Mystery or Marvel: Why is there a link between physical and conscious events? (Part 3)

What it is like to be an elf

Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance.

Francisco Varela (1996, p. 347)

Plenty of puzzles about consciousness remain—unknowns on which further empirical work will plausibly shed light. What kinds of actual or hypothetical entities are conscious, and how similar are their experiences to our own? Ethologists and the average pet owner have concluded from behavioral observations that animals like dogs and cats, with relatively sophisticated nervous systems, very likely have experiences. But what about simpler animals, like insects? What about plants, bacteria, or complex machines like computers or smart phones? Might other “inanimate” objects have a modicum of anima, a hushed buzz of inner life? What kinds of physical activity correspond to consciousness in general, or to specific features of experience like painfulness, bitterness, or blueness? Neuroscience has progressed enough to begin answering these last two questions with regard to human physiology. But many philosophers and scientists have suspected that the physical correlates of consciousness are not limited to the activity of organic materials. Rather, according to the position known as “functionalism,” consciousness can be realized in a variety of physical media, including inorganic materials like silicon, as long as certain functions are carried out, as long as enough of the structure is preserved. The big question is: how much structure is enough?

There are some serious obstacles to answering these questions, since we can never directly experience what another cognitive system experiences. But while we will never attain a foolproof confirmation of experiences beyond our own (when is science ever foolproof, anyway?), further scientific research can help us narrow down our hypotheses, and become more confident in particular theories.

What about the “hard problem of consciousness”—the question of why there is this strong link between conscious events and certain kinds of physical events? In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I proposed that the existence of this relation is not a mystery, but a marvel: a fact that is surprising, counterintuitive, or awe-inspiring, but not in need of further explanation. I argued that the best way to classify the relation is either as an identity or as an inseparable unity of distinct, but complementary properties or “modes” (i.e., a double-aspect theory, like Spinoza’s). I confess that I have oscillated between these views over the years, and between regarding the distinction as important and unimportant. In this third and final post of the series, I will explore possible reasons to favor one of these positions over the others, and sketch out where I think our academic energies should be rerouted if the hard problem is dissolved.

Can scientific experimentation adjudicate between the two views? Does one theory make different predictions than the other? It appears not. Both theories would lead one to expect consciousness where there is physical activity of a particular kind, and vice versa. Let’s suppose that we observe an event with no known physical explanation. Could we argue that this is evidence for the causal influence of an irreducible, nonphysical property of consciousness, and therefore evidence in favor of the double-aspect theory? That would be extremely hasty, methinks. Regardless of our psychophysical theory, experience leads us to expect that observed events of any kind (whether accompanied by consciousness or not) will be in accord with the laws of physics and continuous with the chain of physical causes. Our first impulse when confronting an event with no known physical explanation should be to search for ways it might connect to what we know from physics.

Can introspection settle the dispute? Suppose we are examining our own experience of scarlet wildflowers against the cerulean background of the ocean (see Figure 6 below). Some may contend that in the redness of the wildflowers or the blueness of the ocean, they discern something that goes beyond a functional event (like information-processing), something that is certainly not identical to the activity of a neural network. This extra ingredient they take to be a nonphysical, irreducible property of experience—a “quale” in modern Philosophese (plural: “qualia”)—and therefore evidence in favor of a double-aspect theory over an identity theory.

Figure 6: Indian paintbrush near Point Reyes Lighthouse, CA.

It is true that we do not see the firing of neurons in this experience, but that’s because we lack perceptual access to that information. We readily accept ignorance or blindness of this sort with respect to objective phenomena; why not with respect to subjective phenomena, as well? Furthermore, I’m not so sure I can disentangle functional properties from the character of my experience. There is a wealth of information here that I am accessing and processing, various features that I am discriminating, locating, identifying, and evaluating. These processes are “baked into” the very experience of seeing red or blue. In other words, it isn’t clear to me on the basis of introspection that a distinction between physico-functional and experiential properties is appropriate.

Does one of these theories contribute better to our understanding of consciousness and truth-preserving discourse about it? We might fear that adopting an identity theory would licence eliminating the experiential side of the equation, leaving behind a discourse and a taxonomy in purely physical or functional terms. Since we are ignorant of many ways in which physical and conscious events are linked, this ontological purge would result in an incredible loss of information about our most precious treasure, consciousness. For anyone who did not possess the secret, unspoken knowledge of that link, the resulting picture of reality would depict a universe of experiential desolation, inhabited solely by philosophical zombies (see Figure 7 below). It would hinder us from addressing a multitude of ethical questions regarding the consciousness—including the pain and pleasure—of humans, other animals, and machines.

Figure 7: Unfortunately, no philosophical zombies were available, so I asked this run-of-the-mill zombie to pose instead.

I agree that it would be detrimental, to both our ethics and our understanding of consciousness, to eliminate the terms we have developed in everyday speech to name the manifest side of our experience and its features. The “manifest image” (Wilfrid Sellars, 1962) is not to be rejected, but refined by the scientific one. Since we lack knowledge and intuitions concerning the connections between physical and conscious events, we must preserve both sides of the equation, enabling us to speak of the bridges between them. If the relation is described as an identity, it should be non-eliminative with regard to experiential terminology in our discourse and scientific methodology.

More important than deciding between subtle differences in classification (say, between a non-eliminative identity theory and a double-aspect theory) is developing a methodology that will help us discover and communicate the precise connections between physical and conscious events. The biologist, philosopher, and neuroscientist Francisco Varela (1998) outlines such a methodology, which he calls “neurophenomenology.” Phenomenology is a disciplined approach to examining our experience, a careful and systematic form of introspection. It was launched in Western thought by Edmund Husserl and developed by William James, Eugen Fink, Edith Stein, Roman Ingarten, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others (Varela, p. 335). There has been a rich development of phenomenology in Eastern thought, as well—for instance, in Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness, and in the Kyoto School of Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji (ibid.). The “neuro-” in “neurophenomenology” is meant to encompass various sciences that are pertinent to the study of consciousness, including evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience (330).

Varela makes a number of claims in his paper, some of which I would dispute, but his principal point is this:

Phenomenological accounts of the structure of experience and their counterparts in cognitive science relate to each other through reciprocal constraints. The key point here is that by emphasizing a co-determination of both accounts one can explore the bridges, challenges, insights, and contradictions between them. This means that both domains of phenomena have equal status in demanding a full attention and respect for their specificity. It is quite easy to see how scientific accounts illuminate mental experience, but the reciprocal direction, from experience towards science, is what is typically ignored.

Francisco Varela (1996, p. 343)

In other words, a science of consciousness should wed disciplined, first-person examinations of experience (phenomenology) with scientific theories and observations of behavior and physiology. Discoveries in one domain provide insights for the other. For example, suppose that a person examining the scene in Figure 6 above undergoes neuroimaging. Suppose that the neuroimaging reveals patterns of activity associated with a fear response, but the subject initially does not report any fear. The fear might reside at an unconscious or semi-conscious level, but it might also be a conscious feature overlooked later by the reporting subject. Being informed of this observation, the subject responds, “You know, I guess I did feel a little anxious looking at this photo. I’m terrified of heights, and it looks like those flowers are right on the edge of a cliff!”

Of course, experimenters must be wary of influencing a phenomenological report by what they tell their subjects. In the case above, it is unclear whether a conscious fear was overlooked, or an unconscious fear was elevated to consciousness by being addressed by the experimenter. This is one example of how complex and challenging the study of consciousness can be. But it is also meant to illustrate the way that phenomenology and scientific observation can constrain and modify each other, “as in a dance.” Observations of behavior or neural activity can draw attention to what may have been experienced, but unreported; careful phenomenological reports are required for corroboration about what, in fact, was conscious.

Since Varela published his paper on neurophenomenology in 1996, a number of leading scientists in consciousness research have embraced several aspects of the approach. The cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehaene (2014), for example, has identified the task of “taking subjective reports seriously” as a “key ingredient to the new science of consciousness” (11). He writes:

It was not enough to present people with two types of visual stimuli; as experimenters, we had to carefully record what they thought of them. The participant’s introspection was crucial: it defined the very phenomenon that we aimed to study. If the experimenter could see an image but the subject denied seeing it, then it was the latter response that counted—the image had to be scored as invisible. Thus, psychologists were forced to find new ways of monitoring subjective introspection, as accurately as possible.

Stanislas Dehaene (2014, p. 11)

Dehaene does not go into much detail about how best to gather subjective reports or interpret their “raw data” (12). The burden of accuracy, I think, should fall not only on the experimenters, but on the subjects, as well. Varela highlights this point:

[A]s more sophisticated methods of brain imaging are becoming available, we shall need subjects whose competence in making phenomenological discriminations and descriptions is accrued.

Francisco Varela (1996, p. 341)

I agree with Varela that building this competence is a blind spot in Western education. We face challenging questions about how to establish guidelines for the examination and documentation of something so apparently private and ineffable as experience. I plan to explore these questions further in a future post.

In conclusion, I have argued for a shift in philosophical focus: from weighing subtleties in the metaphysics of mind, to developing methods and testable theories in the interdisciplinary search for the physical signatures of consciousness. But if I had to choose a metaphysical theory, where would I stand? Currently, I lean toward a non-eliminative identity as the best way to conceptualize and talk about the link between physical and conscious events. The physical, in my usage here, encompasses the functional, or types of activity at a higher level of abstraction than chemical types. I’ll discuss the merits of functionalism in my next series of posts.

A non-eliminative identity is also the way that most scientists of consciousness today talk about the mind-body relation. They retain experiential terms in their discourse, such as “pain,” “pleasure,” “experience of blue,” or “consciousness” in general, but treat the phenomena so-named as physical ones, of which a variety of other physical or scientific properties are predicated. They say things like:

  • Conscious events occurred in such-and-such place, at such-and-such time; “Consciousness lives in the loops: reverberating neuronal activity, circulating in the web of our cortical connections[…]” (Dehaene, 2014, p. 156).
  • “[C]onsciousness has a precise role to play in the computational economy of the brain—it selects, amplifies, and propagates relevant thoughts” (p. 14).
  • “[C]onsciousness is often too slow to keep up with a fast rate of image presentation on screen” (p. 33).
  • “Consciousness is an evolved function […]—a biological property that emerged from evolution because it was useful” (p. 88).
  • Consciousness is “efficacious” (William James, qtd in Dehaene, p. 89).
  • “Consciousness is brain-wide information sharing” (p. 161).

Spatiality, temporality, functionality, speed, evolvability, and causal efficacy are all physical or objective properties appropriately attributed to consciousness, to subjective experience. Asserting such things does not amount to a Rylian category mistake, nor a conflation between consciousness and its putatively distinct, physical “backside,” as double-aspect theory would have it. Insisting on that distinction would not be warranted by experience itself, I believe—and furthermore would prompt some rather cumbersome circumlocutions in discourse about consciousness.

Perhaps with the advent of autumn, the ardent reds and yellows that dapple my field of experience will convince me that some aspect of their nature is nonphysical and irreducibly subjective, and I’ll sway toward the double-aspect theory again. Or I’ll re-read Erwin Schrödinger’s Mind and Matter (particularly Chapter 6, “The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities”) and in that manner find myself seduced anew by Spinoza’s bimodal picture of substance. I’m open to be corrected by the Cosmos, by the revelations of nature and the insights of my conscious kith and kin. Leave a comment below if you think I’ve taken a wrong turn.

For now, I’m happy to lull the hard problem to sleep, to let it dissolve like a lemon-flavored lozenge, and turn my attention to a matter of greater moral urgency: the problem of other minds. This problem is wrapped up with the quest for the neural correlates—or better, “signatures” (Dehaene, p. 142)—of consciousness. It is also related to what the philosopher Ned Block (2002) calls the “harder problem of consciousness” (oh boy!). A neurophenomenological approach is the way forward, I think, but what can we conclude so far? Australian octopuses, conscious quarks, and Amazon’s Alexa, among other curious entities, will make appearances in this next series. I hope to see you there!


Autumn and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Works Cited

Block, Ned (2002). The harder problem of consciousness. Journal of Philosophy 99 (8):391-425. Retrieved online at:

Dehaene, Stanislas (2014). Consciousness and the brain: deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts. New York: Penguin Books.

Schrödinger, Erwin (1958). Mind and Matter. In What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell with Mind and Matter & Autobiographical Sketches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 91-164. Retrieved online at:

Sellars, Wilfrid (1962). Philosophy and the scientific image of man. In Frontiers of Science and Philosophy, Robert Colodny (ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press: 35–78. Retrieved online at:

Varela, Francisco (1996). Neurophenomenology: a methodological remedy for the hard problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3, No. 4, pp. 330-49. Retrieved online at:

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Published by Eric Cates

Inquire, love, create: the mantra of my existence.

15 thoughts on “Mystery or Marvel: Why is there a link between physical and conscious events? (Part 3)

  1. It seems like the dual-aspect theory, without formally stating it, is implying the existence of a supernatural component to consciousness. Do you think that is a fair statement? If so, then I would argue that nothing further can be construed from that position, and that to make progress an assumption of the identity position is pragmatic, even if not ultimately correct.

    I also don’t understand, and object to, some of the examples given of simple objects that may contain primal elements of consciousness; i.e. the logical processes of cell phones and thermostats can be completely defined, the state maps completely determined, and therefore I would argue that no room is left for any particle of some undetected element of consciousness: the anti-panpsychist position.

    On the issue of the way scientist talk about experience: maybe there is an unspoken, but understood, amount of semantic confusion injected in the discussion, due to conflating two different but related domains of understanding but using the terminology of one domain to refer to objects in another. It’s not uncommon for scientists to use references to god, or anthropomorphic references, when they are talking about subjects that are at the edges of current comprehension: “god doesn’t roll dice”. I like an argument for emergence being an underlying factor in the issues involved, meaning that there are as yet undefined objects that have a complex and persistent structure, such as ego, that haven’t yet been couched in their natural domain, and that therefore are liable to ambiguous reference. Do you know if there is a discussion in the literature of cellular-automata types of emergence?


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    1. Ryan, thanks for your comment. Most dual-aspect monists would not call conscious properties “supernatural,” I think. Spinoza, one of the originators of the view, referred to the single universal substance as “God,” but his God was thoroughly natural, basically equivalent to “Nature” (“Deus sive Natura”). Mind and matter (or “thought” and “extension”) are two modes of God that both follow natural laws.

      Now, I think it’s true that many dual-aspect monists would call conscious properties “nonphysical,” implying that there are properties besides mass, charge, velocity, and others in physics and the special sciences, which can be predicated of the natural world. This raises worries about the possibility of corroborating and measuring such nonphysical properties.

      I share your skepticism about the panpsychist claim that things like smart phones and thermostats are conscious, but I’m not sure I agree with your reasoning. It seemed like you were arguing that since the dynamics of those objects is basically mapped out, there’s no room for some extra ingredient of consciousness. But an identity theorist would reject the notion of an extra, nonphysical ingredient. The dynamics of our brains and nervous systems might one day be completely mapped out, and the identity theorist would say that a certain subset of those dynamics just is consciousness.

      Yes, I agree that developing our understanding of emergence is crucial for tackling problems of consciousness and the self. Regarding cellular automata: I’ve come across references to John Horton Conway’s “Game of Life” in some of Dennett’s works (e.g., the article “Real Patterns,” found here: I also found this SEP article on the topic: Do you have any recommendations?



  2. Great first series, bro!
    You mention the importance of first-person, subjective reports in the study of consciousness. This brought to my mind an area that I’m currently interested in: the study of common meaning structures (mental maps, images, and patterns) and their evolution across cultures and throughout history. This brings us to the work of people like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, etc who studied world mythologies and sought to elucidate the maps of meaning that we consciously and unconsciously operate with. Their work raises the intriguing hypothesis that when it comes to interpreting meaning in our lives, we do not start with a “blank slate”, but rather inherent certain tendencies to interpret various images, narratives etc in certain ways, influenced by our biological and cultural evolution. I wonder what you think about the idea that throughout human evolution, there was an interplay between “memes” and “genes,” between biology and culture, influencing each other?

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Bro. Yes! I think that the mutual influence between genes and memes is crucial for understanding consciousness, cognition in general, and ethics. Part of good phenomenology, I think, is becoming aware (as much as we can, at least) of those interpretative lenses, or “meaning structures” (as you mentioned), that we’re using as we observe the world and ourselves. It may be impossible, nor even advisable, to “bracket” (as Husserl puts it) all of our assumptions, but I think that increasing our awareness of them is a step in the right direction. Have you read this essay on memes by the psychologist Susan Blackmore? It was featured in Scientific American, back in 2000.


  3. Thank you for your posts, Eric. You brought up a thousand propositions that could serve as departure points for lengthy discussions. I was most intrigued by this statement though:

    Perhaps with the advent of autumn, the ardent reds and yellows that dapple my field of experience will convince me that some aspect of their nature is nonphysical and irreducibly subjective, and I’ll sway toward double-aspect theory again. Or I’ll re-read Erwin Schrödinger’s Mind and Matter (particularly Chapter 6, “The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities”) and in that manner find myself seduced anew by Spinoza’s bimodal picture of substance. I’m open to be corrected by the Cosmos, by the revelations of nature and the insights of my conscious kith and kin. Leave a comment below if you think I’ve taken a wrong turn.

    The accuracy of the phrase “ardent red” is exquisite. I’m curious about this philosophical point: what sort of thing or fact would “convince” you? In other words, what would evidence for irreducible subjectivity look like? Obviously, for some people, evidence for this looks just like it does to you, though obviously it means something different to them. This goes to the implicit, though crucial, methodological tenets of science. Specifically I am thinking of the question of facts and theories (i.e. paradigmata or Vorstellungsarten), and the relation between them. Many people suppose that evidence will convince them to abandon a given theory for another one, but history seems to disprove this. On the contrary, a person must have already been willing to entertain a new theory or Vorstellungsart before evidence for it can appear as such. Otherwise this evidence in potentia will appear to them as mere noise or unrelated data, which in itself lack the power to convince anyone of anything.

    If you are willing to grant the above relation between fact and theory, at least in its rudiments, then it would seem ineluctably to follow that an essentially noetic activity (i.e. that which allows a person to elaborate relations between data by means of theories, conceptualizations, and Vorstellungsarten) is a necessary condition for science as such, and the denial of it by certain thinkers is a Q.E.D. since they employ this same noetic activity to bear witness against itself. A person might counter and say that this noetic activity is in fact explicable by appeal to physical processes in the brain, but that is quite a speculative–even superstitious–proposition given the lack of empirical demonstration of it in practice (and perhaps in principle). What relates one thought to the next is the logical relation between them (motivated reasoning notwithstanding) and not the brain processes that may admittedly reflect and correlate in some manner to this noetic activity.


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    1. Hi Max, thanks for your thoughts! An open-mindedness to new theories and alternative ways of thinking is indeed part of the “empirical stance” I endorse. I agree that in addition to observation, scientists require the use of logic to sort out the relations between phenomena or concepts, as well as overarching theories that fit the data. It is in the examination of the “relation of ideas” (to use a Humean phrase) that I might be convinced to adopt a double-aspect theory; I doubt that a new observation of “ardent red,” which I have seen innumerable times, will itself help me judge this matter.

      Beyond the use of logic and well-established theories, “noetic activity” implies (to my understanding, at least) a kind of mystical, direct apprehension or intuition of the “essence” of things. Is this what you mean, as well? If so, I think it’s prudent to be cautious about intuitions until their sources are excavated and they are corroborated by repeated observation. Instincts, habits, biases, and illogical, but unconscious reasoning are frequently the basis of our intuitions, and those (of course) are not guaranteed to track the truth.


      Eric 🙂

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      1. Hello Eric, by “noetic activity,” I meant to draw attention to nothing other than the cognitive function that you made use of to weave the logical structure of your argument and which you also make use of to question mine. I called it “noetic” and not “cognitive” or “mental” for the reason that you alluded to before: namely, that words are given equivocal meanings once scientists have referred them to quantities. Thus, just as “colour” can be equivocated to mean both what it communicates in ordinary usage as well as “a quantity of electromagnetic energy with a specified wavelength,” so “cognitive” could all to easily have been taken to mean the neural correlates of the activity in question, which I did not wish to indicate. “Noetic” has not yet been equivocated in this way by physical science and so the term seemed preferable to others.

        As should be clear, it is not meant to indicate any “kind of mystical, direct apprehension or intuition of the “essence” of things.” Instead it is meant to draw attention to your own process of thinking, irrespective of its objects. In this respect, it is the only Archimedean point we are given in respect to truth, since it is not a question of referring this activity to something else, like brain processes. Such a referral would be arrived at by means of inference, which is fallible (otherwise we couldn’t speak of progress in science) and which furthermore presupposes the very thing it is meant to explain (i.e. inference is a form of thinking). Neither is it a question of the eventual truth or error of such inferences. Instead it is a question of positively observing the fact of the activity that is the condition for any such inferences whether true or false. The objectivity of this noetic activity, despite that it is immaterial, is self-evident for the one willing to look. The objectivity of something which appears subjectively should not strike any reasonable person as problematic; after all, language, mathematics, concepts, and information all share this quality.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Max, thanks for clarifying what you mean by “noetic activity.” In the case of the term “color,” I think there are three distinct things that are usually meant: 1. a feature of visual experience, 2. electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength-range (as you mentioned), and most commonly, 3. surface-reflectance properties of an object. The feature of visual experience (1) is identical with neither 2. nor 3., but rather with neural dynamics of a particular kind in the body of the subject. Likewise, I would say that noetic activity is identical to neural dynamics of a particular kind, and I think this inference is on firm ground. Whenever and wherever we find noetic activity, we also find neural activity. When we change the neural activity, we change the noetic activity (as when alcohol or sleep deprivation disrupts our reasoning abilities). Connectionist cognitive science has made great strides toward modeling the realization of logical operations in neural dynamics. What tells you that the activities are *not* identical?


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      3. Hello Eric, thank you for explicating the term “colour.” You did a much better job than I did.

        As for your claim that colour as a feature of visual experience is identical with neural dynamics of a particular kind, this just seems silly, not the least because it begs the question that is at issue. The same holds with the equation of neurodynamics and noetic activity. I wouldn’t dispute that “connectionist cognitive science has made great strides,” only that it is not reasonable to imagine that it has provided sufficient reason to assert that the brain and nervous system is causally prior to noetic activity. Other hypotheses can perfectly well account connections that have been observed between mind and brain. You wrote that “Whenever and wherever we find noetic activity, we also find neural activity,” but I think this is simply an overstatement and factually incorrect. I think it would be accurate to say that “correlations have repeatedly been observed and the theories that some folks entertain encourage them to extrapolate these observations into categorical statements.”

        In response to your question: besides (1) the self-evident qualitative incommensurability between inner experience and the manner in which the same may eventually be encoded and expressed in the medium of neurons, the fact that (2) a person can freely think anything he wants except unthinkable things seems to me to evince their categorical difference, since neurons are bound to follow physical and physiological laws. To expound on (1), I would invoke the analogy of actual music and sheet music (i.e. its score). They are related but not even close to identical. To expound on (2), I would offer such examples of unthinkable thoughts as “lifting an unliftable stone” or “that the neurodynamics of my brain can account for the unthinkability of the first example.”

        With kindness, and in ardent disputation of your view on this matter,

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hi Max, thanks again for your ideas. The example of sheet music and actual music is disanalogous, I think, since sheet music is a symbolic representation of actual music, with a different physical “composition” (no pun intended). The identity theorist is claiming that a kind of neural (or more generally, physical) activity and noetic activity are one and the same thing—they have the same physical composition. The identity might strike us as surprising, even counterintuitive, but I don’t think it is self-evidently wrong. Do you think there are any cases that show that the two can come apart?

        Your argument, if I understood it correctly, is that our capacity for goal-directed thinking (for thinking what we want to think) is evidence of a cause outside of the chain of physical causes. What do you think of a compatibilist position, which identifies goal-directed thinking (desiring, deliberating, decision-making, etc.) with certain processes in the brain or body? Phenomenologically speaking, I don’t find evidence for some cause outside of the physically determined chain of causes, outside of the spring of thoughts and perceptions bubbling up into consciousness.

        Best regards,


        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hello friend,

        Thank you for your response.

        You wrote:

        The identity theorist is claiming that a kind of neural (or more generally, physical) activity and noetic activity are one and the same thing—they have the same physical composition.

        The difficulty with this way of thinking is that it changes the definitions of words so that they cease to mean with any precision. It is quite sensible to say that two physical things have the same physical compositions, like the Morning Star and the Evening Star (insofar as both denotations refer to the astronomical planet). But it seems absurd to say that a given physical thing has the same physical composition as a noetic thing, because by noetic thing is understood a quality that is not a physical one. Plato gives the famous example of “equality,” for instance. It’s not something you can measure in the first instance since you would already have to know it before you could even understand what you set out to measure. True, one could stipulate “physical” to include everything ordinarily designated under the rubric of qualia and consciousness. But then (unless one wishes to invoke an argumentum ad zombiem) one has tacitly conceded to a sort of panpsychism, since out of a purely quantitative arrangement of physical process, qualia and consciousness spontaneously show up. This seems to be, in essence, the way of thinking behind identity theory and the compatibilist positions that you outlined, and so far (for the reasons I have indicated) I continue to find it distinctly unsatisfactory.

        You wrote:

        “Your argument, if I understood it correctly, is that our capacity for goal-directed thinking (for thinking what we want to think) is evidence of a cause outside of the chain of physical causes.”

        While I do think that the seemingly self-evident fact of goal-directed activity in all of living nature and especially in ourselves, is something for which physicalism alone cannot account, my main point was actually something different. It was the fact that you can think anything you will. I don’t think it is really conclusive to argue over this; instead I think it must simply be a matter of experiencing freedom in our noetic activity. By freedom, I mean something that is unconditioned by any laws other than the ones we ourselves set. This precludes laws of physics and neurology, since they are neither entirely transparent to our understanding nor set by us. This goes even for experts in these fields. It can become a matter of experience that our own thinking is categorically different. You wrote that:

        “Phenomenologically speaking, I don’t find evidence for some cause outside of the physically determined chain of causes, outside of the spring of thoughts and perceptions bubbling up into consciousness.”

        I agree that the “thoughts and perceptions” that “bubble up” are likely conditioned by underlying physics and neurology and blood-sugar. But the fact that some of our thoughts are so conditioned does not imply that all of them are. Again, it can become a matter of experience that thinking has the potential for absolute freedom from any laws other than the ones which are its own.

        We should compile these disputations as dialogue between Prometheus and Epimetheus. Those are the first two characters I could think of but perhaps you have a better idea.


        Liked by 1 person

      6. Max, you bring up some important ideas here about meaning and experience.

        Regarding meaning: The senses of our terms should be modified or expanded as our empirical knowledge about their referents is updated. “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” originally meant two distinct godlike entities or stars. Now we know that the referent, “that shiny object we see in the sky at certain times,” is one planet. Our understanding of the nature of the referent has been updated. In like manner, I would argue, our understanding of the nature of noetic activity has been updated: it is a physical activity.

        Regarding experience: The challenge of phenomenology is to express experience without interpretations that overstep the raw data. What does an “experience of freedom” consist in? There is the thought, “I will raise my hand,” which itself was preceded by a chain of thoughts, loosely connected. There is the raising of my hand and the sensations that accompany that action. There is a sense of met expectations, of being unsurprised, as opposed to cases when an unanticipated reflex or outside force moves my hand. I do not find anything beyond this, which would indicate a kind of absolute freedom undetermined by the laws of physics.

        I like the idea of a Socratic dialogue of sorts between two characters. One of the characters you mentioned (Epimetheus) is regarded as foolish. Perhaps Hesperus and Phosphorus, instead? 🙂


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      7. Thank you Eric.

        I have posed a similar question before, but: is there anything you could experience that would suggest to you that noetic activity is not identical to physical activity? If there is, then I am interested to hear, and if there is not, then it will reveal an important fact about the present exchange.

        I think Hesperus & Phosphorus would be an excellent choice for the interlocutors. To return to a point you made in passing in your comment, I think it is tendentious and simplistic to say that the names actually mean the same thing. In fact, if they meant the same thing, they would not have been distinguished in the first place. “I,” for example, can be a letter, a pronoun, and a Roman numeral despite that these connotations all share the same the same physical referent. The reason that I hold the position that I do in the present exchange is just because it accounts for this self-evident fact of the difference between a sign and its significance. Returning to the question of nomenclature: I suggest Prometheus and Epimetheus to mean “forethought” and “afterthought,” though I also like the resonance of Phosphorus and Hesperus with “morning knowledge” (matutina cognitio) and “evening knowledge” (vespertina cognitio).



      8. P.S. Let me add that a part of the “sense of met expectations” I mentioned above is a collection of sensations and feelings indicating that the action was internally produced and aligned with previous intentions. This is related to what the German physiologists Erich von Holst and Horst Mittelstaedt (1950) call an “efference copy”: a copy of the signal to act that allows the organism to register that the action was generated by its own mechanisms.

        Liked by 1 person

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