Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of Consciousness

What should we expect out of a theory of consciousness?

For a scientific theory of consciousness to have even the slightest chance at being correct it must be able to address- at the very least– the following four questions*:

  1. Why consciousness exists at all (i.e. “the hard problem“; why we are not p-zombies)
  2. How it is possible to experience multiple pieces of information at once in a unitary moment of experience (i.e. the phenomenal binding problem; the boundary problem)
  3. How consciousness exerts the causal power necessary to be recruited by natural selection and allow us to discuss its existence (i.e. the problem of causal impotence vs. causal overdetermination)
  4. How and why consciousness has its countless textures (e.g. phenomenal color, smell, emotions, etc.) and the interdependencies of their different values (i.e. the palette problem)

In addition the theory must be able to generate experimentally testable predictions. In Popper’s sense the theory must make “risky” predictions. In a Bayesian sense the theory must be able to generate predictions that have a much higher likelihood given that the theory is correct versus not so that the a posteriori probabilities of the different hypotheses are substantially different from their priors once the experiment is actually carried out.

As discussed in a previous article most contemporary philosophies of mind are unable to address one or more of these four problems (or simply fail to make any interesting predictions). David Pearce’s non-materialist physicalist idealism (not the schizophrenic word-salad that may seem at first) is one of the few theories that promises to meet this criteria and makes empirical predictions. This theory addresses the above questions in the following way:

(1) Why does consciousness exist?

Consciousness exists because reality is made of qualia. In particular, one might say that physics is implicitly the science that studies the flux of qualia. This would imply that in fact all that exists is a set of experiences whose interrelationships are encoded in the Universal Wavefunction of Quantum Field Theory. Thus we are collapsing two questions (“why does consciousness arise in our universe?” and “why does the universe exist?”) into a single question (“why does anything exist?”). More so, the question “why does anything exist?” may ultimately be solved with Zero Ontology. In other words, all that exists is implied by the universe having literally no information whatsoever. All (apparent) information is local; universally we live in an information-less quantum Library of Babel.

(2) Why and how is consciousness unitary?

Due to the expansion of the universe the universal wavefunction has topological bifurcations that effectively create locally connected networks of quantum entanglement that are unconnected to the rest of reality. These networks meet the criteria of being ontologically unitary while having the potential to hold multiple pieces of information at once. In other words, Pearce’s theory of consciousness postulates that the world is made of a large number of experiences, though the vast majority of them are incredibly tiny and short-lived. The overwhelming bulk of reality is made of decohered micro-experiences which are responsible for most of the phenomena we see in the macroscopic world ranging from solidity to Newton’s laws of motion.

A few of these networks of entanglement are us: you, right now, as a unitary “thin subject” of experience, according to this theory, are one of these networks (cf. Mereological Nihilism). Counter-intuitively, while a mountain is in some sense much bigger than yourself, at a deeper level you are bigger than the biggest object you will find in a mountain. Taking seriously the phenomenal binding problem we have to conclude that a mountain is for the most part just made of fields of decohered qualia, and thus, unlike a given biologically-generated experience, it is not “a unitary subject of experience”. In order to grasp this point it is necessary to contemplate a very extreme generalization of Empty Individualism: not only is it that every moment of a person’s experience is a different subject of experience, but the principle applies to every single network of entanglement in the entire multiverse. Only a tiny minority of these have anything to do with minds representing worlds. And even those that participate in the creation of a unitary experience exist within an ecosystem that gives rise to an evolutionary process in which quintillions of slightly different entanglement networks compete in order to survive in the extreme environments provided by nervous systems. Your particular experience is an entanglement network that evolved in order to survive in the specific brain state that is present right now. In other words, macroscopic experiences are the result of harnessing the computational power of Quantum Darwinism by applying it to a very particular configuration of the CNS. Brain states themselves encode Constraint Satisfaction Problems with the networks of electric gradients across firing neurons in sub-millisecond scales instantiating constraints whose solutions are found with sub-femtosecond quantum darwinism.

(3) How can consciousness be causally efficacious?

Consciousness exerts its causal power by virtue of being the only thing that exists. If anything is causal at all, it must, in the final analysis, be consciousness. No matter one’s ultimate theory of causality, assuming that physics describes the flux of qualia, then what instantiates such causality has to be this very flux.

Even under Eternalism/block view of the universe/Post-Everettian QM you can still meaningfully reconstruct causality in terms of the empirical rules for statistical independence across certain dimensions of fundamental reality. The dimensions that have time-like patterns of statistical independence will subjectively be perceived as being the arrows of time in the multiverse (cf. Timeless Causality).

Now an important caveat with this view of the relationship between qualia and causality is that it seems as if at least a weak version of epiphenomenalism must be true. The inverted spectrum thought experiment (ironically usually used in favor of the existence of qualia) can be used to question the causal power of qualia. This brings us to the fourth point:

(4) How do we explain the countless textures of consciousness?

How and why does consciousness have its countless textures and what determines its interrelationships? Pearce anticipates that someday we will have a Rosetta Stone for translating patterns of entanglement in quantum fields to corresponding varieties of qualia (e.g. colors, smells, sounds, etc.). Now, admittedly it seems far fetched that the different quantum fields and their interplay will turn out to be the source of the different qualia varieties. But is there something that in principle precludes this ontological correspondence? Yes, there are tremendous philosophical challenges here, the most salient of which might be the “being/form boundary”. This is the puzzle concerning why states of being (i.e. networks of entangled qualia) would act a certain way by virtue of their phenomenal character in and of itself (assuming its phenomenal character is what gives them reality to begin with). Indeed, what could possibly attach at a fundamental level the behavior of a given being and its intrinsic subjective texture? A compromise between full-fledged epiphenomenalism and qualia-based causality is to postulate a universal principle concerning the preference for full-spectrum states over highly differentiated ones. Consider for example how negative and positive electric charge “seek to cancel each other out”. Likewise, the Quantum Chromodynamics of quarks inside protons and neutrons works under a similar but generalized principle: color charges seek to cancel/complement each other out and become “white” or “colorless”. This principle would suggest that the causal power of specific qualia values comes from the gradient ascent towards more full-spectrum-like states rather than from the specific qualia values on their own.  If this were to be true, one may legitimately wonder whether hedonium and full-spectrum states are perhaps one and the same thing (cf. Valence structuralism). In some way this account of the “being/form boundary” is similar to process philosophy,  but unlike process philosophy, here we are also taking mereological nihilism and wavefuction monism seriously.

However far-fetched it may be to postulate intrinsic causal properties for qualia values, if the ontological unity of science is to survive, there might be no other option. As we’ve seen, simple “patterns of computation” or “information processing” cannot be the source of qualia, since nothing that isn’t a quantum coherent wavefunction actually has independent existence. Unitary minds cannot supervene on decohered quantum fields. Thus the various kinds of qualia have to be searched for in networks of quantum entanglement; within a physicalist paradigm there is nowhere else for them to be.

Alternative Theories

I am very open to the possibility that other theories of consciousness are able to address these four questions. I have yet to see any evidence of this, though. But, please, change my mind if you can! Does your theory of consciousness rise to the challenge?

* This particular set of criteria was proposed by David Pearce (cf. Qualia Computing in Tucson). I would agree with him that these are crucial questions; indeed they make up the bare minimum that such a theory must satisfy. That said, we can formulate more comprehensive sets of problems to solve. An alternative framework that takes this a little further can be found in Michael Johnson’s book Principia Qualia (Eight Problems for a New Science of Consciousness).


  1. Robert Daoust · 28 Days Ago

    I don’t know if my theory of consciousness rises to the challenge, but here it is.

    Consciousness exists because it emerged, like all other phenomena, and was retained by evolution as something useful. P-zombies are a logically incoherent thought: if they would be physiologically identical to us, they would be conscious like us. The hard-problem is hard in that finding the exact material composition of consciousness is difficult, but the hard-problem is poorly stated when it supposes that matter cannot be conscious by itself. Our understanding of matter has progressed a lot with modern science, but it is still far from complete, and IMO we will come to a point where we will see that there exists only one wave-like thing (the Dao wave) which takes various forms, including consciousness. Consciousnesss is produced by neurons and synapses, or equivalent highly neguentropic structures, that are able to very finely modulate the Dao wave into a kind of donut shaped wave field with the right emergent properties. I quite speculatively say donut (http://duaneelgin.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/AWAKENING-EARTH-e-book-2.0.pdf – pages 176ff.), because it seems the most appropriate topological form that can account for sentience characteristics.

    In the noumenal world, things have properties, for instance chirality or direction. Those things get assembled in various ways. In some complex assemblages there are unconscious sensory, cognitive and motor processes. Consciousness emerges in such assemblages when tension becomes intention. How? There is no will in noumenal things, in spite of appearances. Phenomenal things, by contrast, display a will. I guess that there cannot be a test to know whether any other willing consciousness than ‘mine’ exists. At best, ‘we’ can just suppose that ‘another’ really feels or wants something when its composition is similar in every indispensable way to our. For me, the requisite is that the other’s machinery must be able to support an affective narrative, i.e. a valuative mental story, i.e. a “consciousness theater” where characters (i.e. qualia) are linked through tensions that become intentions because the characters mean something to one another in the emerging stream of phenomenal occurrences.

    Thus, sensory, cognitive and motor processes are happening in an organism without consciousness until they are caught in some toroidal wave field where those processes interact and give rise to another kind of processes which transform, for instance, a certain visual sensory impulse into the color red. Red is then a consciousness theater character that means ‘good to eat’ to a certain visceral sensory impulse that has been transformed into ‘hunger feeling’. Of course, that happens very fast, with many characters taking turns in one seamless integrated stream.

    Countless conscious textures correspond to the countless characters born from a learning applied to the initial sensory-cognitive-motor processes, through collective evolution and individual development. One photon, it is said, can be felt. It is easy then to imagine that there is no lack of stimuli for inspiring the various qualia-characters that compose our consciousness rich tapestry of color, smell, (bodily) emotions, (cortical) thoughts, etc. That tapestry is unitary because the very nature of (toroidal-wave-field) consciousness is to be an emergent bound phenomenon (in my opinion, even objective or noumenal phenomena, like a hurricane, are bound phenomena: parts are grouped by forces, that is how all peculiar phenomena come to exist). One quale cannot have a meaning or be conscious without the links it has with other qualia within the stream of consciousness. And there are no subjects except qualia themselves (the I or self for instance is just an unconscious neural construct like others which can consciously exist only at the time when they are qualia). The palette problem is explained by the fact that each nuance is a character. Experiencing multiple pieces of information at once in a unitary moment of experience is not really possible, in my opinion: pieces of information take turns faster than our capacity to isolate them and therefore they seem simultaneous, or they form together one new unitary piece of information that we experience as such except that we may analyze that piece and wrongly believe that we were experiencing multiple pieces.

    Let us take this hidden mythical creature stereogram (https://www.moillusions.com/category/stereograms-optical-illusions/ ), for instance: Pegasus was put into the picture before I can see it, and my brain must re-arrange my vision so that I get the narratively meaningful unitary image of a winged horse. Likewise, I guess that in the fully crowded space of the world around us (or within our body and brain), we see things, through collective evolution and individual development, according to our needs, i.e. our wills, i.e. values, i.e. affects, i.e. pleasure and suffering. Thanks to the continual interaction between the toroidal-wave-field and its brain neural substratum (without which it would not exist, of course), we have meanings that compose from raw noumenal phenomena the characters that populate our consciousness theater, and we have intentions.

    Consciousness exerts causal power because of will, the intentions that are created and manifested into the world. For instance, if the quale-character ‘I’ (you) is asked by something (this sentence) to look up above from this text, it can do it by virtue of its relations with other characters, like the funny quale of doing a silly experiment and the intention of moving a body part.

    Here are some more or less supporting documents that I am discovering:
    “How Stories Configure Human Nature” (http://bigthink.com/errors-we-live-by/how-stories-configure-human-nature)
    “Harmonic Resonance Theory” (http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/webstuff/hr1/hr1.html)
    “Narrative Complexity Theory” (the narrative here has not much to do with a qualia theater but it might be pertinent in some ways) (http://www.rsalvador.com/complexity.html)
    “In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind” (here too there is not much qualia but it is a classic work by Bernard J. Baars) (https://www.amazon.ca/Theater-Consciousness-Workspace-Mind/dp/0195147030)


  2. Gary · February 28

    Do you not see Orch-OR developing to meet these conditions?


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