Notes on Plato’s “Phaedo”


  1. Dramatis persona
    1. Phaedo of Elis (b. ~418/9)
      1. Student of Socrates
      2. founded the School of Elis
      3. aristocratic descent
      4. captured during war, sold as slave (as a “catamite”)
    2. Echecrates of Philus
      1. Student Eurytus of Tarentum and Philolaus)
      2. “last of the Pythagoreans”
      3. Philus was an ally of Sparta vs. Athens
    3. Antisthenes – student of Gorgias
    4. Critobolus of Alopece, son of Crito
    5. Appollodorus of Phaleron – “constant companion” of Socrates, “maniac”, flamboyant
    6. Hermogenes – Alopece, wealthy man
    7. Epigenes of Cephisia
    8. Aeschines – poor, dissolute, legal troubles w.r.t. debts, speaker, author of Socratic dialogues
    9. “Foreigners”
      1. Simmias of Thebes
      2. Cebes
      3. Phaedondes
      4. Euclides of Megara
      5. Terpsion of Megara
  2. Themes:
    1. Category identification (the soul, life, mind)
      1. Many dialogues, especially the early ones, have as their dominant theme the finding of what we call “definitions of common terms”, but which in Plato were called
    1. “what it is to be an ‘x'”
    2. “x itself”
    3. “the common character of all x”
    1. Philosophical way of life
    2. Dialectic
    3. Explanation of natural phenomena – life, sensation, movement, other changes in livin creatures.
  1. Introduction
    1. the fableof pleasure and pain (60c)
    2. The Socratic daimon’s last advice: “ “Socrates” it said “compose music and work at it.” …. philosophy is the greatest music” (61a)
    3. The soul, body and the gods
      1. Body as prison or fort (62b)
      2. Against suicide
      3. “It is gods who take care of us and that we human beings are one of the gods’ possessions.” (62b)
      4. The Afterlife:
        1. “firstly, the company of other gods, who are both wise and good”
        2. “secondly, the company of humans who have dies and who are better than the people here”
      5. “…the sole pursuit of those who correctly engage in philosophy is dying and being dead.” (64a)
    4. “For it is unreasonable that the wisest people shouldn’t resent leaving this ministration in which they are supervised by the best supervisors there are, namely gods. Because I take it such a person doesn’t think that he will take better care of himself after he has become free.” (62d)
  2. Philosophy and Death
    1. There is death (64c)
    2. Death is the separation of body and soul (64c).
    3. Pleasures vs. reason: food, drink, sex, clothes (64d)
    4. Lack of pleasure in body > death? (65a)
    5. Reasoning also seeks that which is separate from body? (65b-66a)
      1. “Just itself”, “…and a Beautiful and Good” (65d)
      2. .. which are not visible with the eyes (65d)
      3. but which are only visible with the mind (65e)
      4. And the affections of the body impede said mental vision? (66c)
      5. Virtue is such separation from the bodily affections. (67a)
    6. “Virtue” marginalia (67d)
    7. “Form” as ideal
    8. “nowhere but in Hades will he have a worthwhile encounter with it” (68b)
    9. courage, temperance (68c)
    10. “The reality is, I suspect, that temperance, justice, and courage are a kind of purification from everything like this and that wisdom itself is a kind of rite to purify us.” (69c)
    11. Concerns for possible mortality of the soul itself. (70a)
  3. Initial arguments for the immortality of the soul (70d-86)
    1. Argument from opposites or reciprocal processes of eternal recurrence (70d-73)
      1. If you want to consider this with regard to humans only, but in relation to all animals, and plants too. In short, everything that has a coming-to-be, let us see whether they all come to be in this way; the opposites from nowhere other than their opposites…” (70e)
      2. “being dead is the opposites of being alive” (71d)
    2. Argument based on the doctrine of recollection (73-78)
      1. “Suppose one set of things did not always balance the other by coming to be, going round in a circle, as it were, but instead the process of coming-to-be were a straight line from the one to its opposite only, and did not bend back again to the former or turn in its course. Do you realize that then everything in the end would have the same form, be in the same condition, and stop coming to be?” (72b)
      2. “also, according to that theory which you yourself habitually propound, that our learning is in fact nothing but recollection…” (72e)
      3. “I don;t quite remember at the moment.” (73a)
      4. “Equal itself” (74b)
      5. “For our present argument is no more about the Equal than about the Beautiful itself, the Good itself, the Just, the Pious, and, as I’ve been saying, about everything to which we attach this label, “what such and such is”…” (75d)
      6. [For other uses of the locution “what such and such is”..look at:]
        1. 65d-e
        2. 74d
        3. 75b
        4. 78d
        5. 92e
        6. Symposium 211c-d
        7. Republic
          • 490b
          • 507b
          • 532a-b
      7. Fears about the immortality of the soul:
        1. “For why shouldn’t it be that, on the one hand, the soul is born and constituted from somewhere else, and exists before it ever enters a human body, but that, on the other hand, when the soul has entered a body, and is being separated from it, it itself then dies and is destroyed?” (77b)
        2. “…when the soul leaves the body the wind blows it apart and dissipates it, especially when someone happens to die not in clam weather but in a strong wind.” (77e)
        3. “You must chant spells to him every day until you manage to chant it away.”
      8. “The Great Commission”: “Greece is a large place … and there are no doubt many good men in it. There are also many races of foreigners. All of these people you must comb in your search for such an enchanter, sparing neither money nor effort, as there’s nothing on which you’d be better off spending money. But you must yourselves work together as you search, because you may not easily find others more able to do this than you.” (78a)
    1. Argument involving these two arguments: souls as pre- and post- life existence.
      1. “What kind of thing is liable to undergo this – that is, to be dissipated?” (78b)
    2. Argument involving composite and incomposite objects [affinity argument] (78c-81)

















      1. The characterization of the form in future dialogues:
        1. Republic– “noeton” or “intelligible”
        2. Parmenides– “mono-eide” or “one idea”
        3. Sophist –
          • ever self-consistent
          • Khorismos(“separate”)
      2. “those who care about their own soul”
      3. “purifying rite that philosophy provides” (82d)
      4. “and philosophy observes the cleverness of the prison – that it works through desire, the best way to make the prisoner himself assist in his imprisonment.” (82e)
      5. “the god whose servants they are” (85a)
      6. “I myself am the swan’s fellow-slave and sacred to the same god” (85b)
  1. Objections (86-102)
    1. Epiphenomenalism (92-95c)
      1. Simmias’ Pythoagoreanism”
      2. Soul as harmony or attunement
      3. musical instrument analogy
        1. “…attunement, too, and a lyre and strings: that the attunement is something invisible, incorporeal, and utterly beautiful and divine in the tuned lyre, whereas the lyre itself and its strings are bodies, corporeal, composite and earthly and akin to the mortal.” (86a)
        2. “our soul is a blend and attunement of those every things, when they are blended properly and proportionately with one another.” (86c)
        3. “…a weaver who had dies in old age. One might argue that the human being has not perished but exists intact somewhere, providing as evidence the fact that the cloak that he himslef wove for his own use and wore is intact and has not perished.” (87b)
        4. “But let us suppose that, after granting this much, he refused to concede the further point that the soul does not suffer in its many births and at the end perish completely during one of those deaths, and that no one knows which death and which parting from the body make the soul perish.” (88b)
      4. Rebuttal 1: How can an assembly of material parts account for recollection? (92b-93)
        1. “For presumably you won’t allow yourself to say that an attunement existed, already composed, before those thing existed of which it was due to be composed.” (92b)
        2. “For the second has come to me with no proof but with a sort of plausibility and outward appeal, which is the basis on which most people believe it too.” (92d)
      5. Rebuttal 2: How can there be differences in moral worth among collections of material parts? (93-95)
        1. “In that case, an attunement is not the sort of thing to governits components, but rather to follow them.” (93a)
        2. “…is one soul in even the smallest degree this very thing, soul, more and to a greater extent than another, or less so and to an inferior extent?” (93b)
        3. “Of all the things in a human being, is there any other than soul that you would say is in command, and especially a wise soul? … Does soul do so by surrendering to the body’s affections or by actualy opposing them?” (94b)
        4. “Theban Harmonia” (95a) [wife of Cadmus, legendary founder of Thebes]
    2. Cebes’ reply (Mechanist naturalism) (95c-102)
      1. Based on Heraclitean theory of exchanges
      2. Analogy: weaver wearing out many coats or bodies as a covering.
      3. The soul viewed as psychic units of energy, which are variously allotted through the whole realm of souls.
      4. Requires the full treatment of the causes of generation and destruction; leads to the famous account of Socrattes’ intellectual development and critique of the Anaxagorean conception of nous. (96-102)
        1. Anaxagoras – “intelligence should be the cause of everything” (97c)
        2. Socrate’s intellectual quest:
          • Ionian physicists – combination of elements
          • Pythagoreans – numbers
          • Empedocles –
          • Anaxagoras – Mind
          • The Delphic Oracle – Wisdom, definitions, “common character”, “x-itself”, “ontos on
      5. dunamis” (98c) “method” or “function”
      6. “causes” (99b)
      7. cosmology (99b)
  2. The Theory of Forms (102-107d)
    1. Participation and Oppositional Forms (102-104)
      1. “In the same way, the small in us is never willing to come to be, or be, large, nor can any other opposite still be what it was and at the same time come to be, and be, its opposite, but it withe” (103a)
      2. “…not only does the Form iteslf merit its own name for all time, but there is also something else that merits it, which is not the same as the Form, but which, whenever it exists, always has the feature of that Form.” (103e)
    2. Concluding section on dialectic and the soul as an animating principle. Difference between accidental and essential predication. (104-105c)
      1. “For if you were to ask me what I is that, when it comes to be present in anything’s body, makes the thing hot, I will not give that safe, ignorant answer – namely that it is hotness – but, thanks to what we now say, a more ingenious one: that it is fire.” (105c)
    3. Formal argument for immortality from the premise that the soul is a principle of life – the Form of Life.
    4. “…and as for God, I suppose, and the Form of Life itself, and any other immortal thing there may be, it would be agreed by everyone that they may never perish.” (106d)
  3. The Myth of the Underworld.
    1. “Now there are many wondrous regions of the earth, and the earth itself is neither of the nature nor of the size it is believed to be by those who usually talk about it, as I have been convinced by someone.” (108c)
    2. “…if the earth is round and in the middle of the heaven, it has no need of air or of any other such necessity to stop it falling” (109a)
    3. “the earth is extremely large” (109b)
    4. “aether” (109c)
    5. “Now we are unaware that we dwell in the earth’s hollows, and we suppose that we dwell up on the earth’s surface…” (109c)
    6. “…true heaven, the genuine light and the vertiable earth.” (110b)
    7. “For if it’s also appropriate to tell a myth, it’s worth hearing, Simmias, what the things on the surface of the earth under the heaven are really like.” (110b)
    8. “One of the chasms in the earth is in fact the largest in a number of ways, but in particular because it is bored right through the whole earth.” (112a)
    9. “Tartarus” (112b)

Taran, Leonardo. “Plato, Phaedo, 62 A.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 87, no. 3, 1966, pp. 326–336. JSTOR,

Deborah Kamen. “The Manumission of Socrates: A Rereading of Plato’s Phaedo.” Classical Antiquity, vol. 32, no. 1, 2013, pp. 78–100. JSTOR,

Rundin, John S. “Gods and Corporations: Fifth-Century B.C.E. Athena and the Economic Utility of Extraordinary Agents.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, vol. 19, no. 3/4, 2007, pp. 323–331. JSTOR,

Notes on Aristotle’s “On the Soul”.

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Book I

Ch. 1 (402.0)

What is the “Soul”?

  • By genus
    • nature – Is it physical , illusory, or supernatural?
    • form – is the soul a form?
    • matter – is it material?
  • By category
    • substance – Is it a separately existing being?
    • quality – Is it a property of a body?
    • quantity – Are there many souls, or is there ultimately just one “Oversoul”?
    • Is it an “affection” of the body? (Epiphenomenalism)
    • etc.
  • By potentiality/actuality (See Metaphysics Book IX)
  • Divisible or not?
    • Are souls discrete units, one per organism,
    • Or is it a subtle form of matter  that is fungible or not localized?

Questions for the study of the soul to answer.

  • Are all souls “the same”?
    • If not the same do they differ by species or by genus?
    • Most people tend to study the human soul only.
      • Are all animals a species of “animal soul”?
      • Or are each type of soul different in definition? “horse, dog, man, god”. (402.6-7
    • Are all souls separate of are they parts of one soul? (402.9)
  • The middle path between materialism and dualism.
    • “There is also the problem whether the properties of the soul are all common also to that which has it or whether they are peculiar to the soul itself; for it is necessary to deal with this, but not easy. It appears in most cases that the soul is not affected nor does it act apart from its body, e.g. in being away, being confident, wanting, and perceiving in general; although thinking looks most like being peculiar to the soul. But if this too is a form of imagination or does not exist apart from imagination, it would not be possible for even this to exist apart from the body.” (403.10)
    • For Aristotle, the separation of the soul and body is not like supernaturalistic dualism, but rather more like an abstract “software” for the hardware of the body.
      • For this reason, the Aristotelian “soul” is physically causal.
    • “It seems that all the affections of the soul involve the body – passion, gentleness, fear …for at the same time as these the body is affected in a certain way.  …  If this is so, it is clear that the affection of the soul are principles involving matter. Hence their definitions are such as ‘Being angry is a particular movement of a body of such and such a kind, or a part of potentiality of it, as a result of this thing and for the sake of that.’ And for this reason inquiry concerning the soul either every soul of this kind of soul, is at once the province of the student of nature.” (403d25-28)
    • “But the student of nature and the dialectician would define each of these differently, e.g. what anger is. For the latter would define it as a desire for retaliation or something of the sort, the former as the boiling of the blood and hot stuff around the heart. Of these, the one gives the matter, the other the form and principle.” (403d28ff)
      • Similarly, for the explanation of a computer system:
        • Physicist – As an electrical device
        • System analyst (“Dialectician”)-
          • Serves a function
          • Has form (software’s logical structure).
      • How similar is Aristotle’s soul theory to software?

According to G.M.A Grube (“Aristotle” page 97) the final cause of every organism is reproduction “after their own kind.” (415b26ff)

Question: Is this true? How similar is this to the modern evolutionary concept of adaptation? In the modern view, each organism is optimized to pursue a certain strategy of perpetuating its genotype.

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Dialogue on Consciousness – Biology and Qualia

One of the major tenets of nonnaturalism with respect to phenomenal consciousness is the idea that “qualia” do not fit in anywhere in “nature”.  [Definition:”Qualia” is a coinage of recent analytic philosophy of mind. It refers to the purely subjective consciousness. “What it is like to be x.” It is generally agreed that rocks have nothing that it is like to be a rock, but there is something that it is like to be in pain, or to be angry, to be a fish or a human. This “what it is like” is called “qualia”. ]

We only have direct access to our own qualia, and have to infer or have indirect access to the qualia of others. According to many, this means that qualia cannot be interpreted as a physical process nor consequently as a biological process. I assume (but of course do not know) that there are enough people working on reverse engineering the mind such that a physical reduction will make decent progress in the next few years. In this post, I would like to discuss how this is a priori possible by interpreting qualia biologically. This will entail the basic ideas behind a theory that would be a candidate for a naturalistic theory of qualia and subjective consciousness.

First, a little background: according to my view (explained elsewhere in this blog), living creatures as such are essentially functional where ‘function’ is a combination of physical processes and information processing. Since I am not discussing the physical implementation of this function at all, I will ignore what Aristotle calls ‘material causes’ and ‘efficient causes’. Instead I will only deal with ‘formal causes’ and ‘final causes’. And these latter will be spoken of as “information processing” and biological “functions” respectively.  I will show how consciousness has a biological purpose (final cause) and how it serves that purpose ( formal causes ). More specifically, consciousness is a form of “data mining” of a person’s total accessible information, both conscious and subconscious, from the external world, metabolism and health.

Much of this analysis is derived from an online dialogue on this subject. First, there is a challenge from a non-naturalist “Q”, who denies that qualia have any biological function at all and cannot possibly be caused by any physical process.

Q: “Dennett and other naturalists claim that non-naturalism

“goes against literally mounds of scientific evidence that a functioning brain and mind (conscious experience) are one in the same and that consciousness is actually what an active brain state produces when it’s doing what it does. In some way, it’s similar to “roundness” and “rolling” of a ball down a hill. That’s what certain “round” things do when they are on a “slope” in a gravitational field.”

This analogy is ridiculous. “Roundness” and “rolling” are observable features of the physical world. “Consciousness” is not. You could run a million brain scans on me and, in the end, all you’d have is information about physical entities (neurons, electrical charges and so on.) You can’t observe my qualia in this way. Or, to put it another way: I could be a philosophical zombie and the brain scans wouldn’t pick this up. Consciousness is something above and beyond a feature of the physical world.”

A: To illustrate my response, let’s start with an example from settled science: the physics of weather. It seems natural for people to be non-naturalists concerning many natural phenomena, and among the most universal of these is the weather, especially lightning. But some humans are naturalists w.r.t. this and claim that lightning “is” static electricity. Since static electricity seems likely to be supernatural this contradicts the predominant opinion of the human race. While lightning is publicly observable, static electricity is not. Or is it? You cannot see static electricity itself, merely its effects. On the other hand, consciousness cannot be seen directly, only its effects…. unless you’re consciousness itself. But what if you were static electricity? Then would the analogy be exact?

Q: “This is a better analogy, when modified as you suggest. But then are you admitting that consciousness is not illusory or epiphenomenal — it is a force that causes effects, not an effect caused by forces?”

A: The reason I put “is” in quotes is to highlight the relevance of the Question of Being to this topic. What does it mean that one thing “is” another? That lightning “is” static electricity? Or that Earth “is” a planet? Or that humans “are” animals? Obviously being a human is not the same as being an animal, but yet the statement is true is it not? I think that same is true of the statement “humans are conscious”.

A similar problem exists with the statement “Mathematics is a human invention.”, which is either true or not depending on what you mean by “is”. Likewise with “x is consciousness”.

Q: “For the last one, I’d say that the problem resides more in what is meant by “human invention”. Still — good questions. Will give them some thought.” I think that it’s probably “real” it’s just real in a different way from other things. There is not one way to say “is”, but many, as Aristotle says. For example, lots of people say that “really” numbers don’t exist. Nonsense! What they really should say is that physical objects and numbers “are” in very different ways.

Q: I guess the central question at stake here is, “Is consciousness a causal force (or the manifestation of/effect of a causal force) that is distinct from and independent of deterministic physical forces, or is it not?” That sums it up pretty well, methinks.”

A: Yes it is a causal force; it’s much more physical than a number, but even a number has physical effects.

Q: “Am in total agreement with that — but I’m a bit puzzled. I thought you saw consciousness as, essentially, a higher-level emergent phenomenon arising from lower-level deterministic complexity. Have we been in violent agreement all along (like for the past 2 years, LOL?).”

A: That’s how I see it, all right

Q: “So if consciousness is reducible (in principle) to fundamental deterministic physical forces, in what sense can it ALSO be a causal force acting independent of them?”

A: I don’t care if physical forces are deterministic or not. It’s pretty obvious that we are physical beings who have consciousness.

How independent is “independent”? If we look at cultural concepts and memes, we see that they sort of take on a life of their own as “mass psychology” and can be said to really exist even though they are not independent of individual humans. Likewise qualia/consciousness takes on a life of its own even though it’s fundamentally dependent on matter and energy. All these things exist, they just exist in different ways.

Saying that some “x” is ultimately a “y” does not mean that x is not real. it’s a different sort of being, that can be referred to under two different aspects, one as functional adaptation, the other as qualia. As a functional adaptation, it is something which can be seen in its effects on the physical world. For the example of mathematics, one can refer to numbers as being created by humans, but you can also say truthfully that “2+2=4” was true long before humans evolved, by looking from within the “world of numbers”. From this aspect, numbers seem to be the supernatural entities revered by Pythgoras, since our very way of considering them abstracts from their physical substrate.

Abstraction from physical substrate” is exactly what makes them so useful, since the formal qualities are meant to apply to any physical situation that is formally congruent to the number, equation, shape, etc., not to something made of a certain material or in a certain location, or from a certain culture, etc., the latter all being more concrete but also more limited in scope.

From another perspective, according to Karl Popper’s ontology, there are three types of things:

1) First World- physical things

2) Second World- qualia, or subjective experience

3)Third World- memes, ideas, cultural artifacts like numbers, poems, theories, styles, techniques, etc.

Where is “consciousness” in all this? It seems that it is #2, except that for higher animals, there is overlap with #3. However, any particular creature’s experience of being aware of a number (#2) is not the number itself (#3). However, the quality of the Second World is greatly affected by what sorts of things are subjectively experienced; First World or Third World. Consciousness for animals is the existence of qualia (2nd world). Consciousness becomes human when the experience of 2nd world phenomenology because interwoven/imbued with 3rd world entities, schemas and ideas which go beyond the merely present and thus make possible both knowledge and error on a level greater than that possible for mere “non-human” animals.

You might reasonably ask about consciousness: “Why should it be good to enlarge the possibility for both knowledge and error?” The answer is to enlarge the domain of possibilities from which to select. Thus the realm of knowledge/ignorance is a special case of the Baldwin Effect and the “evolution of evolvability”. These are reasons why biological evolution follows an path of exponential growth much like Moore’s Law, where evolution proceeds at a faster pace as time goes on. We can see how consciousness reflects this because conscious creatures have much more individuality than unconscious; meaning they present a wider variety of phenotypes for selection to work with. But this ‘individuality’ is merely a by-product of consciousness, not its original function. In short this original function is to boil all the confusion of so many different stimuli from so many different levels of reality (merely physical, social, past memory, inner physical drives of sex, hunger, warmth, etc.) into a condensed form where it can affect the decision processes that define an animal’s actions. How else could all the myriad factors that go into a single decision be brought into relation with a decision other than by some form of data mining? And how else would it be implemented than by consciousness? Chalmers makes much of how “surprising” consciousness is as  the basis for non-naturalism, and I agree it is surprising. However, it is far less surprising once one sees its function. All biological functions are fundamentally information processing, so we should expect to see the essence of consciousness as a form of information processing. All that remains is to take this formal and functional analysis as the starting point for the reverse engineering of how consciousness performs this function. But this aspect of the subject is beyond my expertise.

EDIT: The following is a discussion I had concerning this topic on Facebook with a few people who disagreed with me on this and i thought that it would be good to put it here so that eventually I could revise it into a complete piece. Or maybe not. In any case, here it is:

AV – “I still cannot imagine why people think that consciousness is so weird that you have to bring in quantum physics.”

SH- Adam, this is just such a gross misrepresentation of what those who invoke quantum elements in biology present that it is laughable and you know it! The argument has NEVER been, “consciousness is weird, quantum mechanics is weird, so they must be related!” You’re implying that these people are falling for a caustion/correlation fallacy. Adam, maybe you should email Roger Penrose and tell him that he’s totally falling for this blunder! He will certainly thank you for pointing out his error. I’m sure the man who physicist Lee Smolin describes as “One of the very few people I’ve met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius,” could really benefit from having you let him know how dumb he is.

If you want to actually address why quantum elements have no place in biology, now is the time for you to do it. But you’d better be willing to address the entire body of Henry Stapp’s work. I’m going to assume you’ve read it all and that we can have this discussion. If not, here’s his page so that you can get started:

I just find your statement so obnoxious that it is truly frightening. Apart from using unorthodox diction and syntax that renders anything beyond two lines of your writing to be unintelligible, you habitually make statements like these.

I’m really trying hard these days to be more patient and address arguments, but I find it so difficult when someone who clearly hasn’t explored the body of quantum consciousness research makes these flippant statements. It’s such a common tactic now that it is intellectually offensive and reeks of misunderstanding and desperation.

AV – What is wrong? If I am not mistaken there are people who hold some version of the “quantum consciousness” (QC) hypothesis, and probably many of them are smarter than I. Doesn’t Deepak Chopra buy into this? I assumed that he was beneath contempt as a philosopher, but perhaps not. In any case, i do not understand why someone smarter than I would go this path, but then again the behavior of living creatures becomes more unpredictable as they grow more advanced due to the Baldwin effect.

In one sense, people who make this inference to the QC hypothesis may be on to something, as follows: When there are a few things that cannot be explained at present, it seems likely that any future theory that explains one anomaly might be expected to explain the others. When any science emerges from a state of crisis to acquire a new paradigm, it is to be expected that the new paradigm should explain anything that was left unexplained by the old. Since there are numerous unexplained physical phenomena and no over-arching “theory of everything” to explain them, then perhaps physics is in a state of protracted crisis.

And given that conscious beings seem to be a subset of physical beings, then physics might reasonably be expected to have something to say about them. In this sense, QC is worth entertaining.

AV – This is exactly my point. Your statement demonstrates an epistemic hubris that is so disconcerting because it’s kind of the new cheap parlor trick being used. Make an a priori assumption, in this case that consciousness cannot have a quantum component, and then try to marginalize anyone who think it might as a crackpot.

To tell you how ugly this is getting, prestigious researchers like Sir Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, and Jeff Schwartz are facing this exactl type of character assassination. Yes, Deepak Chopra believes that consciousness has a quantum component. He probably also accepts the heliocentric model as well. That doesn’t mean that those who accept the heliocentric model are crackpots.

Before you conclusively start spouting off nonsense, you owe it to yourself to actually look into the serious study of quantum biology of which consciousness is being explored. There are respectable people, such as Sean Carroll, who believe that it’s a load of hogwash and that anything we encounter on the daily basis, including biology, can be explained classically. I am more convinced by the other side, however it’s noteworthy that Sean Carroll doesn’t resort to the Harris/Shermer/Dawkins trope of painting anyone who might consider quantum biology as a moron or a “woomeister” who believes in “quantum woo.”

Start with the Stapp research and possibly watch the Shermer vs. Schwartz debate at UCLA in 2004. I can link them this afternoon

GC – “I still cannot imagine why people think that consciousness is so weird that you have to bring in quantum physics.”

I will say two things:

1) it’s not that consciousness is so weird that…. it’s that “consciousness” seemed to play a role in the determination of quantum states. It’s the so called effect of the observer. While I believe this interpretation of quantum physics is misleading if not absolutely incorrect, that’s how people got interested in the role quantum physics could play in the mind-body speculation.

2) quantum physics is somewhat understood as the most fundamental, foundational, level of material reality/nature. and it seems to be completely different from the rigid atomistic picture we had of matter in the old materialistic perspective. QP seemed like the death of materialism. If quantum states are indeterminate, highly unpredictable, if quantum states are behind everything… it was suggested that the origin of thoughts could come from sub-quantum dimensions of reality. and so quantum actions affected the neurons, the brain, and we get a bottom-up sort of determinism, where sub-quantum consciousness influences neuro-physical states. This is Penrose’s line of reasoning, with microtubules, etc.…/11/quantum-brain/506768/

NM – This quantum consciousness discussion is in my thesis!

AV – I admit I have changed my tune during this conversation.

I wonder if the Chopra-ists will appeeciate it.

NM – Yes, that’s kind of right.. BUT, the major fact about quantum mechanics is the unpredictability factor. So the question remains: what is it that governs quantum mechanics? It seems to be a domain of reality where there could be something like free will in the sense that.. physical reality is not following rigid laws, but is responding to an intention coming from another kind of “”substance”” or “substances”.

So what we called “physical” reality… and “physicalist” explanations of the world… sort of crumble… to give way to another kind of explanation… The nature of what is going on is radically different, transformed… And that’s the idealists’ take on reality… It’s not matter that determines everything. Matter is merely a projection of something else. A sort of mind stuff…

AV – Ok whatever.

NM – Take a video game for instance. Imagine you spent your life living in a video game, hooked up to the computer. Sure, you’ll see the walls around you, and they look rock solid. Sure you’ll be hit by a bullet and it’ll hurt and affect your lifespan. Sure this world follows a number of rules and laws. You can’t pass through walls for instance (unless said game allows for such supernatural behavior). And you can perhaps, while you’re in the game, analyze the laws governing this video game world. And you can give mathematical formulas to explain these laws. You’re somehow deciphering the code of this virtual reality. You might get as far as discovering the exact code the programmer used. But even by discovering all these laws of “nature”, you haven’t yet got a glimpse of what lies beyond and what allows for this virtual reality to exist.

How do you mean “Ok whatever” ?

NM – perhaps might have something to contribute here? How would you phrase how explaining consciousness through QP could make the explanation of reality non-materialistic?

NM – Well … I’m in a funny situation. I put experience prior to all. Experience is dissected into material and immaterial components, but experience is prior to both. EDIT “immaterial” here means “mental”. I stole this from William James, but it’s now my Official Understanding (TM)

GC – Right, I also put experience first! I mean we share the perspective at this level. Stole it from dear old Descartes 😛 But he’s not particularly liked because of his so called “dualism”. I still think he’s a good phenomenologist. It’s when we get into explaining the difference between the material and the immaterial that we run into trouble.

AV – So you think matter came from experience? Whatevs

NM – Yeah because it’s through experience only that we can describe matter. And mind as well.

AV- I have no idea what the last few comments could possibly mean. Is it really so dogmatic to think that our experience is an experience of something else that is not in itself merely an experience and nothing else? Is that what you are saying?
And I have no idea how quantum indeterminacy could possibly support free will. It is far more different from free will as is physical necessity. If God wants to play dice, that is different from playing chess. Ethical action is purposive deliberate action; if it were determined at some micro level, people would still be responsible for their actions, and there would be an adaptive purpose for the attribution of that responsibility by others.

There are lots of things in the macro world that are in practice unpredictable, but none of these are examples of free will, although we often personify them.
Honestly, am I in the position of people who for some assume that Dennet denies the existence of qualita? Am I misinterpreting your statements so badly?

NM – Okay, I’ll be as blunt as I can with my point: Qualia is all there is. EVERYTHING we know and believe comes from qualia. All our discussions of mind and matter are derived from qualia. Qualia precedes everything. My own experience precedes everything. This is more or less what Descartes was saying when he talked about trusting his senses; my experience of everyone besides myself is also derived from qualia. I can take this fact and become a solipsistic, isolated spot of awareness … or I can accept that there is something behind the qualia I am seeing. But regardless it all starts there. Whitehead thought that the cosmos was not comprised of units of matter, but “drops of experience”; this is the ‘stuff’ we are made of. And Whitehead was a pantheist, so in his view GOD is the sum total of the experience of reality. (Though not all Whiteheadians make that leap of faith)But regardless, if we are to avoid becoming solipsistic, a leap of faith of some kind is necessary no matter what.

AV – So what is your opinion of the current vogue among scientists who claim that there was matter for billions of years before qualia. Are they full of shit?

NM- No, Whitehead basically understood that the whole universe has a conscious aspect. Every particle of matter. Which again, he called units of “experience” rather than hard, physical, motionless “stuff”. My awareness is the sum total of the awareness of all my components unified into a single conscious system. Also Whitehead believed in GOD, like I said. So if you believe in GOD, and if Whitehead’s idea of GOD makes sense, I don’t see a problem. If you don’t I am sure you can come up with some other explanation within these limits.

Two things … GOD isn’t necessary for the basic idea underlying Whitehead’s panspychist view, but Whitehead went there, regardless, using the New Testament to flesh out his idea of GOD. I should think that for him, his belief came from somewhere besides science; he simply saw an opportunity to graft his beliefs together (forming a kind of pantheistic Christianity) And GOD may be derived from qualia, but not the other way around (because I myself must first experience/come to believe in GOD … I am thus subjectively prior) I would almost say this is what Descartes said, but then he argued for an innate idea of GOD we all possess. I don’

AV- Ok thanks for actually saying something that is meaningful. Panpsychism is actually somewhat better.

But you are putting your self in the same position as all those other people who built their whole case for god based on whatever had not yet been explained at that point in time.

IT is like the biggest case of moving the goal-posts in history.

This entire approach pretends to like science, but every time science advances not only have you not contributed, but you have to move along to stay out of its way.

Have you actually looked at the opposite view?

If you have, then you would know what the current ideas on the most likely adaptive function of qualia is. Looking at final causes is just as much a part of natural science as is material and other causes. It is likely that we will learn the function of qualia before we learn how they are implemented.

NM- don’t think I agree with that

AV- I do not recall where I read it, but it kind of agreed with my own random thoughts on the subject. As a result, I believe that anyone who bothered to try and imagine what the function of qualia were would come up with something similar, or maybe not. Have you bothered to research the possibility?

I am glad we all possess this concept. LOL I suppose I sound this ridiculous when I tell people my philosophy, so who knows, you may be right.

But at least I do not pretend to make explanations for the behavior of living creatures that does not rely on the current theory accepted among people who study living creatures.

NM- I see it as a fundamental property of reality, which we human beings are in a unique position to study and comment upon. I should send you a the relevant chapter from my thesis if you want (it comes with references)

AV- That would be fine. I read a DUC thesis recently by Francois Savard and it was very useful. I might make my thesis a follow-up to his.

[Digression away from the subject at hand here.]

GC- Saying there’s an evolutionary adaptive advantage to qualia, and that`s how it came to exist, to me is as mystical (in the pejorative sense) and unjustified a step as the God of the gaps. I’m not the first to think so. This is Chalmers’ observation and the old zombie problem. You don’t need qualia at all, you don’t need experience for beings to engage in complex behavior, survive, etc. You don’t need a subjective viewpoint. You just need a zombie processing machine. Is the robot using a camera to interpret the world as conscious as a human being? Dennett says yes, others think otherwise. Reducing the conscious experience to merely computing bits of matter could very well be explaining consciousness away.

AV- I am not saying that the final cause is sufficient for the effect, it also requires the efficient cause as well.

GC – Responding to “And I have no idea how quantum indeterminacy could possibly support free will. It is far more different from free will as is physical necessity. If God wants to play dice, that is different from playing chess. Ethical action is purposive deliberate action; if it were determined at some micro level, people would still be responsible for their actions, and there would be an adaptive purpose for holding the attribution of that responsibility by others.

There are lots of things in the macro world that are in practice unpredictable, but none of these are examples of free will, although we often personify them”

Well, it’s not me who says it (Quantum indeterminacy supporting free will), it’s the scientists themselves, as well as many philosophers who have written on this subject. Maybe Michio Kaku is a bad philosopher, but it’ll illustrate my point nonetheless.

I don’t have time to elaborate an adequate model here, but if at a certain level of reality everything is indeterminate, then that means anything could drive the transformation from one state to the next. Could be a bottom-up and a top-down type of influence.

Oh I have tried to imagine a function for qualia for sure. I have not found anything satisfying though, that is my problem. What do you propose is the evolutionary function of qualia?

And also… we usually consider in the natural sciences that only efficient causes are real. How are you making sense of final causes driving the process of evolution in a materialistic framework?

AV – Anything could change your mind? Anything would be free will?

What about the idea that you are an implementation of an adaptive strategy? I said “what if?” but the fact is that evolution says that all living creatures are suites of adaptations that implement a strategy. Some individuals do it better than others, but each creature has a strategy, even if the strategy is “think up a strategy on the fly”, as many people think is the case with humans.

As such, humans are naturally-evolved computers. To be sure there is randomness built in to our strategies, which gives two advantages:

1) The Baldwin effect.
2) Difficulty for our competitors to predict our actions.

These two factors alone account for the randomness in our minds, and for why people conflate randomness with deliberate action.

But while there is a random factor in our mind, much of it is not random at all, and it is the non-random part which is the primary locus of responsibility for deliberate action that is the key to free will. Randomness is merely accidental to free will. Is God really in the business of playing dice and consigning his game results to various Eternal Fates? And if we interpret ethics as an adaptive strategy, what is the adaptive function of punishing or rewarding people for random actions?

It seems as though your agenda is merely trying to find someplace for various ideas outside of well-established science. Why not use things that are known to explain the unknown? Since assigning praise and blame are behaviors of living creatures, why not explain that behaviour using biology?

Of course, the same argument goes for qualia as well, and every other behavior of every living creature, including qualia, which is after all something that living creatures have or do. If nonliving mattar has them, then the issue should be done using physics.

The following blog post is the beginning of a naturalistic theory of free will and morality, I have not yet written very much on qualia.

The fact that birds have wings is driven by the fact that wings serve a function, is it not?

To be sure, the wings got there by the efficient causes of ontogenetic development, but these efficient causes would not have created wings unless the wings served a function.

We can tell that the wings serve a function even without knowing how they are made or how they work. Likewise with qualia. I have no idea at all how qualia are made, but it is pretty clear that they serve a function. If true, this defuses one of the two versions of the Zombie Argument. If Chalmers was aware of Aristotle and evolutionary theory, then he for sure would have divided his Zomobie Argument in two. Not only does he not do that, he does not even have the knowledge to pose the question properly.

The very fact that biology and psychology are empirical fields means that the fact that he can imagine Zombies is as meaningless as the fact that I can imagine God using Special Creation, Thor making lightning, or vitalism-based life. Of course i can imagine all of this, and Chalmers could too if there were not well-established theories. But he is making an argument meant to constrain future well-established theories. It cannot do this, because these theories are empirical.

The fact that the mind has evolved is an empirical fact just as is the fact that biology is supervenient on physics. I can imagine the opposite in both cases, but in both cases i would be wrong.

GC – “It seems as though your agenda is merely trying to find someplace for various ideas outside of well-established science” Not at all. I just question the “well-established-ness” of said science. When you pass the line where empirical science becomes interpretation and philosophy, it’s easy to be making all sorts of leaps in reasoning and treacherous mistake. I’m just being hyper-scientific here and trying to avoid these mistakes. I resist your kind of evolutionary speculation because to me it is only one set of explanations among many that work just as good and that are just as probable.

Back to my question though… You haven’t outlined what would be the evolutionary advantage for qualia yet, and that’s the heart of the matter. I’m not sure it “serves a function” yet. I’d love to explore that further. It’s always on my mind in fact. But you know what… I’ve attended a full 10-day long symposium on this very topic. Montreal 2012. Look it up : And I have to say I was most disappointed… Not a single scientist nor philosopher has presented any sort of satisfying model for what the symposium was supposed to be about. Most of the various definitions of consciousness that were provided were already off track … (The videos of individual conferences are probably still online, have a look, you might be interested.. John Searle, Dan Dennett, Antonio Damasio were there.)

But yeah… I think to claim Chalmers is not aware of the theory of evolution is highly problematic… We’ll have to get back to this Zombie argument, I’m not sure we understand it exactly the same way.

GC- “We only have direct access to our own qualia, and have to infer or have indirect access to the qualia of others. According to many, this means that qualia cannot be interpreted as a physical process nor consequently as a biological process.” “This means…” No. Totally non-sequitur. That’s not the argument.

And I believe you have the wrong definition for qualia. Qualia and the “what it is like to be x” are two different things in the literature. There’s a nuance. You cannot conflate the two so easily.

Again.. The Chalmersian objection stands intact, unchallenged…

” How else could all the myriad factors that go into a single decision be brought into relation with a decision other than by some form of data mining? And how else would it be implemented than by consciousness? ”

Consciousness is not necessary for data mining or data/information processing, nor is it required in a decision making process. Computers can take decisions based on the laws registered within their program, they do it all the time. Biology, if understood as a kind of computing, is no different. You don’t, presumably (in a Whiteheadian framework, it’d be different), need consciousness for cells to reproduce, for the genetic code to assemble during reproduction, for the immune system to deal with diseases. Consciousness seems completely superfluous. You failed to show how consciousness adds anything to the process. And this is the task at hand.

And I mean, this is the whole point of the Turing Test. If you can’t distinguish a computer software from a real human person, then said computer should be considered conscious. I don’t agree with this ridiculous understanding of consciousness. The computer software was written by a human, it still directly COMES from a conscious being’s experience. But nevertheless… the computer obeys a set of laws. The computer is your Chalmersian zombie. It is not conscious, and yet, it operates just like a real human being. It will make decisions, based on the coded laws. It is NOT conscious, and yet, it makes decisions, does data mining, etc. Turn the computer into a biological robot and you get a Chalmersian zombie, deprived of consciousness, deprived of a “what is it like to be a real human being”.


Let’s assume that consciousness is in some way quantum. How is that anti-materialist? (I prefer ‘physicalist’) After all, you are explaining mind physically.

People for many years have claimed that mind could not be physical, and now these “same” people are defending one of the contending physical explanations for mind. That sounds good to me. So long as we ignore anything non-physical, we are not wasting our time.

My point is that quantum physics is naturalistic in the only way that really matters.

Thanks for reading the blog and making a constructive comment. In fact, this was something that I meant to put into the essay but forgot to do so once I got busy with school. Thanks for noticing. This is the what i call the “Wire Color Rule” and it hinges on what the essence of an adaptation is.

In short: what is the essence of qualia or subjective consciousness? Is it the function serves by qualia or is it the way that that function is implemented?

I believe that qualia is a way to implement the function of data mining for executive decision support. This the qualia itself would be a by-product of the adaptation that I described in the blog post. Kind of like how red blood is the by-product of having iron in hemoglobin. Obviously there is no function for red blood; I could easily imagine a world with green blood, but this does not mean that there is no naturalistic reason for red blood, because we know that blood color is an accidental property of blood.

Strictly speaking, qualia would be an accidental property of the executive decision support module and not it essence. This is why Zombies are as imaginable as green blood. However, the fact that someone can imagine some counterfactual about an unexplained natural phenomena cannot constrain future science in any other domain, and I have to assume that humans fall under this as well qua living creatures.

I call this the “Wire Color Rule” because qualia are like wire collars in electrical systems; their individual muchness is accidental; what is truly essential about them is that

1) They map onto networks of biologically relevant data.

2) They seem different enough from each other so that any two things which are objectively different will also be subjectively different.

Wire colors serve this function for the technician; few of the colors have any objective link to what they stand for, so they are completely arbitrary. You could easily imagine them all changing places with each other or there being no colors at all so long as their function were taken over some other way.

I am going to cut and paste your comments into the comment section of the blog so that it is preserved where I would use it. If you have a WordPress account, then you can do it your self. Other wise i will do it. Thanks!

GC – Sure, you can look at it this way. But this kind of analogical form of speculation doesn’t have more weight than the other metaphors and analogies the idealists can come up with. I hope you see that.

I was just thinking.. maybe you’d like to look into synesthesia phenomena, because that could be a way to show how arbitrary the “colors are” and how they can be all mixed up in some situations.

But the crux to me is that you’ll also have to account for the “user illusion” as Dennett would say. The main thing about qualia is that they are subjective experiences FOR somebody. That’s the Kantian problem of the transcendental unity of apperception. It is something like to be x FOR SOMEONE. I think phenomenal consciousness is better understood as this transcendental locus of perception rather than the mere qualia.

AV – If you look at any evolutionary explanation for pretty much anything, there is always some left over accidental property that is not explained. With the color of blood, the accidental property is explained by the role of iron in the hemoglobin molecule. But even if we were not privy to this knowledge, there would be no need to claim that the color of blood was non-natural in origin.

For example, the color of Cardinals is a case in point. Cardinals are red; Why? Well, we know the material causes (what sorts of matter are used to color the feathers. And we know how these red colouring agents are generated in the development process of the individuals.)

Furthermore, we assume that Cardinals of both sexes are red because they is is useful for them to recognize each other. (Note the wire color principle being used here agin.)

And we know why male birds would have more vivid coloring (of what ever colors may be had by any species).

But we do not know some things: why red at all? Why did this species “choose” red and another choose another color or perhaps no color at all? (Camouflage, or losing sexual dimorphism.)

All that is needed for belief in this account of bird coloration to be warranted is for there to be no other empirically meaningful theory to compete with it.

I believe that my account of qualia satisfies the same conditions as the above account of Cardinal’s redness, until such a time as a competing hypothesis can be presented.

And this competing hypothesis can only come from:

1) Evolutionary theory.

2) Another non-evolutionary theory ONLY if evolutionary theory were to be in a crisis stage prior to a paradigm shift.

I think that a quantum consciousness theory would not actually displace my own hypothesis, since it would deal with material causes, whereas I am dealing with formal and final causes. In fact, I am assuming that there must me some physical substrate for qualia, I just assume that it is not quantum related for similar reasons to why so many assume the opposite: my own gut feelings.

Oops I forgot to deal with the “Transcendental Unity of Apperception” (TUA)!

The “TUA” is actually an essential feature of qualia it is the form taken by the qualia such that they can belong to the organism whose relevant data has been mined to qualify the qualia. If there were no TUA, then the user illusion could not serve to support the “executive decision” of that organism.

From this perspective you can see how unessential qualia are to the TUA. So long as you have a TUA, you do not really *need* qualia. Or so it seems from our current ignorance; one we understand the material implementation of qualia, then we may see that any implementation of a TUA would also have to have qualia.

But lacking that knowledge, and to be charitable to Chalmers, we can assume that the reason we have qualia is that qualia is a by product of nature’s way of implementing the TUA. So we actually have three different things that we are talking about here:

1) The Transcendental Unity of Apperception

2) Qualia Simpliciter as the Wire Colors of particular items in phenomenal consciousness.

3) Qualia-valence – The fact that we have feelings and motives that are immanent in qualia.

4) Existential Mood – The fact that the TUA has its own qualia.



Show me the Arkhe!


I would like to challenge you to try to think from first principles. This means you are searching for an explanation for your beliefs which is the most comprehensive and cohesive with known facts.

Thinking from first principles will eliminate dualism of any kind. While there have been dualisms proposed by the great Thinkers, Philosophy and Science can never ever be satisfied with an unbridgeable dualism.

For example, why should there be an “is/ought” distinction? Are their ANY cases in which we fell confident that this does not apply? Are their any things in this universe that have a purpose as a matter of undeniable fact? What is the purpose of bird’s wings? If I say that “A bird OUGHT to be able to fly.”, am I committing the naturalistic fallacy? What if I say that “Humans ought to talk to each other and think about things.”, is THAT justified any less than something I say about birds? I don;t think so.

Not only do wings have a purpose for birds, but birds also have an ecological purpose. They perform a function for the biosphere. What’s so mystical about that? There’s nothing supernatural or non-physical about purpose or function. Perhaps you might think that there is, but the fact that you think that way has a rather nifty explanation which is far more comprehensive and cohesive than the explanation you will give for why your life has purpose.

Dualism is the mind-killer. Face your dualism and let is pass over you. When it is gone, only the Arkhe will remain.

Long ago we thought there was two kinds of matter: celestial and terrestrial. But then we found they were the Same. Later on we had a dualism of matter and energy; those also were the Same.

What about Matter/Energy and Space and Time, are they not totally different?. Later on, we found out that is the Same as well.

What about the difference between Physical reality and Information, are they not totally different? Guess what? Later on, we found out that information is a physical phenomenon. (No kidding! Look it up.)

So if you come up with some tiny thing you think is so special that it could never ever be the Same as something else. I will laugh at you.

Any statement of the form “There are only two types of things: x and everything else.” is by definition unwarranted. Its very form violates the conditions of possible knowledge. This is because all explanation as such must subsume the explanandum under a genus as a new species with a difference from other species.

Formerly light was essentially the field of visibility and on the other hand there had recently been discovered “radiation”. One was visible and the other not; two things could not seem to be more different, could they? But in due course science explained radiation. How? Simple, we found that it was actually a form of light; invisible light, but light none the less. Now are you going to accept an argument that light qua light must be visible? In a very common sense way “light” is visible by definition, but science is not limited by common sense usage of any term. What physics has done with “light”, Philosophy must do with “consciousness” and “ethics”. Ethics is not necessarily ethical, and consciousness is not necessarily conscious.


Brains in Vats and the Simulation Argument

NOTE: One of the members of my Facebook group had some questions about Daniel Dennett’s dismissal of the possibility of “Descartes’ demon”, who could create virutal reality like the “Matrix” and fool the “Cogito” about the external world. We had a great discussion about it, which I have edited and posted below. While a lot of my blog posts are adapted from Facebook discussions, this one seems rather hard to change into a monologue. As a result, I am going to experiment with posting in this cleaned-up dialogue version.  Thanks to all my great interlocutors. Enjoy!

Q: There seem to be some problems with the following line of reasoning from Dennett: “Might you be nothing but a brain in a vat? Might you have always been just a brain in a vat?”

Dennett’s answer (in brief): “Descartes was wise to endow his demon with *infinite* powers of trickery. Although the task is not, strictly speaking, infinite, the amount of information obtainable in short order by an inquisitive human being is staggeringly large…Throw a skeptic a dubious coin, and in a second or two of hefting, scratching, ringing, tasting, and just plain looking at how the sun glints on its surface, the skeptic will consume more bits of information than a Cray computer can organize in a year. Making a real but counterfeit coin is child’s play; making a simulated coin out of nothing but organized nerve simulations is beyond human technology now and probably forever. One conclusion we can draw from this is that we are not brains in vats — in case you were worried.” ( Consciousness Explained, page 7)

(Facepalm..) Just seems like a non-sequitur. x would be very difficult to achieve, therefore not x, but there’s even a deeper fallacy here. Our brains are creating a simulation of the universe all the time…? So, clearly that can be done. However, the implicit part of the argument sort-of makes sense, to rephrase it “The universe is, like, really complex. So, it’d be, like, really a lot of effort to fake it”. You still need a universe, and universes are kinda big. Of course, it also raises the question – if our universe is simulated, what practical difference does it make?

Adam Voight’s Reply: This is a very good question and really gets to the heart of what separates modern and premodern scepticism / science.

Let’s start with skepticism: ancient skepticism simply doubted everything and found correctly that if you do this, then that means everything “can” be doubted and that therefore there is no knowledge. This is true and yet “trivial” as mathematicians say. It’s not “interesting” and  you can’t really do anything with it. Fortunately, natural selection tends to eliminate those who act in accordance with this trivial truth. Others ignore it in practice but pay lip service to it, and they are difficult to answer when they bring it up.

Modern skepticism takes many many forms, but all of them accept some form of modern science, meaning that while any one particular fact can be doubted, you cannot doubt everything at once. Every scientific theory accepts some set of truths as premises, but what they all accept are Aristotle’s Three Laws of Thought and all of their corrolaries, e.g. arithmetic, geometry, et cetera.

While it is logically permissible to doubt the reality of the external world, the truths of physics are true even if the external world is an illusion. For example, even if the Earth and Moon are “not real”, physics and engineering will still let you know how to get to the Moon and back. Even if the Moon is an illusion, you can still die from having your rocket miss it and go hurling through deep space. In either case, physics is just a well founded as it needs to be. There is no better-founded form of knowledge about the Earth and Moon available. It is useless to criticize it like some ancient skeptic or neo-Platonist. Useless, but not logically inconsistent. It is conceivable that someday someone can restate skepticism in an interesting form.

Now here is where we get to Dennett. Dennett is assuming that humans are living things, and that living things are physical objects and that physical objects “are” in the way that Aristotle or Descartes might define: subject to change, extended in space and time, et cetera. It’s logically possible to doubt the existence of the external world and all of these other premises, even though this would require redefining “existence”. Certainly a philosopher should at the very least entertain these thoughts, and if any theory could deal with them in a better way than Aristotle did, it would be one point in its favor.

However, physics can be true about physical objects regardless of the ultimate nature of these objects in the same way that evolutionary theory is true not only of “real” life but also virtual life existing in computer simulations. Even if it were found that we live in a simulation, physics and biology would still be just as true. Why? For the following two reasons:

1) Physics is not only the study of physical objects, it’s also the study of models of physical objects. Now if the our entire universe were shown to be model, then it would still fall within the purview of physics.

2) It is in fact possible that our universe is a simulation. However, the only way to prove that this is true or false is through the study of physics as it is currently done. Philosophy and physics can cooperate to define this question, and ask what sorts of answers are possible or satisfactory. Simulation theory is a possible physical theory, so long as it has practical effects. If it has no practical effects, then it’s meaningless. If it does have practical effects, then physics can study it.

Just because physics assumes the reality of the external world does not mean it is false if the world is a simulation. Newton’s theory of space and time were wrong, but his theory was good physics, because it consisted of well-defined concepts that were derived from experience. That’s why it led somewhere, and by “somewhere” I mean the NEXT theory.

Question: “My issue isn’t with Dennett’s “quasi-skepticism” (for lack of a better term) — it’s with his tautology. I do see your point, that if we want to get anywhere, we need to take *some* things for granted. Call them the Rules Of The Game. But to take data obtained using this method, and hereby try to prove that your founding assumptions are valid, is a tautology. All Dennett has really shown is the following: ‘If all possible worlds have the same physics, chemistry, biology and information science that ours does, then we are (probably) not brains in vats.’ (Actually, he hasn’t even demonstrated THIS very well IMHO — after all, he’s assuming that his imaginary mad scientists would be at our level of technological development, which seems odd given that, among other things, computing power doubles every decade — or is it faster now? But to continue…)
This is a perfectly valid conclusion, as far as it goes. But to extrapolate from this conclusion to the wider conclusion (that we are not brains in vats, full stop) is unwarranted and, moreover, misleading. After all, if we ARE brains in vats, then surely the validity of our scientific information is one of the first things we should be doubting! (I disagree with your conclusion that physics is physics; it’s trivially easy to invent a possible physics that differs wildly from ours — e.g. where an object initially at rest will gradually accelerate, or where both poles of magnets attract, or where “light speed” does not exist as an upper limit to velocity…) Essentially he’s using a clever sleight of hand to conceal a tautology from the unsuspecting reader, and all within the first seven pages, so as (I think) to dazzle them with his supposed brilliance before they have a chance to get their mental guards up. This is insidious, and unworthy of his training as a philosopher. An honest philosopher would explicitly spell out what he was doing (“For the purposes of argument, we will assume X”) and discuss the limitations of his conclusion. Dennett goes out of his way to hide them, like a magician pulling a carrot out of somebody’s ear. Unlike the magic trick, though, people read Dennett’s books (presumably) to seek truth and knowledge, not entertainment, and it’s dishonest to pull the wool over his audience’s eyes in this way.”

Adam Voight: “If it were me writing the same book, I would do it differently. He doesn’t really need to show that we’re not in a cosmic simulation, only that literal ‘brains in vats’ would not be lucid like we are now (they would not be able to read or write or think logically, for example), but I think that this section is very important to include because it looks at consciousness as a physical system, and you can’t do a science of consciousness without considering how mind is supervenient on life and life is supervenient on physics.

(Note to neophytes: “Supervenient” means based on but not reducible to the lower level. “Reducible to” means being an emergent phenomenon originating completely from a lower substrate while exhibiting characteristics that are physically impossible to deduce from the substrate.)

However, once you show that it’s physically impossible to create a single brain in a vat, this possibility becomes a LOT less interesting. It’s actually more likely that our entire universe is a simulation than that any single person’s qualia within a universe is. A true brain in a vat would not have access to the same consciousness that we do; it would be like a dream. Now they might not realize it that they were dreaming, but it is possible to know for sure that you are not dreaming if you’re awake, and he shows how this is true.

In conclusion, Dennett’s argument is not as circular as it might seem. With all of its assumptions openly stated, it goes like this: “Given our current knowledge of physics, it is impossible to implement ‘Descartes’ Demon’ within a Universe. So as far as we know, the way around this is for a civilization to implement an entire universe as a simulation. Since this is a radically different situation from a simulation at the individual level, Descartes’ thought-experiment becomes much less interesting and compelling.”



Against Chalmers on Identity and Supervenience


This post airs my thoughts concerning the relation of supervenience and the history of science, with bad results for certain criticisms of naturalist metaphysics. It will make sense to you if follow topics like supervenience, metaphysical zombies, twin earths and qualia.  It is also very relevant to debates concerning moral naturalism, the naturalistic fallacy, and G.E. Moore’s ‘Open Question’ argument.  I will make this connection in a future post, although my “God vs. the Fact/Value Distinction” already deals with this in preliminary way. This line of thought is necessary to defend “The Theory of Ethical Selection”, against the most powerful criticisms of moral naturalism.

Supervenience and reductionism.

Chalmers, myself,  and most other scientifically-minded people would admit that if you have a certain physical arrangement of atoms in possible world ‘W’, then all of that world’s positive biological facts follow necessarily from that arrangement. While life is not in some ways reducible to an arrangement of matter, but you can’t differ biologically without differing physically. This may not be identical with many ideas concerning materialist ‘reductionism’, but that’s what most biological naturalists believe, and I don’t really need anything stronger to justify my version of naturalism. Philosophers such as Chalmers sum this idea up thusly: “biological facts are ‘logically supervenient’ on physical facts”. This means that all possible worlds that are physically identical will also be biologically identical. Chalmers agrees with this and in my view is therefore a biological naturalist. However, he writes an entire book attacking the thesis of naturalism with respect to one aspect of mind: phenomenal consciousness (a.k.a. ‘qualia’). On his view consciousness is not logically supervenient on biology in the same way that biology is on physics. On this view, metaphysical zombies are possible, since there is no clear sense in which qualia are necessarily physical.

The opposing thesis of “qualia naturalism” holds that any world W where all physical and biological facts are the same, all ‘qualia-facts’ will also be the same. In other words, metaphysical zombies are impossible. Chalmers defends qualia non-naturalism, meaning that biological facts do not determine the qualia-facts and two worlds could be physically identical while differing in having qualia.

Most people would have their doubts as to whether consciousness is logically supervenient on biological and physical facts.  I’m a naturalist in both biology and mind, but I’m far more certain of the former than the latter. Why is this that case? What is the basis for these intuitions? In my view,it hinges on debates concerning the metaphysics of identity relations and how scientific theory relates to supervenience (both logical and natural).

Examples from the History of Science

To illustrate my reasoning on this, begin with a simpler case: it’s quite unremarkable to claim that lightning is supervenient on physical facts. Everyone knows that in modern terms “lightning is just a form of static electricity”. Most people today would agree with me, but long ago people tended to disagree, and with some good reason.  Long ago, reductionistic theories of lightning were not even advanced to the level of testable hypothesis. Epicurus says nothing of static electricity,even though he was clearly a lightning naturalist. I think the ancients were aware of static cling resulting from rubbing pieces of amber, but no one had any clue that it might have anything at all to do with lightning. In fact, lightning was almost universally considered to be a supernatural phenomenon and the majority of the human race is inclined to agree even today. Bach then few ‘lightning naturalists’ had no real proof, only mere speculation about atomic “seeds of fire”  awaiting some catalyst to release them.

Similarly, prior to the invention of the microscope, reductionistic or atomistic theories of biology were also relatively unwarranted. If Chalmers and other biological naturalists had published their views back then, even scientists would laugh at his wild speculation that “biological facts are supervenient on physical  [meaning “atomic”] facts”. At this time some smart people were speculating that this was the case, but it was still merely speculation and the dominant ‘theory’ of life was vitalistic. And I think it is safe to say that vitalism is the thesis of biological non-naturalism. On this view, you ca arrange matter however you like, but you will still be lacking life.

Even today, you can find many reasonable people who would doubt biological supervenience because it contradicts ‘common sense’. What makes Chalmers so sure that they’re wrong? Perhaps because we are privy to the results of evolutionary biology. This theory is so conclusive as to silence all doubt on the issue. A hundered years ago, we knew about evolution but even then biological naturalism in this philosophical sense was not yet proven.  On my view (and on this depends my whole argument), the current state of the relevant fields of science is the only basis of judgments of logical supervenience.
The only reason Chalmers accepts biological naturalism is because he accepts a certain empirical theory that supports supervenience between the physical and the biological. It’s not like vitalism has been disproven; it’s not really meaningful enough to function as a theory at all. So also are all forms of non-naturalism; you can never prove them wrong because they say nothing about anything at all. Naturalism says a lot; among other things is says that qualia are supervenient on the biological and thus also the physical. This means that for each different qualia, there will be a corresponding physical arrangement. I’m sure that many a non-naturalist will claim that this is also meaningless. I will not bother to argue against that, I will merely point out that this is far more meaningful that non-naturalism which makes no claims of any sort about the relations of qualia to anything at all. In this sense, it’s just like vitalism. Both claim that there is this magical juju which for some reason seems to have some correlation with living things, but in reality, there is no reason given for this in the theory, whereas for naturalism, the reason is very clear: the genus “living creatures” represent a distinct physical arrangement, and animals (which have qualia) are a species within this the genus.

When a similar theory is proposed and accepted in cognitive science, then perhaps even Chalmers should accept naturalism with respect to qualia. Another way of saying this is that even logical supervenience expresses an a posteriori identity. All of the relations of logical supervenience (such as between biology and physics) accepted by Chalmers  in his work are a posteriori in this same way. The result is that if our current understanding of the physical base expands in some fundamental way then at that point consciousness may become logically supervenient on that new base, and naturalism becomes true. The historical examples of lightning and vitalism were given to illustrate that whether or not logical supervenience holds is a posteriori. The identity relation between the two things is dependent on how well understood the field is, and this level of understanding is one of development of empirical science, not armchair philosophical hairsplitting a la Chalmers.

The Upshot

My point is three fold:

1) Any theory which will possibly explain anything at all assumes that logical supervenience holds between two levels.

2) However, logical supervenience establishes a priori identity only through the historical process of scientific advance which changes the meanings of concepts through empirical research.

3) Until the theory is thoroughly proven, it will be TOO reductive to everyone except its initial creators and defenders. Whichever theory is true, it must make some hypothesis that logical supervenience holds between two levels. We don’t know which theory is correct yet (if any), but whichever it is, it must satisfy this condition.

3) If it is thoroughly proven, then it remains just as ‘reductive’ as it ever was, but is never said to be so, it i merely said to “explain” things.

Of course I might be wrong, especially if there is some other sort of ultimate explanation than reductive analysis. I agree that there are other sorts of explanations for things besides reductive; for example, I can explain behavior teleologically or formally. Why does a person eat lots of cheeseburgers? Perhaps they like cheeseburgers. This is a nonreductive explanation using Aristotle’s “final cause”, but I would claim that there are more fundamental levels of explanation above this one, and the highest levels will have to resort to Aristotle’s material and efficient causes. This is not a necessary conceptual truth, and would not have been able to convince Aristotle in his day without access to modern science. However, if we were to bring him forward in time, we could justify it to him by appeal to his definition of the “arche” (or higher/-est principle) as we understand it today.

In Aristotelian terms ( given molecular biology, Mendelian genetics, and Darwinian evolution ) we are now able to show that “liking cheeseburgers” falls into the category of a possible arrangement of matter and energy.  This is in fact what it means to “explain” something. It still makes sense for a normal person to explain something with reference to final causes. It also works in fields where we take people’s preferences and initial data such as economics. But for an explanation from “FIRST principles”, we must explain it in terms of the most universal principles known.  This means that some entities must be reduced to other entities.

My explanation for phenomenal consciousness has a strong teleological component: I claim that phenomenal consciousness serves an  adaptive function.  Chalmers cannot imagine that it has a functional character, but that’s his problem, not mine. I can’t imagine how someone could go through the trouble to write such an nice book explaining the problem in such detail without getting a hint of the solution. I guess he must just be very attached to the idea that phenomenal consciousness is not adaptive. But then again many people get angry at the very idea that free will, love, religion, etc. are also adaptations or perhaps the by products of adaptation. Spoiler alert: all of this is merely implied by the truth of evolutionary theory. .

Notes on the Philosophy of Semantics

NOTE: These are my notes from an earlier presentation to Ottawa Cognitive Science Meetup.

Who cares about semantics?

  1. Linguistics needs another neutral language that makes clear logical and semantic connections or distinctions of Natural Language.


  1. Philosophy-  Frege, Russell, Moore, et al used logical notation as a “semantic microscope” to analyze the claims of science, ethics, etc.


  1. Psychology takes semantic theories as material for making  psycholinguistic hypotheses.


  1. Artificial Intelligence, contra the ”the Chinese Room”, needs to understand the meaning of natural language in order to process it.


Socrates- Discovered the very idea of semantics, that is=t could be interesting to worry about the meaning of such terms as “good”, “virtue”, “piety”, etc.


Plato- Proposed the theory of “Ideas” (eidoi, sing. eidos).


Aristotle- Created the study of formal logic.


Modern semantic theory began with German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), who founded the movement “analytic philosophy”, which defines philosophical research in much of the English-speaking world, Austria and Finland.

Frege began his research trying to axiomatize mathematics; i.e., derive math from logic. He failed, but his failure is one of the most instructive failures of all time, since cognitive and computer science are based on his efforts.


His first discovery is the distinction between sense and reference. “Reference” is the set of objects intended by a statement, and “sense” is how the reference is intended. For example, one can refer to the planet Venus in three ways, “Venus”, “the Morning Star”, or “The Evening Star”. In other words, all three of these terms has the same reference; they mean the same object. However, they have different senses in that they determine their object in three different ways.


  1. Venus = Venus
  2. Venus = Morning Star
  3. Venus = Evening Star
  4. Evening Star = Morning Star


He devised his system of logical notation as a “semantic microscope.” Rather than replacing natural language, logical notation lays bare language at the micro level. His notation is  horrible to decode, so others have revised it using his ideas as a starting point.



  1. éxù Û “the semantic value of x”
  2. {x} Û ”the set of x”
  3.  [“Churchhill smoked.”] Û [ áChurchillñ Î {smokers}]
  4. é”smoked”ùÛ{individuals who smoked}Û{Groucho Marx, Cmd. Che, Chucrchill, Sherlock Holmes, etc.}
  5. éABù is true for any sentence “AB” (if A is a NP and B is an intransitive VP) iff [ éAùÎ{B}].


Predicate logic.

Natural language suffers from quantifier ambiguity.

Ø negation

” universal -“for any____ ”

$ existential – “there is at least one___“

® implication- “if A then B”


“Beer is not available everywhere.”


Ø(“x) {xL®(ØxB)}



“Somebody voted for every candidate.”





Temporal logic.

“Chuchhill smoked.” Is true now, but it was not always true,, e.g., before he started smoking. Similarly, “Orangutans eat.” is true, even though it is in the present tense and the orangutans are all asleep.


Modal logic.

“Churchill was PM during WW2.” is true, although it is not necessarily true, since Churchill might not have been PM at all. Since the word “is” are used for both contingent and necessary statements, modal logic has been created that make these distinctions explicit.






The Metaphysics of Selection Theory


In this work I give my response to the thesis that consciousness and value are utterly outside of science. I am attempting this within the perspective of Selection Theory (If you are unfamiliar with Selection Theory, see previous post here).   By “utterly outside of science” I mean necessarily or metaphysically outside of the realm of what science can in principle explain. This is what we will call ‘non-naturalism’. Prominent examples include David Chalmers’ position on phenomenal consciousness. Many other arguments or paradoxes seem to support this sort of non-naturalism, such as the “Chinese Room”, “Mary the Color Scientist” and the “Possibility of Zombies”. In what follows, I will try to address this problem and most of these paradoxes from a naturalistic pespective using a vocabulary influenced by Aristotle. I think Aristotle is well-suited for such a project since he took information and function seriously, while constraining his theories with certain empirical demands typical of naturalism. [In a future work we shall look into the tensions of final causation with atomism, but this will not substantially affect our present thesis.] If successful, this approach should provide common solutions challenges to naturalism concerning qualia and ethics.

The Arkhe, genus, and species of Phenomenal Consciousness

Why are so many averse to agreeing that the scientific description of certain things is what they most truly are? For everything that science explains, the most essential nature of what it is is how it is is defined in the accepted theory. Consciousness and ethics should be no exception.

Explaining anything whatsoever means to subsume it under a more universal principle. This is true of all explanations from ethics to math to physics to economics to carpentry, to chess to music to any other skill or science you care to name. With consciousness, the case should be no different; any possible explanation for qualia must derive from a higher (more universal) genus of beings. But what is the genus of beings that of which consciousness is a species?  I have never ever heard anyone give an answer to this other than the one that I propose here, so it seems to me that nobody else can even get started thinking about qualia. In this work we shall  proceed with the naturalistic method, which is pretty much identical to what Aristotle would follow if he were here.

Qualia – a species of the genus “living” and the super-genus “natural”?

For Aristotle, all the different sorts of beings can be potential or actual; and it seems that qualia are not special in this respect, and it’s clear that qualia are not one of the “Categories” either. What about “natural” or “non-natural”?  I know that this is exactly what is up for debate here, but in Aristotle and in this context, “nature” (Gk. “physis”) simply means “that which changes with time’.  There is another sense of “nature” which is oppose to “tekne“, but both of these opposite sense are part of “nature” as we will use it here to mean the realm of “beings which change over time”.  Now we must notice that this is different from Descartes’ thesis that nature as res extensa occupies space. There is much evidence that qualia occupy space, but this will not be assumed for my argument.  However, even Descartes assumes that the res cogitans must change over time and is therefore part of the Aritotelian phusis. If the non-naturalist wishes to say that qualia are not natural, then they are certainly a very different sort of non-natural being from the Forms (unchanging essences) or God (unchanging substance). And of course non-naturalists have no problem with multiplying entities beyond count, for they care not a whit of Occam’s Razor. “Why not?” they might wonder? But it seems clear from a naturalist  perspective that conscious beings (those beings with qualia) are a species of the genera of animals, those beings which move and have sensation.  Animals, in turn are a subset of living things. Since consciousness is a part of biology, we should expect it to have a biological function. So on this view, consciousness must have an adaptive function or be a by-product of some adaptive function. This is exactly what biology assumes when it encounters some unexplained train in nature, and naturalism assumes that qualia are just one more unexplained trait that we have found in a living creature. This obviously true, and non-naturalism should rightly bear the burden of proof for why qualia should not be considered to be a biological trait.


The Role of Non-naturalism in Science.

Furthermore, it seems that many people who profess qualia non-naturalism also profess to being unable to imagine how qualia could have a function and how matter could give rise to qualia. Of course, this is not the only thing that they cannot imagine. They (as well as myself) cannot imagine how nothing can go faster than light, or that time and space did not pre-exist the Big Bang, but both of these have imagined, believed and proven by currently-accepted natural science. The fact that you cannot imagine something is not and cannot be boundary past which science is not allowed to go. Since this is true, non-naturalism must allow that all of its objections are not binding on science but merely voicing the implications of following out common sense intuitions about empirical theories. While it is clear that science is  not at all bound to observe the limits of common sense, non-naturalists do in fact play a postitive role in clearly defining the problems faced by naturalists (i.e. those who actually seek to solve the problems). This is the role played by WIlliam Paley with respect to Darwin, for example. Paley gave his best non-naturalist account of adaptation, which in retrospect we would not even call a “theory”, but it was the dominant theory back then. Qualia non-naturalism today plays the role of Paley for the Darwins of today’s cognitive science.

On the other hand, claiming that conscious beings (or ethical beings) are so unique as to be of an utterly separate ontological category is making a radically unfounded claim that makes further inquiry impossible. Naturalism of the sort defended here claims that ethical and conscious beings are a subset of animals, living things and physical things .Only if we grant this reasonable assumption can we even begin to solve our debates in ethics and metaphysics.

If one is to demand that we explain consciousness or ethics in abstraction from its physical and biological status, we are ipso facto refusing to even consider the possibility of explaining it. The same is true of any scientific subject.

It’s almost as if one demanded that we explain lightning without accepting that it can “be” static electricity. The hardheaded “science-skeptic” could say that lightning “expresses itself through” static electricity or perhaps merely “correlates with” static electricity but could “never be reduced to mere physical phenomena”. One could even adduce the fact that one “could easily imagine” lightning occurring without static electricity in some Twin-Earth thought experiment. This is what Chalmers seriously advocates in his treatment of consciousness, as well as what is implied by any moral non-naturalism that follows G. E. Moore’s ‘Open Question’ argument. Taking this stance makes science of any sort impossible. I am of the view that natural science has already learned that a ‘Twater’  for a “Twin Earth” is impossible, and I think we are close to proving that metaphysical zombies are impossible, and evolutionary science has all the resources needed to prove that a “Moral Twin Earth” is impossible.

Consciousness IS a subset of living systems and everything essential to it can be limited to one of two categories of predicates:

1) What it shares with other physical, living, and animal beings. In Aristotle’s terms, conscious beings share all the essential attributes of any genus of which they are a species. In terms of computer science, conscious objects, inherit all attributes and functions of their superclasses.

2) How it is different from other animals. As Aristotle said, all definitions require a differentiation to define a species within a genus.

But one of the essential attributes of living creatures ( in evolutionary theory ) is that all biological attributes are either adaptations or byproducts of adaptations. This means that consciousness is either epiphenomenal or it is an adaptation. If it is an adaptation, then it MUST have a functional characterization that can be confirmed with the same level of rigor of any other functional analysis in other areas of biology (for example the function(s) of wings, skin, livers, et cetera.). If this is true, consciousness accomplishes the same function as the processes of non-sentient lifeforms, but it uses a different means to fulfill these functions. In my view, it is a radically different means, but not so radical that it requires a non-naturalist categories. Aristotle, were he alive today might say it like this:

  • Merely physical beings (matter, energy) go through change but stay ‘the same’ through all the changes (underneath the appearances).
  • Life is just like matter except one of the changes is goes through is to reproduce more instances of the same/similar form. This is what I refer to when I say that life is essentially information processing.
  • Animal life is just like other life except it also has qualia; movement and sensation.  Perhaps this is what you mean by “consciousness”. Consciousness in this sense is having a subjective experience of sensation, motivation and animal-level identity.
  • Human life is just like other animals life except it also (following Aristotle) “has language” or in other words is “political”.  Both of these mean that humans are defined by their adaptive strategy; the reliance on language to implement rules for cooperation.

There is no other way to do science of humanity.


The Functionalistic Analysis of Phenomenal Consciousness

To answer Chalmers’ non-naturalism in philosophy of mind, we need only give a functionalistic analysis of phenomenal consciousness. The following is one  general idea that could form the beginning of such a theory: Consciousness is kind of like money. The evolution of money is “surprising” in the same way that Chalmers says that consciousness is, but once we see that it has emerged and see how it functions, we can see that money fits perfectly with Darwinian science and the physics of information. Since all life is just information processing, we need only analyze anything in terms of information to learn what it most truly ‘is’.

Using this analysis, we could have predicted  that certain commodities would make ideal forms of money, but we could not predict what money would look like, e.g. that pictures of famous people would be on it (kind of like not being able to predict the “how” of qualia).. We may also be surprised that modern fiat money would predominate over classical ‘hard’ money, but in retrospect, we can see how fiat money functions according to the same basic laws as other money. Under the evolutionary biology defined by the currently accepted physics of information, all of this is a mere extension of the fundamental definition of biological beings. Economics thus defines a normative science that inherits is fundamental principles from more general realms of beings. However, each step down the ladder of Being does introduce surprising / emergent phenomena. Emergent phenomena are fully explainable in retrospect in a reductive manner, but not ahead of time. Thus each newly emergent phenomenon is ‘surprising’ but ultimately natural.


We could not predict the emergence of consciousness, but ultimately it must have ‘the same’ higher-level functions as other forms  of biological information processing.  Animals “could” have been zombies in the same way that (for example) Saturn “could” have been a slightly smaller copy of Jupiter. After all, Jupiter and Saturn are made of basically the same stuff. However, there are mystifying differences between these two planets that could never have been foreseen. (Great Red Spot, greater visible turbulence on Jupiter, Rings and weird polar weather on Saturn, to name a few). These differences are, as with consciousness, due to the surprisingness of complex systems. It’s just that living systems are much more complex, meaning only that their physical patterns are more complex. It is hard to imagine a better solution to the same problem.

The comparison with money works on multiple levels. In the same way that money makes different values comparable among goods for sale, so also does consciousness make different values comparable among the various resources, obstacles, dangers, etc. in the world of an animal. And in both cases, we not only have various values to compare, we also have a privileged locus of comparison the self, which can either be a back account in one case or an individual organism’s subjectivity in the other. Both are forms of information processing, and neither could work without the privileged locus of subjectivity. Both require intersubjectivity to manifest their maximum effect. This is a pretty straight forward hypothesis derived from a well-established theory. The anti-naturalists, on the other hand, have nothing to go with at all except the claims that naturalism is to be eliminated because it contradicts their philosophical categories. This is not at all the first time that some new phenomenon has a clear empirical explanation that conflicts with previous philosophy. The very biochemical concept of life conflicted with previous science. So did the idea that the Earth was a planet. Non-naturalism at any frontier of science is not following a very encouraging precedent.




Escaping the Chinese Room

Author’s Note: While BEAGLE is freely available on Github here, the modifications described below are not. I hope to have a usable version running here or elsewhere soon.


The title alludes to the famous thought-experiment which claims to refute the very idea that a computer could truly understand language in the full sense that humans do.  We intend  to overcome this refutation by showing how true comprehension of a natural human language can be demonstrated through a suitable computer program, a version of  Latent Semantic Analysis.

The Chinese Room

The “Chinese Room” was first put forth by the philosopher Jon Searle [1] In it, he asks us to imagine a man in a room with a shelf of books containing two sorts of items: some cards on which are printed Chinese characters as some books explaining in English the rules of Chinese language use. The man looks at messages that enter through a slot in the door, as in the below image. Since he cannot speak Chinese, he has to consult the books that tell him the rules of which characters should be used to respond, arranging the Chinese characters into the proper response. This response ithe exits through the ‘output’ slot, thus making a proper response to the earlier input.

Nobody would say that the man in the Chinese room understands Chinese. Also,  any computer programmed to use a natural human language would (Searle claims) be using the some sort of procedure, merely following rules of which it has no true comprehension. Thus no computer could ever truly understand a human languages, it could only follow rules mindlessly.

Dreyfus and the ‘lifeworld’

In the following study, we show that Searle’s argument is deeply flawed; we shall explain how currently available software can implement a genuine understanding of vocabulary. It proves that we can create artificial minds that truly understand language much like a normal human rather than the prisoner of the Chinese Room.  This can be seen in light of work by another famous critic of early AI research, Hubert Dreyfus on the importance of “being-in-the-world” for human intelligence. [2]  In Dreyfus’ terms, the man in the Chinese Room and the computers that we use today have no “world”.  The present work will show that BEAGLE demonstrates a way that such a world can be implemented artificially.



Early AI research

Searle’s Chinese Room is part of a contentious decades-long debate about the very possibility of AI, and Hubert Dreyfus was teaching at MIT at the time the first AI programs were being created. This early research was unsuccessful, and Dreyfus was well placed to provide feedback from his own philosophical perspective and he gave some suggestions for progress which have been widely discussed since then.                    Dreyfus later came to call this early AI research “GOFAI”, which stands for “Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence”.  The GOFAI program was based on the idea that the use of “brute force processing” using standard architectures in supercomputers would be able to replicate and surpass the performance of naturally evolved human minds.  “Shakey” the robot,  “Automated Mathematician”, “SHRDLU”, and many others were made famous in the days of GOFAI. However, in spite of the massive resources poured into these projects, they were unsuccessful.  A pattern emerged that came to be called “Moravec’s paradox” [3]. The “paradox” is that it’s more difficult to program a robot to walk around like a toddler or tell the contents of an image than it is to predict the next return of Halley’s Comet.

GOFAI vs. the “world”

Hubert Dreyfus claimed that given the general tendencies of modern philosophy, the human mind was interpreted as a classical GOFAI computer. Since this aproach was unsuccessful, we must then rethink many of the dominant ideas in the philosophy of mind that produced it.  According to Dreyfus, what is missing from this is also what is missing in the “Chinese Room” model: “Being-in-the-World”. This term refers to the fact that humans do not compute the answers to problems in anything like the GOFAI model but instead grow up into a world of things that they are engaged with. We do not process this knowledge of our world as Euclidean space with things of various shapes as did SHRDLU and Shakey. Our “life-world” is a network of concern and involvement; containing things we need or obstacles to our work, ideas, words, tools, materials, objects we care for, and things which we depend on that can be broken or missing. The difference between the lifeworld and the GOFAI world are similar to that between Object-oriented Software and previous ways of programming. In object oriented programming, all processes are encapsulated in ‘objects’ defined by usefulness rather than variables and values that merely map onto external objects and their uses.
In this view, many forms of knowledge, for example driving or chess may be constituted for a beginner by sets of rules to be followed (just like a computer program), but these rules are not elaborated or added to (in the sense of adding more rules) to produce an expert.  Rather, they allow the beginner to engage with the activity in such a way that they develop intuitive coping mechanisms and proper emotional responses to various circumstances in the domain activities. For example, in driving a car, the driver learns to be relaxed or tense, or apprehensive in the right circumstances.  Also, she should be pleased with good performance or pained at bad performance.
On this reading, it would seem that strong AI would be impossible; however certain forms of computing are suitable for emotions and feelings, such as neural networks

[N]o mentalistic model, whether empiricist or idealist, can account for the way past experiences affects present experience, but fortunately, there are models of what might be going on in the hardware that make no use of empiricist association nor of the sort of symbols and rules presupposed in rationalist philosophy and Artificial Intelligence research. Such models are called feed forward simulated neural networks. According to these models, memories of specific situations are not stored and then somehow associated with current input. Rather, if given any input, the connections between “neurons” are modified by a trainer so that that input is paired with what the trainer holds to be the appropriate output. Thereafter, similar inputs will produce the same or similar output.

Feed-forward neural networks, then, provide a model of how the past can affect present perception and action without the brain needing to store specific memories at all. It is precisely the advantage of simulated neural networks that past experience, rather than being stored as a memory, modifies the connection strengths between the simulated neurons. New input can then produce output based on past experience without the net having to, or even being able to, retrieve any specific memories. The point is not that neural networks provide an explanation of association. Rather they allow us to give up seeking an associationist explanation of the way past experience affects present perception and action. [5]

Also relevant is the recent work by cognitive scientists in modeling various forms of emotional behavior through neural networks. For example, Paul Thagard at Waterloo has modeled moral emotional responses this way. [4] However, the implementation of such a rationality requires not merely a neural-network (however sophisticated), it must also have a lifeworld. This is where BEAGLE comes in, for it reads its lifeworld off of the “world” of natural human language. This defines a set of semantic nodes which are functionally equivalent to a neural network unique to each linguistic lifeworld.

Outline of solution. Project Design/Methodology

The Matrix as Lifeworld


Our solution is the demonstration of software that implements a “world” of the sort that Dreyfus describes. To distinguish this sort of world from the common meaning of this term, we shall use the phrase “life-world”, a philosophical term from  that refers to a formal outline of the world as lived or as a context of concern and purpose, not to the world as a mere physical system. In this sense, a novel can express a lifeworld by showing the various concerns, motives and actions a person lives through. Our trick is to see how a computer program can embody or comprehend a life-world. Since a lifeworld sums up the simultaneous relationships of a multitude of different items, ideas, actions, qualities, etc, it seems that BEAGLE or something like it could read the formal relationships of a lifeworld out of a large sample of natural language.

Solution Implementation: BEAGLE’s mechanics


Our software “BEAGLE” was created by Dr. Michael Jones for his doctoral thesis in psychology at Queen’s University in 2005. The basic idea is that BEAGLE first parses a large corpus of natural language text. The only processing needed to help the computer is to remove all punctuation and capitalization. The program divides the text into “contexts” which can be a paragraph, full sentence, or article;  in our experiment we defined the context as that which lies between any two punctuation marks. (Any definition is fine for our purposes.) The basic idea is to keep track of which words occur together, and you have to arbitrarily choose how to define the basic units of “togetherness”. We ended up with about 20 thousand contexts.
BEAGLE also keeps a list of all words which occur more than once in the entire corpus, generally this adds up to about 50 thousand, which is a little more that your typical human vocabulary. The program has no way to understand words which only occur once, so they are discarded.

These two sets of data ( words and their contexts) are arranged in a matrix or table (see above) where the columns are the contexts and the rows are the words. Each cell in the matrix contains the number of times that each word occurs in this cell. This is a two dimensional matrix and it tells us a lot about which words occur together very often. This matrix is how BEAGLE computes “semantic distance” which is how our program decides “Which of These Words Belongs”.

However informative this is, it’s not enough for our purposes until it is digested through various mathematical transformations and becomes a ~100-dimensional matrix. [5] Computationally, this is represented by an m by n matrix, with ‘m’ being the number of words in the system’s vocabulary, and ‘n’ being the number dimensions in semantic space. Each row then becomes a vector in semantic space, which allows the derived knowledge to be manipulated with linear algebra. Similarity between words then simply boils down to taking the cosine of the words’ respective semantic vectors. Having somewhere around 100 dimensions is very important for giving results that compare to human levels.

It is logically implied that each matrix is equivalent to one neural network [5], which reminds me of Dreyfus’ suggestion [2] that neural networks in general are more formally congruent to his idea of a life-world. A life-world is also made up of a set of semantic units which relate to each other all at once with different kinds of relationships and various levels of importance.  A by-product of the creation of a holographic lexicon is that you are able to define a unique neural network and vice-versa. BEAGLE gives us a way to create an artificial lifeworld by reading off statistical patterns from large bodies of natural language text.

Solution Implementation: “Which One of These Things is Not Like the Others?”


We decided that the proper way to test our model was to take the survey format outline above (“One of These Things is not Like the Other”) and give it to a significant sample of humans. We created a set of questions where all of them were of the form “Which of these words does not belong?” We decided to test the language comprehension of BEAGLE against that of humans by comparing their responses to a simple series of questions. The form that we used was inspired by the Sesame Street feature “One of these things is not like the other…”. In our test, there would be four words to choose from and the test subject would choose which of the words “did not belong”.

And here are the questions from the actual test used for our study, the answer chosen by the majority of humans is in bold, BEAGLE’s choice is in italics (the only case in which they are different is #13):

“Which one of these things does not belong?:”

  1. Judge court jury teacher
  2. Hospital pearl school prison
  3. Sword crossguard English blades
  4. Christian Church Methodist methods
  5. President student person myself
  6. Million one thousand hundred
  7. Normal weeks months days
  8. Nation country office union
  9. One three four five
  10. British American Russian People
  11. Company college school student
  12. Market material business company
  13. Length width height ladder
  14. Matter side bottom top
  15. Hot cold training temperature
  16. Square circle shape rectangle
  17. Temple church synagogue community
  18. Steak potatoes pizza chicken
  19. Blue green red orange


  1. Examples of semantic distance from the question set.

It’s interesting that BEAGLE seems to know that “pizza” does not “belong”. While “steak,” “pizza,” and “chicken” are usually the main course, pizza is the odd one out in this set, being both the only composite food item, and the only one which is usually consumed on its own. This difference in role is reflected in the daily use of the word, displacing it semantically from the grouping of the semantic unit defined by the others. This vague illogical concept of “belonging”-ness is merely  a reflection of how close things are in one’s lifeworld. Our theory is that the lifeworld is formally congruent to the AI concept of “semantic space”, which is exactly what BEAGLE is reading off of our text corpus.

Notice how the answers to these questions cannot come from a Google search; it requires access to the world of language in the form of intuitions concerning “what belongs together”.  BEAGLE determines this from statistical regularities in the co-occurrence of words together or apart. Our hypothesis is that humans do the same thing subconsciously and therefore BEAGLE and humans will have similar scores on tests of “semantic distance”.


General agreement of model with human sample.


We expected that our model’s responses will fall within human range,  meaning that it would agree with humans about as much as one human would agree with another.  Our results showed about a 93% agreement with humans. We started out with 20 questions, of which one was discarded due to the feeling that including “religion” and “science” in a question might seem unseemly to some respondents. Of these final questions, there was only one that the BEAGLE got wrong. The word set in this one was “length, width, height, ladder”, and our model chose “height” rather than “ladder” or “width”, which is what we would expect for an English speaker. We don’t know for sure yet what the problem is, but we are looking into it. However, it is clear from our results that BEAGLE did well on the test. Because it fell within the normal range of human responses, we consider our model to have passed a “modified Turing Test”. We modified it by restricting our study to on module of function of language use: the modelling of a linguistic lifeworld and the computing of semantic distance of the elements within that lifeworld.

Conclusions: Where to go from here?


We used a robust model of the world which has the following advantages:
1) It can be “read off” of an actual and readily-available text sample, giving it potential access to the collective wisdom of the human race.

2) These text samples can be chosen from among the myriad lifeworlds defined by language communities.
3) These worlds scan be expanded to include visual and practical data as “contexts” in the same way that we used test clauses, since the model itself is neutral to the content of the matrix; as long as something can co-occur, it can be part of the lifeworld. This sort of thing could connect our research to (for example) the research of the Science of Imagination Laboratory at Carleton University, where they model visual imagination using a set of photos tagged with content-labels. If each photo were fed into BEAGLE as a context, and the content tags were fed in as “words”, then visual and text would be part of the same lifeworld matrix and could be the basis of the same sorts of AI that we have exhibited in our study.
4) Practical contexts are also fair game for this treatment, with each sub-task, obstacle, or other practical factors that actions and results could be added to the matrix along with the text and visual data. Really there’s no limit to what sorts of things can be part of a lifeworld for truly Artificial Intelligence once it escapes the Chinese Room.

  1. Bibliography.

For general background, see this onlineHistory if AI:




[4]P. Thagard Hot Thought. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006.

[5] S.T. Dumas, and T.K. Landauer,  “A Solution to Plato’s Problem: The Latent Semantic Analysis Theory of Acquisition, Induction and Representation of Knowledge,” Psychological Review, vol. 104, no. 2, pp. 211-244, 1997.

[6] From a presentation by Jim Davies and his lab assistants at the “Institute of Cognitive Science Lab Fair” ,Carleton University, in 16OCT2014, but their lab is called  the Science of Imagination Laboratory and their website is here: