Some thoughts on the conceptual coherence of "philosophical zombies"

The Zombie argument has always rubbed me the wrong way. This post will attempt to explain why. Let me first try and reconstruct the argument in my own words, with the intention of being fair to Chalmers’ underlying intuitions about consciousness.

For Chalmers, consciousness is the “what it is like” of an agent. He claims that he can only know for sure that he is conscious, that there is “something it is like” to be him. For every other conscious being, Chalmers thinks he can only infer that they are based on third-person evidence, as opposed to having self-evident first-person knowledge of qualia states, the “qualitative” or “subjective” phenomena of having a perspective on the world, having a “phenomenal” world, etc. Chalmers thinks this phenomena of “phenomenal consciousness” is really strange philosophically. It is the source of the famous mind-body problem, the basic idea that there are two general aspects known in experience, mental phenomena and physical phenomena. Mental phenomena are “things” like sensations, perceptions, beliefs, desires, imaginations, feelings, pains, and thoughts. For Chalmers it is important to distinguish two ways of understanding these mental phenomena. The first way is in terms of their roles in a causal-functional economy, of how they “do stuff” that is useful. This is what Chalmers calls “access consciousness”. It is “easy” to explain access consciousness neurologically, because we can make sense of functions in terms of causes, and we know how neurons cause things to happen in the brain and body. The second way of understanding the mental phenomena is in terms of how there is a qualitative “something it is like” to be the subject of those sensations, beliefs, pains, etc.  This is what Chalmers calls “phenomenal consciousness”. It is “hard” to explain psychologically in terms of functions or adaptive usefulness.

This is the central claim for Chalmers: he claims to not be able to conceive of any functional usefulness for this phenomenal consciousness. Imagine an atom-for-atom duplicate of your body in an alternate world. Chalmers thinks that he can coherently conceive of this duplicate as a “Zombie”, that is, a being who lacks phenomenal consciousness. If you prick a Zombie, he will yelp and move his arm back. If you asked him if it hurt, he could produce verbal behavior that describes in great detail what it is like to feel pain. He could even write philosophical essays about the distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness, and wax poetic about the great joy of sensing and experiencing the world from a first person perspective. But the Zombie would not be conscious, in any way, even though it shared exactly the same set of 100 billion neurons, all arranged in the same same chemical soup and organized in the exact same way. Imagine hooking up a conscious human and his Zombie to a brain scanner, and asking the conscious subject to report when he starts to mind-wander and ruminate to himself, about either the past, present, or future. The scanner for the Zombie would look exactly the same, of course. And if you asked the Zombie to report any mind-wandering or self-conscious thinking, his report of the time of the conscious thought would be exactly the same as the conscious subject. In fact, if the conscious subject and the Zombie were physically identical, you could mix them up in the lab room and there would be, in principle, no way of telling one from the other.

This lack of coherent criteria for telling a Zombie from a conscious subject  in a real life setting should set off huge philosophical warning bells. Chalmers’ basic argument seems to be that since he cannot imagine any possible way of telling a functional story about the “qualitative” or “first person” perspective, and thus about consciousness, it is necessary that physicalism is not true, since physicalism claims that mental phenomena are really just physical phenomena. Chalmers is a monist, but he thinks that “conscious” things (i.e. qualitative properties), exist in a fundamentally different way than physical things like the brain. Hence Chalmers is an old-fashioned dualist wrapped up in modern garb. He thinks that physical matter gives rise to two types of properties: physical properties and mental properties. And since these two properties have to be explained in fundamentally different ways, physicalism (the idea that only “physical, causal-functional stories” suffice to explain mental phenomena) is necessarily false.

I think the problem here is as follows. Chalmers leads us astray from the start when he articulates what needs explaining and what is philosophically interesting. For Chalmers, what is philosophically interesting is first-person experience, “what it is likeness”. But this concept is never sufficiently defined or explained. He says something to the effect of “If you got to ask what it is, you aint never going to know.” This, of course, doesn’t satisfy me at all. First, I want to know just what this first-person experience is. What concept of person are we working under? Is a coma patient a subject of experience? Why not? It seems perfectly conceivable that there is “something it is like” to be a coma patient insofar as she is “living” in the world and interacting with it according to the individual idiosyncrasies of her still vegetatively working brain. Surely, on pains of conceptual parsimony, the coma patient’s unconscious mind has privileged, first-person access to the mental content that is the unconscious mental phenomena such as the processing and manipulation of information streaming in from the total environmental envelope, even if on a dim and vegetative scale. It makes perfect sense to say that the coma patient’s brain is most assuredly processing auditory data unconsciously, and this  constitutes an instance of a mental phenomena, under almost every modern definition of mental phenomena. And since mental phenomena are defined by Chalmers as having a qualitative component, then, on pains of contradiction, we are forced to conclude that “there is something it is like to be unconscious”.

And if this is the case, then the conceptual usefulness of defining what needs explaining about minds purely in terms of phenomenal consciousness looks doubtful, for the problem is this: We all know intuitively that there is a huge “mental” difference between a coma patient and a fully awake, linguistically competent human. Yet in terms of Chalmers very conceptual framework, there is not a fundamental constitutive difference in phenomenal consciousness between the coma patient and the adult human, only a difference in degree of “phenomenal dimness”. If you doubt this, ask yourself this: what is the difference in epistemic access to the mind of a bat or the mind of an unconscious coma patient? If we are allowed to posit that there is “something it is like” to be a bat even when we cannot ask it if it is conscious, then why are we not allowed to posit that there is “something it is like” to be a coma patient? In both cases, you cannot ask the agent if they are conscious. We can either claim that the criterion of consciousness is reportability, or we are stuck wondering whether the bat or the coma patient is conscious. But rather than claiming the bat is probably conscious and we just can’t know it for sure, I think we should claim that the bat is not conscious simply because it doesn’t have the cognitive acumen to be meta-conscious of its first-order awareness in such a way as to be able to report on those states, either internally in thought or externally in verbal behavior.

So what is the fundamental difference between the coma patient and adult human? I claim that it is the difference between nonconscious reactivity and the operation of consciousness proper. Phenomenal consciousness as a concept is less interesting to me precisely because it isn’t useful for distinguishing humans from nonhuman animals, nor infants and coma patients from linguistically competent and verbally/intentionally responsive mentalities. And as a researcher of the mind, I think the differences between humans and nonhumans are far more psychologically and philosophically interesting than the similarities.

For starters, humans are a literate species, and one immersed in language, symbols, culture, ritual, and artificial constructions to a degree off the charts in comparison to nonhuman animals. This has huge effects on the development of the brain and the potentiality for new forms of narratological subjectivity. Moreover, the long period of time before sexual maturation in humans allows for a greater plasticity and capacity for adopting to changing environments than any other animal. And it is not the volume of frontal matter that distinguishes us from apes when body size is controlled for; it is connective fibers, the neural tissue most open to effects of plasticity.There is “something it is like” to be transported into an imaginary world while reading a book. I would be greatly surprised if any nonhuman animal was capable of experiencing such forms of subjectivity. Chalmers greatly under estimates the qualitative differences between brains competent in language and those restricted only to nonverbal mentalities (with verbal cognition referring to at least some natural capacity for understanding symbolic signs). There is also something it is like to “talk to oneself”, to tell oneself what to do, to initiate action through the slow deliberation of “inner speech”. These inner speech mechanisms are directly tied into our autobiographical memory, and help constitute our sense of conscious identity, our explicit knowledge about who we are, where we came from, what we believe, what we desire, what it is like to be us. Paraphrasing Julian Jaynes, you cannot be conscious of what you are not conscious of. For if you could not remember that you were conscious at time T, in what sense could you ever consciously know that you were conscious at time T? There is a fundamental link between autobiographical memory, capacity to self-report, and consciousness that cannot be explained in terms of Chalmers distinction between “easy problems” and “hard problems”.

This is the only way to make sense of philosophers like Robert Brandom or Dan Dennett who claim that consciousness constitutively depends on the capacity for report and be meta-aware that you are conscious. In a very real sense, what we all intuitively understand to be philosophically interesting, that which separates conscious adults from coma patients, fetuses, and birds, is not the very capacity to experience the world from a first-person view, since even coma patients are still persons in an absolutely minimal sense of bodily self-consciousness. No, what’s philosophically interesting is not awareness of the environment — something shared with earthworms, as Darwin demonstrated — but awareness of your awareness of the environment, in terms of inferentially linked concepts like “sensation”, “belief”, “desire” “meta-awareness”, “representation”, “perception”, “memory”, “thinking”, “I”, “me”, “mine”, “Soul”, “mind”, “consciousness”.

As it turns out then, consciousness depends on the concept of consciousness being active within the mental economy of the conscious subject. We thus can distinguish between nonconscious first-person subjectivity shared by all organisms and conscious first-person subjectivity dependent on the capacity to be meta-aware that you are aware, and capable of reporting on past instances of awareness in terms of narratologically structured and inferentially linked concepts learned in through childhood through exposure to intersubjective linguistic stimulation.



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

18 responses to “Some thoughts on the conceptual coherence of "philosophical zombies"

  1. Charles Wolverton

    I really appreciate this post. As a tyro in these matters, even when I feel very strongly about something, I necessarily have self-doubts. So, it is especially comforting to have reinforcement from those who have credibility.

    The PZ argument seems to prove physicalism false using – in essence – the same tactic used in the Mary’s Room argument: assume an entity that is physically complete, in some vague sense, and then show that it isn’t really complete, in some equally vague sense; QED. But since we seem to understand so little about phenomenal experience, it isn’t at all clear to me that such assumptions can be justified. Of course, one can simply assume without justification, for example, a physical clone that has no phenomenal experience. But to do so seems effectively to assume the desired conclusion.

    I agree that the role of language in these often seems insufficiently appreciated. My own suspicion is that the verbal descriptive abilities provided by language and the visual description provided by phenomenal experience are closely interrelated, although in ways not yet understood.

    • Tyle Stelzig

      I think you have a good point about the circularity of the PZ argument this argument is taken to be aimed against physicalism. However, what if PZ is taken as an illustration of the conceptual chasm between physical events in the brain and ‘subjective events’ in the mind?

      Here’s a second point. If philosophical zombies are not actually possible to imagine, why aren’t they? One answer is that there are ‘psychophysical laws’ (see my response to Vic, below) that tell us that zombies aren’t possible. One way to understand the zombie argument, then, is as follows: Zombies aren’t really possible, and we don’t want to reject physicalism, so there must be physical laws mandating that zombies aren’t possible.

      Chalmers does argue for such laws, actually, although I don’t want to claim that he would agree with the way I’ve formulated the argument. Personally, I don’t see how this type of argument shows that there *have* to be laws linking physical systems to their qualia, but it’s certainly an interesting avenue of inquiry.

  2. Vic Panzica

    My take on the Chalmers argument is that the zombie does not defeat physicalism but only proves there is a deeper physical process than neuron firing. If our walking, talking and “ouching” is the zombie outer shell of our own existence caused by neural firing, Chalmers argument hints there is another physical process which occurs in neurons and between neurons. I don’t believe he is a Cartesian dualist.

    • Tyle Stelzig

      I agree with this. Of course the zombie argument doesn’t defeat physicalism. Moreover, I think you’re right that Chalmers wants to argue that there must be physical processes other than neurons firing; “psychophysical laws” that determine which physical systems are associated with which types of qualia.

      I’d be surprised if psychophysical laws turned out to be fundamental, in the sense that laws of physics are fundamental. However, there could be emergent psychophysical laws describing the relations between neurons etc. and phenomenal consciousness which are analogous to laws of biology describing the relation between physical systems and their biological properties.

  3. Tyle Stelzig

    The main thrust of this post seems to be that ‘phenomenal consciousness’ isn’t very interesting, because all organisms have it, and because it’s not something that we have epistemic access to.

    I’m inclined to agree that the ‘Easy’ problems are more important than the ‘Hard’ problem. The Easy problems are more clearly defined, and solving them can actually make the world a better place. This is a reason to study science instead of philosophy.

    However, I disagree with your assertion that all organisms possess first-person subjectivity. Of course, we don’t have epistemic access to (their) phenomenal consciousness, so I can’t say for sure. But if we grant phenomenal consciousness to an amoeba, what principled reason should we supply for rejecting it in the case of my pocket calculator? We *could* say that *everything* is conscious… My point is simply that this assertion begs the Hard question. To decide which animals have phenomenal consciousness, we need a theory of phenomenal consciousness. This is what Chalmers wants to pursue, and what you are claiming is not interesting.

  4. Tyle Stelzig

    I think you have a good point that the PZ argument, as construed, begs the question against physicalism. But what if the goal is not to reject physicalism, but to illustrate the conceptual chasm between physical events in your brain and ‘subjective events’ in your mind? There does seem to be a legitimate (and puzzling!) difference.

    Also, if it isn’t possible to imagine a philosophical zombie, why not? One potential answer is that there are ‘psychophysical laws’ (see my reply to Vic) that make this not possible. So one way to understand this argument might be as saying: We don’t want to reject physicalism, so if there can’t really be zombies there must be some physical laws that explain why this is the case.

  5. vic panzica

    My theory is that if you think of organic molecules as extensions of inorganic molecules; likewise organic cells are more complex organic molecular processes. Although we try to mark thresholds between inorganic, organic and cellular processes there is really a continuum across nature. If every organic cell in nature is a free runniing clock, do neurons perform a synchronization function when they fire? Essentially cell A and cell B become cell A? Emergence? Essentially are active nerves the longest molecules in nature? I proposed this to Chalmers as the Fermi-Whitehead-Macdonalds theory of consciousness or nerve chain reactions effect causal efficacy or supersizing of neuron function.

    • Tyle Stelzig

      Interesting! This is a tantalizing idea, but one I don’t really understand. How does synchronicity explain consciousness?

  6. I agree with Tyle’s first comment. The zombie argument is not a knock-down argument that physicalism must be false, but instead serves to highlight the huge and oft-cited explanatory gap between physicalist explanations and first person qualia. If physicalism is true, then a complete physical account of a person ought to be able to tell us everything about that person, including what it is like to see red. The fact that there is simply no way to get from point A to point B is embarrassing to the physicalist.

    I think you misread or misrepresent Chalmers. I don’t think he ever asserts that all mental phenomena, i.e. all biological activity in a brain, by definition have a qualitative component.

    In general, you seem to be pulling a Dennett in that you set up your criteria for acceptable data in such a way as to rule out of bounds exactly the most interesting data: the raw feels of experience, not their neural correlates, not their accessability or reportability.

    Personally, I agree that language is very important, and the inter-relationship between qualia and symbolic cognition is underexplored. The easy problems will turn out to be closely linked to the Hard Problem. I do not think, however, that any such exploration will end up making the qualia go away; quite the contrary.

    -John Gregg

    • Gary Williams


      The zombie argument is not a knock-down argument that physicalism must be false, but instead serves to highlight the huge and oft-cited explanatory gap between physicalist explanations and first person qualia. If physicalism is true, then a complete physical account of a person ought to be able to tell us everything about that person, including what it is like to see red. The fact that there is simply no way to get from point A to point B is embarrassing to the physicalist.

      The “fact” that you can’t get from point A to point B is the conclusion that Chalmers and company is trying to prove, not an assumption that we can start with. You can’t assume that a physical account would leave something out and then criticize physicalism for leaving that something out. And you can’t use the “explanatory gap” between A and B as an argument for that very gap. The antiphysicalist needs to prove that there is a gap, not assume one and then argue that physicalist stories cannot account for it. You have to assume certain things about both qualitative experience and physical explanations in order to get to the point where there is some mysterious gap between them. Usually this entails over mystifying qualitative experience and oversimplifying physical explanations (which are for more than just talk about “neural correlations”; functions, for example, are also discussed).

      You say I am missing the “raw feels of experience” in my account, but this term “experience” is left unexplained. Is this unconscious or conscious experience? Surely, we experience some things nonconsciously. Perhaps you will complain and say this is a contradiction in terms, but according to who? Why does the antiphysicalist get to define what consciousness means and then claim that there can be no nonconscious experience? If there is nonconscious experience, then the interesting question isn’t about “raw feels” but about the transition from raw feels to meta-awareness of raw feels. I am of the opinion that there are at least three kinds of raw feels. The first is simply “what it is like” to be an embodied organism. This raw feeling is shared by all organisms, including bacteria and supervenes on the temporal autonomy of self-sustaining biological maintenance. The second kind of raw feeling is generated by the mapping of primitive nervous systems, both of themselves and of the environment. This raw feeling is really just an amplification and modification of the first type of raw feel, and serves to amplify the feelings of bodily self-consciousness known to creatures with complex nervous systems. Both of these kinds of raw feeling are unreflective. The third kind of raw feel is the feelings which arise when meta-awareness is added to the first two such that we become aware of what we are feeling, and then come upon the feeling of being aware that we are feeling. I claim that the antiphysicalist has not properly sorted out these distinctions and is committing a strawmman when he or she says that the physicalist has “left out” or “overlooked” raw feels. On the contrary, the physicalist has ample means to account for “raw feeling”, both conscious and nonconscious. And this can account for every kind of experience. And it is only dogma which claims that experience must be this complex “thing” which is generated outside of the functional context of keeping an organism alive, as something “extra” above and beyond the raw complexity of biological existence. I think the autonomy and bodily self-unity of biological experience has the right characteristics to account for the “feelings of unity” and the first-person access of phenomenal consciousness, but since the antiphysicalist havent adequately shown why there is not “something it is like” to be a bacterium, we have no nonquestion begging way of showing that physical accounts of that experience will not answer all philosophically interesting questions to a satisfactory degree. I can perfectly imagine how a physical story could explain the “what it is like” of a bacterium, as well as for a human. The antiphysicalists incredulity at this prospect does not in itself make for an argument against the truth and explanatory usefulness of physicalism. It only speaks towards their lack of scientific imagination.

      • Charles Wolverton

        Again, thank you Gary! This is the reply to anti-physicalism that I have been tempted to write but was too afraid (and uninformed) to compose.

        Picking up on one of Gary’s points, having come to this field after a career in more mundane endeavors in which definitions of key terms are generally relatively precise and stable, I’ve found the rampant use of undefined/underdefined terms problematic. It makes learning the relevant vocabulary – obviously a key requirement in getting a grip on a new area – extremely difficult. Some examples: qualia are often labeled as “ineffable”, presumably meaning “can’t be explained at any lower level of detail”. But if using that word is nothing more than reducing “explanatory gap” or “explanatorily irreducible” to a single word, it may be a good idea for verbal efficiency but adds nothing substantive. And although Gary appears to be more tolerant of “what it’s like” than I, it’s apparently because he’s willing to assume that we may one day be able to define precisely it, and in a way that makes it applicable to a broad class of living things. But I question the utility of a word/phrase that is both loosely defined (at best) and refers to a highly speculative concept – except perhaps as tool for obfuscation.

        And it has been especially surprising to find that there doesn’t even appear to be a consensus on a definition for the most important word – “consciousness”. It appears that an increasingly large number of human mental activities traditionally classified as “conscious” are being reclassified as “unconscious”, so one might wonder if the distinction has real utility, hence validity – a less grating way of saying that perhaps the concept itself is illusory. In any event, I gather that it is generally assumed that concepts we label “consciousness” and “qualia” are in some sense just “obviously there”, presumably because we “experience” them – have a privileged first-person, possibly incorrigible, “awareness of” them. But any argument of the “we just know it from direct personal awareness” variety seems potentially vulnerable to attack as being examples of the “myth of the given”.

  7. Gary-

    I don’t call myself an antiphysicalist, but let’s accept that for the moment. The antiphysicalist does not have to prove that the explanatory gap exists. He points it out. There is either an explanation, or there is an explanatory gap. In the
    absence of a physical explanation of qualia, there just is an explanatory gap.

    As to the what-it-is-likeness I am talking about, I have no idea if there is anything it is like to be a bacterium. I do know that there is something it is like for me to see red. That is the kind of thing I mean when I speak of “raw feels”. My qualia are not some theory or conclusion or hypothesis or ideology – they are data, and as such they must be explained. I notice that in your third kind of “raw feels” you mention the awareness of a feeling and the feeling of being aware of the feeling. Unless you are using “feeling” in some loose, purely functional way here (in which case the explanatory gap is still there), you have a bootstrapping problem.

    -John Gregg

    • Tyle Stelzig

      John puts this very well. The point is not that a physical explanation is impossible, but that one has yet to be provided.

      Gary, you say that you “can perfectly imagine how a physical story could explain the ‘what it is like’ of a bacterium, as well as for a human”, and allude to “the autonomy and bodily self-unity of biological experience” in this regard. Well, I hereby put forth a friendly challenge: Articulate the relationship between autonomy/self-unity and raw feels, and show how the former explain the latter. If you succeed, you will have solved the hard problem.

      • Gary Williams

        Ok, so let’s start with the “what it is like” of a bacterium. What is it like to exist as a bacterium? The raw feels of a bacterium probably don’t include any kind of reflective consciousness, so we know we don’t have to explain how the bacterium thinks or imagines. Most likely, the bacterium is restricted to prereflective consciousness. What are the phenomenal components to prereflective consciousness? Well, there is a sense of unity of experience in the sense of experience “flowing” through time, with the past flowing behind and the future ahead, with a “living” present. Presumably this unitary experience of time flowing can be accounted for in terms of how the bacterium maintains the unity of its cellular organization over-time according to particular timescales. Varela and Maturana deem this process of self-maintenance over time the process of “autopoiesis”. It involves literally reproducing the very components which make of up the boundary between the cell and the environment (namely, the cell membrane). So the cell sits there in the chemical soup, and its life involves the detection of nutrients, the avoidance of harmful/toxic stimuli, and the metabolic processing of nutrients that sustains its activity overtime, generating a sense of experiential continuity between its past self and its current self.

        So we have two things now. We have on the one hand what we infer are the “raw feels” of a bacterium. They include “what it is like” to eat sucrose, maintain a metabolism, and move around in a chemical soup. On the other hand, we have a (imagined) complete bio-chemical account of the behavior of the bacterium down to the molecular level. This physical account explains just how it is that the bacterium maintains itself through time, “feeding” and moving around.

        Now the big question is this: does the bio-chemical account leave something out? Is there some metaphysical element that the physical account miss, some property that isn’t physical? Does it miss out on the “phenomenal feels” of the organism? Some might say “Yes”. They might say that the bio-physical account doesn’t explain the “subjectivity” of the bacterium, since we still can’t imagine “what it is like” to be a bacterium. Personally, I don’t think anything is left out in the bio-chemical behavior account. But that’s because I think behavioral analyses are perfectly capable of accounting for the phenomenology of prereflective consciousness. I think that until you have reflective consciousness that needs explaining, biological explanations of cognition are perfectly capable of capturing the “what it is like” of prereflective creatures. This is because I dont think that “what it is like” to be prereflective is all that phenomenologically complicated. It involves more or less being on “autopilot”, in automatically reacting to any stimulus in terms of what that stimulus means for-the-sake-of possible behavior.

        But I suppose that is a problem here, for why should we be sure that our own reflective imagination is capable of imagining what it is like to be nonreflective? Can a reflective imagination imagine what it is like to be completely unreflective? This seems potentially tricky. In this respect, it seems like there might be a fundamental problem in truly imagining “what it is like” to be prereflective. But I don’t think this spells disaster for physicalism, since there isn’t any “leftover” metaphysical spooky stuff that is left out of the physical account. It explains the entire life of the bacterium, which is really just a life of biological reactivity. We just might have trouble truly imagining a prereflective life. But this wouldnt be because physicalism isn’t true. We would have trouble because reflection distorts prereflective experience and “covers up” what it is like to exist without meta-conscious awareness.

      • Tyle Stelzig

        Thanks for the thoughtful response! First, just to clarify, I’m not arguing that physicalism is false. I’m arguing that is has some explaining to do.

        So. You suggest that the experience of a flow of time and of continuity between past and future selves is a manifestation of biochemical activity whereby the physical unity of the organism is maintained. It’s quite possible that you’re right. However, my question is *why* these phenomenal experiences are the result of these particular molecular interactions. Our best current theory of chemistry doesn’t tell us that this is the case. In fact, chemistry doesn’t say anything at all about phenomenal experience. For example, it doesn’t say “those chemical interactions which amount to maintaining cellular integrity give rise to qualia” (although it might entail it: but if so, how?) or even that complex enough operations of organic molecules can lead to qualia. These might be things that we *observe* to be true, but we lack an explanation in terms of our best current physical theories. In other words, we don’t know why these things are true.

        You and I probably agree that the mind supervenes on the brain – or at least on physical properties, perhaps of some extended environment. We can therefore probably agree that a non-spooky explanation of the mind is possible. My point is simply that such an explanation, or even the outline of one, has yet to be provided. There have been proposals, of course. But none of these have shown how it is that the explanans (synchronized firing, integrated information, strange loops, autopoiesis) leads to the explanandum (consciousness), so none have really provided an explanation.

        Indeed, it is hard to see how facts about the interactions of particles, or even molecules, could amount to an explanation of phenomenal experience (at least without ‘linking hypotheses’ whose predicates aren’t physical natural kind terms). At best, it seems to me that such facts would provide a description; complete in the sense of supervenience but without explanatory power. Of course, perhaps an explanation will come along that proves me wrong. But I think it’s important to realize that the ontological taxonomy of physical science is not necessarily the best one for describing the emergence of phenomenal experience. Instead, there could be laws which are better suited for this task at some other level of explanation. If so, the goal becomes to determine the appropriate level of explanation, to establish the relevant laws, and to show how they entail phenomenal experience. This is still a hard problem, but we shouldn’t make it harder by too severely restricting the class of explanations we consider acceptable.

  8. vic panzica

    What’s easy about the hard problem is that most quale can be traced to a specific cortex or area in the brain. So even though it’s hard to explain why we see red, the place where we get the data for our computation is an easy calculation. What’s again hard or difficult is that the result of our calculation: the data which breaks a threshold of the quale of feel which creates a conscious feeling (thought).

  9. Gary Williams


    I think it is possible that you will never get a satisfying answer to the questions you are raising. If you are trying to explain your own experience in terms of a neural model, you are bound to fail. For models are based off using analogous reasoning, wherein you model one thing unknown in terms of something known. And if you are trying to model your own immediate experience, you will always run into a conceptual problem applying a model to it, because there is nothing like your own immediate experience except your own immediate experience. But as you acknowledged, this conceptual limitation for modeling immediate experience is compatible with physical-mental supervenience claims, and it is also compatible with a naturalistic metaphysics, since the explanation for the limitation of modeling experience can come from a naturalistic model of how analogies work in our cognition. While still very weird and tricky to think about (since we think with analogy), there is no reason to think that it follows from this strangeness that naturalism is false and not applicable to mental experience.

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