Do regular people see a hard problem of consciousness?

This week the latest Mind Chat episode focused on whether regular people actually perceive a hard problem of consciousness, or if it’s an issue largely created by philosophers. Keith Frankish and Philip Goff interview Michelle Liu and Edouard Machery. (The video is a bit over two hours. You don’t necessarily need to watch it to understand this post, although if you find it interesting you’ll likely enjoy the discussion.)

Mind Chat S03E04 Is the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’ Nonsense Invented by Philosophers?

Machery was part of a team which conducted an early experimental philosophy study asking subjects if they would consider an explicitly dumb robot capable of seeing red or feeling pain, in comparison to a human. They asked these questions to both philosophers and laypeople. As expected, the philosophers were far less likely to think the robot saw red or experienced pain. However, while laypeople were less likely to ascribe pain to the robot, they were more willing to accept that it could see red.

These results, which we’ve discussed before, seemed to indicate that laypeople don’t have a concept of phenomenality, at least not in the same sense as philosophers. And explaining phenomenality is exactly what’s supposed to be so hard about the hard problem.

But as Liu points out in the discussion, it’s possible that polysemy, taking different meanings from the same word, was an issue here with the word “see”. Maybe laypeople simply took it as something like “detect”. A later study tried to compensate by asking subjects if the robot “experiences” red, but Liu argues that even that may be vulnerable to polysemy, with laypeople taking it as “undergoing”.

Machery responds that that is exactly the issue, that laypeople aren’t latching onto the same concept as philosophers. But the question seems to be whether laypeople fail to latch on because the word doesn’t evoke the concept for them, or because they simply lack the concept at all.

After the discussion, someone on Twitter shared a paper by Kevin Reuter which reviews the work along these lines. Reuter begins with an interesting argument that the word “consciousness” is not a folk term. It rarely arises in colloquial conversation, and when it does it’s usually in reference to just being awake. And he points out that there is no folk term equivalent: “the problem of the missing folk term”.

He goes on to discuss how philosophers commonly identify two aspects of consciousness: intentionality and phenomenality. “Intentionality” refers to the aboutness of mental content, of its direction toward something real or imaginary, an inherently relational concept. “Phenomenal” refers to there being something it is like to be in a particular state, generally considered more intrinsic. Some states are seen as exclusively one or the other, but many have marks of both.

The question is whether laypeople make this distinction, and if they do, whether they make it along the same lines as philosophers. For example, they seem to take seeing red as something intentional rather than phenomenal, at least until the discussion shifts to color in a dream.

Overall, laypeople do seem to make distinctions, but along different lines than most philosophers. Some studies find they break things into three categories, which one study labeled BODY (hunger, pain, etc), HEART (social emotions such as pride, shame, etc), and MIND (perception, volition, memory). Which systems these are attributed to seems influenced by functionality in some cases, and physical constitution (organic, machine, etc.) in others.

All of which may indicate that philosophers are assuming too much about common intuitions.

Much of this fits with my own experience. Before becoming interested in the mind, I really don’t recall thinking about consciousness in the way philosophers do. And I still remember my reaction on first reading people like David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, or Ned Block. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. They tried to make their points by ostension, by referencing something they took to be obvious, which wasn’t in my case.

For a long time, my position was similar to Machery’s in the discussion, that phenomenal consciousness, in the philosophical sense, isn’t even an intuitive concept. Ironically, it was the skeptical descriptions from people like Daniel Dennett and Georges Rey, who were willing to be more explicit, which finally made it click. So in my case, it was definitely something I had to learn. I can’t say I fully appreciated the philosophical version until last year. (I’m sure some will say I still don’t get it.)

It also seems like at least some forms of phenomenality have to be learned. Most people initially take color as something out in the world. Treating it as phenomenal seems to first require learning that isn’t true. Which fits with the experimental results.

Yet there are many who do read Chalmers and the others and immediately see a resonance with their own intuitions. So it doesn’t seem plausible to say that everyone is like me in having to work to understand the concept. But it also seems dubious to say it’s a universal intuition. Like many things, the reality seems much more muddled than everyone initially assumes.

I do wonder how I might have reacted if I’d read Chalmers when I was younger, back when, like most people, I still held an intuitive form of dualism. To be clear, this dualism was the classical variety which considered most or all of the mind non-physical (including intentionality, volition, emotion, and intellect). This type of dualism seems much more defensible as an innate intuition, one that most people have to learn their way out of.

Maybe phenomenality is a more intuitive concept for someone before or during that transition. Property dualism, which sees only phenomenal properties as non-physical, is also probably much more intuitive at that stage.

Or maybe as some speculate, people like me are just philosophical zombies.

What do you think? Is phenomenality, and the associated hard problem, just a philosophical concern? Are philosophers tapping into something more universal? Or is it the muddle the review seems to show?

114 thoughts on “Do regular people see a hard problem of consciousness?

          1. Quite. However you slice the term “belief”, I believe I am conscious. So do proponents of the Hard Problem. The difference between us is that I cannot see how I could be wrong about that belief and they believe they can, while being precluded by the Hard Problem from explaining how. Much hand waving ensues.


  1. I can accept the conversational topic of lay-folk rarely ever having to consider the phenomena of self-referential consciousness. I myself struggle with topping the hill of that steep conceptualization. “I’m almost there… just a little further… Bollocks, lost it.” — as the nascent thread of understanding slips from my mind’s fingers. (Now, there’s an image for ya.)

    But I do think the concept of the Hard Problem is a fabrication of “thinkers” posing the theory that a human’s consciousness exists in a realm unto its own. It’s the old, the more memory we have to contain the context of our existence, in concert with the bio-electro-chemical engine that can constantly recall and reprocess these memories, the more we think we’re special. We are aware of ourselves, and aware of our being aware. But it’s just superimposed context.

    Red? Sensed. Sure I see that lay-folk would say that sensing the color is the one (and maybe only) layer in the experience of witnessing the color. But if pressed, “how does red make you feel?” would simply invoke memory based context. “What does the color red mean to you?” More context. “Would a machine be able to experience “red” in a way a human can?” Is my experience of red the same as yours? It’s all context. The greater or more exhaustive the information which has flavored the topic of “red”, the more we insist that describing the experience of “red” is a hard problem.

    Other than any innate, genetic response to the wavelength of red light, what would a 1 year-old human have to say about the experience of “red”? (Assuming we could communicate with them.) Without context: sunsets, blood, christmas, barns, tomatoes, raw meat, embarrassment, shame, rubies, roses… what would they have to say? What possibly could the feel? If we going to say that there IS something that they would experience, without any context, I’d have to call bullshit.

    Humans deluding themselves into thinking they’re special.

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    1. Excellent point on color. A good way to say it is it’s all context. Associations all the way down!

      The one year old will probably need a lot of repetitive associations to pick up what we mean by “red”. I remember as a very young boy getting confused about the differences between some colors. Things may not have solidified until I started playing with crayons. The networks of associations probably take time to be firmed up. Color has an innate aspect, but likely also a learned one.

      Right. We humans are special. So special. But there’s no evidence for that specialness. This is a DEEP MYSTERY!

      More seriously, humans are special in some ways. We’re unique in having symbolic thought. It’s what allows us to think about the cosmos when most primates don’t even look at the mountains. Or organize in ways to do things like develop a vaccine to a worldwide pandemic. We’re just not special in the sense of having a private movie playing in our head.

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  2. It seems to me that I had concept of phenomenal consciousness when I had elementary education. At that time i didn’t know anything about philosophy.

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      1. It seems to me that I created himself phrase “what is it like to be” before I’ve heard that some philosophers use it. Furthermore, when I heard word “consciousness” first time, phenomenal consciousness occured to me. I am surprised that many people don’t see phenomenal consciousness and hard problem of consciousness. I’ve noticed it when I had biology lesson about brain in school.


        1. Interesting. The “what it’s like” phrase, or its variants, have never worked for me. In the name of interpretational charity, I used to accept it as a reference to a very difficult to discuss concept. But the fact that so many people consider it self explanatory, yet seem unable to actually explain it, now makes me think that the difficulty is something we should focus on.


          1. I would paraphrase “what is it like to see red” to “what red looks like to me?”. Is it more understantable? For computer, colors haven’t got any look.


          2. What would you say “look” means? My phone and laptop scan my face on login to ascertain whether it’s the right face, which seems to meet the Webster definition of “look”. What do we have to add to that definition?


          3. Look of colour is this thing which is got to known by Mary when she sees colour first time. Look of complex object such as face can be described in structural terms, for example mouth is below nose. This can’t be done with colours. Look of colour can be got to known merely with experience. By contrast, computers don’t see colors, they merely detect colors. Colours for computer doesn’t look.


          4. That assumes Mary does learn something new, but I’ll stop here. It’s clear we’re talking about something that can’t be described, has no causal effects, yet we feel is there. I’ll just note that it’s the feeling that I think needs scrutiny.


          5. How do you explain that some colours are pretty? I think that qualia are these things which are pretty or ugly in colours vision.


          6. I’d say the same way we explain how some things taste good or bad, or how some touches can be pleasurable or painful. Colors are a conclusion that trigger a galaxy of innate and learned associations. Looking pretty or ugly is an associated emotional reaction.


          7. But what thing is judged to be pretty? I think this is look of colour (qualia associated with colours). If qualia does not exists, colours haven’t got any appearance.


          8. Pretty is a draft evaluation of the system based on the galaxy of associations, which then influences processing, potentially leading to different actions than what might have otherwise been taken, even if that change only amounts to looking at something longer.


          9. It is still not answer to question what is evaluated to be pretty. It is merely answer to question what causes this evaluation. If qualia don’t exist, there is nothing pretty or ugly related to colours.


          10. What is evaluated is the conclusion and its triggered associations.

            The statement, “If qualia don’t exist then X,” is a causal and/or relational one. If true, then they have causal effects or relations and are not private. If so, they make a difference, a difference that can be measured. If we’re talking about perceptual concepts, then I’m onboard with those existing. But they don’t represent a metaphysical difficulty. That’s the problem with traditional qualia. It’s hard for them to be special in the way they’re supposed to be without making them irrelevant.


  3. I think the truth is close to this: most regular people are easily led to see a “hard problem” of consciousness. That’s quite different from saying they already see one, or even saying they have a concept of phenomenality that makes “hard problem” talk plausible.

    Even if you ask people very neutral-sounding questions about robots seeing red and feeling pain, you may be creating beliefs and not just discovering pre-existing ones. Pollsters work hard (and often fail) to word questions in a way that actually predicts how the general public will view, say, a new law or policy. (Well, “push” polls don’t even try.)

    [Reuter] points out that there is no folk term equivalent: “the problem of the missing folk term”.

    That in itself should tell you something.

    Irrelevant sidebar: I just noticed: Reuter, Reuters, polls… it seems nominative determinism strikes again.

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    1. That could be right. Although I wonder how many people who nod at the hard problem are doing so with the actual problem of phenomenal properties in mind, and how many are conflating it with the old difficulty in imagining how memory, perception, attention, discrimination, etc, can be reduced to the physical, all things that Chalmers accepted as easy problems in 1995.

      Definitely the way questions are asked has an effect. Some studies I read in grad school did things like randomize the order of the questions, as well as different versions of each question with varied wording, all in an attempt to mitigate the issue. But it’s hard to avoid completely.

      I also remember taking surveys as a student, and often having no real opinion on the answer, but often having to select something to get my extra credit. Given the problem of the missing folk term, I wonder if the surveys had “Don’t know” options.


  4. First let me say I am astonished at how far you have come in the years since I first encountered Self Aware Patterns. The simple admission that you might not have fully understood the concepts being discussed in, for example, your initial take on Chalmers’ hard problem, would have been unthinkable back then.

    Second, I confess that I have not yet spent the time to view the video that is your current subject. I am, however, familiar with much of Goff’s work and have particularly appreciated his interactions with Bernardo Kastrup in IAI debates, although I prefer Kastrup’s analytic idealism to Goff’s panpsychism.

    My purpose in commenting, however, is to contend that there exists no subset of humanity that can reasonably be understood to be laypeople, except in the very narrow perspective of the professional academic (who might best be described as a layperson of life). My assumption is that the studies undertaken have been administered to a subset of individuals who are distinguished solely by not being professional academics. Can you imagine the infinite range of understanding (of literally anything) one might find in such a group? It is mind-boggling. To read that, “… the question seems to be whether laypeople fail to latch on because the word doesn’t evoke the concept for them, or because they simply lack the concept at all…” is demeaning, to say the least.

    I understood Chalmers intuitively when I first encountered his hard problem, shortly after he formulated it, and I have studied it while pondering other ontological and epistemological issues in the years since. I am a 70-year-old Canadian woman who completed barely two years toward an undergraduate degree in anthropology before abandoning academia altogether in favour of a self-directed, multidisciplinary approach to the accumulation of knowledge. My only exposure to University level philosophy has been via Coursera, and I was appalled at the amount of time and attention that was devoted to the defence of scientific materialism in those courses before the nominal philosophical topics were even broached.

    I would surely qualify as a layperson in terms of these studies, and I am not one of Gladwell’s “outliers.” There are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, like me, all blissfully carrying on with our intellectual lives outside the hallowed halls of Academe. How many of us are represented in the studies? How would those doing the research ever know?

    I do agree that much of the difficulty in discussing philosophy (both outside and inside academia) is semantic. I have frequently engaged in lengthy and confusing discussions of consciousness only to discover that the other party thought I was talking about “being awake.” Similarly, there is a pervasive notion that everyone is entitled to their own definition of philosophy—their “philosophy of life,” as it were.

    I am forced to wonder though, why this interest in how “regular people” understand the philosophy of the hard problem? I wouldn’t expect to encounter a similar curiosity among hardcore materialists as to how Joe Public understands quantum physics or, more realistically, misunderstands it. Are academic philosophers truly concerned with how laypeople understand phenomenality, or with how they, philosophers, are perceived by the unwashed horde? Surely this doesn’t herald some new foray into the ontology of the mundane?

    On the other hand, to quote Kastrup, “…in the hand-waving conceptual world of academic philosophy one can argue for anything with a straight face, as long as the argument is buried in enough conceptual abstraction to hide its self-evident absurdity.”

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    1. I should probably clarify that my post on Chalmers’ understanding of consciousness back in 2019 wasn’t my first initial take, at least for the early portions of the paper, although that read itself did clarify some things. The main thing that’s changed since then is a sharper understanding of what most philosophers mean by “phenomenal” or “qualia”, and the realization that arguing for functional versions of these terms isn’t likely to be productive.

      Overall, it’s made me more comfortable with the “illusionist” label (although my preferred label remains “functionalist”.). Which may seem less like progress from your perspective. 🙂

      Certainly “laypeople” is an imprecise term. I take it here to mean people who have no education in philosophy. So I’m not sure either of us would qualify as “laypeople” in this context, even though neither of us are academic philosophers. I think anyone who has read philosophy papers, or general books on philosophy, has been read into the concepts. What we’re interested in here is the general population who has no exposure to these concepts.

      You’re right that science generally doesn’t care about common intuitions. It actually spends a lot of time demonstrating how wrong those intuitions are. Even the intuitions of scientists themselves are only starting points of investigation. Science cares about data, and which theories explain the data and predict future observations.

      I think the reason the intuitions of “regular people” are of interest in this case, is that a lot of philosophy of mind takes the supposed universal intuitions as a data point. Chalmers himself argues that the hard problem is obvious to most people. Consider this from his “Moving Forward” paper.

      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.


      If experimental philosophy undermines this claim, that seems significant.

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      1. And I would agree, but I believe that what Chalmers is claiming is that the vast majority of thinking human beings understand that they are an “I,” while not a “you,” and that constitutes an almost universal understanding of consciousness. The experimental philosophy being discussed here does not undermine that claim.

        I still maintain that you have progressed by light years. I never expected you would change your stance, only hoped that you might come to a more respectful consideration of others. That, you have amost certainly done.😊

        If I go back to my first encounters with Chalmers and his problem I can clearly recall that what captured me was not so much the explanatory gap (I had some suspicion that neuroscience might bridge it eventually), but rather his contention that there appeared no need for an internal, individualized, phenomenal consciousness to have evolved in human beings at all, which, of course, led to his invention of the p-zombie. It is a “why,” rather than a “how,” question and as such is philosophic rather than scientific.

        It seems largely to have been abandoned among the far more robust discussions surrounding the explanatory gap. I understand that it cannot be of much interest to scientific materialists, but for me, it is simply the main question and unfortunately still unanswerable, although Kastrup does try:

        “…we experience colors and flavors when interacting with the world—instead of thoughts and feelings—because it has been evolutionarily advantageous for us to gather information about the world at a glance, in the form of the screen of perception…”

        But he, too, then moves to the “how” question:

        “…Once you understand that there is no ontological jump from quality to quality—just as there isn’t one from quantity to quantity—all that is left to do is to explain how the associated mechanisms of modulation arose. This is entirely equivalent to explaining how our eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin formed, for—according to [his] analytic idealism—our sense organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the modulation mechanisms. And, of course, evolutionary biology has excellent explanations for this…”


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        1. “….it is simply the main question and unfortunately still unanswerable…”

          You are right Elizabeth, Chalmers root of the hard problem has been abandoned to the point that discussion groups don’t even know what the hard problem actually is anymore.

          I’ve had a personal discussion with Bernardo and he willingly admitted that idealism has holes in it big enough to drive a semi-truck through. But his only justification for holding onto an ideology that is untenable is that materialism as it stands today is a ridiculous metaphysical position.

          However, what I could not convince Bernardo of is the fact that he does not have to choose between materialism or idealism. There is another option, one that I’ve personally developed; it is a model that addresses the hard problem and resolves it. Of course, that concept flew so high over his head that he couldn’t conceive of anything outside of those two non-sensible positions.

          But he is not alone, it’s just like the Hotel California I guess……. “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”

          Rock on….

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          1. I take it you refer to Intellectual Honesty and Spiritualism as the alternative to both, or either, of Materialism and Idealism? I shall search your work in that area. Thank you for the pointer.


          2. I should say, too, that it is unfortunate that so many get caught up in the discussion of whether p-zombies can realistically exist. Who cares?! That isn’t what Chalmers was arguing; he was using a device to illustrate what might have become of humankind if phenomenal consciousness did not exist.

            If we believe, as Chalmers does, that it does exist, the issue then becomes “why?” Evolutionary theory would point us to its development as a survival mechanism. Again, why?


          3. Why is a big ask however, if one is willing to start from the premise that the very definition of life itself is motion resulting in form, then we have a physical universe that is at a fundamental level a living system. The next question to ask is what is the basis for this life or, what drives the evolutionary process that leads to novelty and complexity?

            The answer to both of those questions is universal sentience, not consciousness. It is within this context that sentience becomes fundamental in understanding the evolutionary process. It is a process that is driven by what feels better in contrast to what simply feels good to any given system. Clearly, our own experience of consciousness is the apex of that complexity as well the apex of what feels good for a given system.

            This rendition of a so-called physical reality solves Chalmers hard problem by demonstrating that sentience is universal not a fluke of nature. It is an intrinsic property of matter that is responsible for motion resulting in form. The four forces of nature devised by the Scientific community is nothing more than an attempt to describe these interactive dynamics of motion resulting in form driven by universal sentience.

            There are a lot of moving parts to a living universe but the fundamental are very simple………


    2. Good for you Elizabeth……. Being a 70-year old anti-establishmentarian myself, I’m inclined to agree with the assessment of the late Robert Pirsig that academic philosophers are not philosophers at all but philosophologists. A true philosopher is one who challenges the prevailing status quo and actually comes up with new and innovative ways of looking at the world.

      Unfortunately, the populace at large including idealists, physicalists and academics do not believe that there are still original, innovative ideas to be discovered. I disagree with that assessment; this is why I’ve abandoned the status quo which is a ship sailing within the sight of land, and I have struck out on my own into the unchartered wilderness of the open seas, unafraid to fall of the edge of this intellectual flat-earth if that is what is required.

      That path is not for the faint-hearted, but it conforms succinctly with Thomas Metzinger’s manifesto which is a two-pronged approach. It consists of Intellectual Honesty and Spiritualism. And let me be clear: spiritualism is not a belief, spiritualism is courage; the courage to leave the door open to possibilities even if that door is open just a crack. In short, one can be an idealist or a physicalist as long as one knows that both of those positions are provisional and not truths in themselves.

      Good luck…..

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    3. I’m going to sign on to a modest version of Elizabeth’s point that ” there exists no subset of humanity that can reasonably be understood to be laypeople.” Namely, we have all been heavily influenced by the philosophical, religious, and intellectual traditions of our society. If you want to see how human beings in a “naive” state perceive the world, you’ll have to study children under 3, at the oldest.

      If you believe, as I do, that there is a useful distinction between perception and theory despite a lot of fuzzy middle ground, this becomes more important. Philosophers are fond of claiming that human beings always and inevitably perceive the world in such-and-such way. Examples include: an objective and inherent flow of time; a mind-independent world; contra-causal freedom; deep ontological privacy of qualia… I do think that there are a few such human perceptual universals, such as using shading to infer depth in a 3D scene. It’s just that few to none of the philosophers’ favorites make the list. Those are theoretical posits, instead.

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      1. I think laypeople as a category is a coherent concept, as long as we’re clear that the boundary is broad and blurry. For instance, do we count as laypeople? In at least one of the studies, we do. And just judging by the conversation here, there seem to be varying levels of understanding about what philosophers mean by the relevant concepts. (Of course, there are varying levels of understanding among philosophers themselves, so there’s that.)

        But we’re all interested in philosophy. Before c. 2010, I wasn’t, and hadn’t read any philosophy to speak of, except for a brief exposure to Plato in college. And I’d say for the vast majority of people I encounter in daily life, that’s the most exposure they would have had. Certainly the folk notions they hold have been influenced by philosophy, religion, science fiction, fantasy, etc., but it’s all mixed in with a lot of other cultural influences.

        So surveying them can’t positively establish a human universal. For that the scope would have to be widened beyond WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) populations, and even then we’d have doubt due to the widespread influence of WEIRD cultures. But it does allow us to test how prevalent are the intuitions that philosophers claim are universal. We can’t positively establish the claim, but we can demonstrate it’s far more limited than claimed.

        But definitely the true universals tend to be much more limited than philosophers, or most people in general, are comfortable with.

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  5. I believe asking “laypeople” any philosophical questions should be preceded, or at least go together with checking out if those laypeople are even inclined to think in philosophical terms.

    The reason is straightforward. According to a 2019 survey of over 5,000 US adults, 77 % of respondents have an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of philosophy (

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    1. Yikes! Right up there with statistics, huh?

      Again, though, I think we have to take into account what the public may understand by the word philosophy. Raising the issue of ethics addresses one aspect, but there is still a general use of the word among the public that has little in common with the academic concept of philosophy. In fact, it is probably closer to its etymology as “the love of wisdom,” or perhaps, colloquially, “the smart way to think about life.” Those who define philosophy thus may not be at all conversant with ontology, epistemology, etc.

      As to first checking out a respondent’s level of engagement with academic philosophy, or ability to think in philosophical terms, surely it would depend on what sort of information you wanted to elicit from their answers? You couldn’t claim any sort of random result by selecting for prior understanding. It would be tantamount to preaching to the choir. What would be the point?


    2. I think the idea with “laypeople” is to get the intuitions of people who actually aren’t inclined to think that way. The test here is for assertions made about universal intuitions. If those intuitions are only prevalent among people who do think that way, then those claims seem undermined.

      Looking at that article, I think you might have accidentally flipped the stats. It actually says 77% are favorable. (I’m actually pleasantly surprised it’s that high.)

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  6. I know the subject of ‘consciousness’ has been a central concern of yours for a long time. When ‘philosophers’ fail to acknowledge that matter (objective reality) is primary, the seas they set sail on are truly wonderful (read idiotic) indeed. They reduce philosophy to a bourgeois plaything. After reading a book on proofs for the existence of God, I read Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism. What a relief.

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    1. I sometimes wonder why I’m still interested in consciousness. I long ago satisfied the initial itch that caused me to look into it. But interests often aren’t logical.

      Can’t say I’m a fan of either theological proofs or communist ideology. Although “materialist”, understood as a synonym for “physicalist”, is a reasonable description of my outlook.

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      1. ‘Philosophers’, because of their ideologically motivated blindness, are yet to recognise and develop on the implications of Hegel (who I have argued is the consummate Neoplatonist) as the link between Plotinus/Neoplatonism and Marx/Marxism. It is a connection and influence that every equally blind (for the same reason) Marxist would totally reject but, nevertheless, is there. Hence my commitment is to that current initiated by Plotinus and taken furthest, so far, by Marx. It is a current ripe for further development.

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      1. Many people, and almost everyone in practice, are naïve realists. So phenomenality is reality for those people. They are not going to see it because their own phenomenality is like the water to the fish that swim in it.

        Why should I care if some people, even a majority, are naïve? Nearly a third of Americans still believe the election was stolen and other sizeable percentages believe in God, life after death, ghosts, and Sasquatch.

        I think we need to be very careful about the set and setting in which experiments or surveys are conducted to make any sense of results. Experimental bias can easily creep into the design. Asked a question one way, you get one answer; ask it another way, you get a different answer.


      2. BTW, what was the sample size, demographic makeup, and setting for the tests?

        Any test with robots might immediately run into the problem that, after decades of scifi and conscious robots, the notion that a robot could be conscious , and see red for example, might simply be an assumption about scientific and engineering capability. In other words, many laypeople might be ignoring the “explicitly dumb” aspect in the description of the robot.


        1. I agree. Common intuitions are at best a curiosity. As I noted to someone else, science has a history of demonstrating that they’re wrong. But a common justification for taking the hard problem seriously is that it’s a universal (or at least widespread) intuition.

          The sample size for the early robot study was 671. People were sorted into philosophers or laypeople based on their answers to biographical questions. Looking back at the paper, they included anyone who took graduate level courses in philosophy or who was a undergraduate philosophy major as philosophers. So taking a course or two in philosophy, or being an amateur philosopher, left you in laypeople.

          That said, there is a lot of criticism out there that experimental philosophy is just social psychology done poorly. I don’t know if that’s fair, particularly since it’s not like psychology departments are going to prioritize philosophical issues with their own research. Even if it is a fair criticism, it still seems more rigorous than philosophers making claims from informally talking with their undergraduates, friends, and families.

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          1. You don’t say but was this sample just a bunch of university students some with a lot of philosophy courses and some without or with only a few?

            I think maybe the problem comes in this statement

            “laypeople don’t have a concept of phenomenality, at least not in the same sense as philosophers”

            Why would we expect laypeople to have the same concept as philosophers?

            Of course, nobody would. As I said, I think a lot of people are naïve realists. Most people probably believe seeing takes place exclusively in the eyes so a robot with “eyes” would “see” red. But that may not be any statement at all about consciousness because people are not actually thinking of seeing as a conscious act. For those people, consciousness is the thinking that occurs after the seeing. People don’t understand enough of the science to understand the brain’s involvement with seeing. They are thinking that seeing is what the eye does and consciousness is what we are thinking about what the eye has provided to us.

            So I certainly wouldn’t expect universally that -people from times or different cultural backgrounds would think of consciousness like David Chalmers or Daniel Dennett. I’m not even sure “consciousness” as a concept even existed much before the nineteenth century. But this isn’t a surprise because “consciousness “is another abstract category we use to divide the world.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Right. The question then is, why should we take the hard problem seriously? If it’s not a widespread intuition, then what is its justification? It’s not like there is scientific evidence to account for. The whole thing is redundant from a scientific viewpoint. If this is just philosophers having convinced themselves that there’s an issue, as Frankish mentions in the discussion, it may just be the phlogiston of our time.

            Now, as I mentioned in the post, I think it’s more complicated than that. But it seems at best we’re talking about something a portion of the population finds intuitive.


  7. I think most people don’t self reflect enough to realise that explaining their own consciousness – their unique window on the world – poses a problem at all, hard or not. For myself it was quite a jolt mid life, whilst browsing articles over a lunch break, to realise that, despite a maths/software/science background, and being considered well educated, I couldn’t see how consciousness actually worked, and it seemed, no-one else could provide a decent explanation either, philosopher, scientist or engineer (I self-funded to attend ASSC in 2016 to get a fix on that). Since then it has been fun trying to find out. Now I think I’m just about there, but others might well disagree, and the difficulty of getting others to buy into any particular rational explanation of consciousness that is not their own is the very, very hard problem. Any suggestions to solve that last part welcome!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Any suggestions to solve that last part welcome!”

      Whatever model you build, it must be inclusive and apply universally to all physical systems from the quantum realm, elementary particles to the most complex system in the known universe, the system of mind.

      As it currently stands, the largest hurdle to overcome is the “idea” that mind is a separate and distinct system that emerges from the brain. Mind is a complex physical system that is dependent upon that brain for its own existence and equally, as a sovereign system the mind utilizes the architecture of that brain for its own purposes. The depiction I’ve briefly outlined is not accepted within the scientific and academic community.

      Good luck…….

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think you’re right about most people not being self reflective and seeing their perspective as a problem. The key question is what makes some of us think there is a problem.

      I definitely had a point where I wondered how the functionality of the mind is produced, what I’d say is the classic mind-body problem. For me, reading about neuroscience largely scratched that itch. Although we don’t yet have a full mapping, I’ve dug enough to feel comfortable that one is possible.

      In some ways, the journey reminded me when I was young and puzzled about how the complex functionality in computers was implemented. Learning programming, high level then assembly and machine language, followed by introductory computer engineering, gave me a feel for how it happens. It probably had an effect on my approach to understanding the mind.

      Getting others to buy into a particular solution for consciousness is indeed hard. It’s because every solution is relative to a philosophical conception of what consciousness is. If people don’t buy the philosophy, then any empirical data is irrelevant. I think my advice would is, be clear about which version of consciousness you’re explaining, and be open to other solutions for the other versions.

      Even for your particular version, be open to alternate explanations. I seriously doubt there will ever be one theory that answers the whole thing. In that sense, I agree with Anil Seth that consciousness is more like biological life than temperature. There’s no one theory of life, but a galaxy of interrelated theories. I’ll be shocked if the mind is different.

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  8. I haven’t watched the video, but I wouldn’t expect most people to know or care about the hard problem, or to appreciate it without a little background.

    In Western culture at least, Cartesian dualism is the default metaphysics. If one begins thinking, perhaps because of a Philosophy 101 course, about how “mind” and “matter” can possibly interact, one is on the road to appreciating the hard problem. I’m not sure how many “lay persons” get that far. But there is further to go, because scientific materialism is also the default metaphysics; that is, people tend to assume that physics can explain everything, in principle at least. Therefore it ought to be able to explain “mind” in terms of matter.

    Now we are examining our assumptions – the business of philosophy — and most people don’t give any thought to such questions. It takes a certain temperament, I guess.

    Even then, we aren’t at the hard problem. The hard problem is why any account of mind in terms of matter even needs to suppose such a thing as “mind.” Once you point to the explanatory mechanisms, in the brain or wherever, and say, “This is where ‘mind’ arises,” the question comes back: Why does the mechanism even need this extra wheel we call “consciousness” or “awareness”? If the physical account is sufficient, how do you justify the claim that there is anything else _to_ explain?

    It seems (to each of us) that there is something to be explained. The whole point was to explain it. Yet having laid out the physical explanation, we find that what was to be explained is not needed. This, I think, is what Chalmers means by “the hard problem.” Why is something there that is not needed?

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    1. It is true that most people are dualists. And that dualism is the more classic one like the Cartesian variety. How that kind of mind interacts with the body seems like the classic mind-body problem. But that classic version of dualism was largely considered untenable in science by the early 20th century. By mid-century, philosophers had caught up, with Gilbert Ryle’s famous take down of it in 1949.

      I think Nagel and Chalmers were very aware of that history. Classic dualism doesn’t seem to be their view. They see the operations of the mind as physical, except for non-physical properties, phenomenal properties. For Chalmers, Nagel, Block, and others, the hard problem is the problem of phenomenal experience. This seems like a position someone reaches once they learn that classic interactionist dualism isn’t compatible with science.

      Why indeed do we need phenomenal properties (in the philosophical sense)? From a scientific account, they seem redundant. The question is, how widespread is the sentiment that they’re actually there and need an explanation?


      1. I still haven’t watched the video (I confess I don’t like watching videos), but I did peruse the entry on the hard problem of consciousness offered by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and I recommend it highly. In a clear half-hour read, it gives a balanced assessment of all the options, making it plain that every one of them has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s really a matter of deciding which weaknesses you want to live with.

        Personally I lean to panpsychism, with a side of quantum physics. The assumption that matter is the basic or primary element of reality seems to me less justified that we might have thought in the 18th or 19th century. Matter seems to arise as an interaction of very puzzling things that do not behave like matter; they can be in two places at once, both dead and alive, fundamentally unpredictable, and so on. What we call the properties of matter turn out to be instantiations of these interactions, with expressions that may be understood statistically, perhaps forming patterns. We miight start to wonder about the meaning of the patterns, and the relation between information as a _phenomenon_ and what is called, technically, “intentionality.”

        This seems to me a promising direction. It raises plenty of questions, but the old materialism has come up against what appear to be logical or conceptual dead ends — hard problems — and it might be time to try another tack, even if it does involve some weird initial assumptions.

        As a side benefit, focussing on interactions and their significance, rater than on matter and its properties, can make us more engaged and responsible in our conduct toward the world, more aware of its “otherness” as something that deserves respect. I think if this happened, it would be, on the whole, a good thing, especially these days. This is why I’m willing to cast my lot with the strangeness of panpsychism — to give it a chance, to see what it can do about updating our paradigms.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for calling attention to that IEP article. I’m not sure if I’d been to it before.

          Skimming its options, I’d have to say I’m either a strong reductionist or an eliminativist depending on which conception of consciousness we’re talking about. Functional consciousness seems fully reducible to mechanisms, as long as we can accept that the apparent attributes of phenomenal properties arise from the limitations of introspection. Which makes me an eliminativist toward the idea of infallible introspection and its implications.

          I think when assessing “materialism”, it’s a mistake to see it as something other than a synonym for “physicalism”, which includes energy, spacetime, quantum fields, etc. Any distinction implies that contemporary materialism is about the 17th century conception of the physical. I don’t know any actual materialists today who take that position.

          You say panpsychism looks promising. If it’s true, what would you say follows from it? What potential progress does it enable? Operationally, what distinguishes it from functionalism or eliminativism?


          1. These are good questions. I think the distinction between “materialism” and “physicalism” is one of degree, more than kind. Both start with the idea that the basic things in the world act with blind predictability or quasi-predictability, in a way we can ultimately characterize, ultimately, as”dead.” From these dead things, other things like life and consciousness arise in one way or another. Changing the focus from a billiard-ball model to other mechanisms involving space-time or quantum fields doesn’t touch this basic approach.

            Operationally panpsychism is distinguished from eliminativism by its willingness to entertain aspects such as life or consciousness as more primitive than dead “matter,” understood in the modern sense you point out. Eliminativism starts with the conception of dead matter, and declares that since by definition that should be enough, we ought to eliminate notions of “consciousness” as signs of philosophical confusion. As the article points out, it runs contrary to our intuitions, not to say the undoubted primacy of experience.

            Panpsychism is operationally distinguished from functionalism more by its implications or its emphasis than by its metaphysics. Functionalism also gives primacy to interaction, but again, within the materialist model of the world as initially dead. Thus, when we interact with the world, our interactions functionally constitute a reality, but we are entitled to think of that reality in terms of _objects_ with which we interact, rather than _subjects_. We make exceptions, almost always for people, and often for cats and dogs and horses;, but it’s always within our scope to view and treat even these things as objects, because at bottom, that’s what they are. Panpsychism places a different expectation on us, so that we are more inclined to see them first as subjects, as worthy of respect by their inherent nature. If we extend such feelings to landscapes, or rivers, or cliffs, or rocks, we get onto shaky ground, but as we see increasingly in the 21st century, perhaps there’s also something to be said for that.

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          2. I think that’s a good description of physicalism, although I wouldn’t use “dead” to characterize things under that view. For me the difference between dead and alive is organization and functionality. Admittedly this is a six of one, half dozen of the other type distinction.

            I also feel a bit compelled to defend eliminativism from the characterization of dismissing consciousness. There have been a few people who take that stance, but most say either they’re dismissing a certain type of consciousness (phenomenal consciousness) or that consciousness isn’t what it seems to be. Again admittedly, this depends on whether you think the word “consciousness” is legitimate for the functionality.

            I find your response on panpsychism interesting. I’ve often wondered if there’s any real difference between an eliminativist position and a panpsychist one. Both deny that there’s anything fundamentally different going on in the brain from everywhere else. The difference being that one says that fundamental phenomenality is everywhere while the other says it’s nowhere. The question for me has long been, why prefer one over the other, except that one seems to have fewer assumptions.

            It could be argued that consciousness and moral relevancy are tied together. I’ve often pondered that there may effectively be an identity relationship between them. If so, I could see the view that everything has aspects of consciousness, because they have some moral relevancy. I’m not a moral realist, so I can’t see that there would be any necessity to this view. But as a life outlook option, similar to a naturalistic form of pantheism, I could see it being a coherent option. And I can see the argument that it could change our attitude toward the environment.

            So you just gave me something to thing about. Thank you!


  9. 2 CENTS: I just finished reading Primatologist and Naturalist Allison Jolly’s (1937-2014) book, ‘LUCY’S LEGACY: Sex and intelligence in human evolution’ (1999), wherein she looks at life from its inception on earth to 1999 and through IT and AI. It covers what you all are discussing here. Of course she looks at consciousness – the what, why, when, who and how of it. One chapter is: ARE BABIES HUMAN?; followed by, FEET FIRST BRAINS LATER. It’s a great read.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Look at difference between seeing and beliefs. For example, I have got belief that 2+2=4 even if I don’t think about it. It is plausibly merely functional state which disposing me to some behaviours, for example if somebody asks me “what is 2+2” I answer that it is 4. By contrast, when I see something I have not only dispositions but also image in my self. Do you see this difference?


    1. I can see why you think there’s a difference. It seems like we have an inner movie playing in our head, which we then see and have reactions to. But that’s not how it works. Perceptual images are themselves dispositions. A stimuli triggers a pattern completion, a prediction, essentially a dispositional tree.


  11. One of the greatest problems with philosophy I think is that people tend to avoid explicit speech. This “hard problem” business would be one such example I think. On the surface I see no problem with the phrase. Reality obviously harbors all sorts of such problems for us to potentially work out. Furthermore science does seem to progress regarding some of them. Anyone who believes consciousness itself shouldn’t also warrant such a classification must not be paying attention. Standard English suggests that “hardness” in this context is an appropriate adjective.

    In practice however, here’s where I think things get deceptive. Some people covertly substitute a meaning of “magic” for what’s merely presented as “hard”. It’s taken me many years to realize that some might even snicker behind my back for believing that such a problem should indeed exist, since I’m actually as strong a naturalist as they come.

    Things go deeper still. Imagine that these people who covertly substitute a magical meaning for what’s merely phrased as “hard”, also use this sleight of hand to help defend a non scrutinized but spooky belief of their own. The premise I see here is that the right information which is properly processed into other information, will inherently create a phenomenal dynamic in itself. In a causal world however this should not be possible — information should only exist as such by means of the causal mechanisms which it animates. Thus without the right mechanical instantiation there should be no such causality here. So while some would put their faith in the idea that the right markings on paper, converted into the right other markings on paper, must create something that experiences what you do when your thumb gets whacked, I object. Nothing should exist informationally here without the animation appropriate causal mechanisms.

    Furthermore observe that by precluding a need for causal mechanisms, their proposal must inherently be unfalsifiable. Conversely any consciousness proposal which harbors certain specified consciousness instantiation mechanisms, should be falsifiable on the basis of observations of those specific dynamics. Consider how many mechanism-less consciousness proposals reside in academia today, all unfalsifiable given that there’s nothing to potentially test. I do know of a single proposal which would be possible to disprove however. And if experimentation were to continually remain consistent with its premise, then I think that many naturalists would realize that they’d actually been backing magical notions. Science does remain young however. And for progress regarding this particular hard problem, philosophy might even need to progress as well.

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    1. David Chalmers coined the phrase “the hard problem”, so I think it’s reasonable to use it in reference to what he was talking about. I think these snippets from the paper where he did the coining pertains to what you’re saying here. (Note the comment about causal role.)

      Why are the easy problems easy, and why is the hard problem hard? The easy problems are easy precisely because they concern the explanation of cognitive abilities and functions. To explain a cognitive function, we need only specify a mechanism that can perform the function. The methods of cognitive science are well-suited for this sort of explanation, and so are well-suited to the easy problems of consciousness. By contrast, the hard problem is hard precisely because it is not a problem about the performance of functions. The problem persists even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained. (Here “function” is not used in the narrow teleological sense of something that a system is designed to do, but in the broader sense of any causal role in the production of behavior that a system might perform.)

      …When it comes to conscious experience, this sort of explanation fails. 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.

      source: (section 3)

      In other words, his version of the hard problem is not concerned with a causal account. If you’re insisting on a causal account (which I’m onboard with, even though we differ on what that means), it doesn’t sound like you think Chalmers’ version of the hard problem exists.

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      1. Mike,
        You can take things this way if you like, or essentially pin the misleading reference that Dennett and Frankish use as “the hard problem of consciousness”, on the sometimes supernaturalist David Chalmers who’s known for coining the phrase. And you might legitimately maintain that Dennett and Frankish have been under no obligation to help clarify things here given that this is instead something that Chalmers began. If obscurity here benefits them, you might even say that they shouldn’t be expected to be the ones who object. An accused will be permitted to stand mute rather than provide self incriminating evidence. So fine, I guess that any clarity here would need to be provided by opponents of Dennett and Frankish. Unfortunately since the fall of John Searle I don’t know of a single prominent opponent. And mind you that I doubt even Searle’s arguments were nearly as effective as they might have been. He seems not to have understood the sorts of things that I understand.

        In any case regarding this particular bait and switch, how might clarity now be provided? Your post mentions that they did try to clarify things a bit by asking people if they “experience” red rather than just “see” it? But both Michelle Liu and Edouard Machery were skeptical that this would be sufficient. I agree. My own suggestion would be to use stronger forms of reduction than has been attempted so far.

        What did Chalmers essentially mean by “hard problem of consciousness”? Rather than reference his various esoteric ramblings to see if people are able to grasp the meaning from it that you and I glean, it seems to me that people should directly be asked if they believe that their phenomenal existence occurs by means of brain based causal dynamics, or rather stems from otherworldly spiritual dynamics? In that case I’d think most would understand what’s being asked and so should provide effective understandings of their beliefs. Does that plan seem reasonable to you?

        To me there’s a much bigger question here as well. I’d like it if normal people were not only asked if they disbelieve what illusionists disbelieve, but also asked if they do believe what illusionists do believe. I wonder how you’d help people understand that? Would it be through articles like this one that I recently saw in your twitter log?

        I don’t consider this to be an effective reduction whatsoever, but rather distorting propaganda. How do I mean this? I mean this by the subtle implication that consciousness will arise by means of information converted into more information. I consider this to be a supernatural position since causality mandates that information only exist as such through its relation with the mechanisms that it animates. This is to say for example that a book only exists informationally in respect to a reader of it. Otherwise such text should be non-informational in that regard, though still causal stuff in other regards.

        The way that I’d teach people what illusionists do believe regarding consciousness, would be to present my thumb pain thought experiment. I presume that you’d object, and even though it provides a concise reduction of what illusionists believe that you’re technically unable to challenge. If so then what sort of reduction would you use to educate people about what illusionists do believe consciousness exists as?

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        1. Eric,
          Is there anyone you disagree with that you think writes clearly, or in your estimation at least tries to?

          For trying to ascertain the views of people unfamiliar with philosophy, I think asking questions without theory-laden terminology is the way to go. Admittedly it’s harder. It does mean interpreting what those terms mean in order to design the questions, and it’s inevitable those interpretations will be challenged. I think the bottom up approaches some of the studies are using helps.

          Remember, illusionists do think there’s a common intuition of a hard problem, just that it’s based on an illusion. Saying that it’s not a widespread intuition challenges illusionism too. It more supports a form of eliminativism that doesn’t involve positing an illusion, or restricts the illusion to theoretical error.

          I think Ralph’s article is well researched and written. I don’t agree with some parts, but we should be open to scientific theories other than our favorites.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I suppose that I disagree with you sometimes Mike, and yet also consider you to write clearly. And often this challenge is only compounded by attempting to make sense of academic writers who seem far less interested in clarity. Eric Schwitzgebel would be someone else who I sometimes disagree with even though clarity seems very important to him. He once wrote a post titled something like, “obfuscation as academic cowardness”. I loved it of course.

            The notion that people tend to believe that consciousness exists beyond nature doesn’t seem wrong to me, so I don’t challenge illusionism there. In a sense I might be considered more of a “super illusionist”. This is given that I challenge as magical all that they do, as well as something else that they seem to believe by means of faith rather than reason.

            I must admit that my last comment came off hotter than I’d like it to have, so I do appreciate your patience with it.

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        2. “…it seems to me that people should directly be asked if they believe that their phenomenal existence occurs by means of brain based causal dynamics…In that case I’d think most would understand what’s being asked…”

          Please tell me you were joking. “Most” people would understand the question if phrased this way? Most people in what possible world?

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          1. No joke Elisabeth, I’m proposing what I consider to be a simple reduction of the position in philosophy of mind known as “illusionism”. I suspect that its authors aren’t all that concerned about being clear, or maybe even think that obfuscation can help their cause. If you disagree with my position then I see at least two arguments that you might use to challenge me here. One would be to suggest that my reduction does not address various subtle elements of illusionism. If so then I’d appreciate your thoughts on what those elements happen to be. Then another would be to argue that even if my reduction is essentially valid, that it isn’t actually all that simple, or even if it is pretty simple, that people in general should still tend not to grasp its meaning.

            The essential reduction is that illusionists disbelieve any consciousness notion which suggest otherworldly dynamics. Furthermore one catch I see here is that in practice they also tend to have a conception of consciousness that seems magical to me. Thus I’d like this account widely scrutinized so that things might get straightened out here one way or the other.

            I’m sure that I must have asked your thoughts on my thumb pain thought experiment before. I’ll do so again however since few seem to actually tell me their thoughts. (Not that this necessarily suggest a problem, since I presume that people would tear it to shreds if they could only figure out how.)

            In neuroscience today it’s widely thought that when a person’s thumb gets whacked, associated neural information gets sent to their brain. One result of this would of course be phenomenal thumb pain. But how? Illusionists believe that the brain converts this information into new information, with the conversion itself essentially existing as what’s phenomenally felt. I object because I believe that information can only exist to the extent that it informs appropriate causal mechanisms. Thus I believe that after whacked thumb information reaches the brain, it’s then processed into new information that animates something that itself exists as the experiencer, (such as neuron produced electromagnetic radiation for example).

            Observe however that their belief mandates that if the right marks on paper were scanned into a computer that then prints out the right second set of marked paper, then something here would thus experience what you do when your thumb gets whacked. (The first set of marked paper would be correlated with what your brain receives, while the second set would be correlated with what it’s processed into.). Does that seem like a worldly causal explanation to you, or rather a magical explanation? Should a non-magical thumb pain experiencer exist by means of the right marks on paper properly converted into more marks on paper?

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          2. “…another would be to argue that even if my reduction is essentially valid, that it isn’t actually all that simple, or even if it is pretty simple, that people in general should still tend not to grasp its meaning.”

            Eric, my comment may have sounded frivolous, but the thought behind it was not. Whether your reduction is valid or not, simple, pretty simple, or otherwise, my issue is not that “people in general” still wouldn’t grasp the meaning of your reduction. It is that what we are referring to as regular, or laypeople, i.e. working, thinking people with, let’s say, a high school education, wouldn’t even understand the words you’ve used—nor what is meant when those words are strung together. I am saying that “phenomenal existence” and “causal dynamics,” though they may seem simple and transparent to you (and probably those of us here) are phrases the meaning of which the general public has not the first clue.

            You might successfully explain to these people what illusionists believe, as you see it, but not by using words and phrases such as those. It would require that you first explain what are essentially concepts that only philosophers use, such as phenomenalism, causality, possibly even dynamics in this context.

            I am not referring to people of sub-normal intelligence here, but really everyone except an academically privileged, tiny, minority. Words like those mentioned just are not used in ordinary conversation.

            My apologies if you thought I was questioning the validity of your reduction.

            As to the “non-magical thumb pain experiencer,” while synaptic firing can be codified as marks on paper (among other illustrative methods) and run through a computer program to produce a different set of marks, where the analogy breaks down is in positing “something here,” which becomes an experiencer. Or does it become the experience itself? Why is it necessary that there be an additional step between information reaching the brain and that information causing an experience? Why run the codified marks on paper through the additional step of computerized interpretation? If there is “something here” that experiences the second-order information, why not the first version of it? Are you saying that, in order to be causally effective in producing experience, neuronal activity must first be “interpreted” for the brain, rather than by it? (Or is that essentially what illusionists are saying?) Why? Whatever it is that perceives the modified information as an experience could perceive the original transmission as that same experience, couldn’t it?

            I’m sorry—its late and I’m starting to think in circles…but it sounds to me like the “something here” and the something the new information causes to act itself as the experiencer are both fairly magical.

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          3. I suppose you’re right Elisabeth. By referencing “most people” I may have been painting with too broad a brush. When we understand a given term or idea quite well, it’s interesting how we tend to forget the layers by which we gained them. Here we may presume that others should be able to grasp such things without experiences like the ones we’ve had. In any case I’m pleased that right now I’m not speaking with “most people”, but rather speaking with you. I’ll amend my statement to just say that I bet my reductions could help teach people what illusionists believe, far more effectively than the careers of Frankish and Dennett have so far.

            On my thumb pain thought experiment, perhaps some examples would better illustrate my meaning. Consider your brain essentially in the form of a biological computer, and your consciousness essentially like an output product of your brain’s function. So here your consciousness would be similar to your computer screen’s function in the sense that it’s an output product of your computer. How does your computer screen causally function? I’d like you to think about this because it may demonstrate how your consciousness arises by means of your computational brain.

            Let’s say that you press a letter on your keyboard. This information then gets processed, and the processing gets sent to causally put that letter on your screen. So it’s not just that your computer processes the information, but rather that the processed information goes on to animate your screen itself. In fact I posit this as rule. In order for processed information to do anything in a causal world, it seems to me that it must animate associated mechanisms. I even posit that processed information should not exist as “information”, except specifically regarding the mechanisms that it animates. So for example, a book that isn’t being read, isn’t informational in that regard.

            (Here one might say that computer information processing that’s cut off from all output mechanisms, should still produce heat and entropy. True, though this doesn’t break my rule because heat and entropy are inherently mandated by the function of machine information processing dynamics. So appropriate output mechanisms would actually exist here.)

            Now let’s relate this perspective back to your brain as a computer which causally creates your consciousness (that is when you’re under appropriate conditions such as not being anesthetized or dead). This would mean that your brain couldn’t just process whacked thumb information into the right new information in order for you to feel such pain. That solution would be both convenient and unfalsifiable. From my argument it’s also magical. Therefore in retrospect even illusionists could be considered to advocate the Chalmers hard problem conception. Furthermore this position mandates that if markings on paper correlated with what your thumb sends your brain after getting whacked, were processed into more markings on paper correlated with your brain’s response, then something in this paper shuffle would experience the same thing you would!

            So now let’s consider adding a falsifiable step that could naturalize things here. The question is, what sort of mechanism might the brain animate to exist as a conscious experiencer of existence itself, or more colloquially, “you, “me”, and so on . I’m told that neuroscientists have only found one reasonable neural correlate of consciousness, which is firing synchrony. While all neural firing creates associated electromagnetic radiation, in general this should just be self canceling noise. Synchrony however should tend to create more unique examples that tend not to get canceled given that they reside beyond the general EM hum.

            Johnjoe McFadden theorizes that there are such field parameters that exist as the experiencer of consciousness itself. Thus it could be that all of your thoughts, feelings, memories, and so on, reside by means of incredibly complex neuron produced EM fields. Furthermore in some of his work he notes how such fields can feed back to the brain to incite other function. Theoretically when the phenomenal experiencer decides to use a muscle, here the EM field itself feeds back to affect neural firing to cause those sorts of movements happen.

            Get yourself some sleep Elisabeth! I’ll need you with fresh EM fields (or whatever) in order to potentially grasp my positions here.

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          4. Eric,

            Chalmers hard problem addresses how feelings and sensations, in other words how sentience is possible in an information processing paradigm. Your solution is that the brain creates and then animates a system that is now sentient by processing the correct information. Fair enough…..

            What I can say is that this rationale is consistent with our culture’s view of the world which contains assertions that are derived from magic or super-naturally based, and your explanation is really no different. With your own model we now have three mysteries: 1. the hard problem of matter, 2; the hard problem of life and now a third; the hard problem consciousness or sentience which just happens to magically appear by processing the correct information.

            This entire notion of information processing at any level of complexity is a false assumption. Our assumptions should be grounded in a coherent definition of life itself, and go on to show how that life is a relationship involving all of the parties that participate in that universal, not a benign paradigm that is reduced to merely processing information that is derived from an ad hoc approach.

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          5. Lee,
            I don’t know that Chalmers exactly has a hard problem solution, that is unless you want to call magic a solution. It’s a pretty damn easy and unfalsifiable way to go! That doesn’t bother me however. What bothers me is that he doesn’t claim this belief explicitly. Instead he uses vague language that tends to suggest that he’s extremely insightful. That’s how philosophy and soft science in general tend to function today. Effective reductions (as I think I’ve just done for Chalmers) should help cure this disease.

            In any case I like that you’ve similarly attempted to reduce my stance here to something simple, and specifically as “Your solution is that the brain creates and then animates a system that is now sentient by processing the correct information.” I guess I agree, or at least if “system” is interpreted as causal stuff that the brain may be said to animate. And when in doubt there’s always my prime example of what could reside as such a system. Perhaps all sentience exists in the form of the right parameters of electromagnetic radiation, or something which the brain is known to produce by means of synchronous neuron firing? Furthermore this proposal seems quite unique in the sense that it should be possible to test. Theoretically scientists could induce extremely low energy electromagnetic radiation that reside around the parameters of synchronous neuron firing, right inside someone’s head. If such experimentation were never found to distort a person’s standard phenomenal experience for oral report, at some point it could be asserted that consciousness must not reside by means of such EM fields. But if such testing were successful, and if other explanations were experimentally ruled out, then this should stand as the most transformative paradigm shift that science has ever achieved! Newton? Darwin? Einstein? In many regards this should surpass them all.

            I see that you’re also suggesting that my proposal is magical, though without any meat behind the assertion. For example there are a number of ways that I’ve portrayed the notion of consciousness by means of information processing without instantiation mechanisms, as magical. It’s no more falsifiable than Christianity for example. But how might you argue that a falsifiable proposal is magical? Is it just that you suspect experimental evidence wouldn’t back the theory? Or if successful would you even deny the foundation upon which all science rests?


  12. I think I tracked down the study and I think the whole thing is a big nothing burger.

    “671 participants completed surveys through the Mental State Intuitions Study website”


    Am I reading the results correctly? It appears to me that “philosophers” were much more likely to think the robot both felt and saw red than laypeople and the difference for laypeople between feeling pain and seeing red is actually very small.

    If I’m reading this correctly, it would seem what this proves is that philosophers are much more gullible that laypeople to think machines conscious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure what you’re looking at. Here is the graph of the results in the paper I found. (P 13)

      (Not sure where I found it. I have it downloaded, which usually means it wasn’t publicly available. If it’s different from what you’re seeing, let me know and I’ll email it to you.)

      As I noted above, whatever methodological issues there are here, the effort still seems more rigorous than conclusions from informal conversations.

      EDIT: source for above: Sytsma, J., & Machery, E. (2010). Two conceptions of subjective experience. Philosophical Studies, 151(2), 299-327.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even in your chart there is hardly any difference on pain for robots vs humans and both groups thought seeing red was less likely in the robot. And there is almost no difference in the color and pain responses for humans between the groups. So it all comes down to whether philosophers and laypeople understand seeing the same way. And as I indicated they probably would not because many laypeople think seeing is done with eyes and consciousness is associated with what happens in the Cartesian theatre after the seeing.

        But I think there is a bigger problem with the discussion and conclusions they reach.

        What they are testing for is the conception of phenomenality and nobody would logically expect philosophers and non-philosophers to have the same conceptions. Not even all philosophers have the same conceptions.

        I don’t think the claims of universality have anything to do with the conception of phenomenality. They have to do with actual phenomenality not the conception of it which is one level removed from what might be claimed to be universal. We would expect concepts to vary by training, academic and cultural background. In some cultures, there may hardly even exist a concept of phenomenality because the phenomenal is taken to be the world.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Certainly it’s not the night and day difference some of the commentary implies. (Which is why it’s always better to look at the actual numerical results.) But it still strikes me as significant. It’s also interesting that even philosophers were more likely to ascribe seeing red to the robot, just not nearly as much as everyone else.

          However the overall point is that if the idea of phenomenality varies as much as you’re discussing, then it seems much more of a cultural construct than an innate intuition that needs to be explained. If so, then even the meta-problem may not be a real issue, or at least its solution may be more a discussion of memes than anything else.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I doubt there is any concept that doesn’t vary across cultures. But so what? We don’t reject calculus or physics because laypeople don’t understand it.

            I think possibly you get at universality (or not) by drilling down with questions to determine if there is a distinction between an inner world and an external world. I think we will find that people generally understand the difference between what they think and what happens externally. They might think an ancestor in a dream is real but, questioned enough, they acknowledge it to be real in a different way.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. We have solid reasons to accept calculus and physics. They have a necessity to them that transcends culture. If there’s something about an understanding of them that is specific to a culture, it’s usually a temporary situation because one culture’s understanding of it is currently more advanced than others. Any variation beyond that comes from cultures mixing in ideology (see Lysenkoism), which typically hurts their actual understanding.

            For example, the concept of zero is recognized to have come out of India and then to Arabic cultures. But no one today considers it an Indian concept. It’s a concept the Indians discovered (or invented if you’re nominalist). But now its just a number used in all mathematics. (Note that the notations can be culturally specific despite the underlying concepts being universal. Which is why we do refer to “Arabic numerals”.)

            Liked by 1 person

          3. The headline of the paper is:

            “Contrary to the hypothesis that the folk and philosophers conceive of subjective experience similarly, however, ordinary people distinguished the perceptual state of
            seeing red from the bodily sensation of feeling pain”.

            Could just as easily been written:

            Confirming the hypothesis that the folk and philosophers conceive of subjective experience similarly, ordinary people agreed with philosophers on feeling pain.

            But actually they didn’t even research that. They asked people their opinion of seeing and feeling in another party. And the one difference they found was based on 55 people in an online survey.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. In the end, what matters is whether results hold up in other studies. This paper is really only a part of the conversation, and an early part at that. It’s worth checking our the review paper I linked to in the post. It covers this study, but also criticism of it and other studies.

            As I noted, the patterns seems to indicate more of a muddle. But a muddle is different from universal.


          5. From that article:

            “Whereas “know” is clearly a folk term, there is, unfortunately, no term for consciousness that is part of our folk terminology”.

            I would argue that “know” is the folk term for consciousness. We don’t know if we are unconsciousness. Consciousness is knowing. If I know something, I am conscious of it.

            At any rate, there are multiple questions and issues going on with this.

            The “hard problem” per se, I think, is definitely a philosophical problem that exists for physicalist and materialists. Of course, they want it to vanish but arguing it doesn’t exist because laypeople don’t see a problem is wishful thinking. Laypeople aren’t materialists either so naturally they wouldn’t see the problem. The “hard problem” is the corner Chalmers has painted himself into.

            The N for folk and robot seeing story was only 52 people. The stories were assigned randomly but with only an N of 52 it wouldn’t be that difficult to have a bias in the sample. If you get a few extra people rating 7 on the robot seeing, you might draw the average up to 5.15, which by the way is less than 2 point different from the philosophers. If it were a 10 point scale would you get the same result? If you took away the name for robot and called it a machine, would you get the same result?

            The research with stories about shocked robots seeing red is bad research and doesn’t tell us how philosophers and laypeople differ in their understanding of consciousness. It only tells us maybe that laypeople don’t understand that seeing or perception is a conscious process that involves the brain and even that result could vanish if the experiment was replicated.


          6. Isn’t “know” an inherently intentional term? Otherwise what exactly do we know? We could talk about knowing about our knowledge, but that still seems like intentionality about our intentionality. Where does phenomenality come into this folk picture?

            Maybe we could talk about beliefs, since they’re an attempt at knowing something, but there isn’t guaranteed to be a target. Although that still seems intentional since a target of intentionality can be imaginary.

            In terms of the hard problem, I guess the question is, do we consider knowing infallible? Or knowing about our knowledge or beliefs infallible?

            If not, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that the beliefs that incline some to see a hard problem may not be accurate? Shouldn’t that be our default explanation before we reach for exotic answers?


          7. Have you ever checked the etymology of the word?

            The earliest English language uses of “conscious” and “consciousness” date back, however, to the 1500s. The English word “conscious” originally derived from the Latin conscius (con- “together” and scio “to know”)

            The Latin phrase conscius sibi, whose meaning was more closely related to the current concept of consciousness, was rendered in English as “conscious to oneself” or “conscious unto oneself”


            Knowing oneself to exist in its most basic form but also the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world as in the Oxford definition.


          8. I am familiar with the etymology. But I’m also aware that etymology isn’t always a reliable guide to contemporary meaning.

            Do you see this changing any of the points I made above?


          9. “If not, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that the beliefs that incline some to see a hard problem may not be accurate? Shouldn’t that be our default explanation before we reach for exotic answers?”

            Let me repeat what I wrote:

            “The “hard problem” per se, I think, is definitely a philosophical problem that exists for physicalist and materialists.”

            The hard problem logic goes something like this:

            1- Reality is material or physical.
            2- The mind is not physical or material.
            3- ??

            The options are statement 3:

            Statements 1 and/or 2 are wrong or the mind isn’t real. Naturally people who like statement 1 prefer the mind isn’t real option and think they have vanquished the hard problem.

            The absurdity of the “approach is that it is exactly what we call mind that allows us to make the statement “reality is material or physical” or any other statement about reality.

            “Reality is material or physical” is the exotic answer.


          10. I think we can justify 1 with all the results of science.

            2 is as an assumption that requires its own justification.

            To imply that questioning whether the mind is physical is the same as questioning whether it exists, strikes me as just an attempt to avoid scrutiny for that assumption.


          11. BTW, another example of how bad the research is. We really don’t know, do we, if the “laypeople” had a large number of academics working in robotics or AI? I’m guessing almost all of the laypeople were in college or certainly likely graduated. This could include people with degrees in psychology.


          12. “I think we can justify 1 with all the results of science.”

            Nice try Mike, but every “thing” including the evidence of science is justified by mind.

            “2 is as an assumption that requires its own justification.”

            Again, to make my point; every thing is an assumption that is adjudicated by the mind and therefore, no posteriori evidence is justified; it is merely useful. Only rigorous synthetic a priori analysis can justify anything. But so-called intellectuals reject that method so round and round we go…..

            “To imply that questioning whether the mind is physical is the same as questioning whether it exists, strikes me as just an attempt to avoid scrutiny for that assumption.’

            This would be a valid rebuttal if you believed that mind is a sovereign system that emerges from the brain but you don’t see it that way. Therefore, your rebuttal is circular and reduces once again to intellectual navel gazing….

            Liked by 1 person

          13. FC,
            It all goes through the mind. So the issue isn’t whether to privilege the mental or the non-mental, but which mental content to consider more reliable and which less. You say “merely useful”, but I say that’s the only actual measure of truth we get. If a concept allows us to predict future experiences more accurately than other concepts, then it makes sense to consider it more true than the alternatives. As far as I can see, it’s all we really have to go on.

            “This would be a valid rebuttal if you believed that mind is a sovereign system that emerges from the brain but you don’t see it that way.”

            My model of the mind is that it’s what the brain does. So far, it seems pretty predictive. Although I can see an argument to some extent for the mind as being more extended. Not sure how that relates to what you’re saying here.

            Liked by 1 person

          14. If it all goes through the mind, then we are in agreement.

            “My model of the mind is that it’s what the brain does. So far, it seems pretty predictive.”

            That’s sort of funny. What can you predict from what the brain does except in the gross sense that no electrical activity, no life?

            Liked by 1 person

          15. We’d expect anything that impairs or alters the brain’s operations to impair or alter the mind. From Phineas Gage forward, that seems like exactly what we see. Reading neurological case studies drives this point home, at least for me. And of course, anyone who’s ever taken or observed someone on mind altering drugs can see the effects. Or those of someone they know with dementia. Or just being affected by an aging body.

            At the same time, we’d also expect some resilience from the brain’s ability to reroute pathways to provide alternate means to accomplish similar operations. Again, seems like what we see.

            Liked by 1 person

          16. Most of that is just corollary to no (or messed up ) electrical, no knowledge, no mind. except applied to a particular function. Yes, I guess we can predict the reported and apparent effects of anesthetics and psychedelics to some degree. But all of those are very coarse-grained predictions. If we were launching a rocket with equivalent level of detail, it would be almost hit or miss whether it reached orbit or crashed somewhere. Psychedelics in particular are affected by set (and setting) and set, of course, is essentially mind which justifies the mind-manifesting name they are given.

            The notion of a actual single material substance isn’t supported by physics which sees a wide variety of “substances”, forces, and fields. I don’t know of any science that justifies some common substance, although I imagine a TOE of some sort might simplify the picture. It is hard to see how a single substance could ever create the complexity of the world without invoking some additional force or principle.

            Since pure materialism isn’t supported, most people leaning in this direction take the physicalism approach. But physicalism actually boils to common yardsticks and measurements by which we KNOW the world. So, it is really a statement about what we KNOW more than what the world is made of.

            Liked by 1 person

          17. I’d say electrochemical, but sure, our predictions are not fine grained yet. We still have a lot to learn. When our predictions do get to the precision of rocket science, we’ll know how to build a mind.

            I don’t think I’ve ever met a “pure materialist”. I don’t doubt there is someone out there who’s only read 17th century philosophy but no modern science and so based their ontology on it. But I’ve never come across them. And if someone like Thomas Hobbes were alive today, I’m pretty sure he’d incorporate energy, spacetime, and quantum physics into his ontology.

            The usual argument is that science only knows what matter and energy do not what they are. In other words, we know about extrinsic properties, but not intrinsic ones. If intrinsic properties in that sense exist, I don’t know how we can say anything meaningful about them. All we can do is make guesses. It doesn’t seem like the probability of our guesses matching reality could be very high.


          18. “Although I can see an argument to some extent for the mind as being more extended.”

            In your view, what would that extension be?


          19. Thanks for the link. Of course I don’t see it that way, not even close. According to my model, the mind is a sovereign quantum system that is localized in the skull and intrinsically linked to the classical brain through a physics dynamic.

            Penrose and Hameroff liken the mind to an orchestra (brain) and a symphony (mind). It’s an elegant metaphor but like all analogies it breaks down because unlike the mind, the symphony is epiphenomenal and has no casual power over the orchestra.


          20. In my model sovereign refers to hierarchy in the sense that within its own biological constraints and there are many, the mind possesses supreme or ultimate decision making power. The mind decides “what is” and “what is not” and those determinations can be veridical, delusional or the pure fantasy of imagination.

            The classical brain is subordinate to those decisions made by the mind and will execute those decisions without question, even if it means running out in front of a speeding semi-truck.


  13. The next quote is not about people. It is about AI, which is now at the level of nine-year-old person.

    “GPT-1 from 2018 was not able to solve any theory of mind tasks, GPT-3-davinci-002 (launched in January 2022) performed at the level of a 7-year old child and GPT-3.5-davinci-003, launched just ten months later, performed at the level of a nine-year old. “Our results show that recent language models achieve very high performance at classic false-belief tasks, widely used to test Theory of Mind in humans,” says Kosinski.” – See “AI Chatbot Spontaneously Develops A Theory of Mind” (

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I remain skeptical. I don’t find it that hard to flush out issues with ChatGPT. The trick is not to ask it things using standard language where there are standard answers available for it to mine. When you ask it original questions that require a real world model, it fails. I don’t think the barrier of meaning has been broken yet.

      For skeptical takes:

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It depends on which version of panpsychism is being compared. Against the most common variants that distinguish themselves from physicalism, I think eliminativism toward fundamental phenomenality is more parsimonious. Eliminativism only requires the extrinsic properties measurable in science. Panpsychism typically adds intrinsic properties that only posited to exist to explain fundamental phenomenality.

      Of course, there are naturalistic variants of panpsychism that define consciousness in some manner that applies to all matter, such as anything that interacts with its environment. I can’t say these variants are wrong, but I haven’t historically seen them as productive. Here I could see your discussion of valuing natural systems as an answer. It seems possible to value those systems without it, but maybe the outlook would help some people with the motivation to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I think it’s an interesting idea, finding out what “normal” people think of the hard problem. For the longest time I didn’t find the Chalmers p-zombies thing interesting because I felt like I’d already thought about the problem and the zombie thing was just an annoying gimmick. But apparently “normal” people do find the hard problem interesting when it’s framed in that way. I can see now that it does a nice job of cutting through the verbiage. (And as you know, I now have more of an appreciation of Chalmers after finally reading a bit of him.)

    I think trying to elicit answers from the public is problematic, though. You have the usual worries over how the questions are framed, but on top of that, you have the issue of philosophical or technical language muddying the waters…or even worse, philosophical terms masquerading as common language. How can we know that laypeople are understanding what we’re asking when they answer our questions? Philosophers often have a hard time understanding each other. Even if you define your terms in a way that seems perfectly clear, who’s to say an individual isn’t relying on their own understanding of that term?

    I don’t mean to be condescending by this question, either. I think we all have this hurdle.

    For instance, you described “intentionality” and “phenomenal” in this post in way that I can’t quite wrap my mind around because when I hear “intentionality”, I think “Husserl’s intentionality”, which means I don’t think of intentionality as being a particular state or kind of consciousness, but instead as being fundamental, essential, to consciousness. It doesn’t seem to me that that’s what you mean by the term, yet, even though I may pick up on that, I nevertheless have a hard time adjusting every time I come across that word here—to the point where I don’t know what you’re talking about. But at least I can say I don’t know, and that’s just because in this instance I got lucky and picked up on that. Now think about people without philosophical training who aren’t necessarily equipped to make such adjustments, people who think they know what you’re saying, but don’t. In a TESOL teaching course I took, we were taught to “CCQ” students—to ask comprehension check questions—because people—all of us, everyone—are quite eager to nod and pretend they understand things they don’t. It’s really very very normal.

    Another problem: By the time we’ve clarified our terms, have we not essentially given our non-philosophers a philosophical education of sorts?

    “And I still remember my reaction on first reading people like David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, or Ned Block. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. They tried to make their points by ostension, by referencing something they took to be obvious, which wasn’t in my case.”

    I suspect this is because you had already done a fair amount of scientific study. In other words, you weren’t coming at it from a naive realist’s worldview, you were coming at it from a scientific worldview. My guess is that you were steeped in science even as a kid, so it’s not surprising you had a hard time grasping what is meant by phenomenal consciousness.

    I never had a problem grasping it, but I was already thinking about such things long before I took my first philosophy course. I was not steeped in science (unless you count public education—I don’t).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve come to appreciate Chalmers myself over the years. I don’t agree with him on phenomenal consciousness, but I do on a lot of other stuff. I’m frequently impressed with his ability to write cogently about views he doesn’t agree with. When he describes type-A materialism, for instance, I recognize my position in it, something that isn’t always true when other non-physicalists try to summarize that view. His older stuff does play the language game a bit, but he seems to have gotten more careful over time.

      Definitely the terminology is an issue. You can’t just ask the average person their position on qualia. They won’t understand. And if you explain it to them, you’ve introduced possible bias. The approach of these studies is to eschew technical language, and just describe scenarios in everyday language, and see what their intuition is, intuitions that should produce certain answers if they hold the philosophical concept. Of course, as you note, philosophers themselves often disagree on what these terms mean, which complicates things.

      That’s interesting on intentionality. For this post, I took my cue from the paper I was describing. Their description of it and the distinction, which is a quick summary, matches what I’ve read in other places, such as this intro paragraph in the SEP article on intentionality.

      To say you are in a state that is (phenomenally) conscious is to say—on a certain understanding of these terms—that you have an experience, or a state there is something it’s like for you to be in. Feeling pain or dizziness, appearances of color or shape, and episodic thought are some widely accepted examples. Intentionality, on the other hand, has to do with the directedness, aboutness, or reference of mental states—the fact that, for example, you think of or about something. Intentionality includes, and is sometimes seen as equivalent to, what is called “mental representation”.


      But I haven’t read Husserl, so I’m not familiar with his version. I do agree that intentionality seems essential. But apparently some philosophers imagine phenomenality without it.

      I definitely was steeped in science when I first went to read Chalmers and the others, so I’m sure that had an effect. I don’t know if I was steeped in it as early as you might imagine. I took in a lot of science fiction very early on, but that included a lot of fantasy like Star Wars, notions of ESP, telepathy, etc. But by the time I started reading about consciousness, maybe around 2011, I definitely had that grounding.

      What I mainly struggled with when reading Chalmers was the distinction he made between what the hard problem is supposed to be about vs the easy problems. I just couldn’t see anything there left to be concerned about. (Now I would note that he omitted automatic evaluative reactions (affects) from his easy problem list.) Since then, I’ve learned why many think there’s something else there to be addressed, but it’s still not a strong intuition for me.

      Anyway, your point about having a deep grounding in philosophy before you read it makes sense. I think it means that neither of us approached it as straight laypeople. Of course, your average layperson is unlikely to be reading academic papers or books on consciousness anyway.


  15. Directedness or aboutness sounds right to me. The “mental representation” part sounds perplexing, but apparently intentionality can mean different things. I’ll be wary from now on.

    I tend to think of Husserl’s intentionality as something being in focus and in the foreground, which implies there must be something blurred and out of focus in the background, and this is a fundamental feature of consciousness. For instance—this is a loose analogy—I finally upgraded my phone and its camera now comes with “cinematic mode”, a feature that automatically finds the subject and brings that into focus while blurring the rest. It can also switch to a different subject if one comes into view. I have no idea how the camera chooses what subject to focus on, but when I use it I get the sense of “directedness” towards objects, especially when I want the camera to focus on something it won’t.


    1. The idea of a representation would be, I think, an implementation detail. I’m not really a fan of the word “representation” though. It seems to imply that there’s a re-presentation to some inner observer. I usually prefer “model” or “schema”. But I wonder if that brings it any closer to what you’re thinking.

      Your description of Husserl’s intentionality sounds a lot like attention. Although I suppose this would be more the result of attention rather than the process of attention itself.

      Which raises an interesting question. Can there be unattended intentionality? Or unconscious intentionality? If not, I wonder what it says about the models something like a self driving car builds of road conditions.


      1. I’m not sure attention and intentionality are the same for Husserl. It depends on what you mean by “attention”. It’s not just “paying attention” or focusing on something in the ordinary sense, though it certainly includes that. So I’m not sure if unattended intentionality is possible, but I’m pretty sure unconscious intentionality is not, for Husserl that is.

        I don’t know how self driving cars model their environment, but if it’s a closed, finite system, then it’s not what Husserl has in mind. He talks about the “horizon” or rest of the world as being infinite, always there as something one might explore, in the background.

        Liked by 1 person

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