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Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness

  • Darwin College, Cambridge

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How is consciousness possible? What biological purpose does it serve? Why do we value it so highly? In Soul Dust, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, already a leading figure in consciousness research, returns to the front-line with a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendent. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the “soul niche.” Tightly argued, intellectually gripping, and a joy to read, Soul Dust is a keenly anticipated book that provides answers to the deepest questions. It dovetails the “hard problem of consciousness” with the matters that obsess us all – the fear of death, how life should be lived. Resting firmly on neuroscience and evolutionary theory, it is an uncompromising but life-affirming book that never loses sight of the majesty and mystery of consciousness.
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The Magic of Consciousness
Princeton and Oxford
Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press
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Permissions, Princeton University Press
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 6 Oxford Street, Woodstock,
Oxfordshire OX20 1TW
Jacket art: Soul Dust 1, 2010, acrylic ink. By Susan Aldworth.
Excerpt from Yevtushenko: Selected Poems, translated by robin Milner-Gulland and
Peter Levi (Penguin Books, 1962). Copyright © robin Milner-Gulland and Peter levi,
1962. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
Excerpt from “The Dog Beneath the Skin” by W. H. Auden, copyright © 1936, W.
H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, reprinted by permission.
Excerpt from “Aubade” from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin, copyright © 1977,
with permission of Faber and Faber Ltd, publishers.
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Humphrey, Nicholas.
Soul dust : the magic of consciousness / Nicholas Humphrey.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-691-13862-6 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Consciousness. I. Title. II.
Title: Magic of consciousness.
BF311.H7795 2011
126dc22 2010036759
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This book has been composed in Garamond Premier Pro
Printed on acid-free paper.
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Truth is as impossible to be soiled by any outward touch as the
sunbeam; though this ill hap wait on her nativity, that she never
comes into the world, but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him
that brought her forth; till time, the midwife rather than the
mother of truth, have washed and salted the infant [and]
declared her legitimate.
John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 1643
1 Coming-to Explained
Part One
2 Being “Like Something”
3 Sentition
4 Looping the Loop
Part Two
5 So What?
6 Being There
7 The Enchanted World
8 So That Is Who I Am!
9 Being Number One
Part Three
10 Entering the Soul Niche
11 Dangerous Territory
12 Cheating Death
I wrote a short book a few years agoSeeing Red: A Study in
Consciousnessthat met with unexpectedly good reviews,
even from my colleagues.
Unexpected, because the usual thing, in the field that has
become known as “consciousness studies,” is for academics to
be dismissive of each other’s ideas. The psychologist Walter
Mischel has wryly noted: “Psychologists treat other people’s
theories like toothbrushesno self-respecting person wants to
use anyone else’s.”
Philosophers tend to be charier still.
The review that pleased me best was in the American
Journal of Psychology: “This reviewer made at least three
passes through the book, each pass yielding a new
understanding. The first pass left me with a feeling of: ‘Oh he
doesn’t really mean THAT!’ But the second pass solidified and
verified: ‘Oh yeah he really does mean that.’ And the third, and
most rewarding pass: ‘Oh my god, I think he’s right!’”
almost every discussion of Seeing Red had a sting in the
tail. No one would allow that the problem of consciousness had
actually been solved. Thus Steven Poole, writing in the
Guardian: “But the ‘hard problem’ is still there, packed away
into a corner of his argument. At some evolutionary stage,
sensory feedback signals get ‘privatised’ in the brain and
become ‘about themselves.’ Voilà, reflexivity and hence
consciousness. But between stuff and thoughts there is still an
argumentative crevasse. If there weren’t, this would be an
earth-shattering book. As it is, it is merely deeply interesting.”
They were right, of course; I had not solved the problem.
Yet, who wants to have it said, as his epitaph, that his ideas
were “merely deeply interesting”? I felt challenged to have one
more go at writing the earth-shattering bookor, at any rate,
the book that shows the fly the way out of the fly bottle.
This book, Soul Dust, takes off from the last few pages of
Seeing Red. Since I cannot count on readers being familiar with
my earlier work, I have reprised some of the ideas where
needed. Apart from this, however, the arguments here are new.
They are also, I must admit, largely untried by my peers. In this
new book I have deliberately tried to change the game by
following a different set of rules from those that have
traditionally framed the discussion of consciousness. In doing
this, and seeing for myself where it leads, I may say I have at
times been surprised by the moves I have found myself making:
“I can’t really mean that. But yes I really do. In which case,
here we go. . . .” In effect, the story has driven itself on. If the
book readsalmost contrivedlylike a journey of discovery,
that is because this is exactly what it has been in the writing.
My book is intended to be a work of serious science and
philosophy, and I hope it will be judged as such. But it is also
written for the general reader (while being furnished with
copious scholarly notes). As it turns out, I could hardly have
done otherwise than try to write a “popular book.” For it
becomes a central part of my argument that only by connecting
to the interests and anxieties of conscious human beings in
general can we begin to see the evolutionary raison d’être for
the existence of consciousness in the first place. So, as the book
proceeds to discuss the “whys” of consciousness, I come to
focus, naturally, on issues having to do with life, death, and the
meaning of existenceissues that matter so obviously to all
ordinary human beings (even if they sometimes care about
them more than they dare talk about them).
The result is that Soul Dust, which begins with the most
basic questions about the nature of conscious awareness and
sensation, becomes a book about the evolution of spirituality
and how humans have made their home in what I call the “soul
niche.” Though I have no belief whatever in the supernatural, I
make no apology for putting the human soul back where I am
sure it belongs: at the center of consciousness studies.
Still, while the book does end up addressing many familiar
human concerns, you should not expect it to be an easy read.
There has been work to be done on my part, and it will require
some work on yours. I begin the book by setting out my own
account of what consciousness is and what the hard problem
amounts to. This means my commencing with some relatively
dry analysis and then, as the answers begin to emerge, some
far-from-dry but still none-too-easy excursions into speculative
neuroscience. At several points in
part 1
, I offer the reader a chance to skip to the next stage. But I
hope in
part 2
, where I begin to ask what consciousness is for, the earlier
work of establishing what it is starts to pay off. For if, as I
argue, consciousness
is no more or less than a piece of magical “theater,” the
questions about what it is for begin to look very different from
those that philosophers and psychologists have been used to
asking. And with very different questions come very different
The answers I arrive at are certainly unlike any that science
has yet had to offer. This in itself, I would have to agree, is no
recommendation. Science is surely meant to be cumulative
rather than revolutionary. Yet, when the fact is that previous
research on consciousness has delivered almost nothing in the
way of answers to the big questions people ask about the
mystery of their experience, perhaps we can no longer rely on
the science we are accustomed to.
The material world has given human beings magical souls.
Human souls have returned the favor and put a magical spell
upon the world. To understand these astonishing events, I invite
you to start over.
1 Coming-to Explained
Chances are it is less than a day since you regained
consciousness. It probably happened soon after the sunlight
returned this morning. What was it like for you, as you came
to? remember? The chink of a milk bottle, the touch of sheets,
the sight of a patch of blue sky. You rubbed your eyes,
stretched your limbs, and before you knew it, waves of
sensation refilled the lake of your being. You re-emerged into
the subjective present. Once more you felt yourself alive.
You were not alone. Something like this happened today to
countless other individuals here on Planet Earth. Our planet, we
are told, is merely a condensate of stardust, not so different
from all the other minor cosmic bodies that litter the universe.
But this one planet has become home to an extraordinary
phenomenon. Here is where sentience evolved. Here is where
conscious selves have come into their own. Here live souls.
In this book I will address the questions of what sentience,
selfhood, and soulfulness amount to. In the course of it I will
propose a solution to the “hard problem of consciousness.” The
hard problem is to explain how an entity made entirely of
physical mattersuch as a human beingcan experience
conscious feelings. The problem is hard because such feelings
appear to us, who are the subjects of them, to have properties
that could not possibly be conjured out of matter alone. We
saybecause we do not know what else to say—that “it’s like
something” to be conscious. Yet, the problem with this
inadequate phrase, “it’s like something,” is that what it is like
seems to usno, is to usunlike anything else out there in the
material world.
There are philosophers who think the problem is simply too
hard to admit of a solution. For Colin McGinn, trying to
explain phenomenal consciousness as a product of the brain is
like trying to explain how you can get “numbers from biscuits,
or ethics from rhubarb.”
For Jerry Fodor, “We can’t, as things stand now, so much
as imagine the solution of the hard problem. The revisions of
our concepts and theories that imagining a solution will
eventually require are likely to be very deep and very
unsettling. . . . There is hardly anything that we may not have to
cut loose from before the hard problem is through with us.”
I disagree. I acknowledge, of course, that theorists have not
been doing too well in imagining the solution. I am as
impressed as anyone by what seem to be the insuperable
difficulties. But I suggest we attend to the word “seem.” The
fact that something seems to have mysterious and inexplicable
features does not necessarily mean it really has them.
Figure 1. The Penrose Triangle.
Let me illustrate the difference between seeming
impossible and being impossible with the help of a well-known
example. Suppose you were to come across a solid wooden
object that looked just like the object shown in
figure 1
, Penrose’s “impossible triangle.” Certainly, it would seem
to be a physical impossibility. Yet no one would say that just
because of what the object looks like you should throw away
your physics books and cut loose from everything you know.
You would soon realize, of course, that it must be an illusion.
And sure enough, if you could only change your viewpoint,
you would discover that what you are actually looking at is the
curious object shown on the next page in
figure 2
. This object was cunningly constructed by the psychologist
Richard Gregory, precisely so that, when it is seen from a
certain position, it creates the impression of an impossible
triangle. This object deserves a name. With Gregory’s
permission, I call it the “Gregundrum.”
If you were to come across the Gregundrum lying on a
laboratory bench, without knowing its “function,” I am sure
you would never guess that it holds the key to anything
interesting. It is certainly not a pretty thing in its own right.
Who would have thought that such a perfect thing as the
Penrose triangle could have such an ugly explanation? Yet, as
Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson, “When you have
eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however
improbable, must be the truth.”
Figure 2. The Gregundrum.
I will argue that the truth about consciousnessif and
when we see it from the right perspectiveis that it is indeed
the product of a highly improbable bit of biological
engineering: a wonderful artwork of nature that gives rise to all
sorts of mysterious impressions in our minds, yet something
that has a relatively straightforward physical explanation. As
Holmes went on, “We know that he did not come through the
door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could
not have been concealed in the room, as there is no
concealment possible. Whence, then, did he come?” “He came
through the hole in the roof,” Watson cried. Our job as
consciousness researchers is to find the hole in the roof.
I do not say it will be easy. To start with, in an area where
theorists continually talk past each other, there will be issues
about the use of words. To forestall at least some potential
verbal misunderstandings, I have set out in the box a rough
guide to the conceptual territory as I see it. (You should not get
hung up on anything in this list at this stageI will justify and
explain these definitions further as we go on.)
But it is not just words that may come between us and the
truth; it may be the deep-seated biases that we bring to the table
as subjects of consciousness ourselves. We cannot of course opt
out of our privileged position, but we can at least try to imagine
where we would be without it. To that end, I want to begin our
investigation of the problem by handing it over to someone
else, someone who should have a remoter and more objective
view of what consciousness is doing for us than we ourselves
In general, when I talk about consciousness I mean
“phenomenal consciousness.”
A subject is “phenomenally conscious” (or plain
“conscious”) when and if there is something it’s like to be him
at this moment.
There is “something it’s like to be him” when he experiences
feelings, or what philosophers call qualia.
Qualiafor example, the felt redness of fire, the sweetness
of honey, the pain of a bee stingare features of sensations.
The subject is “phenomenally conscious” just when he
experiences sensations as having these peculiar features.
To experience sensations “as having” these features is to
form a mental representation to that effect (with the meaning
of “represent” still to be decided).
Thus “consciousness” (or “being conscious”), as a state of
mind, is the cognitive state of entertaining such mental
Consciousness can change the subject’s life just to the extent
that these representations feed forward to influence what he
thinks and does.
Let us return, then, to this morning. Only now imagine that a
few hundred miles out in space, a visiting scientist from an
advanced civilization in the Andromeda galaxy is orbiting our
planet, on her first trip to investigate life on Earth. (I call her
“her” because I assume the Andromedans long ago dispensed
with the male sex.)
Situating her craft so as to get a good view of the boundary
as night turns to day on the Earth’s surface, she observes how,
all along this boundary, living creatures are emerging from
their nighttime coma. Birds are breaking into song, butterflies
are taking to the wing, monkeys are leaving their beds in the
trees, and human beings are going downstairs to brew their
morning coffee.
She observes this great awakening, and she nods
knowingly. She recognizes, of course, that the central
processors that run these earthlings’ onboard software have
been in sleep mode overnight, so as to save energy and perform
system maintenance. And now, with the sun’s rays bringing
light and warmth, it is time for them to resume their life tasks.
As a scientist, she has much to look forward to. Once she gets
down among these creatures, how interesting it will be for her
to study their brains and behavior and figure out how it all
works. Indeed, she fancies herself as a bit of a philosopher: one
day she will write a book called Coming-to Explained.
Our visitor has every reason to trust the scientific method.
Wherever else in the universe she and her colleagues have
applied it, natural phenomena have given up their secrets. No
doubt, she reckons, there can be nothing so different or difficult
about those living organisms down there on Earth.
But is she right? What about consciousness? Will it ever
dawn on the Andromedan visitor that there is a dimension to
the lives of at least some of the creatures she is studying
that needs special treatment, that when they “come to,” it is as
if a light is coming on inside their heads? Given that she can
see things only from outside, is it possible that she will miss
this altogether, that she will never even suspect that
consciousness exists?
I think we should assume the Andromedan does not have the
circuits in her own brain that would make her phenomenally
conscious herself. Otherwise we will not know how to assess
any claims she may make to have discovered the existence of
consciousness in other creatures. (She might just be arguing
from analogy with her own case, in the way you or I might
argue, for example, that it is obvious that a dog feels pain the
way we do.)
The absence of phenomenal consciousness may or may not
affect the way she thinks about philosophical and scientific
issues (this is something we should be better placed to judge by
the end of the book). But I see no reason, as of now, why it
should place any limit on her intelligence (“artificial
intelligence,” as we might want to call it) or her skills at
scientific research. Let us suppose, indeed, that she does have
an exceptionally brilliant analytic mind. And let us allow her
every other scientific advantage anyone might ask for. She can
undertake meticulous behavioral studies of how earthlings
behave in the wild, and then follow up this fieldwork with
whatever laboratory investigations are suggested. She has all
the research instruments she could possibly need: scanners and
imagers and calculators of a sophistication yet undreamed of
here on Earth. She can prod and probe and listen in and cross-
question. She can, if she wants, take the earthlings apart
and examine their machinery (the Andromedan ethics
committees have no objection to alien vivisection). Then, back
home, she will be able to run theoretical simulations on her
computer and build working models in the robot shop.
Then, what will she discover, and what will she not? Let us
consider some possibilities.
She will find, to her surprise, that in order to explain the
behavior of certain species of earthlings, she needs to
postulate the existence of an extraspecial mental statea
state with peculiar qualitative properties, unlike anything
else, which just because of what it is like is changing how
these creatures live their lives.
Though perhaps she will be unable to deduce the
existence of any such special inner state from what she
observes of public behavior, she will nevertheless realize
that such a state exists when she examines in detail the
flow of information in the earthlings’ brains and figures
out what kind of private mental representations are being
She will do better still. Beyond simply discovering the
existence of conscious states, she will be ableeither
from behavioral observations or from brain scansto
arrive at a complete description of what it is like to be the
subject of a particular state. Perhaps she will even get to
the point where she can compare one individual’s state
with another’s—so that she can tell, for example, whether
different subjects are experiencing the sensation of red in
the same way.
Or then again, perhaps she will be able to do none of the
Now, as it happens, there are a good many students of
consciousness here on Earththey may even be in the
majoritywho believe the answer can be only the last of these.
In their view our visitor will fail to discover anything about
consciousness by any of the scientific means at her disposal
because of an awkward but undeniable truth: consciousness, for
all its subjective importance, is physically featureless; it does
not show.
The psychologist Jeffrey Gray has written, for example,
“Nothing that we so far know about behaviour, physiology, the
evolution of either behaviour or physiology, or the possibilities
of constructing automata to carry out complex forms of
behaviour, is such that the hypothesis of consciousness would
arise, if it did not occur in addition as a datum in our own
experience; nor, having arisen, does it provide a useful
explanation of the phenomena observed in those domains.”
Others have gone further still, arguing for what the
philosopher Owen Flanagan has called consciousness
inessentialism”—“the view that for any intelligent activity I,
performed in any cognitive domain d, even if we do I with
conscious accompaniments, I can in principle be done without
these conscious accompaniments.”
Thus, according to John Searle, “We could have identical
behavior in two different systems, one of which is conscious
and the other totally unconscious.”
There could even exist a “philosophical zombie human,”
David Chalmers has suggested, who is physically identical to a
normal human being and who looks and acts in every respect
just like one, yet who is not phenomenally conscious—“all is
dark inside.”
Then, if you or I were to meet such a philosophical zombie
in the street, we would notand could notknow the
True, each of us is presumably convinced that
consciousness exists in our own case, and therefore we may
want to give the benefit of the doubt to others who so obviously
resemble us. But the Andromedan scientist does not know
about consciousness from her own case. Therefore, if and when
she notes resemblances between herself and any of the
earthling creatures she is studying (those naked bipeds who
seem to have taken over the planet are certainly technologically
ingenious!), she is likely to assume they resemble her in this
respect as well. And if consciousness inessentialism is right,
she will not discover anything in the course of her research to
make her revise her opinion. At the end of the day, she will not
think she has missed anything. So she will return to
Andromedaand write her bookwith a satisfied sense of
mission accomplished: “Coming-to Explained Away.”
I said I wanted to hand over the investigation of the hard
problem to this visitor, because we might expect her to have “a
remoter and more objective view of what consciousness is
doing for us than we ourselves have.” But if this is really how
things stand, it seems the problem will not even cross her
horizon. Fodor wrote, “There is hardly anything that we may
not have to cut loose from before the hard problem is through
with us.” He cannot have meant this interpretation, but is the
lesson that if we want to keep up with the best science in the
universe, we ought to cut loose from the concept of
consciousness itself ?
You will realizeif for no other reason than because my own
book does not end herethat I do not think so. My starting
point is that consciousness, however elusive and enigmatic
from a scientific perspective, is a fact of nature. And if
it is not evidently a fact of nature, that can be only because
scientists and philosophers have been looking for evidence in
the wrong places. I believe this because I think the idea that
consciousness has no observable effects is daft (and the notion
of a “philosophical zombie”—a physical duplicate of a
conscious human who completely lacks consciousnessis
dafter still). However, I have to say I do not think it is daft to
suppose that certain aspects of conscious experience could have
no observable effects. So, before we go further, I want to
consider just to what extent conscious experience willand
will notbe observable to an outsider.
We know, of course, that not everything that goes on in the
mind of a person or an animal has to show up in behavior.
There can obviously be purely private mental states. Indeed,
most ordinary mental states are private, insofar as they occur
without anyone’s—except the subjectknowing about them.
No one but you knows what your thoughts are right now (why
else would anyone give you a penny for them?). No one but me
knows about my dreams last night (and, as it happens, even I do
not know any longer).
Still, we might want to argue that states such as these are
only contingently private. If you were given the penny, you
could tell me what your thoughts are. If I had kept a dream
diary, I could have shared my dream with you. And even
without language, there would probably be ways of
communicating much of the content of these mental states.
But that is thoughts. And with feelings it would seem to be
a different matter. How about basic sensory experiences? They
undoubtedly seem to be more absolutely private. You would be
hard put to it, however much you tried, to reveal the full
content of what it is like to experience the smell of a rose or
the coldness of a snowball. Though you could surely
communicate some part of it, you would not know how to
capture the subjective quality of the sensations, the qualia.
It is by no mean obvious exactly what the problem is. Is it
that there is something about the logical status of qualia, as
intrinsically subjective properties, that makes them
incommunicable in principle? Or is it simply that in practice we
do not have the requisite communication skills? Could it even
be that our minds have been designed to have some kind of fire
wall around sensory experience which puts adaptive limits on
what others can discover about us?
There could be some truth in all these possibilities. But
whatever is causing the problem, we must surely accept that
there is a problem; we must concede that in practice, even if
not in principle, conscious sensations are private in crucial
respects, so that nothing the subject can say or do can reveal
everything about them.
However, I would say this is all we need concede. We
need notand should notaccept either of two stronger
propositions, namely, (1) while an outside observer is restricted
to studying behavior, she will not even be able to detect that
phenomenal consciousness is present, and (2) even if the
observer were allowed complete access to the subject’s brain,
she would not be able to discover the full content.
Let us look at these two issues. First, why do I believe that
consciousness must reveal its presence, if nothing more, at the
level of behavior?
The reason is the ultimate one, the hand of natural
selection. Since consciousness, as we know it, is a feature of
life on earth, we can take it for granted thatlike every other
feature of living organismsit has evolved because it
confers selective advantage. In one way or another, it must be
helping the organism to survive and reproduce. And of course
this can happen only if somehow it is changing the way the
organism relates to the outside world.
Now, how could this be happening? Conscious creatures do
not smell different or look prettier. Consciousness does not
provide extra strength or better health. Instead, consciousness
can have its effects on survival only by changing what we may
loosely call the creature’s “psychology.” In other words, being
phenomenally conscious must be influencing how the creature
thinks or what it wants or what it believes, in just such a way
that it now acts in the world in adaptive ways it would not have
done otherwise.
In later chapters I will explore in detail just how this may
be working: how the effects may be present on several levels,
and how they may be more or less important for different kinds
of animals, pushing the evolution of consciousness along
species-specific lines. As we will see, human beings, with their
developed sense of “conscious self,” are most likely in a class
of their own. But the important point for now is that if natural
selection can “see” the effects—whatever they areof the
changed psychology on behavior, presumably so too can other
outside observers (if only they knew where to look). What is
more, if these observers can see what natural selection sees,
they should also be able to see what it is about it that is
beneficialand hence why natural selection has favored it.
Thus they should be well on their way to constructing a story
about why consciousness evolved.
Still, do not get me wrong about this. I am not suggesting
that because consciousness has been designed by natural
selection, this means that every one of the features of the
design must be able to be seen from the outside. Rather, what it
means is that every one of these features must be contributing
to the beneficial effects that natural selection does see.
It would be easy to misunderstand this, so let me tell a
parable to make it clearer. Imagine that in a certain country the
government has a Department of Happiness, whose minister
has the job of maximizing the general happiness of the
population. The minister must therefore be on the lookout for
things that put people into a good humor. One day he comes
across a group of people who are looking at a cartoon and
smiling broadly. From where he stands, the minister cannot
actually see the picture they are looking at, and so he does not
get the joke. Still, he can see the positive feelings the cartoon is
eliciting. And that is enough to persuade him to take
departmental action to “breed” this cartoon by ordering
additional cartoons in the same style. So he does this, and the
next day he sees more people laughing at the new drawings. He
repeats his order, and soon enough cartoons in this special style
are everywhere. The style has become, as it were, a ministerial
design feature. But note that at no point has the minister
himself needed to know what the cartoons look like. All he has
needed to see is evidence that the cartoons exist and that they
are funny.
My point is that, likewise, natural selection need never have
known what conscious experience is actually like for the
subject. All it must have seen is evidence that conscious
experience exists and that it is in some way life enhancing. This
being the case, it is possible and even quite likely that the
detailed phenomenal content of sensations will not ever have
been evident in behavior. And so today our visiting scientist,
while she
relies on outside observations, will be able to get only
halfway to discovering the facts of consciousness. She should
certainly be able to detect that the special inner state exists in
some creatures and that, in whatever way their behavior
suggests, it adds to their success in life. However, this may well
be as far as she can go.
Yet, what if she were able to search inside their heads? Why
do I believe that an observer who can go beyond behavior
down to the level of brain activity should be able to discover
all there is to know?
My reason is simply the guiding principle, which underlies
all science, that nothing interesting occurs without a material
cause. In short, miracles do not happen. When conscious
experience arises in a person’s mind, it is the outcome of events
in the brain. Moreover, if and when these events (in their
totality) occur, the outcome has to be that the person is
conscious (which is why the idea of a philosophical zombie
makes no sense). Thus, if a scientist can go inside and observe
these crucial events, she should be able, in principle, to deduce
what the outcome isprovided only that she has a theory
linking brain states to experience, a theory that enables her to
move from one level of description to the other.
What kind of theory would this be? Philosopher Dan Lloyd
has written: “What we need is a transparent theory. One that,
once you get it, you see that anything built like this will have
this particular conscious experience.”
We can draw an analogy with explaining the properties of
water. Scientists are able to deduce that a pail of molecules,
whose chemical composition is H2O, at room temperature will
have the physical properties of the substance we know as water
wetness, and so on) because, with their understanding of
the laws of physical chemistry, they have a theory of why
water under its chemical description must amount to water
under its physical description.
Then, so too, we may reasonably hope that if and when
scientists have a comparable understanding of the laws of what
we may call neurophenomenology, so that they have a theory
of why brain activity under its neuroscientific description must
amount to mental activity under its experiential description,
they will be able to deduce that, for example, a man whose
brain is in a particular state is a man who is thinking such and
such thoughts.
It is already widely agreed by those who study mind-brain
relationships that it is the pattern of information flow in the
brain that determines mental states. I would say we can assume
therefore that the neurophenomenological laws will essentially
be laws about how experience is computed. Admittedly, apart
from having this one insight, our scientists here on Earth are
nowhere near to discovering what the laws actually are. Still,
we need not doubt that the laws exist and will eventually be
found out. So, to continue with our story of the Andromedan
scientist, let us imagine that the theorists on Andromeda are far
more advanced than ours are, andin anticipation of their
sister’s mission (or perhaps just for the fun of it)they have
worked out ahead of time the relevant laws as they apply to
alien brains.
Thus, let us suppose the Andromedan scientist has arrived
among us prearmed with the theoretical tools she needs for
interpreting earthlings’ brain activity in experiential terms.
Where will this take her? Given what was said above, we may
assume that, on the basis of her purely behavioral observations,
she will already have concluded that in some of the
earthlings under study (notably, human beings) there does exist
a special inner state that is influencing their outlook on life
though a state of which the detailed content is so far a mystery
to her. But now that her brain research is under way, she will,
with the help of the theory, be able to deduce that these
particular subjects are having experiences with exactly the
weird and wonderful phenomenal content that you and I know
so well firsthand.
“Well, blow me!” she may say. “Who’d have guessed it?”
For she will indeed have deduced the existence of qualia. She
will, as it were, have arrived at a complete description of the
private joke that lies behind the public smile.
Are you with me still? Or do you think I have tried to pull a
fast one on you (in fact, did I not try to pull it a few pages
back)? Can it be true that the Andromedanwho is not
conscious herself, rememberhas discovered what
consciousness is really like? Or has she merely discovered its
pale shadow?
The big question, you may insist, is whether the scientist,
when she examines the brain of someone who is having a
conscious sensation, can deduce what that person’s experience
actually is, and not merely deduce a description of what that
experience is (and calling it a “phenomenological description”
simply begs the question).
But, no, I have not pulled a fast one. Rather, if you make
this objection, I would say you have just pulled a fast one on
yourself. You have fallen for the tempting idea that there is
something conscious experience actually is that is separate
from what the subject thinks it isthat is, the mental
representation that he makes of it. But it is not so. If you do not
this now, I hope to persuade you of it as we go on. To give
a foretaste of what is coming, in the very next chapter I will
argue that what I called at the start of this book the inadequate
phrase “it’s like something” is not such a bad phrase after all.
Because, when it comes to it, for a subject to have a sensory
experience that is like something really is for him to represent
the object of experience as if it is something with some very
peculiar features. In short, for the subject to have a sensory
experience that is like something is just for him to experience it
as what it is like.
The philosopher John Searle (with whom, on the question
of consciousness, I agree about very little) put his finger on this
point precisely when he wrote: “If it seems to me exactly as if I
am having conscious experiences, then I am having conscious
Just so. “Seems to Searle exactly as if” can only mean “is
represented mentally by Searle exactly as being.”
What follows from this? Since mental representations can,
in principle, always be described or re-represented in some
public mediumthey would not count as representations
otherwiseit surely follows that, despite what was said above
about the de facto incommunicability of private experience, it
must be possible in principle to describe what it is like to be
It is undeniably true that, as of now, we humans do not
know how to do this satisfactorily. We lack both the theory and
the language for the job. But these, we should assume, are
contingent limitationsalready overcome in Andromeda and
soon enough to be overcome back here on Earth.
I would say we should acknowledge that the
phenomenological descriptions of conscious experience that
will feature in the final theory will probably require a new
even a new grammar.
But we should not be too alarmed by this, let alone see it as
a reason for giving up. It has happened before in the history of
science that scientists required a new conceptual language
before they could move onand yet, after initial awkwardness
and even disbelief, soon enough everyone gets used to it.
Think, for example, of how mathematics has had to come to
terms with “complex numbers” involving the square root of
minus one, or of “transfinite numbers” that are bigger than
infinity. Think of how physics has had to come to terms with
Future descriptions of conscious experience will almost
certainly require concepts that sit oddly with our standard ways
of thinking today. I already remarked at the opening of this
chapter that the problem with saying “it is like something” to
be conscious is that what it is like seems to usno, is to us
unlike anything else out there in the material world. The
phenomenal experience of the “subjective present” as existing
in “thick time”—as I have attempted to describe it elsewhere
and as I will revisit shortlyis perhaps just such an
apparently essential yet nonsensical concept.
Yet, let us stick with our story. We have assumed that
scientists on Andromeda are well ahead of us in recognizing the
neurophenomenological laws. Contained within this
assumption must be the assumption that they have already
developed a suitably esoteric language for describing conscious
experience (even if the development of this language must have
been, as it were, “on spec,” since the Andromedans, having
never encountered creatures such as human beings before,
cannot yet have had occasion to apply it).
So we are assuming that our visitor will have the tools for
describing what it is like for us, even if we humans at present
do not.
However, I do not want to make our own inadequacy an
absolute sticking point. To claimas many philosophers
wouldthat consciousness is essentially ineffable is to
underestimate human ingenuity and creativity. As we will see
later in this book, humans may be more capable of expressing
publicly what it is like to be conscious than the philosophical
and scientific skeptics would have us believethough when
they do so, they “cheat” by using the language of art rather
than that of science. Well, we will see.
This introductory chapter, which started off so breezily, is
getting heavy. It is time to sum upand lighten up, if possible.
I wanted the Andromedan scientist’s help with the project
of understanding the hard problemthe nature of
consciousnessbecause I hoped that to see the problem from
her perspective might provide us with some useful guidelines
for our own inquiry. Whatever the differences between us and
her are, I take it that science is science wherever in the
universe it is being done. What counts as evidence and
conclusions for this researcher from a far-off galaxy should be
what counts as such for us on Earth. That is why I asked above
what will the Andromedan find out about consciousness, and
what will she not. I assume this is what, at the limits of our
human abilities, we can expect to find out too.
Here is the score.
We have established that the Andromedan scientist will be
able to discover at a behavioral level crucial hints that
consciousness is present in some creatures. At the very least,
she will discover that consciousness is having certain beneficial
effectsthese are the effects on which natural selection has
been acting in the course of evolution. She will discover that
consciousness exists andin the larger picturewhat
consciousness is for.
Nevertheless, while she stays on the outside, she will
probably be unable to reach a deep understanding of the
contents of consciousness. This is because the crucial features
of what it is like for the subject will, in normal circumstances,
probably be hidden from public vieweven though these
features are ultimately responsible for the beneficial effects.
To find out more of the details, she will have to go inside.
When she does so, using all the neuroscientific techniques at
her disposal, she should indeed be able to discover everything
about what it is like to be conscious, provided she has a theory.
But this neurophenomenological theory will have to be a new
and remarkable theory: not a theory that we human beings can
never get to understand (as some philosophers, notably Colin
McGinn, have suggested),
but certainly a theory we will not understand until we have
put in some more work.
So now, let me set out my agenda for this work and my
book. What I plan to do is to emulate, in my own way, the
Andromedan scientist’s investigation. Yet, because, first, I am
not as clever as she is, and, second, I am a living example of
the phenomenon under investigation, my strategic goals will be
a little different.
On Andromeda, I have suggested, scientists have already
developed the theoretical tools for solving the hard problem of
how matter could in principle give rise to consciousness, even
if they have never yet come across a case of consciousness in
fact. By contrast, we humans know consciousness exists in fact,
but we do not at the moment have the theory of it. The first task
for the book, then, must be to come up with at least the
beginnings of a plausible theory of what consciousness is
and how it relates to the brain. To do this I will, in the next
few chapters, argue for a radically new account of what we
mean when we say that “it is like something” to experience
sensations. I will make a proposal as to what the thing in the
brain that the subject represents as “being like something”
really is, and I will suggest what its biological origins in
nonconscious animals may have been.
The Andromedan scientist, I have assumed, being
completely new to the world of conscious creatures, will, at the
start, have no idea what difference consciousness is making at
either the private or the public level, let alone what good, if
any, comes of it. By contrast, we humans know rather a lot
about the difference that consciousness is making to our private
lives, though we are far from understanding how this translates
into public benefits. The second task for the book then will be
to figure outknowing what we already dohow being
conscious changes people’s psychology (and perhaps that of
other conscious animals as well) in ways that ultimately
increase their chances of survival.
Having read this far, you may be nervous that the book is
going to be unduly scientistic. Do not worry. There is indeed
work to be done. We need to get the science right if we can.
But my book is called Soul Dust, and it will live up to that title.
The book will continue with some hard-going philosophical
analysis, but it will end with a fairy talea scientifically based
fairy taleabout how consciousness lights up the world.
2 Being “Like Something”
So we want a theory of what being conscious is like and
how this could result from the activity of nerve cells in the
brain. If only it did not make us feel so queasy just to think
about it! Four hundred years ago René Descartes described his
own plight as a human mind trying to think about the nature of
its own experience: “It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly
into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can
neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top.”
1 We need something to help us get our bearings. Some
clever new idea. Yet where to look for it? If I say I want to start
with the language people use, you may be disappointed.
Surely, you may think, philosophers in the last century pretty
well exhausted that approach without solving any important
scientific problems. Maybe it is true that Ludwig Wittgenstein,
in his Philosophical Investigations, helped clear the air around
by showing how the ways people talk about mental states
can lead them astray, creating conundrums and mysteries that
do not really exist. But did not Wittgenstein’s analysis prove
signally unhelpful to understanding what does exist?
Yes, it did. However, that was then. And the zeitgeist of
consciousness studies is very different fifty years later. The
identification of the problem of qualia as the “hard problem”
has changed what questions are worth asking.
When the price of gold goes up, it can be worth reopening
seams that were supposedly mined out long ago.
It is like something.I do not know when people—at least
those writing in Englishfirst started to use this phrase to refer
to the essence of being conscious. But the use was already well
established when Tom Nagel, in 1974, wrote his famous essay
“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” In that essay Nagel simply
asserted (rather as I did in the previous chapter) that being like
something is the defining property of consciousness:
“Fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and
only if there is something that it is like to be that organism
something it is like for the organism.”
He took it for granted that his readers would understand what
he was referring to. And so it seems they did. The fact that this
way of talking has subsequently become widespread in both
philosophical and popular writing suggests that it must
somehow sit peculiarly well with people’s first-person
understanding of what being conscious means.
Why ever should this be? Since words gain their meaning
from how they are used across the language, presumably the
use of “it is like something” in relation to consciousness must
have something in common with its use in other contexts.
So, can we look to ordinary English for a clue?
Now, in pretty much every other situation, when we say “X
is like Y” (for example, “This wine is like a Beaujolais”), what
we mean is that in our view X resembles Y or X shares some
salient property with Y. However, we mean something rather
more than this too. Note that we would never say “X is like Y”
when we know that X actually is Y. So when we say “X is like
Y,” we mean X shares some particular property with Y, but—
so far as we know at this timeit does not share all its other
properties. True, sometimes we may want to imply that since it
shares at least this particular property, X could share all of its
other properties with Y. But there has to be at the least some
uncertainty about it. It has to be unconfirmed whether X is Y in
fact. “This wine is like a Beaujolais, it could even be a
Beaujolais, though I’m not sure it is not actually a Chianti.”
Suppose, then, that when we say “it is like something for
someone to experience a sensation,” we mean the subject is
literally likening his sensation to something in just this sense.
What might this tell us about consciousness?
I proposed already in the previous chapter that for someone
to be conscious of having a sensation must involve his
representing the object of experience as something with
properties of a special and peculiar kind. But now this would be
taking matters considerably further. It would be suggesting that
for someone to be conscious of having the sensation involves
his representing the object of experience as if it is something
that it may not be something he has certainly not been able to
confirm it is.
Let us suppose the someone in question is you.
Then, when you say “it is like something for me to see
red,” for example, you would be implying that, strictly
speaking, your sensation is a hypothetical entity. Indeed, if we
were to follow this line, I would go beyond this: I think you
would be implying that the sensation is intrinsically
hypothetical, for the phenomenology suggests that the as-if,
unconfirmed quality of the representation is not just a
temporary or remediable condition. When you say it is like
something to see red, you are not allowing that soon enough
you may discover the truth about whether the sensation actually
is this something. You would never expect to say: I thought
the red sensation merely resembled this, but then I found out it
actually was this.”
No. Sensations, it would seem, are always as-if. So, in this
regard, the being-like-something of sensations is different from
the being-like-something of the wine. With the wine, if you say
“it is like a Beaujolais,” you are assuming there is a
discoverable fact of the matter as to whether it actually is a
Beaujolais or a Chianti. With sensations, however, if you say
“it is like something for me to see red,” you are assuming no
such thing: whatever the fact of the matter about the red
sensation, it is not discoverable by you as the subjectnothing
could help you to decide once and for all whether what it is
like is what it is.
But this is remarkable. What can be going on, such that it
would make sense to say of X that it resembles Y, even though
you could never in principle have the evidence to alter your
opinion about whether X actually is Y?
There is only one set of circumstances I can think of where
this might be appropriate: it would be when you recognize
that Y does not or could not exist as an entity belonging to
the ordinary world where you can test things, but might exist in
another world with different rules to which you have no direct
accessindeed, where X is evidence of there being such
another world.
Imagine, by analogy, that you are facing a wall on which
the shadows of solid objects passing behind you are being cast
by the light of a blazing fire some distance farther back. What
do these shadows look like to you? “This shadow is like a cart.”
“This one is like a bird.” But you cannot confirm that the
objects are what their shadows resemble because you cannot
turn around and enter directly into their three-dimensional
I have taken you nowyou may be as surprised as I am
to Plato’s famous story of the cave. In The Republic Plato uses
this analogy to explain how there might exist a world of
transcendental entities—“pure forms” or “substances”—of
which human beings have only indirect and partial knowledge.
I did not expect our discussion to lead so soon to Plato’s
metaphysics. But now that it has, let me cite a revealing remark
by the painter Bridget Riley. Writing about visual sensations,
she says: “For all of us, colour is experienced as something
that is to say, we always see it in the guise of a substance.”
Does her choice of that word, “substance,” suggest she
believes that we do indeed liken sensation to something
belonging to a higher level of reality? The phenomenal is
transcendental? Is that what we imply by using the language
of “it’s like”?
Well, maybe, kind of. I hope all will become clearer in due
course. But now let us explore this idea further, without asking
for too much clarity at the beginning. Suppose it were so; what
kind of transcendental/phenomenal world might we be talking
about? With the analogy of the cave leading us on, let
me suggest, to start with, that this would have to be a world
that requires at least one novel extra dimension to describe it
(whether a physical or a conceptual dimension, we will see).
And yet what would be the status of such a world? Would it
have to exist for real?
I am sure that for most people “consciousness realism” is
irresistible. Sensations undoubtedly exist, and sensations are
like entities in the phenomenal world. So presumably the
phenomenal world must have a substantive existence. But even
though this may be how most laypeople see it, it is another
question entirely whether theoreticians should see it this way
too. Since things in this other world apparently have such
exotic properties, and since their existence cannot be
independently confirmed, surely we ought to consider seriously
the possibility that it is some kind of make-believenot real at
all but an illusion. That is, sensation might be merely
appearing, as Riley so well put it, in the guise of a substance.
Yet this would point to further remarkable goings-on. If the
phenomenal properties of sensation are an illusion, this can
hardly be just a stroke of good luck. Conscious experience is
altogether too impressiveeven too perfectto have been
thrown together by chance. There would obviously have had to
be some method behind it. In short, the evidence that leads you
to believe in the existence of phenomenal entities would have
had to be planted. We would be dealing, as it were, with a
coup de théâtre.
Let us pause for breath and collect these thoughts. From
examining the phrase “it is like something to be conscious,” we
have now raised an extraordinary possibility, or rather two.
First, from the subject’s point of view, consciousness appears
to be a gateway to a transcendental world of as-if entities.
Second, from the point of view of theory, consciousness is the
product of some kind of illusion chamber, a charade.
Is this the clever new idea we need? Consciousness as a
Platonic shadow play performed in an internal theater, to
impress the soul! It would certainly take us into interesting new
territory. It might even explain why the hard problem
sometimes seems not just intractable but so gloriously
The philosopher Natika Newton has remarked,
“Phenomenal consciousness itself is sui generis. Nothing else
is like it in any way at all.”
The Koran says of Allah, “[Allah is] the originator of the
heavens and the earth . . . [there is] nothing like a likeness of
When the going gets mysterious, mysteries get going.
Suddenly the quasi-magical properties of qualia would no
longer pose such a problem.
Magic is just what is to be expected in a magic show.
But that is for later. I would say the immediate reason to be
pleased with this idea as the basis for a scientific theory of
consciousness is that it allows us to start thinking about the
brain basis of it all. If sensations were truly to have out-of-this-
world properties, there is no question that the search for a
theory would be in trouble. However, it is an entirely different
story if sensations merely have as-if out-of-this-world
Let us exchange Plato’s cave for a more humdrum analogy. I
want to return to the model that you may have realized I have
had in mind since early on: the “real impossible triangle” with
which I opened the previous chapter. It is becoming clearer
where to steer the line of thought.
Suppose, once more, you were to be confronted by the
wooden object, the Gregundrum, as shown next in
figure 3
. Now, however, for the sake of argument, I want to place
you squarely in the special position of Observer A in this
diagram, the one position from which it appears that the top
arms of the triangle are coincident so that you see the whole
thing as joined up.
Figure 3.
As we noted earlier, if only you could move to the position
of Observer B, you would see things differently. But this time,
let us suppose, so as to give you a truly special perspective on
it, that things are rigged so that, as and when you move around
the object, some hidden hand turns it so that it is always facing
you in the same way. (Compare how it is to look in a mirror
and to find your eyes always looking straight back at you.)
Then, what does the object look like to you? You see it
presumably as an impossible object. You represent it in your
mind as such. If asked to explain what you are perceiving to
other people, you might very well prefer to define it ostensively
by inviting them to come and see it for themselves from your
However, assuming there is no opportunity for them to do
this, I expect you could, if pressed, tell them about it in
wordsthat is, you could describe the perceived object as it
does indeed appear to you.
Here, I will do it for you (refer back, if you like, to the
larger illustration of
figure 1
). “What I see is an unbroken solid triangular object, made
of three square-cross-section posts of equal length. The posts
are connected at right angles, so that, starting at the bottom left
corner, the arm to the right is angled away from me at 45
degrees; at the right corner the arm to the left is angled away at
45 degrees; at the top corner the arm downward is angled away
at 45 degrees.”
The description is surely accurate so far. This is indeed
what you perceive the object to be in terms of its elements. Yet,
even as you perceive it as being this, you are well aware that
such a triangle as a whole could not possibly exist in the
ordinary world. So, I would guess you will want to add: “What
I see is either (a) evidence of there being a world to which the
rules of physics do not apply or (b) some kind of trick.”
However, since no one in his right mind would posit the
existence of a nonphysical world merely because he is
confronted by a wooden object that he cannot explain,
“everything considered, this has to be a trick.”
So, how does this bear on the mystery of sensations and
qualia? What I suggest is that the logic of the situation you find
yourself in when you have a sensation is very much the same as
when you are confronted by the Gregundrumalthough the
psychological impact is different in two crucial respects.
You look at a ripe tomato, for example, and in response to
the red light reaching your eyes, something happens in your
brain that you experience as the sensation of red. We can say
that, like Observer A, you clearly have a special perspective
on this brain activity. It is only from your privileged position as
the subject of the experience that the brain activity does indeed
come across as a conscious sensation. An outside observer, if
she could observe this same brain activity, would be like
Observer B and never get it.
Then, what does the sensation feel like to you? You
experience it as having the phenomenal quality of “red,” which,
strange to say, is somehow out of this world. Again you
represent it in your mind as such. If asked to explain to others,
your first thought, as with the triangle, will be to invite them to
share the wonder of it by experiencing it for themselves.
However, if there is no opportunity for them to do this, it is
now a different story from the triangle, because you will not
find it straightforward to describe it. In fact, you may find
yourself completely tongue-tied.
So here is the first difference. The phenomenal qualities of
sensations are next to impossible to communicate to other
people. It seems it is not possible even to say what is
impossible about them. People have, of course, tried to put
wordsor pictures or musicto their experience. I will have
occasion later to cite many bold attempts to capture and
communicate what consciousness is like.
The painter Wassily Kandinsky, whose preferred medium
for celebrating consciousness was the painted canvas, had this
to say about sensation: “Color is a power which directly
influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the
hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.
You may or may not relate to this as true of what it is like
for you. Still, Kandinsky’s words at least hint at the majesty
and mystery of the phenomenon.
Suppose, then, we let the epithet “soul-hammering” do duty
for the description that otherwise seems so elusive. Then, soul-
hammering is what you experience the sensation as being. Yet
soul-hammering does not correspond to any conceivable
quality of the material world. So now, again, you have two
choices about the interpretation: “What I am experiencing is
either (a) evidence of there being an alternative transcendental
soul-hammering reality or (b) some kind of illusion.”
But here is the second crucial difference. For, now, with
sensations, it seems that many a person in his right mind is
prepared to posit the existence of a nonphysical world just
because he is confronted by an entity he cannot explain.
“Everything considered, this suggests I have one foot in
heaven.” I am exaggerating. But not much. When in later
chapters we get to explore the psychological effects of
consciousness, we will see just how far the change in self-
image can go.
I am running ahead. The point I want to make at this stage
is that there does seem to be a formal similarity between, on the
one hand, representing sensations as like something and, on the
other, representing the Gregundrum as like something.
Although what you make of these representations, in the larger
scheme of things, is certainly different, the logic of experience
is the same.
Then where should we take this next? There is a
philosophical term of art, “intentionality,” that I think may
come in useful here. Philosophers say that whenever you form
a mental representation of somethingwhen, for example, you
represent object X in the world as object Y in your mindthe
representing is an “intentional state.” What the term
“intentional” is meant to capture is that the representing is
something, it points to or fingers Y (“intendere” is Latin for
“to take aim at”). Expanding on this, we can say that object Y,
the thing the representing is about, is the “intentional object,”
whereas object X, the thing that gives rise to the representation,
is the “real-world source.”
In practice, the Xs and Ys sometimes come to the same
thing. Using your eyes, for example, you may perceive a
physical object to be pretty much what a physicist using his
instruments would say it isa cricket ball as a red leather ball,
say. In that case, the distinction between the real-world source
and the intentional reading collapses. But it is often the case
that X and Y do not come to the same thing at all: you perceive
a physical object to be something more or other than what the
physicist would say it isa piece of paper as a dollar bill, a
pattern in the clouds as the face of a cat, a pile of old clothes in
the bedroom as the ghost of your dead grandfather.
Then how about the Gregundrum? This is, of course, a
particularly interesting and revealing case. On one hand, when
you look at the Gregundrum from the special position, the
object as you perceive itwhich is the impossible triangle
becomes the intentional object of your perception. Meanwhile,
the thing you are actually looking at, the wooden object that
was constructed to deceive you, is the real-world source. On the
other hand, when you look at the Gregundrum from anywhere
other than the special position, then the object as you perceive
itthe weird object as it physically isbecomes the
intentional object of perception. And now this is in fact also the
real-world source. Thus, if we return to the situation illustrated
in figure 3
, we find that for Observer A the intentional object and the
real-world source are nothing like each other, whereas for
Observer B they coincide.
What, now, if consciousness were to be an illusion of a
similar kind? Would this not mean we ought, in the case of
consciousness too, to make a distinction between the
intentional object and the real-world source? Exactly. Then let
us do it.
Let us suppose that when you have a sensation, when it is
like something for you to see red, for example, this mysterious
thing it is like is “the intentional object of consciousness.” Then
there has to be a real-world source for thissome physical
activity in your brain that you, from your special position as the
conscious subject, engage with and represent as having the
phenomenal properties. But assuming, as before, that this is not
an accident, this brain activity would have to be nothing less
than some kind of “sensational Gregundrum,” something that
has been created precisely so as to give rise to the
consciousness illusion.
What and where could this wonderful thing be? Actually
we already got halfway to identifying it a few paragraphs back.
“You look at a ripe tomato, for example, and in response to the
red light reaching your eyes, something happens in your brain
that you experience as the sensation of red.” But the phrase
“something happens” is much too weak, and “in response to the
red light” is too weak too. Sensation does, of course, have
specifically sensory qualities, so we can safely assume the
brain activity in question is typically some kind of a response to
stimulation of the sense organs. But sensationas we will see
in the next chapteris nothing if it is not personal and affect
laden. So I would say the brain activity that constitutes the
sensational Gregundrum must be something that you create in
response to what the stimulation arriving at your body surface
means for you. But this rather changes the picture. It suggests
that the thing to which you are attributing those marvelous
esoteric properties is in fact your own creation, something
you are doing. Thus, if you are being tricked by an illusionist, it
is not by an outside agent, no Richard Gregory scheming in his
lab; it is by some part of yourself. The sensational Gregundrum
is really an ipsundrum (from the Latin ipse, “self”).
“Ipsundrum” is what I will, from now on, call this
hypothesized, illusion-generating inner creation in response to
sensory stimulation. It is an odd sort of word. But I am not
unhappy with that. It is an odd sort of thing.
So there we are. We wanted a theory of how “it is like
something” to be conscious of sensations. And now we have
one. Consciousness is a magical mystery show that you lay on
for yourself. You respond to sensory input by creating, as a
personal response, a seemingly otherworldly object, an
ipsundrum, which you present to yourself in your inner theater.
Watching from the royal box, as it were, you find yourself
transported to that other world.
I know that philosophers in recent years have mocked the
idea of there being a so-called Cartesian Theater, where the
brain creates a picture of the outside world for the edification of
the mind. Daniel Dennett, the leading critic, writes: “The
persuasive imagery of the Cartesian Theater keeps coming back
to haunt uslaypeople and scientists alikeeven after its
ghostly dualism has been denounced and exorcized.”
He is right, of course, to reject the idea that there could be
a place inside your head where one part of your brain creates a
faithful replica of the world for another part of your brain to
look at (and what part of your brain would look at the replica of
the replica?). But let us note that, despite its entry into the
philosophical literature, this is a bad use of the word
“theater,” and it is certainly not the kind of theater I am now
Replication is not what theaters are about. Instead, theaters
are places where events are staged in order to comment in one
way or another on the worldto educate, persuade, entertain.
In this sense, the idea that one part of your brain might stage a
theatrical show in order to influence the judgment of another
part of your brain is perfectly reasonableindeed, biologically
reasonable, as we will see.
3 Sentition
Consciousness is a self-created entertainment for the
mind? A show that dramatically changes your outlook on life,
so as to help youhowever indirectlyto propagate your
I may say I have some hopes for this theory, once we have
properly fleshed it out. However, I do not expect everyone to
be convinced it is a good idea just yet. And among the several
reasons why you would be right to be skeptical would be this.
As things stand, this is a theory that would seem to have been
invented for the sole purpose of “saving the phenomena”; in
other words, providing a plausible explanation of the facts in
front of usnamely, the curious things people say and imply
about the inner state they are in when they are having
sensations. What is lacking are any ancillary reasons to believe
it is a true account.
I would argue that even if this is all our theory can do
save the phenomenathis would be a major advance, since
there is no competing theory that can do so much. I would go
further and suggest that if we were to build a humanoid robot
on these lines, with its own designed inner theater where self-
generated illusory sensory objectsipsundrumswere on
show, this robot might be able to pass itself off as being
phenomenally conscious; it would make all the right claims
about the soul-hammering qualities of its experience,
ineffability, privileged access, and so on.
But why say “pass itself off”? Arguably, this would
amount to the real thing. The building of such a robot would
certainly be an advance too.
Yet I realize we want more than this; we want our theory to
be true not of robots but of human beings and other conscious
creatures as they have evolved here on Earth. Which means we
must show, if we can, how it relates to what we already know
of the evolution of animal nervous systems. This theory of
consciousness as a stage show will deserve to be taken much
more seriously if we can argue that before consciousness ever
arose, animals were already engaging in some kind of inner
monitoring of their own responses to sensory stimulation. If
this is indeed how things started, then it will be relatively easy
to argue that sensations acquired their new and amazing
properties by the accepted Darwinian route of “descent with
It has to be said that no one knows for sure how things
started. We do not have an authoritative, empirically grounded
account of what the early evolutionary history of sensation was.
But there have been recent attempts by scientists and
philosophersincluding meto reconstruct this
history from first principles.
So, I am now going to give you a summary sketch of my
own version (with the assurance that the missing parts of the
story can be found elsewhere).
Let me start with some definitions and distinctions.
What is sensation? In modern human beings, sensation
for all its special phenomenal featuresis still essentially the
way in which you represent your interaction with the
environmental stimuli that touch your body: red light at your
eyes, sugar on your tongue, pressure on your skin, and so on. It
is important to recognize that sensation is not the same thing as
perception. Perception is the way you represent the objective
world out there beyond your body: the chair in the kitchen, the
tall tree in the garden, the thunder booming in the night sky.
Sensation, by contrast, is always about what is happening to
you and how you feel about it: “the pain is in my toe and
horrible,” “the sweet taste is on my tongue and sickly,” “the
red light is before my eyes and stirs me up.It is as if, in
having sensations, you are both registering the fact of
stimulation and expressing your personal bodily opinion about
itand indeed, as will emerge shortly from my analysis, I
believe you are doing just that.
Now, sensation as human beings experience it is, of course,
a state of mind: a cognitive state in which you represent things
to yourself as being this way. Yet, we can assume that,
historically, sensation had simpler beginnings. Indeed, we can
be sure that our own far-distant ancestors must have been
sensitive to stimuli, reacting to environmental stimulation in a
purely reflex way, long before they had anything that could be
called a mind.
We can be sure of it not least because we can still see
evidence of mindless sensitivity all around us. In fact, one of
the great branches of life on Earth never took things further.
Many plants today show adaptive bodily responses to stimuli
opening their petals to the sun, drooping at the touch of a
predator, closing their jaws to trap an insect, leaning over in the
direction of a suitable host. A plant’s responses can show
discrimination and purposiveness. We might even say they are
a behavioral expression of how the plant evaluates the stimulus:
the daisy welcomes the sun, the mimosa recoils from the
deer’s attention. Except, of course, that these evaluations are
hard-wired and automatic. No feelings are involved.
We should assume, then, that our distant ancestors—let’s
suppose them to be, say, wormlike creatures living in the
Cambrian seaswere in this respect like plants. They too
would have reacted expressively to stimulation, in ways that
took precise account of the nature of the stimulus and how they
evaluated it. But, at least to begin with, it would have been a
mindless activity: expression without mental representation.
Unlike plants, however, our ancestors were mobile and
free-living animals. They found themselves living in a
relatively fast-changing and complex world. Thus, even while
they continued to show set patterns of response, they must,
soon enough, have come under pressure to raise their game by
developing more “thoughtful” kinds of behavior. They needed
not just to respond reflexly, but to form some kind of internal
picture of what they were responding to, so that they could
begin to engage in cognitive planning and decision making.
Yet, how to go about creating this mental picture, given where
they had gotten to already?
The answer was beautifully simple. When an organism is
already doing something about a stimulus reaching its body
surface, something specifically tailored to the particular
stimulus and its significance, then what the organism is doing is
potentially highly informative about what the stimulus is and
also what it means. Indeed, the expressive response as such is,
to anyone who cares to read it, already a form of
representation. It comes preloaded, as it were, with aboutness
and intentionality.
Think of how much you could tell about what is affecting a
man’s body by observing his behavior when, for example, he
flicks an insect from his arm, winces and covers his ears on
hearing the shriek of chalk on the blackboard, or savors a
chocolate in his mouth. For that matter, think what you could
learn by observing how the petals of a flower open and close as
the light changes.
But if you could tell so much from the outside, then in
principle so too could the subject who is making the response.
Indeed, if the subject were to have no other way of knowing
what was happening to his own body and how he felt about it,
he could find out by observing his own behavior. What is more,
since it is his behavior, he would not have to observe it from
the outside; he could do it by monitoring the motor command
signals he is issuing from his brain (perhaps by means of an
“efference copy”—a copy of the signals that has been shunted
to the side just for this purpose). The subject would, in effect,
have elevated his own behavior to the level of a performance
that he himself can readnot yet something that he is
specifically staging for that purpose, but nonetheless a de facto
source of information about what is going on.
The subject could find out like this in principle. And we
have good reasons to believe that this is precisely how the first
animals to form representations of what was happening to them
did find out in practice. Chief among these reasons is the fact
that sensations, as human beings experience them today, still
show all the signs of having been originally a representation of
self-generated bodily activity. We may note, especially, how
both sensations and bodily actions (i) belong to the subject, (ii)
implicate part of his body, (iii) are present tense, (iv) have a
qualitative modality, and (v) have properties that are
phenomenally immediate. (For readers who want to go further,
these resemblances are spelled out in more detail in the notes.)
Yet, if monitoring the command signals for expressive
responses was indeed the start of the story, the evolution of
sensation clearly did not rest there. In the early days, the
responses were real bodily responses, wriggles of acceptance or
rejection. The animal reacted to this stimulus with the
equivalent of a scowl, to that with a welcoming smile. But
humans today show little, if any, overt bodily response to most
sensory stimuli. In fact, it is clear that far in the past, long
before humans came on the scene, these overt responses
disappeared from view. And yet humans still feel the
stimulation. What happened?
What happened, I suggest, was that natural selection did
some tidying up. There must have come a point in the course of
evolution when the original expressive responses made by our
ancestors were no longer appropriate. At this point, other things
being equal, these responses would soon have been completely
eliminated. However, by this point other things were not equal
because the animal had become reliant on using the information
contained in the responses as the
basis for its mental representation of the stimulation at its
body surface.
Now, if the animal had been monitoring its responses by
observing from the outside, there would have been no way of
both eliminating the responses and preserving access to this
information. However, if the animal were in fact monitoring
not the actual behavior but the motor command signals, there
was a neat solution. This was that the responses should be
internalizedor, as I have put it, privatized.
How to do this? Given the requirement that the responses
should continue to carry relevant information about the
stimulus, they still had to implicate the locus of stimulation on
the body somehow. But this could be achieved without too
radical a transformation by converting the responses into
virtual responses at loci on a virtual body. Therefore, what
occurred, I suggest, was that the responses began to get short-
circuited before they reached the body surface, becoming
targeted instead at points closer and closer in on the incoming
sensory nerves, until eventually the whole process became
closed off as an internal circuit within the brain. In fact, as
things now stand in creatures like ourselves, the outgoing
command signals now project only as far as the body maps at
the level of the sensory cortex, where they interact with the
incoming signals from the sense organs to create, momentarily,
a self-entangling loop (see
figure 4
The upshot is that when today you experience sensory
stimulation, you are still responding to itbehind the scenes
with something like the ancient pattern of bodily expression
handed down from distant ancestors. The response still retains
vestiges of its original evaluative function, its intentionality and
hedonic tone. But now it has become a virtual expression
occurring at the level of a virtual body, hidden inside your
head. Now it is indeed a kind of pantomimesomething
whose purpose is no longer to do anything about the
stimulation but only to tell about it. Action has become acting.
Figure 4.
I have given a name to these internalized responses:
“sentition.” This name—somewhere between sensation,
expression, and exhibitionis meant to capture the creative
and staged quality of the response. More particularly, I have
spoken of the response to red light at your eyes, for example, as
“redding,” to salt on your tongue as “salting,” to noxious
stimulation on your skin as “paining,” and so on.
And where is the sensation you experience at the end of all
this? Sensation is where it has been since early on: sensation is
sentitionthe privatized expressive activityas monitored by
your mind.
Figure 5
illustrates how it works. Red light reflected from a tomato
arrives at your eyes, and you create an internalized expressive
response; you engage in redding. You monitor what you are
doing so as to discover what is happening to you. And the
representation you form of your own response is the sensation
of red. Thus, for you to have the sensation of red means nothing
other than for you to observe your own redding.
Figure 5.
This, then, I suggest was the history of sensation, up tobut
not yet atthe crucial point where the subject began to
represent his sensory responses as having mysterious
phenomenal qualities. Can we now see how this astonishing
new development would have come about?
I will not say it is all there yet. But it is surely looking
good. We wanted reassurance that the idea of consciousness as
a self-generated show could be supported by what we might
separately conclude about how sensation has evolved. Now the
evolutionary story is telling us that the ancestors of human
beings and other conscious creatures, since far back, have
indeed been showcasing their sensory responsesjust so as to
learn from this how their bodies are being stimulated.
There is no reason to think that this internal monitoring of
sensory responses will in itself have been sufficient to bring on
consciousness. For the fact is that sentition, to begin with, will
simply have been a handed-down form of bodily expression
that will not have had any of the fancy properties that we
hypothesize are responsible for generating the subjective
illusion of being in the presence of mysterious qualia. Sentition,
in other words, will notyethave become that strange thing
the ipsundrum.
This implies, of course, that our ancestors were
nonconscious before they were conscious; what is more, that
they were nonconscious even after they began to form mental
representations of sensory stimulation and so could be deemed
to be fully sentient. This may strike us as a strange idea. What
would it be like to have nonphenomenal sensations
sensations that provide you with all the requisite information,
but without any of the phenomenal quality you take for
granted? What would it be like, if I may put it so, to have
SENSATIONS as opposed to SENSATIONS? The answer has
to be that it would be “like” nothing in Nagel’s sense of the
term. This may be hard, if not impossible, for us to imagine.
Still, it is certainly a consequence of the theory that this was the
situation early on. Moreover, presumably this continues to be
the situation of many sentient animals today. Animals that have
not come under specific selection pressure to move to the next
stage and generate the consciousness illusionworms, fish,
frogswill not have done so.
But some did! I wrote just now that sentition will notas
yet—have become that strange thing the ipsundrum. But the “as
yet” is why it is looking so good for our theory. For surely we
can claim that by the time preconscious creatures had evolved
to the point shown in
figure 5
, the ground was laid. At this point sentition will have been
perfectly placed to take on an enhanced new role, being already
a stage show of sorts, possibly needing only new direction to
become a magical stage show.
Figure 6.
Figure 6
where I have taken literally the analogy between the
ipsundrum and the Gregundrumillustrates what our theory
predicts happened next. You will see that the activity of
redding has taken on a remarkable new look.
4 Looping the Loop
So, the idea now is that, in the course of evolution, the
illusion-generating ipsundrum was conjured up out of
sentition. And our two questions must be: What happened, in
terms of brain engineering, to bring about this remarkable
advance? And why did natural selection favor this
development? In this chapter I will offer a suggestion about
what. The rest of the book will be devoted to the question why.
I cannot pretend to know what exactly went on at the level
of the brain. This will therefore be the least confidentand
possibly the most throwawaychapter in the book. But you
would expect me to have something to say about the structural
basis of the innovation that I am arguing changed everything.
And so I will.
I feel justified in sharing some highly speculative ideas
with you on two grounds. First, I am convinced that, since the
ipsundrum has to be a real-world object, in the sense I
defined earlier, it must be within the capacity of science to
describe it. The neuroscientists Francis Crick and Christof
Koch have written: “The most difficult aspect of consciousness
is the so-called ‘hard problem’ of qualia—the redness of red,
the painfulness of pain, and so on. No one has produced any
plausible explanation as to how the experience of the redness of
red could arise from the actions of the brain. It appears fruitless
to approach this problem head-on.”
But I rather believe the opposite is true: if we do not
venture, we will not gain.
Second, I think it will be not too serious a matter if we get
the answer wrong. At least getting it wrong need not
compromise our discussion of the functional benefits of
consciousness, which will come later in the book. Let the
ipsundrum really be made of chalk while we conclude it is
made of cheese, and we can still go on to ask all the right
questions about what biological advantage creating the
ipsundrum brings (which, incidentally, allows me the luxury of
sayingand meaning itthat if you find parts of the argument
of the next few pages hard going, then it is okay to skip them
and go straight to
chapter 5
My starting point is that whatever was done to sentition, it
cannot have been much. Natural selection works by modifying
existing structures, and then only in easily available steps.
Given that sentition was already an internalized kind of bodily
expression, then this must have been the clay from which the
ipsundrum was modeled.
What I would like to do theoretically is to “reverse
engineer” this process. Ideally, this would mean we should
begin with what we want to explain as the end product, namely
with its phenomenal qualities as human beings experience it
today. Then we should work out what kind of real-world object
could possibly support this illusory experience. And then we
should try to trace the evolution of this structure backward.
Hopefully, at the end we should have discovered a route by
which, through a series of relatively minor quantitative changes
in sentition, a major qualitative change could have been
brought about in how it gets to be represented. I cannot say this
has been my strategy exactly. But you will recognize the spirit
of it in what follows.
Let us turn then to the phenomenology of sensation, with a
degree of attention we have not given it so far.
Consider any moment of sensory consciousness you will.
Drinking a cup of breakfast coffee. Rain falling on your head.
The sting of a stinging nettle. Staring at a starlit sky. This
whatever “this” is that you are pointing to in your experience
is how you, a human being, are representing the ipsundrum you
are creating. This, we are assuming, will not be what the real-
world object actually is, but it is what it is like.
Now, sensation, we can all agree, has special qualities on a
variety of levels. Let me list the most salient (while offering
excuses, as always, for the inadequacy of the language here).
There is the sense you have of being there, present and
embodied, and yet as if on a separate plane of existence
from the physical world that carries you.
There is the feeling of singularity, of occupying a place
in the universe that cannot be accessed by anyone or
anything else.
There is the paradoxical sense of living outside the
physical instant, as if in a moment of thick subjective
There is the quality space you have entered, where
every sensation is created out of a sense-organ-specific
mediumlight, sound, taste, smell, touchwith a
seemingly unbridgeable gulf between these sensory
There is the strangely unjustifiableunjustifiable
because to human reason unquestionablenature of all
There is the wondrous beauty of it all.
The ipsundrum must have a lot to answer for if it gives rise
to such a many-layered entertainment. We can safely say there
can be few types of real-world objects that could generate an
illusion on this scale: not just a one-trick pony, but a complete
cirque fantastique. Yet, conscious beings are living testament
that there was one type of object that could do it. And if
natural selection found it, and found it merely by modifying
sentition, then so I hope can we.
I will not tease you by holding back my answer. I think the
secret is that the ipsundrum is not so much a physical object as
a mathematical object. It is a complex dynamic pattern of
activity in neural circuits whose special properties are realized
and become “visible” only at the level of a computation that
integrates what happens over time. In short, the ipsundrum is a
bit like a developing thunderstorm, a bit like a wheeling flock
of starlings, a bit like a musical sonata.
I suggest that what is supporting this pattern of activity at
the brain level is the existence of reentrant feedback loops
that allow the activity initiated by external stimulation to
become, for a brief while at least, self-sustaining. Such
feedback would have been a relatively easy thing for natural
selection to arrange, because the ground had already been laid
by the privatization of sentition. Since the earliest days, when
the sensory responses were an overt kind of bodily expression,
these responses would have been influencing the stimulation to
which they were a response, so the potential for feedback was
already there (think, for example, of what happens when you
scratch an itch). To begin with, the feedback would have been
too uncoordinated and slow to have had any interesting
emergent properties. However, once sentition became
internalized and the return pathway much shortened (see
figure 4
in the last chapter), conditions would have been ripe for the
activity in the circuit to catch its own tail and so begin to cycle
around and around.
Then, all at once, things will have been ready to take off.
Once there is recursion in a loop like this, the potential will be
there for generating dynamic patterns with properties that are
very strange indeed. All that has to happen is that each time the
activity cycles around the circuit, the transmission
characteristics of the circuit are altered by this activity. In that
case, the way in which the activity develops in each new cycle
will depend on the level of activity the previous time around.
The growth of activity in such a circuit will be governed by
what is called “a delay differential equation.” A delay
differential equation (DDE) is an equation where the evolution
of the system at a certain time, t, say, depends on the state of
the system at an earlier time, t-T, say.
What happens then is that the activity, once started, if it
does not quickly die away, will either develop chaotically,
never settling down, or soon settle into a “basin of attraction”—
an “attractor state” in which the same pattern repeats itself
indefinitely and to which it returns even if disturbed.
Figure 7
shows a simple example of an attractor state, where the
stable pattern can be described by the path of a line in a three-
dimensional graph.
However, typically the attractor will turn out to be very
much more complicated and will occupy a higher-dimensional
landscape. That is, while the pattern is still stable and has a
precise mathematical description, it would require a graph with
more than three dimensions to portray it. The number of
additional dimensions can be very large indeed. In fact, there
will be cases where it would require a graph with an infinite
number of dimensions.
Figure 7. A typical discrete delay differential attractor.
But is this not exactly the kind of thing we have been
looking for?
Suppose that natural selection, in designing the ipsundrum,
had all those extra dimensions to play with. The mind boggles
(perhaps literally) at the possibilities for creating
mathematical objects in the brain that when “seen” by an
internal observer, would give rise to the illusion of something
with extraordinary otherworldly properties.
Of course, insofar as the ipsundrum must be observed from
a unique position for the illusion to work, natural selection
would also have had to arrange for the internal observer to have
this special perspective. But, now it comes to it, I wonder
whether perhaps this condition could be relaxed. It is an
intrinsic feature of attractors that they are resistant to
perturbation: they are indeed “basins” into which things tend to
fall, so that the developing activity ends up in the same state, no
matter where it started from. Arguably, this very feature could
have been exploited so as to give the ipsundrum the same
illusionary look no matter where it was seen from. I wrote
earlier, in relation to the Gregundrum, let us suppose “that
things are rigged so that, as and when you move around the
object, some hidden hand turns it so that it is always facing you
in the same way.” Would it not be neat if this could be taken
care of automatically, so that from the point of view of the
internal observer the ipsundrum as a mathematical object is
At any rate, without more ado let me propose that this is the
solution. What natural selection did to bring consciousness
onstage was nothing other than to adjust the properties of
existing sensory feedback loops so as to steer the activity
toward a special class of attractor statesjust such states as
would seem, from the subject’s point of view, to give
sensations their phenomenal qualities.
These are nice ideas. But I would have to agree they are still
very loosely formulated. And I am sure you would want
me to make some more specific suggestions before you come
onboard. So let me discuss one prominent feature of sensation
that I believe can be explainedperhaps can only be
explainedalong these lines. It is a feature we have already
identified as a key element of sensory phenomenology, and one
that many commentators have considered fundamental. This is
the peculiar way that time enters in.
Imagine yourself looking at a cascading waterfall or
listening to the song of a skylark. Physical time is flowing
linearly forward, with no letup in the relentless passage from
instant to instant. The stimuli that are reaching your sense
organs are always changing. Many a new stimulus is over just
as soon as it arrives.
But this is not how you experience it at the level of
sensation. Rather, the present moment, the “now” of sensation,
has a paradoxical dimension of temporal depth. Each instance
of sensation is still there for you for a brief period after you
create it, as if it happens for longer than it happens. Thus
successive instances are co-present in consciousness. But this is
not because the old is lasting into the time territory of the new;
it is because each new instance lives on for a little while in its
own time. You have co-presence of sensations without
The paradoxical status of time in the experience of
sensations has been remarked on since the dawn of philosophy.
Aristotle, in his book Of the Senses, struggledas we still
doto describe it. Here is a modern commentary on what
Aristotle meant to say: “The undivided ‘now’ of sensation must
rest upon a duration with which it does not altogether coincide;
the present moment must conceal, within itself, the passing of
another, immeasurable by its own standard. . . . It is another
time; to the degree to which time cannot admit of varieties of
itself, it may well be something other than any time at all.”
We may well ask: What is going on? What could possibly
give rise to the illusionfor of course it must be an illusion
that the past is still present, as if you are living in “thick time”?
Can we imagine some kind of ipsundrum that would appear to
the subject to endure without ever getting older? Is there a type
of attractor that could take us there?
Because of Douglas Hofstadter’s groundbreaking work in a
related area, I believe there is an answer we can take right off
the peg. Hofstadter has pioneered the analysis of a special class
of feedback relationship that he calls a “strange loop.”
This exists in a system when there are several layers of
operation, the higher layers being built upon the lower, but in
which the higher layers are capable of reaching down and
changing the structure or rules of the lower levels. Cyclic
activity in such a loop is again described by a delay differential
equation, but in this case with a particularly remarkable
outcome. In Hofstadter’s words, the outcome, for someone
observing it, is that “in the series of stages that constitute the
cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or
structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in
a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive upward’ shifts
turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s
sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up,
to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.”
What would this be like for the observer on the inside?
Well, if you want a visual spatial metaphor, it might be like
climbing an endless staircase that always takes you back to the
same place you set off from (
figure 8
). Or if it is to be an auditory metaphor, it might be like
listening to a glissando where the sound seems always to be
falling or rising in pitch without the note ever changing (you
can hear such an amazing glissando online).
Figure 8.
But where might “unused time” come in? Let us look at it
this way. If you climb the staircase in
figure 8
and end up exactly at the height you started out, we would
conventionally describe this as having traveled no distance
upward. But space and time are equivalent in this peculiar
situation. So, if you climb the staircase and end up exactly
where you set out earlier, an equally good interpretation would
be that you have passed no time. Indeed imagine you were to
measure time by counting how many steps you have ascended:
one second, two second, three seconds . . . no seconds. You
would have spent time, without using it.
Now, to translate this back to sensation. Suppose that, in
responding to a sensory stimulus, you were to initiate activity
in a feedback loop whose attractor turned out to be just such a
strange mathematical object. Then, when you monitored
yourself doing thisand found yourself creating something
that from your first-person viewpoint would appear to be the
temporal analogue of an endless staircaseis it not possible
that you would find yourself having the experience of living in
the thick moment?
I do not know. But I daresay you might. In
figure 9
I have tried to illustrate how it could work. You will see (if
you can follow the diagrammatic convention) that things have
on again since
figure 6
. The activity of redding has now acquired the interesting
new property of seeming to the subject to exist in its own
virtual time.
This is not, of course, all we need to explain the subjective
properties of qualia. But it is surely not a bad start. And having
made this start, I think we can see how we might take it further
by adding appropriate bells and whistles to sentition. If, as
theorists, we can describe just what it is that, as a feature of
sensory phenomenology, we want to add, I would hazard that it
ought to be within the power of the mathematics of complex
dynamical systems to deliver it as the property of an attractor
state. And in that case we are home and dry. For we can safely
assume it would have been within the power of natural
selection to create this attractor by playing around with the
design of the sensory feedback loops. Of course, describing
what we want to add will still be half the battle (though I think
we will make some progress with this as the book proceeds).
Figure 9.
At any rate, who says, now, that it cannot be done, that “we
cannot so much as imagine the solution of the hard problem”? I
should not say this, but I will say it anyway: it is a good thing
that natural selection did not give up on the search for the
ipsundrum so easily. Just how good a thing, I hope to show in
the pages that follow.
Meanwhile, where is the Andromedan scientist in all this? I
have not forgotten her. Let’s suppose—if you will suspend your
reasonable skepticismthat these ideas about the physical
basis of consciousness are basically correct. Should we expect
the Andromedan to discover the existence of this kind of
ipsundrum when she examines the human brain? And will she
realize its significance?
I will start with the second part of this. Will she realize its
significance? As we discussed at the end of the first chapter,
unless consciousness is some kind of uncaused miracle, once an
outside scientist has identified the brain events that correspond
to the subjective experience of sensationsthe neural correlate
of consciousness, the NCCthen, provided she is in
possession of the neurophenomenological rule book, she ought,
in principle, to be able to see that these events must lead to the
subject’s having just the experiences he has. Now we are
suggesting that the NCC is in fact the set of brain events that
occur when the subject observes, from a certain privileged
position, his own ipsundrum, which is the integral of the
activity in a special kind of feedback loop. So, yes, why not? If
and when the Andromedan has identified this particular set of
brain events as the NCC, she ought to be able to deduce what it
must be like to be the subject, and so she will indeed realize
exactly how significant the ipsundrum is.
But, we have to ask, will she be able identify this set of
brain events as the NCC to begin with? Let us assume she has
taken an interest in the evolutionary story. She has understood
how sentition has been internalized, and she has picked up on
the existence of sensory feedback circuits. She may even have
noticed how the activity in these circuits tends to settle into
higher-dimensional attractor states (although this may not be
easy for her, it is not exactly going to show up as colored
patches on an MRI scan).
However, here is the difficulty: unless and until she
happens to put herself at the subject’s position and so see for
herself the magical illusion that is being created from his point
of view, she is unlikely to think anything very remarkable is
occurring. Even if, as I suggested a few paragraphs back, the
ipsundrum as a mathematical object has been designed to be
“self-positioning” from the point of view of the first-person
subject, this is unlikely to be at all obvious from the outside.
So, the problem for the Andromedan is that she is going to
require either extraordinary prescience or extraordinary luck,
because without it she is simply not going to appreciate what
the ipsundrum is designed to do. There is surely a lesson for
experimental scientists here on Earth, for if the Andromedan
would have such problems with recognizing the ipsundrum as
something significant, worth further investigation, then so will
they. It goes to show, I would say, that we cannot wait for
advances in neuroscience to solve the problem of
consciousness. Crick and Koch, in the passage I quoted earlier,
continued: “It appears fruitless to approach this problem head-
on. Instead we are attempting to find the neural correlate(s) of
consciousness (NCC), in the hope that when we can explain the
NCC in causal terms, this will make the problem of qualia
clearer.” Good luck to them. But I suspect that finding the
NCC experimentally will be even more difficult than
approaching the problem head on. The probability is that brain
scientists would not recognize the NCC for what it is even if it
were right in front of them.
I know there are scholars who willand dotut-tut at my
own way of proceeding in this chapter: by trying to think
things through. The geneticist, Steve Jones, once wrote in
relation to some earlier ideas of mine: “I have a problem with
scientists who spend time looking at their own navels. . . . My
feeling about [most scientists who have gone into the field of
consciousness studies] is that they’d find life more interesting if
they continued to do what most of them started by doing
getting their feet wet by doing experimental work.”
He memorably added: “I often think that philosophy is to
science as pornography is to sex, I mean it’s cheaper and easier
and some people seem to prefer it.”
This is all very well. Yes, of course we should use
experimental evidence when we can. But ifas with
consciousnesswe have as yet almost no inkling as to what we
should be looking for, and if, as I am now suggesting, we
would probably miss it even if we did, then we ought not to be
embarrassed to make use of pure theory. This is one problem
that really may be best approached from an armchair.
However, the same is not true of where I will go next in this
book. This is: to the big question of why consciousness
whatever its brain basishas been selected during the course
of evolution. Of course, this is a question that can be answered
only by attending to the facts: the facts about what difference
consciousness makes to the survival of those who have it.
5 So What?
I have tried, in
part 1
of this book, to do what no one has done before: to explain
how phenomenal consciousness could be an evolved feature of
the human mind. My particular suggestions about the brain
basis may be wrong. But in putting them on the table, I hope I
have persuaded you that a naturalistic explanation of
consciousness is at least a possibility in principle.
My theory is not quite the “transparent theory” that has
been called for, “one that, once you get it, you see that anything
built like this will have this particular conscious experience.”
But it is getting there. I would say we have every reason to
believe that if a human being were to have evolved to be built
like this, he would end up thinking, saying, and doing all of the
right things for us to suppose him consciousand of course for
him to suppose it too. What is more, a human being could have
evolved to be built like this, because there would have been
a natural trajectory through the biological design space,
leading him from primitive ancestors to where he is today.
So now let us put the question of what behind us. Now the
challenge is to explain the purpose of it all. We can be sure it
did not happen accidentally. It must be the result of natural
selection favoring genes that underwrite the specialized neural
circuitswhatever they actually arethat sustain the illusion
of qualia, giving rise to the magical mystery show for the first
person. And it is axiomatic that this will have happened only if
those lucky enough to be spectators of this show have somehow
been at an advantage in terms of biological survival compared
with their less fortunate cousins.
chapter 1
I mentioned the idea of a philosophical zombiethe
philosophers’ fantasy of a creature who is physically identical
to a normal human being but completely lacks conscious
experience. “Philosophical zombies look and behave like the
conscious beings that we know and love, but ‘all is dark
I gave reasons for saying that, in principle, philosophical
zombies do not and could not exist. However, it has to be part
of my evolutionary argument that these zombies have a near
relation that could certainly exist. We might call it a
“psychological zombie.” A psychological zombie, let’s assume,
is physically identical to a normal human being except in one
crucial respect: namely, that he or she lacks just those evolved
circuits in the brain that yield the phenomenal quality of
conscious experience.
Would psychological zombies look and behave like the
conscious beings that we know and love, despite the fact that
all is dark inside? No, that is exactly the point. If consciousness
is an evolutionary adaptation, the answer has to be that they
would not. There must be things that a psychological
zombie would do differently precisely because all is dark
inside. And for natural selection to have seen this, this
difference must result in the zombie’s being less likely to
survive and reproduce. Compared with a conscious human
being, a psychological zombie would fail to thrive.
In the pages that follow, I will discuss, in point after point,
the possible advantages that conscious creatures might have
over psychological zombies. But “psychological zombie” is a
cumbersome term, so I will sometimes talk simply of
“zombies.” Since I will be referring to creatures that are
biologically credible (indeed, creatures whose like must once
have existed on Earth and were outcompeted by the conscious
creatures who came later in the course of evolution), I trust no
one will confuse my zombies with the logically impossible and
ultimately much less interesting philosophical version.
But if conscious creatures did outcompete the zombies,
why? What reasons are there to believe that the phenomenal
richness of consciousness could play an essential part in
anything of practical value? Here is a reminder of Flanagan’s
definition of “consciousness inessentialism”: it is “the view that
for any intelligent activity I, performed in any cognitive
domain d, even if we do I with conscious accompaniments, I
can in principle be done without these conscious
accompaniments.” As Fodor has colorfully put it:
“[Consciousness] seems to be among the chronically
unemployed. . . . What mental processes can be performed only
because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness
contribute to their performance? Nobody has an answer to this
question for any mental process whatsoever. As far as anybody
knows, anything
that our conscious minds can do they could do just as well
if they weren’t conscious. Why then did God bother to make
Fodor is undoubtedly asking the right question: “why . . . did
God [or natural selection] bother to make consciousness?” But
I believe I know why he finds it all so baffling (“I understand
his ignorance,” as the poet Coleridge would say).
It is because he is looking at the problem from entirely the
wrong angle. Note the bias in both Flanagan’s and Fodor’s
formulations, toward thinking of consciousness as contributing
to the capacity to do something. They are both assuming, as
indeed almost everybody does, that the role of phenomenal
consciousnessif it has onemust be to provide the subject
with some kind of new mental skill. In other words, it must be
helping him perform some task that he can perform only by
virtue of being consciousas, say, a bird can fly only because
it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because
you know English.
5 However, I have another idea. What if the role of
phenomenal consciousness is not this at all? What if its role is
not to enable you to do something you could not do otherwise
but rather to encourage you to do something you would not do
otherwise: to make you take an interest in things that
otherwise would not interest you, to mind about things you
otherwise would not mind about, or to set yourself goals you
otherwise would not set?
I hedged my bets in the introductory chapter and suggested
that consciousness has its effects on survival by changing what
we may loosely call the subject’s psychology—knowing that
the term “psychology” could cover just about everything the
mind is involved in, from cognition to self-expression. But
from here on I want to put aside all the usual subject matter of
cognitive scienceintelligence, information processing,
decision making, attention, and so onwhere people have
looked in vain for a role for consciousness, and to explore
instead the impact of phenomenal experience on subjective
purposes, attitudes, and values.
In short, I want to suggest that what having phenomenal
experiences does is profoundly to change your worldview so as
to change the direction of your life. It brings about a kind of
Kuhnian paradigm shift in your take on what its all about.
Thomas Kuhn, of course, was concerned with scientific
revolutions: “Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new
instruments and look in new places. Even more important,
during revolutions scientists see new and different things when
looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked
But what, now, if led by the consciousness paradigm,
human ancestors had adopted new instruments and looked in
new places? Even more important, what if they had seen new
and different things when looking with familiar instruments in
places their unconscious predecessors had looked before?
A “consciousness paradigm”? We will have to explore what
this could mean in practice. What difference does being
phenomenally conscious make to the way individuals think
about and conduct themselves? What beliefs and attitudes flow
from it? In the case of humans, if not other animals, what
transformations does it bring about in the collective culture, and
how do these in turn bring further changes?
These areor ought to beempirical questions: questions
we can answer only by careful fieldwork in the realm of
conscious creatures. So we need to engage in a
thoroughgoing study of the natural history of consciousness.
And it must be a program of research in which we are ready to
consider all sorts of possibilitiesnot just those we would
expect to find discussed in the science or philosophy sections of
the library but perhaps those that belong in the self-help, mind
and spirit, or even New Age section.
What we have to do is what Daniel Dennett has called
“heterophenomenology” (phenomenology from another’s
viewpoint). Here is Dennett discussing how Martian scientists
might set about their consciousness fieldwork (Dennett flies in
his investigators from a nearer place than I do): “Among the
phenomena that would be readily observable by these Martians
would be all our public representations of consciousness:
cartoon ‘thought balloons’ . . . soliloquies in plays, voice-overs
in films, use of the omniscient author point of view in novels,
and so forth. . . . They would also have available to them the
less entertaining representations of consciousness found in all
the books by philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists,
phenomenologists, and other sober investigators of the
However, I would go further than Dennett. I think this list
is still too cautious and biased toward traditional kinds of
evidence. Neither he nor any other mainstream philosopher of
consciousness seems to have recognized how consciousness
may contribute to personal growth.
It is our good fortune, however, that other types of
researchers have recognized this all along. We might call them
the “alternative natural historians of consciousness”: on one
side are painters, poets, musicians; on the other, followers of
meditative religious traditions, such as Buddhists. Do not be
surprised, therefore, if I call artists and monks to the
witness box or if I make much of direct quotations from
individuals rhapsodizing about their personal experiences. The
things people sayand especially the things that are
remembered and quoted as seeming right and interesting to
other conscious beingsprovide some of the best evidence we
can get about what consciousness does.
In what direction will this testimony lead? I will not hold
back my main conclusion, although I expect I may shock you
with how simple it is (after a lifetime of working on the
question, I have shocked myself).
I think that what the natural history reveals is that
consciousnesson several levelsmakes life more worth
living. Conscious creatures enjoy being phenomenally
conscious. They enjoy the world in which they are
phenomenally conscious. And they enjoy their selves for being
phenomenally conscious. But “enjoy” is too weak a term. In the
case of human beings, at any rate, it would be truer to say: they
revel in being phenomenally conscious. They love the world in
which they are phenomenally conscious. They esteem their
selves for being phenomenally conscious.
Moreover, as I will show in the coming chapters, for
conscious creatures there is real biological value in all this. The
added joie de vivre, the new enchantment with the world they
live in, and the novel sense of their own metaphysical
importance has, in the course of evolutionary history,
dramatically increased the investment individuals make in their
own survival.
I say “in the case of human beings, at any rate.” Should I say
nonhuman animals too? And if so, which? The question
of which other species are conscious, and which are sentient
but unconsciouspsychological zombies, in effectis an issue
we have not fully faced yet.
In presenting the evolutionary story, I have of course gone
along with the standard assumption that human beings are not
the first and only animals to have developed phenomenal
consciousness. However, the grounds for this assumption are
by no means as strong as we might wish. If there has been
rather little systematic study of the natural history of
consciousness in our own species, there has been still less for
other animals. Indeed, if you look at Dennett’s list of the
evidential sources that an alien scientist (but it could equally be
an Earth scientist) might use to research consciousness in
humans, you will realize that not one of these sources would be
available for nonhuman animals, not even a chimpanzee, let
alone a mouse. Chimps simply do not go in for dramatic
soliloquies and so on.
You may think it would be absurd to suggest that human
beings alone have consciousness. I would agree. Evolutionary
considerations rule out the possibility that the whole thing
began with human beings. However, this does not mean that
consciousness just as we humans know it is widely shared with
I drew attention in the previous chapter to how sensations
amaze us humans in a variety of ways. But there is certainly no
reason to believe that these varieties came all at once in
evolution. It is surely more probable that consciousness
evolved in stages and that today there still exist animals with
differing kinds and degrees of sensory qualia.
For a start, given what I have suggested about the brain
basis of the ipsundrum, it would seem likely that phenomenal
properties were established independently in the different
sensory modalities. So, perhaps, for our distant ancestors it was
“like something” to experience touch before it was “like
something” to experience sound or light. And it could still be
the case today that some animals have consciousness in only
one modality.
But beyond this, it would seem likely that different kinds of
phenomenal effects kicked in at different times: temporal
thickening, the absolute separation of quality spaces, aesthetic
valency, intrinsicality, privacy, ineffability . . . In an order we
cannot yet specify (although ineffability could hardly have been
an issue for prelinguistic creatures). Again, this would imply
that some animals today are more richly conscious than others.
True, we might want to argue that the single most important
transition was the first one: from being like nothing to being
like somethingand that all the rest is icing on the cake.
Maybe in some sense that is right. You are either in flatland or
in three dimensions; you either enter a magical nonphysical
world or you do not. Arguably, the truly revolutionary
development must have been when, perhaps quite soon after
sentition became privatized, some chance change in its
configuration first created the subjective illusion of being in the
presence of something magically different. But if this was
indeed the tipping point, it was still only the prelude. There
would still have been a way to go before the full-blown magic
show of consciousness was on the road, plenty of scope for
“improving” sensations so as to make them ever more
Lacking the evidence to clinch it (though with plenty of
suggestive evidence to be considered in the coming chapters), I
may tell you my guess is that the self-made show did not
become outrightly soul-hammering, in the grand sense
was alluding to, until quite recent timesand maybe only
thanks to advances that occurred specifically in the human line.
Though I am jumping ahead, I will say it now: no nonhuman
animals make of consciousness what human beings do.
Consciousness may indeed contribute to a sense of self in
nonhuman animals. But there is no evidence that any
nonhuman animals, whatever the level of their consciousness,
have gone on to invent the idea of a “person,” an “I,” let alone a
“soul” with a life beyond the body (which is, of course,
precisely why Dennett’s list of the “evidences of
consciousness” cannot be used with animals: they are all
essentially “I” related).
How far this specifically human notion of selfhood has
followed on from innovations in what sensations are like for
humansthat is, primary facts about the quality of human
consciousnessand how far on feedback from culture, once
humanity as a cultural phenomenon came of age, are issues we
have still to explore. I am sure most theorists would put their
money on cultural influences. Yet the fact is that humans have
evolved rapidly since they split from chimpanzees five million
years ago. Their brains and minds have undergone radical
rewiring. And, remarkably enough, new research in
comparative anatomy shows that human brains have diverged
not only in higher executive functions but also in the early
stages of sensory processing. The primary visual cortex in
humans has an extra layer of cells that does not exist in apes or
monkeys. Todd Preuss and Ghislaine Coleman, who made the
discovery, comment: “The existence of substantial differences
in the organization of primary visual cortex between human
and nonhuman primates (including the commonly studied
macaque monkeys) may come as a surprise, given how widely
held is the conviction that the human visual system is basically
or essentially similar to our close relatives.” There is no
evidence yet as to what this extra layer is doing. The authors
suggest a “low level” explanation in terms of differences in
visual attention and perception of movement. But I wonder if
they are not underestimating the significance of their discovery.
Might not this extra layer be just what is needed to create a
uniquely human kind of reverberatory loop? At least let’s not
rule out the possibility that the wonderfully inflated human
self-image has arisen out of some more basic change in sensory
phenomenologyone that has happened in the human line
Let’s revisit this question of grades of consciousness when
we know more about what exactly is at issue.
6 Being There
In the previous chapter I headlined three levels at which I
believe the lives of our ancestors were transformed by
consciousness, three levels at which, if we look on the negative
side, we could say the lives of psychological zombieslacking
those extra brain circuitswould be impoverished compared
with our own. Now in separate chapters, I will treat these one
by onebeginning with the simple pleasure of pure being.
The bottom line about how consciousness changes the
human outlookas deep an existential truth as anyone could
ask foris this: we do not want to be zombies. We like “being
present,” we like having it “be like something to be me,” and
only in the most drastic circumstances would we have it
Lord Byron says it: “The great object of life is sensation
to feel that we exist, even though in pain. It is this ‘craving
void’ which drives us to gaming—to battleto travelto
but keenly felt pursuits of any description, whose principal
attraction is the agitation inseparable from their
Tom Nagel as a philosopher says it more soberly: “There
are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life
better; there are other elements which, if added to one’s
experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are
set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. . . .
The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself,
rather than by any of its contents.”
John Galsworthy, in one of his Forsyte novels, describes
fourteen-month-old Kit Forsyte taking a bath: “He seemed to
lend a meaning to life. His vitality was absolute, not relative.
His kicks and crows and splashings had the joy of a gnat’s
dance, or a jackdaw’s gambols in the air. They gave thanks not
for what he was about to receive, but for what he was
The word “sensualism” approaches but hardly does justice to
what these writers are getting at. Maybe we need the word
At any rate, the emotion is a basic and familiar one: the yen to
confirm and renew, in small ways or large, your own
occupancy of the subjective moment, to go deeper, to extend it,
to revel in being thereand, where you have the skill, to
celebrate it in words.
Here is John Keats, in a letter to a friend, sharing his mouth
with us: “Talking of Pleasure, this moment I am writing with
one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a
Nectarinegood god how fineIt went down soft pulpy,
slushy, oozyall its delicious embonpoint melted down my
throat like a large beatified Strawberry.”
Or here, on a more heroic scale, is Albert Camus, inviting
us to enter the skin of his young body as he luxuriates among
the flower-covered Roman ruins of Tipasa on the Algerian
coast: “We enter a blue and yellow world and are welcomed by
the pungent, odorous sigh of the Algerian summer earth. . . .
We are not seeking lessons or the bitter philosophy one requires
of greatness. Everything seems futile here except the sun, our
kisses, and the wild scents of the earth. . . . How many hours I
have spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to
match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep
among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open
my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-
soaked sky.”
Or here, to take it down to a more domestic level, is Rupert
Brooke, stirring up thoughts of lesser ecstasies as he provides
an inventory of one small sensory delicacy after another.
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon.
The list is long. The poet fondles each moment, like a bead on a
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
He is only just beginning, and I will return to this
astonishing paean to sensation in a later chapter. But in reading
this and the passages before it, I want to remark how rooted in
the natural world all these precious experiences are. There is
nothing in Keats’s or Camus’ descriptions, and only the
occasional item in Brooke’s, that has any contemporary cultural
reference. Absinthe leaves, blue massing clouds, moist earth,
and so on, have, since time immemorial, been freely on offer to
anyone with the senses and the inner leisure to appreciate them.
We can and should assume, therefore, that our human ancestors
of 100,000 years ago, or maybe as much as a million, relished
many of these same experiences.
But then perhaps we should assume that the emotion I just
now called presentism does in fact go back much further and
spreads much wider. There is no lack of evidence that many
nonhuman animals have evolved, at some level, to like “being
there” just as humans do—which strongly suggests that they
experience a qualia-rich version of the subjective present,
basically like ours.
Galsworthy, looking for an analogy for the boy in his bath,
went straight to animals: “the joy of a gnat’s dance, or a
jackdaw’s gambols in the air.” And there are, of course, animal
parallels to be drawn on every side, not just for Kit Forsyte but
also for Keats, Camus, Brooke, and even Nagel. Dolphins surf
the waves. Dogs chase their tails in frenzy. Bonobos give each
other erotic body rubs. Cats stretch themselves before the fire.
Lambs frolic on the spring sward. Monkeys leap from high
cliffs into water pools.
At the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania, a
chimpanzee beside a stream was observed by scientists drawing
her fingers repeatedly through the rippling water, trans-fixed, it
seems, by the delicate play of light, sound, and touch on her
body. Other chimps began to copy her, and within months this
kind of water play had become a family tradition. “Sitting
intently nearby was Golden, who watched for a time before
mimicking Gaia’s exact motions. Playing in Kakombe Stream,
the field team observes, has since become something of a
Gremlin family tradition: Every time they cross the creek,
Golden finds time to sit on a rock with her hand immersed in
the water, overturning stones on the streambed.”
But at Gombe scientists have also observed examples of
much wilder, Byronic sensation seeking, as when a chimpanzee
emerges into the open in a thunderstorm and dances and stamps
and screams as torrents of rain run from his back and lightning
forks the air.
Marc Bekoff describes: “I once saw a young elk in Rocky
Mountain National Park run across a snowfield, jump in the air
and twist his body while in flight, stop, catch his breath and do
it again and again. Buffalo have been seen playfully
running onto and sliding across ice, excitedly bellowing as
they do so.”
George Schaller describes a two-year-old panda on being
released from a dark tunnel: “It exploded with joy. Exuberantly
it trotted up an incline with a high-stepping, lively gait, bashing
down any bamboo in its path, then turned and somersaulted
down, an ecstatic black and white ball rolling over and over;
then it raced back up to repeat the descent, and again.”
Birds are up there too, as this account reveals:
A common feature of the hot, dry inland of Australia is
the dust devil or willy-nilly, a small vortex with winds
about 60 kilometres per hour. It can carry dust hundreds
of metres into the air. . . . A common native bird, the
galah, has been seen flying into these whirlwinds and
being hurled upwards, screeching loudly. On reaching
the top, the galahs fly down and enjoy another ride by re-
entering the vortex near the ground. There is one report
of a flock of galahs flying into a much less common and
more dangerous tornado. The winds, spinning at over
100 kilometres per hour, immediately spat them out,
screeching with delight.
“To feel that you exist—even though in pain”? It certainly
looks that way.
So here is the question. Why should feeling that you exist
and valuing the feelingbe biologically adaptive, so that the
underlying brain circuits would have been selected in the
course of evolution?
I believe the answer (at least the beginning of an answer) is
right there in front of us. It is that a creature who takes pleasure
in the feeling of existence will develop “a will to exist” and so,
at least as we see it in humans, “a will to live.” But I must
unpack this. How does a will to exist differ from simply an
instinct to exist, or just existing? Most biological organisms
evidently manage to live their lives just fine without having the
will to do so. We would never attribute a will to live to an oak
tree, an earthworm, or a butterfly. These organisms, when the
need arises, act instinctively in a variety of preprogrammed
life-preserving ways. Human beings do the same much of the
time. You eat your food, withdraw your hand from the flame,
heal your wounds, and so on, without giving a thought to your
existence. So how might there be added value in your having
evolved to be conscious of existing?
It could work like this. If natural selection can arrange that
you enjoy the feeling of existing, then existence can and does
become a goal: something—indeed, as we’ll see, some thing
you want. And the difference between your wanting to exist
and simply having some kind of life instinct is that, when you
want something, you will tend to engage in rational actions
flexible, intelligent behaviorto achieve it. You will do things
that are not rewarding in themselves but that are calculated (on
some level) to deliver the goal. You may even do things that
are punishingincluding going through pain.
I admit this may sound like some sort of bootstrap
operation, rather as if natural selection had designed a creature
to take pleasure in the sound of its own heartbeat. But why not,
if it works? We accept that Nature made sex pleasurable so as
to encourage animals to take the steps that lead to sexual
Then why not make the feeling of existence magically
delightful in order to encourage conscious creatures to do the
things that lead to their existing?
For human beings, the case hardly needs making. Happily,
we have all seen how it plays out in our own lives. “Where am
I going?” the boy sings in A. A. Milne’s poem “Spring
Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Where am I going? The high rooks call:
“It’s awful fun to be born at all.”
Awful fun is not the half of it. We know life can at times be
unspeakably beautiful. But what about those high rooks? And
galahs, and chimpanzees? Do nonhuman animals really want
to feel that they exist? And if they do, is it indeed evidence that
these animals are phenomenally conscious?
We need not doubt that there are many species of animals
who, just like humans, go out of their way to have fun. They
want, as it were, to live it up. The galahs seek out the
whirlwinds. Dolphins follow a ship to ride the bow waves.
Chimps beg to be tickled.
I once observed a young mountain gorilla who climbed a
high vine to fetch down a gourd-like fruit. My field notes
record: “She plays with the fruit, tossing it from side to side,
letting it drop into her hands, then she grips the stalk between
her teeth so that the fruit dangles from her mouth, stands
and turns somersaults. Next she stands, still holding the
fruit between her teeth, and beats it repeatedly with both hands,
making a sharp clapping sound.” The following day she came
back to the same vine with the obvious intention of fetching
down another so satisfactory a plaything.
Every dog owner has seen the lengths to which a dog will
go to get taken for a walk, the anticipatory joy when he
succeeds, and the hang-dog look if he realizes he is not getting
what he wants. There are few sights so pathetic as a dog who,
having been taken out in the car for what might have been a run
in the woods, realizes he is approaching a boarding kennel,
where his existence will be put on hold.
Do examples such as these really add up to a will to exist in
these animals? Certainly, if you were in their place, conscious
presence would be both the goal and the condition of your
making these efforts to engage with life. It would be the qualia
you would be deliberately seeking. If you were a psychological
zombie, you simply would not bother to do these things. And I
would say it is a fair assumption (though by no means a
logically secure one) that if the animals were zombies, they
would not bother either. True, we should be cautious about
reading too much into the behavior of species distant from
ourselves. Yet we should not feel bound to read too little either.
The survival benefits of delighting in “existence” are
obvious. For a start, any creature who has it as a goal to indulge
its senses in the kinds of ways described will be likely to
engage in a range of activities that promote its bodily and
mental well-being (even if occasionally at some risk). Such a
creature will do life well, we might say. But it will not stop
there. Since you
can reach these moments of intense existence only by doing all
the other things required to stay alive, then, for at least some
animals, being alive as such will become a goal. You will not
just live well, you will want a life because you want to feel.
So here is the crucial question. Could not natural selection
have achieved the same result in easier ways? Given that there
are indeed benefits to be had when living it up becomes a goal
of behavior, then why not simply add some extra reward
circuits to the brain so as to make the experience of intense and
varied sensory stimulation “positively reinforcing,” as the
behaviorists would say, without going the extra mile to invent
the drama of phenomenal consciousness? Psychological
zombies could surely have sensory funof a zombie sort.
Zombies could still be designed to engage in play.
Yes, so they could. But I believe the reason their play
would be so much shallowerand in the long run less life
affirmingthan that of a conscious creature is this:
phenomenal consciousness gives you (or at any rate gives you
the illusion of) a substantial thing to value. The great object of
lifethe ball that, as a conscious being, you strive to keep in
the airis not a shallow physiological variable, not a mere
number, but something psychologically in a different league. It
is the existence of a conscious self.
There, I have said it: a “conscious self.” It is time to bring
the “self” to center stage. The concept of self is a complex one,
and it will not be until much later in the book that we get the
measure of it. I will argue later that in the course of
evolutionary history, selves have come to exist on different
levels in different species. The self of an adult human being
certainly has no equivalent in animals (or human infants, for
that matter).
But, to begin with, I want to focus on something basic: let’s
call it the “core self,” by which I mean no more or less than the
owner and occupier of the thick moment of consciousness.
When “you feel that you exist” as the subject of sensation, the
core self comes into existence in that illusory time space.
This is not my idea. It is originally Aristotle’s idea
(although seldom acknowledged as such in contemporary
philosophy.) I wrote above, in
chapter 4
, how Aristotle drew attention to the paradoxical temporal
depth of consciousness. “The undivided ‘now’ of sensation
must rest upon a duration with which it does not altogether
coincide. . . . It is another time . . . It may well be something
other than any time at all.” But where did he go with this?
Remarkably, he went on to argue that it is precisely this “extra”
time dimension that underliesand brings into beingthe core
self: “If someone senses himself or something else in a
continuous time, then it is impossible for him not to notice he
exists. . . . In all sensation, simple or complex, sharp or dull, the