particles, or at least more dynamics than we can establish is there. Of course, the response can be that quantum physics remains mysterious and I can’t rule out such dynamics. Technically that’s true. But I personally would need more evidence.

      Still, good to know your views!


    2. Mike,
      It appears that water molecules enjoy the company of other water molecules in a liquid state. In fact, it looks like they prefer that state because they put up a great deal of resistance to a change of their collective arrangement. Maybe they are social systems just like us; and just like us they too have the power (a limited degree of self-determination) to resist change.

      It takes one (1) BTU to change one (1) pound of water one (1) degree F. all the way up the temperature scale to 212 degrees F. @ sea level. And yet, it takes 970 BTUs to change that same one (1) pound of water to one (1) pound of steam without raising the sensible heat. The 970 BTU’s is latent heat added to the water that cannot be accounted for with an instrument. Water is water right? What’s up with that? 😦



      1. “The 970 BTU’s is latent heat added to the water that cannot be accounted for with an instrument.”

        Apologies if my physics is rusty here…

        I think that you can account for it with an instrument that measures pressure. If you keep the water in a container of constant volume, as the water changes phase from a liquid to a gas, the added BTU’s will go towards increasing the pressure. The pressure is, in a sense, a measure of the increase in kinetic energy of the molecules of water, which are now slamming into the sides of the container with much higher average speeds. The added BTU’s go towards increasing the speeds of the molecules, and they move (on average) fast enough to escape the molecular bonds that hold them together in a liquid state and enter into the new gaseous state.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep, your physics is a little rusty Eric. Pressure is a result of sensible heat added to the steam not the latent heat added to the water breaking the bond. Both the gas and the liquid co-exist together @ 212 degrees F. until sensible heat is added to the steam making it superheated. It is the superheated steam that creates the pressure.



          1. Oh, I got you. It’s a definition thing as usual that gets me confused with what someone is saying (happens a lot in my discussions here, haha). I’m not familiar with the term “sensible heat”. I always just think of it as “heat” or energy transferred into/out of a system which both goes towards either phase change or also temperature change at various points in the process.

            Regardless, you said that “The 970 BTU’s is latent heat added to the water that cannot be accounted for with an instrument.” which was the point I was stuck on. How does one come up with the 970 BTU value in the first place? Isn’t that from a measuring device? Are you just referring specifically to a thermometer as the measuring device? I guess I’m not getting the bigger picture of your example.


      2. Lee,
        It certainly is possible to anthropomorphize the chemical properties of something like water. Chemists themselves do it all the time by making statements that element A “wants” to react with element B in some manner. But it’s usually understood that that is metaphorical.

        Why just metaphorical? It’s hard to see that water molecules imagine scenarios where they are together vs being apart, and then act on a preference for being together. But true volitional systems seem to have that capability.


        1. Mike,

          (“It’s hard to see that water molecules imagine scenarios where they are together vs being apart.”)

          Imagination is a property of the system we know as mind not water, resistance to change is a property of every physical system. No change ever occurs unless a system is compelled to compulsion by another system of greater power…….. motion and form, e-motion and feelings, motion and form.

          (“But true volitional systems seem to have that capability.”)

          Just can’t get past the SOM paradox: First, there is me; that’s one thing and second, there is everything else; that’s another thing. The surgeon’s knife cuts with a precision that is unsurpassed and the surgeon is the Cartesian Me.


          Liked by 1 person

        2. One final anecdote about water and science: The latent (hidden) heat of evaporation defies empiricism therefore, science is once again forced to rely upon synthetic a priori judgements. Fascinating really; science is all about a posteriori but when empiricism fails they resort to the fail safe synthesis of a priori.

          This raises a compelling question: Is empiricism the final arbiter of what is real or is it a priori? I guess the final arbiter is the Cartesian Me, not Reality itself. The Cartesian Me is an absurdity… 😦



          1. Oh, this sounds like your bigger picture. But is it really “hidden”? You know how much energy was put into the system during the phase change and you can measure the change in mass of both steam and water during the phase change process.


          2. Eric,

            (“You know how much energy was put into the system during the phase change…”)

            I love these straw man assertions: The only way one “knows” anything is through synthetic a priori judgements. Empiricism is data, merely another variable used in that synthetic process. Science has the cart (empiricism) in front of the horse ( a priori). It’s a simple concept but homo sapiens seem incapable of grasping it.

            Data, empiricism, a posteriori is not the final arbiter, synthetic a priori judgements are the final arbiter; it’s called subjective experience. Empirical data is subordinate to the Cartesian Me, not the other way around like the institution of science would have us believe. That’s the bigger picture Eric, it’s always the bigger picture. Learn to think for yourself……



          3. I understand now where you are coming from Lee. I’m not at a point in my life where I am interested in taking the time to go this far down the philosophical rabbit hole (in terms of a priori and a posteriori, etc.). But I am curious and willing to read how you came to be so confident that your assertions are correct, if you’re willing to describe that.


          4. Eric,
            Type my full name into the google search engine. I’ve written two books, one currently published and the other ready for publication. My first book will get you started and give you a glimpse of the man behind the keyboard. I’m either a heretic or I suffer from the savant syndrome. It wasn’t that long ago that heretics were burned at the stake and savants are a freak of nature, so go figure. 😦



          5. Hi Lee,

            I just purchased The Wizard’s Reign from Apple Books. I honestly was expecting a reply on this blog and I don’t currently have the time to read your book; I’m not sure when I could get to it. But I am very glad to be able to support your efforts in writing it with a purchase. 🙂 My current political opinion is that we need to remove humans ASAP from the requirement to provide labor for the material needs (farming, retail, transportation, etc.) and allow ourselves the capability to focus our labor efforts on the higher needs, of which writing books is a classic example.

            “I’m either a heretic or…It wasn’t that long ago that heretics were burned at the stake…”

            I think there is still plenty of figurative “burning at the stake” going on today all throughout the world. I think that forming a stable worldview is a need that everyone has in order to feel secure in our various environments. And when other conflicting worldviews threaten one’s own worldview, a whole spectrum of reactions can occur from just a healthy disagreement all the way to “burning at the stake” type reactions. I think that the scientific philosophy (I’m sure there are better vocabulary words for that, but hopefully my meaning is conveyed) can, and does, help increase tolerance in the world, with it’s focus on doubt and skepticism being a good thing that can be reduced slowly over time by methodical efforts to observe how the universe works in various contrived situations. If one spends time growing accustomed to skepticism, then when their current worldview is challenged they’ll feel less threatened and can be more open to their own worldview evolving, despite the inevitable discomfort that they’ll feel from the momentary insecurity while they adapt to the new worldview.

            “…and savants are a freak of nature…”

            I personally think that savants are freakin’ awesome!


          6. Eric,
            Just a word of caution for posterities sake: If skepticism becomes one’s grounding metaphysical position, skepticism can be as debilitating as any concocted or contrived form of religion.

            Robert M. Pirsig had a big influence on my life because I too suffered from mental illness, so I could identify with his literary works. I suppose that every savant suffers from one form of mental illness or another. What transforms a savant into a heretic is when the thoughts are spoken out loud. Here’s the first two paragraphs from the introduction of my second book: The Immortal Principle: A Reference Point.

            “Like the many ‘heads’ of my generation and those that followed, I too was enthralled by the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Little did I know at the time, that an error in my comprehension would send me down a rabbit hole of inquiry that lasted over thirty-six years. You see, when Robert Pirsig wrote that there was a genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality, I did not realize that statement was meant as a metaphor to represent an architecture of reasoning known as Western syllogistic logic. I took it literally, because somehow, some way, I inherently knew that the statement was true; that there literally is a genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning. I also inherently knew, that unless or until one is willing to address that genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality that nothing would change, because nothing could change. That was in the early winter of 1979.

            I climbed back out of that rabbit hole a couple of years ago with a vocabulary that captures that genetic defect. It wasn’t easy, because a core human nature is the most indeterminate, evasive, elusive and slippery phenomenon known to man. Trying to locate the genetic defect in reasoning and rationality is like being tasked to find the mole within the CIA. The CIA knows that the institution has been compromised by the mole, but nobody is aware of who the mole actually is. Unaware that the mole is everyone, somebody has to be charged with finding the mole. No matter who is burdened with the assignment of locating the mole, the individual chosen will be the mole. Good luck with that endeavor. It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that the mole is never going to be found.”

            Question something……. question everything.



          7. Interesting view Lee. As I said before, I can’t take the time to elaborate on this topic with you. Wyrd is probably wondering if I’m ever going to get back to him on the topic that I promised him I’m looking into. 😮


          8. Wait, I read your response again and I’m not sure I understand which direction you’re coming from. My first intuition was that you were trying to explain why skepticism is a problematic path to follow, and my initial response was based off that, which is why it is more dismissive than it should be if you had a different reason for typing the first two paragraphs of your second book.

            Were you instead attempting to elaborate on my question about why you have become so confidant in your worldview? Or were you attempting to elaborate on your heretic idea? Or just telling me a bit more about yourself? If it was any of these others, I apologize for being so dismissive. I just think on a very different wavelength than you (this is not a negative thing in my view, by the way) and so I have trouble trying to figure out what your meaning/intent is.


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