What is it like to be a bug?

by John Q on September 14, 2013

According to Calvin, at least, the same as to be a bat. But for the rest of us, it seems obvious that there is likely to be a qualitative difference between the subjective experience (if any) of a bug, and that of a bat. And, if true bugs don’t work for you in this example, there’s always the colloquial “bugs” such as bacteria and viruses, which presumably don’t have any experience at all.

The reason I make this point is that it’s long seemed to me that there’s a sorites problem with the ordinary person’s intuitive understanding of consciousness (at least for mine). In that understanding, either an entity is conscious or it’s not, but when you look at the “Great Chain of Being” from viruses to humans, there’s no obvious point at which to draw the line. I thought that Thomas Nagel’s famous paper on “What is it like to be a bat?” might address this problem, but as far as I can see he skates straight over it. Nagel takes it for granted that bats “have experience”, different from ours mainly in the consequences of having different senses and living in a different environment.

His closest approach to the sorites problem is to say that “I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travelstoo fardown the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. ” But the gradation here is in people’s beliefs. As I read Nagel, animals either have experience or they don’t, it’s just that, while we’re sure about bats, and presumably, in the other direction about viruses, we don’t know about wasps. But does Nagel really believe that at some point in evolutionary history, a light flicked on in a brain somewhere, and the first experience was had? He doesn’t say, and a (not very competent) search on my part failed to find much in the way of answers.

I guess this wouldn’t be a problem for someone like Dennett, whose account of consciousness seems to me to be consistent with a gradual expansion in complexity, analogous to the standard story about the evolution of vision. But I honestly don’t know whether that’s right and whether Dennett’s critics (who seem to be fairly numerous) have a better answer to this problem.



GiT 09.14.13 at 6:15 am

There’s always Heidegger on bees…


John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 6:26 am

Enlighten me! Or, on second thoughts, don’t.


Thomas Lumley 09.14.13 at 6:33 am

Isn’t this related to the zombies question? It’s not as extreme, but someone who believes that there is some specific detail that distinguishes consciousness would presumably at least be open to the possibility that beings could otherwise appear intelligent but lack that detail.

On the issue of the ordinary person’s view, science fiction might provide some useful evidence — there’s a lot of writing dealing with the question of when other beings are people.


john c. halasz 09.14.13 at 7:09 am

What is it “like” to be a congenitally blind person who “sees” faces through touch? Nagel’s question always seemed to me to be absurd, since it amounts to claiming irreducibility of subjective “qualia”, without inquiring about the broader context of what such “experiences” are for or do. Or for that matter, how experiences give rise to concepts, or vice versa.


bad Jim 09.14.13 at 7:19 am

We’re not exactly conscious when we’re dreaming, yet we experience our dreams vividly. We don’t actually experience our conscious process in detail; most of us don’t have to put much thought into putting one foot in front of another, or using a towel after a shower, or composing a sentence. Some of my inventions and most of my best limericks popped into my head out of nowhere; the really interesting stuff happens beyond the reach of introspection.

My guess, and I think this follows Dennett, is that our experience is the immediate memory of perception and cognition, which explains the lag between intention and awareness. A neat consequence is that any creature exhibiting memory, even a butterfly that visits only certain flowers in my yard each day, is in the club, and it’s beyond question that scheming, gossiping, tool-making crows and rats with their maps have quite a bit in common with us.

Questions about qualia often involve color, so I asked my red-green color-blind brother-in-law about that. He can actually make fine distinctions between printed colors, but admitted he had trouble distinguishing leaves from dog poop. Good to know.


Z 09.14.13 at 7:20 am

It seems to me that there is a china room problem here as well. Or, to take a very concrete incarnation of it, many video games feature in-game characters with a complex range of reactions to various situations (they trade with you if you offer something they like, flee or defend themselves if you attack…). Are they conscious? Stipulating that they can’t be because they are algorithms but that bats obviously are smacks of vitalism but answering yes also seems problematic.

Perhaps the problem is that we have not the faintest idea of the scientific meaning (as opposed to the usual meaning) of the word consciousness. As a famous scientist (left unnamed, because his name might derail the thread) says, seeing that we have no idea of for instance how the visual system of wasps works, there might be no point in asking whether they are conscious (a much harder question).


GiT 09.14.13 at 8:02 am

It’s in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. He talks about animals as being “poor-in-world” (vs. the “worldless” stone and the “world-forming” Dasein) as wall as boredom as a fundamental attunement of Dasein in the same vein as “being towards death” in B&T/i> (with the same variety of distinctions as fear/terror/angst building up to something grand about the essence of Dasein and all that).

He draws on the work of the biologist Uexkull and there’s a passage about a bee that keeps feeding itself because scientists have removed its thorax or something pleasant like that. I’m a bit fuzzy on it all, it’s been a few years (since I’ve had my thorax removed, of course)…

In any case here’s a taste from the table of contents of the relevant sections:

“The Beginning of the Contemporary Examination Taking the Intermediate Thesis That The Animal is Poor in World as Our Point of Departure” (Chapter Three)

“Clarification of the Essence of the Animal’s Poverty in World by way of the Question Concerning the Essence of Animality, the Essence of Life in General, and the Essence of the Organism” (Chapter 4)

And I’ve found the bee passage for your enjoyment. There’s a few pages more on the bee and what Heidegger thinks about being a bee (this seems like a good opportunity for a sketch involving bee-being and what it is to zzzzzz) around this particular account:

“A bee was placed before a little bowl filled with so much honey that the bee was unable to suck up the honey all at once. It begins to suck and then after a while breaks off this driven activity of sucking and flies off, leaving the rest of the honey still present in the bowl…. Yet it has been observed that if the abdomen is carefully cut away while it is sucking, a bee will simply carry on regardless even while the honey runs out of the bee from behind. This shows conclusively that the bee by no means recognizes the presence of too much honey. It recognizes neither this nor even – though this would be expected to touch it more closely – the absence of its abdomen. There is no question of it recognizing any of this, it continues with its driven activity regardless precisely because it does not recognize that plenty of honey is still present. Rather, the bee is simply taken by its food.”

Where any of this gets us concerning the initial post, I have no idea.


Jed Harris 09.14.13 at 8:06 am

Certainly consciousness is subject to sorities problems, not just between species, but between different human states and conditions, as bad Jim points out. See recent work on detecting consciousness of people in comas.

Bernard Baars is probably a better resource than Dennett on this kind of question.
Consistent with the work cited above, Baars’ global workspace theory would say that entities are conscious to the extent that they need and employ a global workspace to coordinate interaction between diverse cognitive modules. His examples and experiments are human-centric and I don’t know of any work he’s done that specifically focuses on gradations of consciousness.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find work that applied global workspace ideas to gradations of consciousness in human subjects. However the work cited above doesn’t mention Baars.


Random Lurker 09.14.13 at 8:40 am

I think that if we make a distinction between perception and consciousness, then consciousness necessarily means “self consciousness”.
Self consciousness means that I have a model of the world in my mind that includes myself as an object.
Intuitively this depends on social interactions: the more complex social interactions one has, the more one develops self cosciousness.

Having an abdomen also seems to be a prerequisite for consciousness, both for bees and as a symbol of the proprioceptive feelings like hunger that create a difference between “me” and “the outer world” in the first place.


bad Jim 09.14.13 at 8:50 am

Perhaps self-reprogramming in response to experience is a necessary criterion. For humans it would be satisfying to specify that this behavioral modification must include the interplay of memory and desire (“I will be true to the wife, I’ll concentrate more on my work”) and that might be equally appealing to corvids and rodents.

It would exclude sphexish insect behavior and anything most of us can run on our computers right now, which, apart from printers, seems about right.


Agog 09.14.13 at 9:43 am

This post is outrageously dismissive of viruses. I am part-virus myself (with Varicella-zoster virus an undeniable part of my nervous system, along with myriad others, no doubt) and as conscious as any of you chauvinists. Hmmph.


Agog 09.14.13 at 9:52 am

(How do people who never contracted chickenpox experience the world? Hmm….)


Agog 09.14.13 at 9:55 am

(I mean can we be really sure that they’re self-aware at all?)


bill benzon 09.14.13 at 10:58 am

@Git: Thanks for this: “He draws on the work of the biologist Uexkull…”

I’ve seen all these Continentals referring to Uexkull like he was some kind of god or something (not that I’ve got anything against Uexkull). Now I know just WHY he’s singled out for special favor. Daddy Martin’s annointed him.


John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 11:04 am

@GiT This reminds me of a cross between The Philosophers’ Song and Eric the Half-a-Bee. Heidegger is truly a gift that keeps on giving.


K 09.14.13 at 11:18 am

Lifted from a comment I made on a Brad Delong post (on Nagel, of course, what else):

“I wonder what Nagel thinks happened… Is he an animist? Does he believe that all things are endowed with transcendent knowledge of the absolute, or was it first implanted with the appearance of the nematode? Cockroach? Chimpanzee? What is this strange plan whereby God set in motion the development, by mutation and natural selection, the gradual evolution of massively parallel physical signal processing automatons capable of phenomenal computation and self-serving environmental manipulation, but without the ability to process the idea of self or connect to Platonic forms, a skill so special so as only to be achievable via godlike magic, deposited on the awaiting neurological seat of conciousness at the very last moment of evolutionary history? And then, why the grey glop in the first place, if we are bestowed with such incredible, transcendent magical powers?

The soul, indeed, appears to be the last bastion of the ever retreating armies of God in the war against science for the ontological territory. The rise of the machines, presumably, will deal the final blow.”


Jerry Vinokurov 09.14.13 at 11:54 am

But does Nagel really believe that at some point in evolutionary history, a light flicked on in a brain somewhere, and the first experience was had?

It’s not obvious to me that you need to be a Nagelist (is that a thing? let’s say it is) to think that this is plausible. It’s worth noting that, introspection notwithstanding, it’s not at all clear that we really know what we even mean by “experience.” Probably, the thing we’re really trying to get at is not so much the experience itself as the awareness of the experience. In order for that to happen, it might well be that you need neural complexity that only manifests itself some way up the phylogenetic tree. Michael Graziano outlined a theory of this kind recently.


Hidari 09.14.13 at 12:24 pm

For once (and this is quite unusual) I feel I have to defend Heidegger. Heidegger, as is well known, could write appallingly badly at times, and sometimes what he wrote is more or less indistinguishable from gibberish. But the the example quoted above is clearly (sic) not like that. It’s plain enough. And what he writes is directly relevant to the OP. If you read the whole chapter what Marty is trying to do is to deny two things:

1: Animals are machines (and, therefore, implicitly, that humans are machines) and

2: There is little if any difference between human and animal experience: it’s just a matter of degree.

The point of the above passage is pretty obvious really. Human beings plan and have conscious knowledge of various things and bees do not. Therefore however much we are taken with the similarity between bee ‘society’ (actually ‘ant society’ would be more like it) and our own, it’s an illusion. We are not really like ants or bees at all.

In contemporary terms, therefore, he is arguing against Darwinians and neo-Darwinians who argue implicitly or explicitly that we are just like ants or bees ‘really’. The normal way out of this situation is to argue that ‘we’ have ‘reason’ and animals do not. But Heidegger was an anti-rationalist and this particular getout wasn’t available to him. Animals don’t have Reason, says Heidegger, but then neither do human beings. Nor was he a vitalist. Hence the strange language: he has to argue against what natural science seems to imply without denying the meaning and force of the experiments.


John Holbo 09.14.13 at 12:32 pm

Nagel considers this sort of problem in “Panpsychism”. Why stop at viruses? What is it like to be a chunk of matter?


But he doesn’t seem to want to go Full Pansychist Monty.


bill benzon 09.14.13 at 12:41 pm

@Hidari (#18): “Human beings plan…” It turns out, wouldn’t you know, that apes plan ahead:

Citation: van Schaik CP, Damerius L, Isler K (2013) Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in Advance. PLoS ONE 8(9): e74896. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074896


Abstract: The ability to plan for the future beyond immediate needs would be adaptive to many animal species, but is widely thought to be uniquely human. Although studies in captivity have shown that great apes are capable of planning for future needs, it is unknown whether and how they use this ability in the wild. Flanged male Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) emit long calls, which females use to maintain earshot associations with them. We tested whether long calls serve to communicate a male’s ever-changing predominant travel direction to facilitate maintaining these associations. We found that the direction in which a flanged male emits his long calls predicts his subsequent travel direction for many hours, and that a new call indicates a change in his main travel direction. Long calls given at or near the night nest indicate travel direction better than random until late afternoon on the next day. These results show that male orangutans make their travel plans well in advance and announce them to conspecifics. We suggest that such a planning ability is likely to be adaptive for great apes, as well as in other taxa.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.14.13 at 12:47 pm

Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness… can be downloaded off the Internet for free, it explains what consciousness is and is not in the first pages, and it’s fun to read. According to Jaynes even human beings only became consciousness about 3000 years ago. Wouldn’t you like to know what it was like to be a human being when Iliad was written? Recommended.


GiT 09.14.13 at 12:49 pm


Haha, I’d forgotten about Eric the Half-a-Bee. Good stuff.


There certainly could be some good and relevant stuff in the Heidegger. I’m just a bit too dull on it all right now to offer more than stirred recollections and a bit of poking fun.

The whole digression on Uexkull’s Umwelt/Heidegger’s “world” is certainly directly applicable, though I don’t know how Heidegger’s engagement with mid 20th century biology holds up with current biology and related science of consciousness.


Alex K. 09.14.13 at 12:58 pm

We will likely have to accept that there is an unbridgeable epistemic gap between first person experience and the third person description of the world that science provides.

If that is so, the sorites problem that John describes would be just one of the many unsolvable in principle problems of first person experience.

I have a hard time taking seriously anyone who tries to solve the philosophical problem of first person experience by throwing the word “complexity” around.

We will likely be able to make all sorts of progress in understanding the complexity of, say, the human visual system, the complexity of how it recognizes objects, how it reconstructs internally the ambient environment from visual cues (tasks that it still does orders of magnitude better than any available computer vision software). But that will not get us even an inch closer to explaining what first person experience is, or why it exists at all.


Peter Erwin 09.14.13 at 12:58 pm

Agog @11:
Well, you’re not the only one – – after all, about 8% of human DNA is estimated to have come from viral infections at various points in the past. And while most of it is inactive “junk DNA”, there are two virus-derived genes which produce proteins used by the placenta (in most if not all primates, in fact, which means the original infection was probably several tens of millions of years ago).


bill benzon 09.14.13 at 1:00 pm

The passage that follows is from the opening of Chapter 10: “Music and Civilization” of my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (pp. 222-226). It is about how the Greeks reconceived themselves through a process that Jean Piaget has called reflective abstraction. I look at this, first in the domain of emotion (Julian Jaynes) and then in that of drama (Nietzsche). Note that here and there I refer to the mind as “neural weather,” a metaphor I develop early in the book. The idea is simply that the mind is a constantly shifting mass of neural firings as the weather is a constantly shifting mass of molecular collisions.


In 1967, a book with an ungainly title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, created a minor sensation with an astonishingly quixotic and original thesis: human consciousness originated in ancient Greece sometime between Homer and an Athenian Golden Age. That is to say, Homer was a Hellenic zombie telling heroic tales about older zombies. Night of the Living Dead had opened in Athens and was playing to a packed house.

The author, Julian Jaynes, stages this argument by noting that Iliad and Odyssey contain many episodes in which humans receive direction from gods and goddesses, and do not contain many words referring to mental states and actions. He takes the first observation at face value and concludes that the Homeric Greeks heard inner voices and acted on what they heard. From the fact that mental words had become common by the time of the Athenian Golden Age, he concludes that by that time, human consciousness had emerged. The inner voices were no longer necessary as their function was subsumed by consciousness; Jaynes would thus have us believe that the creation of concepts about mental states and acts gave rise to consciousness.

However skeptical I am about aspects of Jaynes’s theory—for example, the idea that Sophocles was conscious while Homer was not is deeply odd—something very important clearly happened in the period he surveys. Jaynes seems to have assumed that the absence of words about mental states means there was no consciousness. I see no reason to accept such an assumption. If one thinks of consciousness they way Walter Freeman does, then rabbits and dogs are conscious. But they have no words for mental states either.

If we reject Jaynes’ claim about consciousness, however, we can still accept some of the reasoning that accompanies it. The important observation is that mental terms were scarce in Homeric times, but not in Sophoclean and later times. If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind. Similarly, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King would not have been possible in Homer’s time precisely because it takes place in a mental realm. It is about mental events, acts of knowing or denial.

I submit that this change is about the emergence, not of consciousness itself, but of a whole range of new modes of consciousness, new ways to use the mind, new patterns of neural weather. Another way of talking about this change is to use Jean Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction. In his studies of child development, Piaget proposed that conceptual development proceeds through a series of stages in which the mental mechanisms of later stages objectify those that were used in earlier stages. The conceptual development that Jaynes has identified is like this.


There’s more at New Savanna:


FS 09.14.13 at 1:01 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji

Makes me wonder how the Egyptians managed to build all that stuff unconsciously.

@bill benzon

Isn’t that pretty analogous to what bees do, when they do their waggle dance? Probably less of a time difference, but they have to be able to remember where the good stuff was, and to communicate it to their fellow specimen.



Zamfir 09.14.13 at 1:13 pm

@Hidari Bill Benson: It turns out, wouldn’t you know, that apes plan ahead

Then again, if you cut out an ape’s behind, they would probably stop eating.


Agog 09.14.13 at 1:31 pm

My theory is way better than Jaynes’. Seriously: before the chickenpox I was pathetic, unable to feed or clothe myself adequately. Afterwards, I learned how to play chess and composed poems expressing angst.


Zagloba 09.14.13 at 1:31 pm

I came in here to make a substantive comment, but after reading the thread, I just want to say I love the commentariat here.


Agog 09.14.13 at 2:23 pm

Peter Erwin,

Yes, and even more: the emerging view of viruses treats them as truly alive while they are actively commandeering their host cell’s resources to replicate themselves. 20th century science, seeing isolated virus particles (virions) as inert, regarded them as lifeless. But that’s akin to only considering, for example, a seed but not the whole plant. With viruses it’s interesting because the living thing is the virus plus the host cell: the former is incomplete without the latter. That means that viruses produced in my body are made using my genes, in living organisms that were once, in part, my own cells. It’s not quite parenthood, but alarmingly close. The more you think about it the more intimately connected we appear.

There’s an open access review discussing relvant stuff here.


Bruce Baugh 09.14.13 at 2:25 pm

FS: Self-awareness isn’t a strict requirement for a bunch of kinds of mental activity. To see the argument developed in a fictional context, try Peter Watts’ amazing (and amazingly bleak) sf novel Blindsight, available for free in a bunch of e-book formats at Watts’ website as well as in print and audio. The second half of his endnotes, available as a separate PDF, take up the consciousness issue with the real-world foundations for his speculations.

It is in any event really clearly the case that a lot of our sense of self is basically invention and self-delusion. I’ve had to read more in studies of memory and the like than most lay people, to help make sense of life with an auto-immune disorder that does a bunch of nasty stuff to my neurochemistry. I’m not, at this point, prepared to join the crowd that says all our sense of self and free will and everything is self-delusion, but darned if they’re not right about way more of human experience than I’d like. It’s not the same thing as the absence of self-awareness that various folks cite here are on about, but a kind of related thing – self-awareness can be pretty darned detached from reality in its own way.


Agog 09.14.13 at 2:32 pm

(Link above ‘relvant’ to my digression, not to the OP, obvs)


Adam Roberts 09.14.13 at 2:38 pm

‘Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.”‘ [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), 19]


chris 09.14.13 at 2:57 pm

If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind.

ISTM this turns the phenomenon on its head. If people want to talk about something, they’ll invent words for it. Lack of words for something generally indicates a lack of experience with the thing itself, so that it can’t be talked about because it hasn’t even been thought of.

If your whole culture has never seen a platypus, then they don’t have a word for one, but once you discover them, someone will promptly make one up.

It’s hard to imagine what it would mean for nobody in the culture to have any firsthand experience of mental states, though. (Even harder than imagining what it is like to be a bat, IMO, because ancient Greeks are humans biologically not that different from ourselves.) I’m inclined to put that down to the imperfection of the record.

Just because Homer, specifically, didn’t want to talk about mental states (is that even true? I don’t have a copy handy to check, but how do you describe Achilles in his tent without discussing his mental state?) doesn’t mean that the average man on the street wasn’t aware of their existence; maybe it was just a convention of the art form Homer worked in (and fashion had changed by Sophocles’s time).


strophariad 09.14.13 at 3:06 pm

@bill benzon (#25):

To be fair, Jaynes’s evidence was interdisciplinary, not all of it negative, and he may deserve credit as an early proponent of Gazzaniga’s left-brain interpreter.

A purer, subtler, fuller use of Greek literature (with a dash of Nietzsche) in reconstructing a developmental history of consciousness was made by Bruno Snell in The Discovery of the Mind (to which Jaynes dedicated only two plagiarism-sparing footnotes) and may constitute a more judicious argument from silence.

Snell traced a gradual evolution by an almost stratigraphic treatment of literary genres, and the sorites problem seems no more problematic for him than for Dennett. His introduction seems even to anticipate Ned Block’s critique of Jaynes and Dennett’s rebuttal.


David J. Littleboy 09.14.13 at 3:37 pm

“Animals don’t have Reason, says Heidegger, but then neither do human beings.”

Ah, reminds me. Back in the early days of AI, the folks who didn’t like the idea that men are just machines said “Sure, computers can play checkers, but they can’t play chess.” It didn’t take long to write programs that could beat the pants off your generic philosopher, so the joke was “Computers can’t play chess. And neither can XXX.” (I forget who XXX was; probably Joe Wiezenbaum.)

It’s all sort of funny, though. We bang our heads against the wall until they bleed profusely arguing that it’s X or Y or Z that makes man different from beast/machine, but then some twit psych grad student proves that her parrots can do Y better than most grad students, or some programmer figures out a trick to make a Go program stronger than I am, when it’s worrying about whether or not I can do X, Y, or Z better than beasts and machines that makes me human.


Andrew Burday 09.14.13 at 3:46 pm

John, this is a fun post and a good way to get conversation started. If you wanted to press it, though, you’d have to do some more work. Whatever intrinsic interest sorites problems may have, they can’t generally be used to show that some concept or other is empty. There is a heap of firewood in my front yard, even though I can’t define exactly how many pieces make up a heap. There is a lot of debris on my driveway (I’m bad at property maintenance), even though I can’t precisely define how much is a lot. At some point in the passage from fertilized egg to now, I became a distinct organism, a moral subject with rights, and, arguably, a conscious being with qualitative experience. The fact that I can’t say exactly when doesn’t falsify any of that. Eventually I’ll die, but exactly when? And similarly for the qualitative experience of a rock, a bug, a bat, and you.

The point is (obviously) closely related to the badness of slippery slope arguments.

I don’t generally want to defend Nagel, but so long as there is at least one being with qualitative experience, he’s got an argument. And you can’t show that there are no such beings by showing that the boundaries of the concept are vague.


philosofatty 09.14.13 at 4:25 pm

The view Nagel expresses in the Bat paper is that no matter how sophisticated “third person” science gets, it inevitably fails to give us access to “first person” experience. The point is to get us to see that we’re in this epistemically foreclosed situation with respect to human consciousness too. So, although maybe he says something different now, the bat paper doesn’t imply or need to imply a theory about consciousness’s possible graded distribution in the animal kingdom or the apparent sorites problem it generates. The bat paper’s de facto response to such a problem of consciousness is just: yes that sure is mysterious!

Dennet’s “consciousness” has a completely different theoretical profile, to do with the specifically human capacity for self narration. He sometimes says quite explicitly that consciousness is uniquely human, even among primates, so, although the sorties problem might emerge in the evolutionary and developmental biographies of our own species, it in fact does not emerge as a problem of distribution across the animal kingdom. On the other hand, he takes the instrumental view that the justified attribution of mental terms is just a matter of the predictive success thereby afforded the attributor. So, attributing pain to bugs, for instance, is justified just to the extent that we thereby gain something in modeling what bugs do.


William Timberman 09.14.13 at 5:10 pm

I love philosophical discussions, discussions of philosophy not so much. I come around again, though, when pretty much anything, philosophical or otherwise, is being discussed by philosophers. It’s as though my own consciousness — normally off somewhere by itself, and therefore more self-reflective than is probably good for me — becomes a bell-tower inhabited by invisible boys with sticks intent on ringing every single bell at random. I can follow the melody in any direction I like without worrying about whether or not there’s any long-run profit in it.

What this has to do with vagueness, differences of degree rather than kind, or bees missing their nether parts, I have no idea, but I find it fascinating to consider that magical moment when a heap-in-becoming finally becomes a heap. Am I crazy to think that the difficulty of definition here lies in the probability that heapness isn’t strictly a matter of number, or of incrementation, or indeed of any of its other attributes considered in isolation?

The same goes for what it’s like to be a bug or a bat. Isn’t that for them to know, and us to find out? Surely only science fiction fulfilled, or possibly metempsychosis, can provide definitive answers for those of us who really want to know.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.14.13 at 5:12 pm

“Makes me wonder how the Egyptians managed to build all that stuff unconsciously.”

What about ants, beavers, and all the other creatures that build stuff?


Lee A. Arnold 09.14.13 at 5:34 pm

I am not convinced that consciousness can be explained by concepts of “perception, memory, experience,” or even “intentionality,” but let’s suppose that it can.

Imagine how bees are conscious of humans: we are large fuzzy shapes of color, heat, smell. They cannot understand our total aspect or bodily composition. They cannot understand human language, or Beethoven’s 3rd, or a Netflix miniseries. They are less than us!

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander… Go upward from humans on the sorities scale: Put an end to consciousness-discrimination and human-privilege! Suppose there are conscious beings as far above humans, as we are above bees? Then what would they look like, to us?

The higher beings might look and smell like the surfaces of rocks, or clouds in the sky. We would see dim appearances, not their total aspects.

You, thinking you’re the top of the line, developed “reductionist materialism” to explain that it’s “water droplets” condensing in the “atmosphere”. You’re a goddamn silly bee! Nagel is right about this part! Not only that, next week the higher beings are “sending” you to a “proctologist”, to have your butt cut out!


Tom Slee 09.14.13 at 5:36 pm

The question was treated playfully be David Eagleman in Sum. Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a collection of short stories.

Spoiler alert.

In one of the stories, everyone gets a choice as to what to come back as in their next life, and the protagonist decides it would be nice to live less stressfully next time, gambol round the fields a bit, and so decides to come back as a horse. Just as it’s too late, he (I think it was he) realizes that once he’s a horse he will never be able to choose to come back as a human because he won’t be able to imagine what it’s like to be one. So he’s on a downward slope of returning as less- and less-aware beings. Finally, he wonders, what he was before being human?


geo 09.14.13 at 5:57 pm

@38: the instrumental view that the justified attribution of mental terms is just a matter of the predictive success thereby afforded the attributor. So, attributing pain to bugs, for instance, is justified just to the extent that we thereby gain something in modeling what bugs do.

Seems plausible to me. Is there a standard answer to this?

WT@39: I like your attitude.


William Timberman 09.14.13 at 6:06 pm

Oy, geo. Without an attitude, I’d be way above my pay grade here. Not that I’m fooling anybody, mind, and not that I would want to anyway….


Alex K. 09.14.13 at 6:20 pm

“@38: the instrumental view that the justified attribution of mental terms is just a matter of the predictive success thereby afforded the attributor. So, attributing pain to bugs, for instance, is justified just to the extent that we thereby gain something in modeling what bugs do.

Seems plausible to me. Is there a standard answer to this?”

I can think of an obvious one, that whether the bug experiences pain or not is something quite independent of the latest fashion in the methodology of science — including methodologies that consider a description of a state of the world justified only if it has predictive power.


John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 6:26 pm

When I posted, I was expecting more about zombies. All economic and philosophical discussions go better with zombies.


mud man 09.14.13 at 6:28 pm

Sure, even a stone has experience in that things have happened to it, it has emerged as it is from its past. The thing it doesn’t have is invidividuality in the sense of coherent self-contained being. That is, it is a unique pile of stuff … there are many rocks like it, but this one is mine … but it is a unique pile of stuff. It is not an organism. (A stone can even be said to be conscious in that it reacts to things that happen to it; it retains the trace of things the things that have happened. But again, a lot of possible reactions are like: fall to pieces.)

I think it’s reasonable to ask, What is it Like to be a stone? … spend some time on the cushion with that. Sure it must be different than being Like a bat, or Like a jihadi. I suppose the stone doesn’t have a notion of not being Like a bat or a jihadi, so what we’re doing here is commenting on what it is Like to be a Modern.

We can look at societies, etc, in the same way. If you think of the whole Cosmos as having “experience”, then there isn’t any need for a magic switch. As for the sorites problem, people who try to make hard and fast lines between things deserve what they get, like the famous ass that starved to death midway between two piles of hay.


philosofatty 09.14.13 at 6:53 pm

@43, 45

Right, Dennett’s view is thought to imply irrealism. It is in some ways easier seen how an interpretive strategy attributing bug-pain is successful if it’s the case that bugs have pain, than that bug-pain just consists in figuring in a successful bug-pain attributing interpretive strategy.


Materialism isn’t the view that all cool things are strained out of the universe. The oceanoid intelligence in Lem’s Solaris is probably consistent with a materialist ontology.


matt 09.14.13 at 6:59 pm

Tom Slee:

cf Myth of Er. Also, it’s suspicious that that story was written by an “Eagleman.”


geo 09.14.13 at 7:00 pm

Alex@45: Are you saying that a bug experiences pain even if we can’t know whether or not a bug experiences pain? If so, then how do you know?


Lee A. Arnold 09.14.13 at 7:11 pm

#48 “The oceanoid intelligence in Lem’s Solaris is probably consistent with a materialist ontology.”

I’m pretty sure Tarkovsky would take you to the woodshed on that one. Quite a leap, to suppose our level of consciousness has got it right about the ontology of the higher forms! And how could you possibly know, unless the oceanoids delivered it up on stone tablets? Do the bees think the same way about us, too? That their descriptions suffice for all higher forms? If they could comprehend them, that is. Or perhaps instead, there was once a Bee-Nietzsche who buzzed:

“I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” (Twilight of the Bee Idols)


Alex K. 09.14.13 at 7:37 pm

“Alex@45: Are you saying that a bug experiences pain even if we can’t know whether or not a bug experiences pain? If so, then how do you know?”

I am saying precisely that we do not know — it’s just not something current scientific models, which describe the world from a third person perspective, are able to express.

An explanation of a person’s behavior in terms of atoms, neurons and the like, works perfectly fine regardless of whether we postulate that the person has subjective feelings or not. But we do know –each of us individually, not via science– that we do have such subjective experiences, thus such a scientific explanation leaves out something about the real world.

It may very well leave out something about the experience of bugs too.


Jerry Vinokurov 09.14.13 at 8:20 pm

If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind.

I think this is actually rather backwards. One of the problems with being heir to the “conceptual analysis” school of philosophy is that you tend to think that having a name for something means that you’ve understood it, even when you have no idea whether that name actually refers to anything real. So there’s lots of talk about qualia and subjective experiences and zombies but actually no one really has any idea whether those words attach to anything at all. In fact, most of our mental vocabulary is pretty useless when it comes to conducting investigations about the brain; it’s only useful as a kind of phenomenological high-level picture and even then not all that much.


philosofatty 09.14.13 at 8:20 pm


Why do you think materialism is especially implicated in epistemic chauvinism, or that anti-chauvanism particularly implies anti-materialism? In this debate it’s generally been an anti-materialist position that what we can currently imagine tells us something definitive about what can or can’t be the case or at least can or can’t be known. Read Nagel’s bat paper and see if it doesn’t do exactly that.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Tarkovsky movie, but, in the novel, although, sure, the ALF can apparently telekinetically generate sensible apparitions, or hallucinatory states, or whatever the memory beings are, the whole thing is that the ocean is intelligence embodied in an utterly alien way. It’s a physical ocean.


geo 09.14.13 at 8:22 pm

Alex: The question Dennett was addressing is: how do we know whether a bug (or a bat, or a human, for that matter) experiences pain? His answer is: we ask what would be the likely consequences of (follows from, is entailed by, etc.) one or the other possibility. Which is, he suggests, pretty much how we know anything: we ask what would be the case if A were true, and then look to see if that is the case. In other words, we make predictions.

And first-person knowledge of one’s feelings is not invariably more authoritative or complete than third-person knowledge. Some people (lovers, psychotherapists, marketing experts) can tell that we have certain feelings even if we can’t.


Alex K. 09.14.13 at 8:40 pm

The problem with Dennett’s approach is that there is no identifiable consequence from the claim that you experience something when you see a red wall. Yet, I expect that you will protest against such a claim.

Bringing in complex forms of experience and the reliability of self-knowledge versus expert knowledge about other people does nothing but confuse the issue: the experts are already _conceding_ that the person that they analyse feels something. It’s just a question of correctly categorizing complex forms of feelings — which is a completely different question from the one that asks whether subjective feelings exist at all.


Alex K. 09.14.13 at 8:45 pm

“Yet, I expect that you will protest against such a claim.”

That is, you would object to the claim that you don’t experience anything when you see a red wall.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.14.13 at 9:17 pm

I’m sure it’s probably well understood by everybody, but there is a huge difference between ‘experience’ and ‘conscious experience’. Your ‘Me’, your CNS receives over 10 million bps worth of experience, while your ‘I’, your consciousness 40 bps at most. So, you need to specify what ‘experience’ you’re talking about.


Sasha Clarkson 09.14.13 at 9:27 pm

Slightly off at a tangent, but Bad-Jim@5, I suffer from a form of red-green colour-blindness too. I think “warm” greens look red. When I was very young, I drew grass as red. Later I discovered that grass contains carotene as well as chlorophyll.

I deduced that I was over-sensitive to red pigment. I find I can correct for my colour blindness with slightly blue-tinted spectacles which, ironically, help me pick out “true” reds much more easily! :)


Lee A. Arnold 09.14.13 at 9:31 pm

@54 — I’m not sure I understand your question. Epistemological chauvinism is exhibited by all sorts of anti-materialists, up to and including the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, physical materialists depend upon mathematics, the supreme metaphysical language; indeed many are willing to believe that numbers exist ontologically (“mathematical Platonism”).

Nagel is being taken to task for criticizing the claims for the exclusivity of materialist reductionism in making a description of the universe. The first sentence of the introduction of Mind and Cosmos: “The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.”

I think that is correct, we are captured inside a discourse with a systematic subject/object distortion. Although I am less sure about where he takes his argument.


geo 09.14.13 at 10:16 pm

Lee@60: we are captured inside a discourse with a systematic subject/object distortion

Sounds extremely promising. Could you elaborate?

Alex@56/57: Yes, certainly we experience something when we see a red wall. Seeing is one kind of experience, as we currently use those two words. And among the consequences of seeing a red wall are: saying “red” when asked what color it is (unless we’re lying for some reason); choosing red from a color palette when asked to choose a color that matches the color of the wall; mentioning Santa Claus’ coat or a ripe strawberry when asked to name an object of the same color as the wall. This is how we understand one another’s experiences, isn’t it?


Sasha Clarkson 09.14.13 at 10:19 pm

What is the difference between pain and a red wall? Pain gives a signal which the brain interprets as “whatever you’re doing, stop it now”. A red traffic light might be interpreted as “stop!” But late at night, with no other traffic or witnesses, one might think “sod it!” and carry on.

But this could all be programmed behaviour. Are you self-aware if you aren’t aware that you’re self aware (and DON’T introduce infinite recursion!)

One sunny afternoon, when I was nine, in the school playground, I had a sudden feeling of “me-ness” : “I’m alive and I AM ME” – I thought, or rather felt – if there’s a difference. 50 years later, I can remember exactly where I was standing. It really felt as if I had been asleep my whole life until that moment. I went home and told my parents who just smiled kindly and seemed amused. But I still look back on that day as, in a way, the beginning of my real life. Was I a zombie until that point?

I don’t know about some abstract point in Greek civilisation, but I suspect that many people had that “me” moment as a spear or sword was heading towards them, and it was actually an “oh s**t” moment!


Alex 09.14.13 at 10:25 pm

all our sense of self and free will and everything is self-delusion

This begs the question: what, and who, is being “deluded” by themselves?


Alex 09.14.13 at 10:29 pm

also, presumably Jaynes thinks those who lack a classical education are zombies? humanity was not restricted to Greece, tha knowst.


SusanC 09.14.13 at 10:37 pm

Our belief that other creatures have “consciousness” may be based on their similarity to ourselves in other, observable, aspects. I believe myself to have conciousness; other humans look and behave quite like me, so I think it likely they have conciousness too. Bats are still fairly like me, so maybe they have conciousness too. Insects? No idea.

At the other extreme: I suppose I could doubt that Tibetan buddhist monks have “conciousness” in the way that I do, at least when they’re meditating. They have a “mere I”, sure, but maybe not the “consciousness” that Western philosophers obsess over. (“Consciousness” viewed as an unhealthy obession with your own mental states; philosophizing about other entities mental states being this unhealthy obsession taken to a meta level).

Young children (e.g. below about 7) can speak, but are surprisingly poor at reasoning about other people’s mental states. Conscious? Hmmm… well, I was a child once so I should be able to remember… But I don’t have any memories of very early childhood, and I’m not unusual in this. I could suspect that I was a zombie, once.


maidhc 09.14.13 at 10:39 pm

This RadioLab show http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/#commentlist has a segment about a person who learned to speak as an adult. So it provided an opportunity to ask “what is it like to live without any language”? But his answer was essentially that you can’t describe what it was like using language.


John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 10:43 pm

Adding amateur classicism to amateur philosophy, how does the idea of Homeric zombies square with the role played Odysseus?

First, he pretends to be mad in order to avoid fighting, and the Greeks catch him out by throwing the infant Telemachus in the path of his plough

Then of course, there is the wooden horse, Laocoon etc

Both of these stories seem to impute a theory of mind not only to Odysseus but to others. And while consciousness need not imply a theory of mind, the converse implication surely holds (doesn’t it?)


Ben 09.14.13 at 10:46 pm

I’m laughing my ass off at this thread. Philosophical bee jokes, who knew.

Seconding Peter Watts’ Blindsight and the appendix of scholarly material. A Peter Watts Crooked Timber Book Event would be the supremum of the set of best things.

Re: Panpsychism, a really good volume is Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? which is one of those collections of papers where an author goes back and forth with his critics (and is a better-than-average example of that model of book).

Jerry Fodor (I know) wrote a pretty good review of it in the LRB.


SusanC 09.14.13 at 10:51 pm

@67. It’s fairly easy to imagine an artificial intelligence computer program passing the “Sally – Ann” test and other experimental measures of theory of mind. (Probably beyond current technology, though…) Someone like John Searle could still consider such a program as mindlessly following pre-programmed rules.


Matt 09.14.13 at 11:28 pm

What is it like to be a bat in pain?

Trick question! Only humans experience pain. Experiencing pain is a uniquely human skill of exquisite refinement, like composing symphonies. Every other organism just exhibits responses to stimuli. It is the happiest of coincidences that the responses-to-stimuli of laboratory rats and mice were excellent guides to developing synthetic analgesics for pain relief in humans. Burn a rat’s paw, pinch its tail, inject it with acid, and the muted responses induced by test pharmaceuticals correlate very favorably with how the compound might relieve pain in humans who had experienced injuries. “Acetic acid writhing test” — who’s to say that the animal is not writhing with entirely different qualia than a human in comparable circumstances? Certainly not I.

If the biological isomorphisms between rats and humans and their behaviors to stimuli lead you to suspect that rats can genuinely suffer, you’re probably a mush-head who probably wouldn’t do the right thing in a ticking time bomb scenario either. Rats don’t suffer, I swear. Nor cattle during branding. Nor infants during circumcision. Imagine the experience of entirely new senses? The more learned the scholar, the less certainty that pain is really pain when it’s in someone else’s body.


philosofatty 09.14.13 at 11:35 pm


I think that in the debate Nagel is introducing the bat argument into, materialism, or “physicalism,” has a narrower meaning than you think it does. It’s the view motivated by things like the apparent causal closure of the physical, which is to say the causal sufficiency of physical explanation, and the explanatory emptiness of physical/non-physical interactionist theories. Classic mind/body stuff. It implies a commitment to physical reality if you want to characterize that as a bias, but it’s not some kind of generic positivist death march of all “descriptions of the universe” containing dances and love affairs and whatnot, which seems to be the thing you are (rightly) opposed to. Anyway, it’s just not that, although Nagel is certainly feeding off of that worry.

But all Nagel is really pointing out is that the scientific sentences comprising a description of bat experience will probably fail to evoke bat experience for observers like us. But why is that a problem? It might be a problem if our bat-experience theories completely failed, in the long run, to suggest anything about how we might get into bat experience-y situations (with sonar helmets or whatever), but Nagel either assumes that they will so fail, or else seems to be saying that those sentences should somehow contain the seat of bat experience itself. But does he also think that a cookbook should contain dinners? In any event, it is the anti-materialist hunch that is associated here with taking ones imaginative powers (or lack thereof) as a guide to the structure of reality and the future of science.


Lee A. Arnold 09.14.13 at 11:49 pm

Geo #61 “Sounds extremely promising. Could you elaborate?”

You always make me laugh! But you asked for it. I really do believe there is work to be done… Nagel considers the problem by broaching teleology. I would go about half-way. Gregory Bateson argued that the concept of self-maintenance in cybernetics reintroduces the idea of teleology in a local form. I think that dovetails with intentionality. I think it may be possible to develop a 3rd language that stands between (1) natural language and (2) mathematics, and this language could have a standard syntactical operator that includes the subject-object relation. This would place both math and natural language as things generated by that relation. Now we already have math and materialist science for prediction; that is not exactly what we are after. What we are looking for is a uniform way to characterize the different contexts that produce the same surface statements, although those statements might appear in different Wittgensteinian language games. (For example, “Don’t upset the board!” could refer to a raucous chess game, or a meeting of a board of directors.) This would give two logically different types of connections: the connections within that language statement, and the connections (of e.g. responsibility and judgment) to the context of the statement. Then we finally might be able to take “intentionality” beyond Brentano, Husserl and Walter Benjamin. I think that among other things we might be able to describe different sorts of cognitive hierarchies, and symbolically find a typology of paradoxes which might even be useful to questions in materialism, such as quantum physics and neuroscience. It would also return to the question of whether science is necessarily a symbolical activity, i.e. that its meanings are found not merely in nature and experiment but partly through symbolic manipulation. I think in “science” we are looking at a very high-level symbolic/cognitive froth or lather which appears to be about the basic cosmos, but that idea need not be true.


chris 09.15.13 at 12:28 am

The question Dennett was addressing is: how do we know whether a bug (or a bat, or a human, for that matter) experiences pain? His answer is: we ask what would be the likely consequences of (follows from, is entailed by, etc.) one or the other possibility.

By that standard, it seems like the bisected bee experiment indicates that bees don’t feel pain, if they really continue eating as if nothing had happened; because that’s not how we would expect a being that is experiencing pain to react.

By contrast, if someone injures a dog (even in much less severe ways than cutting away major parts of its body), it will exhibit pain-reaction behaviors like whining and cringing, and possibly fear and hostility toward a repetition of the circumstances that led to its injury.

Of course, if you define pain by its reactions, then you can program a computer to experience pain, too; you could even argue that video game characters that are programmed to “flinch” when “hit” are already experiencing pain by this definition. (Although they may not be capable of the repetition-avoidance modeling that I described for dogs above, at least not with current technology.) Some even have specific rules for whether they flinch in certain circumstances and not others, or how severe an injury is required to make them flinch, etc.

Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any reliable way to distinguish “genuine” from “simulated” experiences of pain without jumping into the morass of qualia. Maybe this is an indication that the distinction isn’t as meaningful as we might be tempted to think.

Since JQ requested more zombies: zombies are traditionally depicted as not experiencing or reacting to pain and that’s one of the things that makes them frightening; but you could imagine a setting where zombies can react as if to pain, but since they’re still zombies, it’s questionable whether they are actually feeling it or just simulating it the way a computer program would (at least, if you accept that there is a real difference at all).


Andrew Burday 09.15.13 at 12:42 am

“All economic and philosophical discussions go better with zombies.”

Well, there’s no doubt about that, is there? But at exactly what point does the formerly living (and conscious) person become a zombie? Can’t say, can you Mr Smartypants? But then what’s to say that you’re not a zombie at this very moment, if you can’t specify an exact dividing line? Huh? A sorites problem looms (not to mention a really awful scifi movie of the week).


Bill Benzon 09.15.13 at 12:50 am

On Homeric zombies and such, here’s the sort of thing Jaynes was up to (from my book, Beethoven’s Anvil):

Jaynes’ analysis centers on a handful of terms. As used in the Iliad these words refer to bodily symptoms, but they later come to have mental referents, such as mind or spirit. One of these terms is thumos:

It refers to a mass of internal sensations in response to environmental crises. … This includes the dilation of the blood vessels in striate muscles and in the heart, an increase in tremor of striate muscles, a burst of blood pressure, the constriction of blood vessels in the abdominal viscera and in the skin, the relaxing of smooth muscles, and the sudden increased energy from the sugar released into the blood from the liver, and possible perceptual changes with the dilation of the pupil of the eye. This complex was, then, the internal pattern of sensation that preceded particularly violent activity in a critical situation. And by doing so repeatedly, the pattern of sensation begins to take on the term for the activity itself. Thereafter, it is the thumos which gives strength to a warrior in battle. …

The next step is to conceptualize thumos as a container of various psychological substances such as vigor, and as an agent responsible for some class of psychological acts. Once Jaynes has made similar arguments for the other terms, it seems obvious that the conceptualization of mind we find in classical Greek thinkers is constructed over sets of bodily symptoms we now recognize as being regulated by the brain centers most directly responsible for motivation and emotion.


Ronan(rf) 09.15.13 at 1:11 am

Beatrice alemegana had this covered before any of these characters


Tony Lynch 09.15.13 at 1:16 am

Please! No more on James and Snell. Read your Bernard Williams. In this case “Shame and Necessity”.


geo 09.15.13 at 2:33 am

Thanks, Lee. Must remember to watch what I ask for.


Alex K. 09.15.13 at 2:40 am

@geo” And among the consequences of seeing a red wall are […]”

Seeing a red wall has plenty of identifiable consequences, to be sure. The question is whether the claim that you have some _subjective experience_ when seeing a red wall has any consequences that can be verified by a third person. Scientific models have your neurons firing in the same way regardless of whether we postulate that you have a subjective experience or that you don’t.

The way we understand each other’s experiences is a complex issue. Partly it’s just a projection of our own subjective experiences and partly it’s the fact that we were influenced by similar traditions of self-conceptualization.

Charles Taylor (the philosopher, not the warlord), in “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity,” traces the modern conception of the self from the ancient, heroic age Greek conception of a “self” that is non-unitary and moved to action by powerful external forces; to the modern conception of a unitary self with inscrutable inner depths; from the location of the moral sources outside of ourselves (the Stoics began their lessons on morality with lectures on … physics) to the modern localization of the source of morality within ourselves.

I’m not going to try to make an adequate summary of Taylor’s argument, since its details are largely irrelevant. But what is relevant is that we share a substantive tradition that allows us to attribute to each other subjective experiences in absence of any purely scientific reason to do so. Beside the traditions described by Taylor, which are continent-wide, we may also share similar, more local, formative experiences with our friends, or even just fellow citizens. The presence of such rich shared traditions and experiences makes it much easier to jump from purely external behavioral signs to the attribution of subjective experiences in others.

But this does not imply that the scientific models of atoms, neurons etc. can be used to deduce the existence of subjective experiences. Those models are simply silent about whether we feel something or not.


grumpy python script 09.15.13 at 3:02 am

Thinking about what Heidegger said is a good example of the sunk cost fallacy. Ditto, Wittgenstein, Julian Jaynes, and Nagel.

Animals (including insects) feel pain iff they have nociceptors. That’s not as circular as it may seem.

Consciousness is a compound concept. Its parts do not form a connected set; the sorites problem is only one of many.

However, the capacity to exhibit playful behavior (in type specimens) can be a useful test for existence of “what is it like to be a” consciousness…sometimes. Quite a few humans fail this one. Not JQ, though.

You all have flipped bits in your system process tables, and are harboring zombie processes as a result. Go outside and get some fresh electrons.

Yes, that is you told, then.


Zora 09.15.13 at 3:47 am


Zora 09.15.13 at 3:48 am

Try that again. Dangnabit, let’s have a preview function.



Mao Cheng Ji 09.15.13 at 3:51 am

I hear some looked at a burnt toast once and experienced Virgin Mary.


Lee A. Arnold 09.15.13 at 4:06 am

Geo #78 – Well I entirely forgot that I finished a one-minute vid just yesterday, with BEES in it!

Because “understanding today’s complex world of the future is a little like having bees live in your head.”

One minute exactly, because “you don’t have the time, and I don’t have the money!”


john c. halasz 09.15.13 at 4:12 am

No mention of Wittgenstein yet.


William Timberman 09.15.13 at 5:18 am

Consciousness. The still point of the turning world. And density, the quality above all other qualities. How rich are the associations provoked when you encounter a red wall? In our common culture, this depends partly, but only partly, on whether or not you can see that it’s red and that it’s a wall, and have also been schooled in all the many extant significances of red, and of walls. If you are blind, or color blind, the full perception doesn’t exist for you. If your disadvantages are cultural, rather than physical, the more rarified significances probably don’t either. If either or both are true, you aren’t necessarily a lesser creature, but you’re definitely a different one. Hence invidious comparisons in general, and those in particular which tend to rank bugs, bats, dogs and slaves on a continuum which, by the usual sleight of hand, is presumed to exclude the observer.


John Quiggin 09.15.13 at 6:06 am

Wittgenstein got a good run in the comments thread at my blog.


There’s a lot of path-dependence in these things.


Bruce Wilder 09.15.13 at 6:20 am

Consciousness. The still point of the turning world.

Or the desperate delusion of a would-be (but isn’t, except in his delusion) “pilot” forever falling behind his craft.


strophariad 09.15.13 at 7:32 am

@John Quiggin, #67:

For what it’s worth, it seems the sources for Odysseus’s draft-dodging attempt and Laocoön’s warning are Pseudo-Apollodorus, Hyginus, and Virgil, long postdating Homer. On the other hand, the Trojan Horse indicates a theory of mind at least as developed as those of toddlers and chimps.

Regarding whether consciousness or theory came first, here are Snell and Dennett (with apologies to Tony Lynch, #77):

Snell, p. vi, “In spite of our statement that the Greeks discovered the intellect we also assert that the discovery was necessary for the intellect to come into existence. Or, to put it grammatically: the intellect is not only an affective, but also an effective object.”

Dennett (pdf) says of morality, “The phenomenon is created in part by the arrival on the scene of a certain set of concepts.” Likewise he paraphrases Jaynes, “To put it really somewhat paradoxically, you can’t have consciousness until you have the concept of consciousness.”

But concepts can be more or less refined, accounting for the soritical nature of consciousness. This RadioLab episode (not maidhc’s) discusses the psychology of color (and its basis in Homeric scholarship), including observations that many languages develop color-words in the same order and that these vocabularies make distinguishing colors more or less difficult for native speakers. The host remarks, “If Homer had no word for blue, and the word somehow enables the blueness of the blue, then maybe his world was less blue.”


A H 09.15.13 at 8:18 am

Here is what I wrote about Wittgenstein at Quiggin’s blog.

If you are having philosophical questions about consciousness, you really need to go to Wittgenstein. Read Philosophical Investigations and then read it again. It’s a major failure of modern philosophy that they keep making arguments that Wittgenstein showed were flawed over 50 years ago.

By asserting that subjective experience is a special type of thing, Nagel is essentially making a private language argument. But private language arguments are always flawed because one can never formulate the rules by which they are used, and therefore a private language can never be meaningful. It’s a subtle argument and it’s really best just to read the original Wittgenstein to see all the nuances.

Personally, I feel like a lot of mistaken philosophizing about consciousness comes from taking the fact that we are subjective beings to be somehow strange. How could we not be subjective beings? The fact that we don’t have access to other people’s or being’s subjective states is simply because we are finite material entities, with limited intellectual capacities. This is all rather mundane, but philosophers ignore the mundaness of it and mistakenly attach all sort of weird properties to subjective experience. Just look at the widespread nonsense they spew about “beliefs”, which philosophers seem to believe are some sort of abstract logical objects that float around in the vicinity of our brains.


philosofatty 09.15.13 at 9:17 am

@ geo, Alex K.

Dennett’s classic statement on the ontological status of folk psychology according to his instrumental view is Real Patterns. Returning (sort of) to the original issue, you can see here how vagueness is built in to his theory of psychological attribution. His more eliminativist position on qualia is in Quining Qualia. Finally, key techniques for conducing a bat-like experience.


Jerry Vinokurov 09.15.13 at 9:32 am

And of course the Churchlands are required reading on these matters as well.


Random Lurker 09.15.13 at 10:00 am

Reading the comments, I had this epiphany that consciousness is something we DO, not something we ARE.
For example, suppose I’m watching a movie, and while watching it I’m not self conscious.
But then I look at the clock and realise that is 1am.
At this point I remember that tomorrow morning I have to wake up at 7 to go to work . Now I’m self conscious as I’m seeing myself as an object (in the model of the world that exists in my head there is an object that corresponds to myself, so I’m conscious of myself) .
Thus self consciousness is not a property but an action, and specifically the cognitive action of not seeing the world in subjective.


John Quiggin 09.15.13 at 10:02 am

This is the kind of thread that makes CT great for me. I had no idea that Heidegger wrote about half-bees or that that the Iliad was, even arguably, about zombies.

In return, if anyone would like an explanation of how state-contingent production leads to a better understanding of the moral hazard problem (or a zillion other abstruse problems in modern econ), you just have to ask.


bill benzon 09.15.13 at 10:33 am

It’s not simply that Iliad was, even arguably, ABOUT zombies, but that Homer hisownbadself, and everyone in his audience, WERE (arguably) themselves ZOMBIES. Jaynes is arguing that they weren’t conscious. He’s arguing that consciousness arrived on earth, or at least in Europe, sometime between Homer and Sophocles. Before that moment, all zombies 24/7/365.

I don’t think it would be wise to let Richard Dawkins get ahold of Jaynes. Because then he’ll conclude that the core texts of Judeo-Christianity were written by zombies. Hence, religion is by zombies for zombies. QED.


bill benzon 09.15.13 at 10:36 am

And, to be clear, I think that The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a fascinating and brilliant piece of work. But you’ve got to put that zombie thing in brackets and keep it there.


Hidari 09.15.13 at 11:08 am

Jaynes did indeed argue that Homer that the Greeks in the time of Homer (or at least the time that Homer was writing about) were not conscious, but it’s worth pointing out that his definition of ‘consciousness’ was not the normal one: it was much tighter than that. He was absolutely not arguing that these ancient Greeks were shambling zombies. It would make much more sense to argue that Jaynes was the ancient Greeks as being behaviourists, in other words, as having no concept of the ‘inner’. In this view, ‘our’ ‘Western’ worldview (in which we have an ‘inner’ world of conscious experience and an ‘outer world’ of external experience, which are somehow linked together) is a social construct (Jaynes also believed that newborn babies are not conscious in his highly specific use of the world. You have to learn to be conscious).

And this links his work with Wittgenstein and Heidegger (or at least Heidegger as seen by Hubert Dreyfyus: ‘Dreydegger’). Both of these thinkers questioned the concept of the ‘inner’, Wittgenstein by his so-called ‘private language argument’ (which is not really an argument in the classical sense, but we will let that pass) and Heidegger by pointing out that human ‘consciousness’ so to speak, lies on a substrate of socially constructed social practices.

See this paper here, which has the obligatory reference to zombies (pointing out that the idea is a contradiction in terms. A zombie would have zombie consciousness, more limited than ours (world-poor in Heidegger’s terminology) but nevertheless consciousness of a sort).


And here is Dreyfus talking about consciousness and Homer, making the point that consciousness mostly is an adjunct to action, that there are different kinds or varieties or action, and that consciousness is therefore something that is ‘in the world’ (to be more specific, to do with the interaction between you and the world and other people in the world) not something that is primarily ‘in your head’.

Therefore consciousness studies fall under the purview of the sociologist, not the neuroscientist, who is quite literally looking in the wrong place.


bill benzon 09.15.13 at 12:42 pm

@Hidari: “Jaynes did indeed argue that Homer that the Greeks in the time of Homer (or at least the time that Homer was writing about) were not conscious, but it’s worth pointing out that his definition of ‘consciousness’ was not the normal one: it was much tighter than that. He was absolutely not arguing that these ancient Greeks were shambling zombies.”

Hmmm. OK. But I’m not sure what that gets us. Or rather, I’m not sure what his peculiar “tight” definition of consciousness gets us.

“In this view, ‘our’ ‘Western’ worldview (in which we have an ‘inner’ world of conscious experience and an ‘outer world’ of external experience, which are somehow linked together) is a social construct…”

But just what is it that is socially constructed? A (mere) concept? I can agree with that. Or is this construct supposed to bring with it an “inner” experience that cannot otherwise exist? That seems more problematic.

That is, I am content to think of consciousness as a physical phenomenon, a very subtle physical phenomenon, to be sure, but nonetheless physical. But I do not think that creating a certain conception of the self (as having inner experience) thereby brings a new physical phenomenon into existence. And if I’m going to think of consciousness as (an exceendingly subtle) physical phenomenon, then I’m going to thing of concepts as (exceendingly subtle) physical phenomena as well (though I hate to use the analogy, kind of like the bit patterns of computer code). The concept of inner experience is the same kind of thing (ontologically the same) as the concept of a rock.


William Timberman 09.15.13 at 2:22 pm

Doesn’t the attempt to get power over the outer world, and its bastard child, the explanation, foster, even demand, the creation of an inner world? Is there any way at all to do tools without also doing creation myths, dream interpretation, architecture, theater, politics, etc.? And isn’t it almost inevitable that in going down that path, we wind up at some point thinking that our selves and the rest of the world are to some extent mutually exclusive, and suffer from a fear of death as well as alienation, narcissism, sociopathy, psychiatry, and Wittgenstein in roughly that order?

If we’re human, I’d say the answer is yes. I’m not persuaded — yet — that what we think we know about other species tells us why the answer for them still seems to be no. Although actually reading all the books might change my mind, at this point I suspect that we’ve been nibbling around the edges of something for a very long time that may not have a center accessible to us at all.


bill benzon 09.15.13 at 2:48 pm

There is reason to believe that introspection is an illusion, making the inner world to which it gives access an illusion as well. Whatever is going on when we introspect, it is not like examining the contents of a box by lifting the lid a bit and peaking inside:

A 1977 paper by psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson challenged the directness and reliability of introspection, thereby becoming one of the most cited papers in the science of consciousness.[8][9] Nisbett and Wilson reported on experiments in which subjects verbally explained why they had a particular preference, or how they arrived at a particular idea. On the basis of these studies and existing attribution research, they concluded that reports on mental processes are confabulated. They wrote that subjects had, “little or no introspective access to higher order cognitive processes”.[10] They distinguished between mental contents (such as feelings) and mental processes, arguing that while introspection gives us access to contents, processes remain hidden.[8]

Although some other experimental work followed from the Nisbett and Wilson paper, difficulties with testing the hypothesis of introspective access meant that research on the topic generally stagnated.[9] A ten-year-anniversary review of the paper raised several objections, questioning the idea of “process” they had used and arguing that unambiguous tests of introspective access are hard to achieve.[3]

Updating the theory in 2002, Wilson admitted that the 1977 claims had been too far-reaching.[10] He instead relied on the theory that the adaptive unconscious does much of the moment-to-moment work of perception and behavior. When people are asked to report on their mental processes, they cannot access this unconscious activity.[7] However, rather than acknowledge their lack of insight, they confabulate a plausible explanation, and “seem” to be “unaware of their unawareness”.[11]


Mao Cheng Ji 09.15.13 at 3:09 pm

@100, this reminds me of this experiment (from wikipedia, although I first read about it in the book called User Illusion):
“…a patient with split brain is shown a picture of a chicken and a snowy field in separate visual fields and asked to choose from a list of words the best association with the pictures. The patient would choose a chicken foot to associate with the chicken and a shovel to associate with the snow; however, when asked to reason why the patient chose the shovel, the response would relate to the chicken (e.g. “the shovel is for cleaning out the chicken coop”).”


mud man 09.15.13 at 3:20 pm

William #99 Yes, the existence of an “outer” world, not to mention power over same, defines an “inner” world in opposition. Inside an (ahem) “advanced” individual there are dense clusters of causal linkages, but there really isn’t any absolute distinction to be made. On the other hand you can’t have even a community, an ecology, let alone a self, without boundaries, so (another) sorites problem. So the question is, where shall we, Modern humans that we are, create boundaries for our selfhood? Yup, it’s a social contract. “Fear of Wittgenstein”, as you rightly suggest.

bill #98, suggest consciousness is an epiphenomenon, like Beethoven’s Fifth on a CD: an instantiation of a thing, not the thing itself. Dependent on the physical thing, but with additional “arbitrary” features. Some think “epiphenomena” are “irreal”: such apparently don’t even believe in Chemistry, let alone Pain. The thing is, Rocks don’t do social contracts.


Lee A. Arnold 09.15.13 at 3:28 pm

Philosophatty #71 “I think that in the debate Nagel is introducing the bat argument into, materialism, or “physicalism,” has a narrower meaning than you think it does… it’s not some kind of generic positivist death march of all “descriptions of the universe” containing dances and love affairs… although Nagel is certainly feeding off of that worry.”

Has Nagel changed his position since the bat paper? In the new book he writes, “…among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility.” (p. 4) Then he mentions the arguments (brought forward in part by creationists, though he is careful to dismiss them on other grounds) that physical evolution may not have had enough time for consciousness to develop. The balance of the book is an exploration of what that, if true, might mean for a new, non-theistic account of consciousness. Further, he implies that it might change science across the board. Do you think that such an account would not affect new scientific descriptions of dances and love affairs?


Norwegian Guy 09.15.13 at 3:39 pm

Am I the only one who is disturbed by the statement that consciousness was invented/discovered by the Greeks ca. 500 BC? It could be taken to imply that “non-Greeks” (perhaps non-Christians or non-Westerners) are zombie-like creatures and can be slaughtered with little or no consideration. Do foreigners experience pain?


Mao Cheng Ji 09.15.13 at 4:34 pm

It wasn’t invented/discovered by Greeks, he just uses Iliad for his analysis. And it has nothing to do with pain, or slaughter, with or without consideration.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.15.13 at 5:06 pm

…there is a view, btw, according to which the Europeans turned zombies again around 500 AD, and stayed like that for the next 500 years. Then, in the 11th century they slowly started coming out of it, the Renaissance being the high point of that. I guess, probably slipping back into a zombie-like state again, in the last 100 years or so.


Lee A. Arnold 09.15.13 at 5:29 pm

I haven’t read Jaynes since it was published, but I thought his idea was that, based on the evidence of Homer, the Greeks did not have interior reflective consciousness, i.e. thoughts about one’s own inner states. I never bought this. They may not known how to express it, which is different. Could the supposed lack of interior reflection just be the lack of a literary development? By exhibiting Ulysses, Homer invents the question: Then after that, the Old Testament writers reflect upon their relationship to their god, Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne are all about the interior, but we don’t see much self-reflection in fiction until Marlowe and Shakespeare. Perhaps it wasn’t worthy before then — we are all a part of the body of god, and you are not the king getting his biography written, so shut up. What if bees are conscious as we, panpsychism, but are lacking some pain receptors, and don’t have much means of expression? They apparently dance to communicate. That means in theory they ought to be able to express symbolic negatives — tie themselves to the mast of the ship.


philosofatty 09.15.13 at 5:31 pm


Honestly, I have no idea what exactly Nagel is saying now, although I know of his new book and that it has been roundly trashed by all commentators. The line you quote is a curious construction. As I started to indicate before, “materialism” isn’t even really contemporary philosophical idiom. Traditionally, “reductive materialism” or “reductive physicalism” in the philosophy of mind is the view that science will discover type identities between ordinary psychological predicates and brain states (this view is associated with, although not the same as the “unity of science” view according to which the various sciences are theoretically continuous, and in principle, in their mature forms, reducible to a completed physics). Over most of the last 40 or so years, this has not been the majority view, although that may have changed, although I doubt it (it’s not Dennett’s view, for instance). So, Nagel’s nonstandard usage there, in what appears to be a misrepresentation of “the standard view,” such as it is, strikes me as deeply suspicious, if not outright dishonest, let alone his apparent pivot to creationist arguments, which, to say the least, seem an unlikely candidate to usher in a Kuhnian paradigm shift in consciousness studies or basic science or whatever is supposed to happen there.

You miss my point about love affairs and dances, which is that they are not made any less “special,” to put it crudely, by the truth of physicalism, or, importantly, not made any more special either by any of the various anti-physicalist views on offer that are worth considering for more than half a second. I think this is a harder thing to see than is widely and transparently acknowledged, and, as a consequence, these debates are suffused with and constrained by the bizarre brand of identity politics that they are, to the very great extent that they are. Hope this helps to clarify!


Mao Cheng Ji 09.15.13 at 5:54 pm

The Old Testament (except for more recent parts, like Ecclesiastes) is about rules, strict orders given to you by God or someone who can hear God. It’s all about demanding that you obey this particular God, and ignore commands given by all other gods, idols. Christianity otoh clearly assumes free will, that you’re the one making decisions.


Jim Buck 09.15.13 at 5:55 pm

I don’t think it would be wise to let Richard Dawkins get ahold of Jaynes. Because then he’ll conclude that the core texts of Judeo-Christianity were written by zombies. Hence, religion is by zombies for zombies. QED.

Dawkins is quite familiar with the bicameral mind hypothesis; and his money is on Jaynes being on the right track. (Read: The God Delusion). What the present discussion is missing—with respect to Jaynes–is an entertaining of the idea that zombiehood, rather than being simply a lack of conscious experience, may instead express an alien form of consciousness. Jaynes’s Homeric, and biblical, zombies had their immediate actions dictated by cultural hallucinations– e.g Appollo, Minerva, Yaweh–in a way similar to the command hallucinations that a minority of contemporary schizophrenia sufferers report.


Gary Williams 09.15.13 at 6:18 pm

In addition to bees and lizards Heidegger also talked about “what-it-is-like” to be a unicellular bacteria. In the History of the Concept of Time he writes:

“A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing.”

Thus, for Heidegger, the dividing line between cognitive and non-cognitive beings is that cognitive beings have “affectivity”, which can be translated roughly as having the ability to “care for things”, including “caring for oneself”, which in primitive beings is just survival and homeostatic equilibrium. In this respect, Heidegger was ahead of his time by talking about biological systems in cognitive rather than purely bio-chemical terms, echoing some recent biologist’s talk of bacteria as “Small but not stupid”: http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/2006.ExeterMeeting.pdf


Lee A. Arnold 09.15.13 at 6:59 pm

@Philosophatty #108 — Nagel brackets and discards the type identity theory (as the “psycho-physical identity theory”, pp. 38-41), so that isn’t the entirely of his purview. The fact that commentators have trashed the book holds no water with me. As I think I wrote above, I leave his argument about halfway through the book, though that particular discussion would be a very long one… However, before that, the book is defensible. His “pivot to creationist arguments” is not so. He simply acknowledges that they are currently using an evolution-probability argument which predates them; i.e. the question about the probability of evolution of human consciousness in Earth’s timespan. I am not competent to address that question. He points out that it isn’t originally a creationist argument; he just acknowledges that they use it. (The unclearness of his critics on that point may be an indicator of general unreliability.) It is Nagel’s contention that this probability argument is not settled, in fact the existing settlement appears to him, after a broad review of the existing discussion, to be mere prejudice of most scientists when they are driven to entertain the question, by appeals to belief in broad reductionist materialism, by reference to the other successes of it. He doesn’t say this is an error, his question is: what obtains, if it were an error? The supposition, that this response to the question of the evolutionary likelihood of consciousness may be only prejudice, is the premise with which the book starts: what would the outlines of an alternative non-theistic theory look like? In this sense, the book may be, for professional philosophers, a discardable survey or overview of existing ideas. I am obviously not a professional philosopher, but it does not appear to be merely about the philosophy of mind.


Lee A. Arnold 09.15.13 at 7:01 pm

“someone who can hear God” — Jaynes’ point, almost to the letter…


Jeffrey Davis 09.15.13 at 7:30 pm

There are reports/inventions of human interiority prior to Marlowe and Shakespeare: Simon Peter remembering Christ’s words upon hearing the cock crow and Odysseus sowing salt in his fields to feign madness.


dbk 09.15.13 at 8:14 pm

Wow, what a great discussion thread.

Re: consciousness of bugs (OP and all that): I would posit that bugs are not “conscious” in the same way that human beings are “conscious,” given the structure(s) of their nervous systems.

Re: evolution of consciousness in human beings: there is a theory that human consciousness (however defined; I think of it as the “capacity for self-reflection leading to new thoughts [innovation]/potential action in the outside world”, and suspect it to be a cognitive capability made possible by the neuronal wiring of the neo-cortex; among the pre-requisities seem to be massive connectivity, infinite recursion, and the capacity for symbolic thought – all of which are necessary, though not sufficient, presuppositions for the development of language). In this respect, cognitive scientists seem to find helpful the study of other highly-evolved primates / mammals (e.g. dolphins).

Re: Homeric man and zombi-ism: I’m not familiar with Jayne’s arguments, though I’ll follow the links above with interest. Here, however, there seems to me no question but that Homeric man was conscious in the full sense (i.e., our own sense); what set Homeric man apart from Classical – modern man was his Weltanschauung, which projected causality for psychological states onto/into external agents (e.g., “the gods”). Sometime between Homer (late Geometric-early Archaic age) and the 5th century BC, this attributional scheme changed dramatically – certainly in consequence of the Sophistic philosophers of Ionia, and (imho only) perhaps also in consequence of the Greeks’ massive colonization of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean littoral. Basically, the predominant mode of thinking changed from what has been called “paratactic” to that called “hypotactic”, a revolutionary change which made possible the so-called “Greek miracle” (and by extension, “Western thought”). This, however, was not the emergence of consciousness per se, but rather an alteration in the programmatic fashion in which consciousness/ conscious thought was deployed in service to thinking about, and acting in the world.

So, we have: perception (a capacity all sentient beings possess, including bugs); consciousness (a capacity some highly-evolved animals possess, most notably but not exclusively homo sapiens sapiens), and world-view (which involves so-called “modes of thought”, all of which, however, presuppose the neural structures briefly noted above that enable consciousness), which feature various “styles” of thinking/reflecting on the world “outside”.

Bernard Williams (as @77) is exceptional in “Shame and Necessity”; basically his is a philosophical response to those who have claimed that the Greeks lacked some components of modern consciousness, e.g. the capacity for “guilt”. However, by the time we arrive at the point of classifying a culture as “shame” or “guilt”-based, consciousness has been around for a very, very long time – in fact, perhaps for a few hundred thousand years, in light of recent discoveries about the artistic and tool-making accomplishments of our distant ancestors.

Anyway, just my two cents’ worth – I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time w/r/t the ancient Greeks, and reading a bit about the evolution of the language faculty as a separate hobby.


Harold 09.15.13 at 8:31 pm

It was a question that also preoccupied Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, and amateur entomologist Béla Bartók, who is said to have attempted to recreate their scurrying and buzzing in the second movement of his fourth quartet. The pizzicato fourth movement of this work also evokes them.




SusanC 09.15.13 at 8:54 pm

In neuroscience, the “default mode network” in the human brain is associated with inward mental reflection when the experimental participant has nothing more urgent to do. (e.g. when they’re in a fMRI scanner, and not doing the experimental task, and start thinking about what they’re going to do when the experiment is over and they get home).

The kinds of mental activity characteristic of the “default mode network” may roughly correspond to the kinds of activity some philosophers refer to as “consciousness” (memory, planning, inward self-reflection etc. as opposed to responding to immediate sensor stimuli). I don’t know if bats have a default mode network or not. This is an empirical (not metaphysical) question that could probably be answered by getting a bat into an fMRI machine (the practical details of which are left as an exercize for the reader, or possibly the reader’s grad students). A very quick literature search didn’t find anything relevant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been done. In any case, if bats don’t have a default mode network, their psychic experience is likely very different from ours.


bill benzon 09.15.13 at 9:18 pm

@mudman: “bill #98, suggest consciousness is an epiphenomenon…”

I suggest no such thing. I say that it is a physical phenomenon, albeit very subtle. That’s not epiphenomenal.

@Mao Cheng Ji: “It wasn’t invented/discovered by Greeks, he just uses Iliad for his analysis.”

But if it (consciousness) wasn’t there in Homer, but was there later, that it had to have been invented by the Greeks, no? Either that or Greeks later than Homer picked it up from a source Janes doesn’t cite.


SusanC 09.15.13 at 9:27 pm

I’ve just realised that there’s a curious co-incidence in Nagel’s choice of a bat for the thought-experiment. Bats, who use echo-location, have evolutionary selection in the FOXP2 gene whose human equivalent is associated with language. If you think language has something to do with consciousness, this possibly places bats closer to us than most other animals. They build their mental model of the world by making and listening to squeaky noises. We do too, except our squeaky noises include things like the works of Martin Heidegger[*]

[*] Read alound, obviously. Spoken language precedes written language, historically.


William Timberman 09.15.13 at 9:27 pm

About the consciousness of Homer and his contemporaries having less developed boundaries between the external and internal than is the case today: I wonder if this isn’t a more or less left-handed resurrection of theories about the superior psychological health of man-in-the state-of-nature, including the usual reasons given for it — from innocence to fresh air — that have always irritated me. On the other hand, we have plenty of examples of presumably sophisticated moderns who speak in convincing terms about being vessels rather than agents, from Robert Graves and his White Goddess to the origin of Kekulé’s model of the benzene molecule in the dream of a snake with its tail in its mouth.

The convention is that this form of zombie-ism arises in an unconscious mind, i.e., outside the boundaries of our consciousness but not outside ourselves. Are we really so sure that its origin lies in some unmappable internal wellspring? Doesn’t it make just as much sense to accept, with Homer and his kin, that it comes from somewhere else, i.e. somewhere entirely external to ourselves? I remember reading years ago — I don’t remember where — that given all the signaling that goes on between human beings in any social situation, it makes as much sense to speak of a collective conscious as a collective unconscious. As I remember it, the point being made was that Freud, handcuffed as he was by the taboos of the Nineteenth Century and all, had to take the long way ’round to get where he was going, and that being beyond his now outmoded hangups, we could get there by a shorter route. Perhaps we still can, but I kinda doubt it.


William Timberman 09.15.13 at 9:35 pm

Make that Jung, not Freud, if you will. I’m not exactly Goldilocks, but I do sometimes feel as though somebody’s been sleeping in my unconscious without my knowledge or permission.


peter 09.15.13 at 9:35 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ #107

“but we don’t see much self-reflection in fiction until Marlowe and Shakespeare.

And Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the poetry of his distant cousin, the Catholic priest and poet, Robert Southwell SJ, whose own self-reflective poetry was in turn a result of his Jesuit training and practice of Ignatian spiritual exercises. These require meditation on words or images, and then reflection on the practitioner’s mental reactions to the meditations.


William Timberman 09.15.13 at 9:52 pm

And shouldn’t someone mention Levi-Strauss at some point in this discussion? It seems to me that he had provocative things to say about the human end of the Great Chain of Being invoked in the OP, especially about its lack of uniformity across cultures.


Lee A. Arnold 09.15.13 at 10:07 pm

@peter – Mystical practice and the subsequent experience has been so influential in the development of culture that its current undervaluation, by the academic establishment in particular, is deplorable. It is often relegated to the status of hallucination, which is just wrong. And, you cannot understand the entirety of consciousness without it.

As an old mystic, I think one problem for the discussion is that consciousness can exist without any sort of thoughts and memories. You can do this, and it is quite beneficial healthwise, although from the reports, it usually takes years. You start by focusing on an intentional object to the exclusion of others, a mandala or a mantra or a mustard seed, and after years of practice you become able to focus on your awareness itself as an intentional object, and watch thoughts come and go as ripples on water, as in zen. Then finally, the thoughts evaporate altogether. Pure consciousness, without even so much as an intentional object. The final stages can be accompanied by an sudden expansion of this pure awareness, (reports of this are numerous), as if more of the brain capacity were suddenly utilized. I think the subjective “feeling” of this expansion, the experience of the difference in the two states, points at what consciousness is. It is real and maybe it could be recorded by a brainwave machine, except that it is (so far) impossible to predict its occurrence. It is also totally indescribable except by some perceptual concomitants, which sometimes happen but not always (the visual field is suffused with light, there is timelessness) and the usual metaphors (“in understanding, it is as far above regular consciousness as regular consciousness is above sleep,” etc.) I alway feel that philosophers of mind (Dennett, Nagel, etc.) who have not experienced this, are helplessly and unknowingly forced to conduct their discussions with the concepts of “perception”, “thoughts”, “hallucinations” etc., as placeholders, and these things miss the boat.


SusanC 09.15.13 at 11:17 pm

@124. See, for example “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity” by Judson A. Brewer et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108, no 50. People have measured what’s happening neurologically during meditation, and it appears there’s a major effect. As I understand it, what you describe is how you make the default mode network go silent.


philosofatty 09.15.13 at 11:23 pm

@ Lee

My understanding from the reviews I have glanced at is that Nagel’s attack on evolutionary theory is motivated by his prior commitment to anti-physicalism (in whatever language he construes that these days). That is, to be clear, his argument moves from an a prioristically protected anti-physicalist commitment to a critique of evolutionary theory, and not the other way around. What is it that motivates his argumentatively antecedent anti-physicalism? Why, the fact that, still, after all these years, even when he squints really really hard and really really intensely, he still can’t imagine anything but psycho/neural correlations; that is, neuroscientific sentences still fail to evoke (or somehow contain) subjective experience for observers in our local spatiotemporal and cultural orbit. So, if you like this argument, fine, but notice at least that it is the anti-physicalist here who is taking his metaphysical cues from his own local epistemic and imaginative situation.


Gary Williams 09.15.13 at 11:28 pm

Jaynes’ claims about Homer’s mental state needs to be clarified. Jaynes’ didn’t think that Homer himself was fully bicameral (i.e. completely lacking introspection but hearing voices of gods). Rather, Jaynes thought Homer was likely introspectively conscious to some limited degree but was *reporting on* on events hundreds of years earlier that were populated with people that Jaynes thought were total “Greek zombies” i.e. intelligent, bicameral, but lacking the capacity for conscious narratization and self-reflective introspection.

Jaynes thought the earliest stories about divinely inspired heroes were reporting stories of genuine phenomenological experience that were more prevalent in these pre-Homeric times e.g. Achilles’ hallucinations of the gods was not just a poetic device but a descriptive report of early bicameral mentality. Later, conscious poets like Homer and other scribes inserted introspectional vocabulary (e.g. about cunning Ulysses) that over-laps the older, more bicameral vocabulary. But if you look, you can trace the evolution of psychological-introspectional words from their more concrete origins in the Iliad to more abstract notions in later texts. “Psyche” goes from being an oozing substance to an abstract soul.

The same evolution of introspectional vocabulary and mentality can be observed in the Old Testament (e.g. the earliest text of Amos the shepherd boy prophet) to the highly introspectional texts of Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon.

Recent philological research supports Jaynes’ claims about the evolution of introspectional vocabulary throughout the Axial Age: “A quantitative philology of introspection.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23015783


bill benzon 09.15.13 at 11:45 pm

Gary Williams: Thanks for the link. Interesting stuff.


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 12:13 am

SusanC. #125 – Very interesting, thanks! Why do they pick right-handed subjects?


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 12:32 am

Philosophatty #126: ” So, if you like this argument, fine…”

Actually no, that is where I lost interest in the book. I think I lost interest in Dennett at about the same place (it’s been 20 years ago) though I think he took it in support of the argument that consciousness is an illusory concept.


geo 09.16.13 at 12:46 am

Lee@124: As an old mystic …

Does this mean that you are old and a mystic, that you are a long-time mystic, or that you were once a mystic?

Lee and Susan: I’ve also seen plausible reports (eg. from the Buddhist neuroscientist Alan Wallace) that meditation can produce extraordinary brain states. And of course, we hear daily from all sides about the health benefits of mindfulness. I fully believe both claims. But I’m not sure I see what enlightenment is good for besides improving your blood pressure and heart rate. The Dalai Lama is a good egg, but everything he’s written doesn’t weigh in the scales with a sentence by Nietzsche or a stanza by Yeats. If you spend ten thousand hours studying physics, you may invent string theory. If you spend ten thousand hours writing a novel, you may produce Anna Karenina. What can you do (for the rest of us, I mean) when you’ve spent ten thousand hours meditating?


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 1:47 am

Geo, it’s a good question. I think there is a difference between meditating, and the enlightenment experience. I was just about to write this in a reply to Susan, because at some point the brain researchers are going to have to make that distinction. They are not the same. There are a few outstanding examples of enlightenment producing great work: Descartes changed mathematical science. I think Plato was a full-blown mystic. James Joyce had “epiphanies”. Yeats was a mystic, though I don’t know if he meditated…


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 1:48 am

I am old and an ex-mystic, though you never really get over it…


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 1:48 am

SusanC #125: “As I understand it, what you describe is how you make the default mode network go silent.”

There are two different experiences reported in mystical development, so it would be hard to know what the researchers are observing, without interviewing the meditating subjects. In the mystical path there appears to be (1) a usually very long period of mindfulness meditation, which is accompanied by quiet and aesthetic experience, and then after that, there may be (2) a short breakpoint or catastrophe to a qualitatively different experience: ego extinction. The Buddhist and Vedantist traditions use different words to refer to them, but then, they seem to have had the largest number of intellectual mystics, and the emotional or devotional mystical traditions and subtraditions are less categorical and definitive about it. Some Christian mystics have described the difference, but in idiosyncratic terms. Judaic mysticism is hard to research for this sort of thing, because the tradition appears to have been not to make many first-hand psychological reports. (I would love to be advised otherwise!) I haven’t found the distinction in Sufi writings; they seem to go straight to the second and bigger transformation, “fana” (= Buddhist nirvana, Vedantist samadhi, Christian “beatific vision” etc… John of the Cross had a lovely coinage, “deiformity”, of the form of god…) The first and lesser form of experience has wide reportage outside of mystical traditions, and spontaneous mindfulness in the form of poetic or mystical feeling often receives new state names (James Joyce’s “epiphanies”, for example). So brain research may have to get into comparative mysticism, at some point. But it is hard to tell what the traditions are talking about, unless the experience has been first-hand. There was some really nice work done on standardizing the interpretation of mystical reports in the old Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.


Bill Krause 09.16.13 at 2:18 am

Lee@129 Right-handed subjects are the (ahem) default choice in neuroscience studies because their functions are very consistently lateralized. For instance, language is on the left and spatial awareness on the right in almost all of them. Lefties are a complete crapshoot in this regard.


Bill Krause 09.16.13 at 2:35 am

Lee@132: It’s pretty hard to get a subject to have enlightenment experience on demand, much less while in an MRI machine. But… creativity researchers have tried to create little “Aha!” moments (yes, they call them just that) and have come up with fairly consistent results. The upshot is: as the insight is achieved, you get a sudden flash of high-speed brain waves that originate in the right hemisphere. This is very different from the slow waves one sees in meditation…. but the long-term changes for both seem to involve greater connectivity among distant parts of the brain, or across the entire brain. So the mechanisms and experience are quite different, but the changes to the brain may be similar.


John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 2:45 am

Pushing my amateur status even further, aren’t stories about tricksters like Odysseus/Anansi/Loki/Monkey/Jacob, one of the standard examples of cultural universals? And how can you have a trickster, or a trickster story, without a theory of mind?


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 3:19 am

Bill @136 — Do you have a cite or link? Are these intellectual-conceptual aha’s, photographs suddenly becoming discernible, that sort of thing? But I wonder about changes to the brain being similar. We all know people who continue to make more and more connections and just get it wronger and wronger, never “wake up”, even intellectually. Climate change denialism is a current widespread example. Of course, as per Geo above, there are many instances of meditation NOT leading to artistic or intellectual creativity. It may help release creativity, but it surely doesn’t generate it. I know a painter who is quite adept at both oil painting and “spirituality”, and she insists there is no causative link between them.


Bill Krause 09.16.13 at 3:44 am

Lee@138: Most of the studies I’ve read are from institution-fee databases. If you can get them, some of the best (IMHO) creativity studies come from Bowden, Jung-Beeman, and Kounios at Northwestern. They use something called the Remote Associates Test, where 3 unrelated words should lead one to a 4th (i.e. “basket” “hard” and “dance” –> “ball”) . So it’s intellectual-conceptual. Other sorts of tasks with veiled awareness (like photographs becoming discernible, or priming) have two problems: (1) they don’t have an incubation period which some insist is necessary to be insight (2) the neuro results have been pretty much inconsistent. Jonah Lehrer’s book (the one that got him into all the trouble) is actually pretty good on this work.
As to “more and more connections” without enlightenment, I hear you. That might be just the busy modern condition, as both meditation and creativity require free time and the ability to chill out. But meditation lacks the emotional charge and the disruptive force of insight.
As to changing minds… always difficult. The only sure way is for that person to have an insight moment where they feel they’ve discovered on their own exactly what you want them to believe. Iago was the master of this , BTW.


bill benzon 09.16.13 at 7:00 am

@John Quiggen: your #137 seems to be planted amid an ongoing theory of no-mind.

BTW, I think the phrase “theory of mind” should be struck from the literature as it oversells the phenomenon it designates, whatever that is. As my friend Tim put it, 4 yr olds don’t even have a theory of food, much less a theory of mind. In developmental psych “theory”, as in “theory of X”, has a meaning that doesn’t correspond to what we ordinarily think of as a theory. Does it really require a Theory to follow someone else’s gaze?


bill benzon 09.16.13 at 7:06 am

On this wretched “theory of X” business: An infant is propped in front of a screen. It sees a ball enter the field of view from one side, traveling at a steady rate. It then disappears behind the screen. And it fails to reappear on the other side of the screen when it should, given its rate of travel. The infant appears to be a bit startled when the ball fails to appear. Conclusion: The infant has a (freakin’) theory of (freakin’) objects.

I take the use of “theory” in such contexts as evidence of the poverty of psychologist’s theoretical imagination.


Agog 09.16.13 at 11:23 am


I think the Sufis sub-divide(d) your two types of experience into many many states and stations. A talented neuroscientist could go through a lot of money trying to characterize them all, given a couple of good subjects.


Torquil macneil 09.16.13 at 11:35 am

And, if true bugs don’t work for you in this example, there’s always the colloquial “bugs”

Actually ‘true bugs’ are an order of insects, the Hemiptera, rather than insects in general. Thought you should know.


SusanC 09.16.13 at 11:36 am

@141: I think of “Theory of Mind” as just being the name for a fairly fuzzily-defined list of human abilities. It is not a “theory” in any technical sense, particularly if you should find yourself in argument with an analytic philosopher who is about to explain the problems with any attempt to regard it as such. (There are, if I recall correctly, some papers by Daniel Hutto on “Theory of Mind” not being a theory).

I am close to being a nominalist about this…

To go even further: a surprising number of people with a diagnosis of autism have great difficulty with metaphorical use of language. So I’d be tempted to throw “metaphorical use of language” in to this mixed bag of abilities we’re calling “theory of mind”, despite it’s lacking an apparent connection to either being a “theory” or other minds.


bill benzon 09.16.13 at 12:09 pm

SusanC: “I think of “Theory of Mind” as just being the name for a fairly fuzzily-defined list of human abilities. It is not a “theory” in any technical sense…”

Right. 100%.

Alas, as one is farther and farther away from the observations on which this “Theory” is posited, the theory aspect tends to congeal and reify. A psychologist writing a review article is pretty far from those observations. For a literary critic reading that review and who is interested in how characters in novels relate to one another – and such critics have emerged in the last decade – those observations might as well have been made on Mars.


Peter T 09.16.13 at 12:42 pm

I haven’t read Jayne, but the outline offered seems to raise more questions than it answers. It seems similar to speculations that, for example, cave paintings in Europe mark some shift in human development – a speculation obviously uninformed by any knowledge of the date of aboriginal settlement of Australia (some tens of thousands of years earlier). Likewise, we do not hear of New Guinea Highlanders remarking that their pre-contact grandparents lacked consciousness (or that, alternately, consciousness arrived with the first patrol officer). Yet Socrates was unknown to them.


Agog 09.16.13 at 12:51 pm

Maybe I can sum up: our conscious experience develops and intensifies as we interact with with other people, and collectively as we, as groups, make contact with other cultures. Whether or not this process depends on the spread of viruses and consequent neurological enhancement requires further research.


Gary Williams 09.16.13 at 1:09 pm

Peter T,

Several things can be said in Jaynes’ defense.

1. Since Jaynes argued that consciousness is a cultural construction, it would be possible that New Guinea have a different form of consciousness. Jaynes saw consciousness as a plastic phenomena that is influenced by a changing cultural context. It is literally built out of the lexical narratives present in the child’s cultural milieu as they are developing over the first years of their life.

2. Jaynes’ view of consciousness is better seen as cognitive “tool box”. Thus, consciousness is not binary, where you either have it or don’t. There is likely individual differences in not only what tools you have but how developed those tools are, with differences existing at both the cultural and individual level. Over time a population and/or individual can add different tools at different times to their repertoire and the developmental rates of each tool can speed up/slow down at different rates depending on the individual and cultural context. Thus, it’s possible the New Guinea highlander’s have a different combination of tools in their tool box than Socrates, but which were sufficient for adaptation to their isolated environment and cultural context.

3. The selection pressures that led to the break-down of the bicameral mind and the emergence of Jaynesian consciousness could have been operative in remote colonies due to convergent evolutionary pressures. Jaynes thought that bicameral social control breaks down when a civilization grows larger and more complicated both socially and politically. Despite their seeming technological primitiveness, the highlanders do have language and complex social narratives, which are crucial components in Jaynes’ theory of how consciousness is learned. Jaynes thought the bicameral system was very fragile and depending on a great deal of in place ritualistic knowledge to operate effectively at large scales. It’s success depended on its fragility but this was ultimately its downfall as we see in the Old Testament when the age of prophets ceased.

4. Some isolated societies do seem to have different mentalities e.g. Daniel Everett’s studies on the the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon suggest their language has no genuine recursion, which has been linked to episodic memory, suggestive because the Pirahã also seem to operate by what Everett calls the “Principle of Immediate Experience”, meaning they only refer to events that are evidentially grounded in immediate experience.


Norwegian Guy 09.16.13 at 3:00 pm

It’s quite a stretch to say that the age of prophets ceased during Old Testament times. There have been plenty of people during the last two millennia, including during the last few centuries, who have claimed that God has spoken to them, that they have received a calling from God, that they have observed supernatural beings etc. Do we really know that this kind of phenomena was more common among the early Greeks than among for instance 7th century Arabs, medieval Europeans, or 19th century North Americans?


Gary Williams 09.16.13 at 3:22 pm

Norwegian Guy,

As Jaynes notes, the topic of prophecy becoming less prevalent as a means of divine communication is discussed in the Old Testament itself. For example, in Psalm 42 we see: “As the stag pants after the waterbooks/ So pants my mind after you, O gods! / My mind thirsts for gods! for living gods! / When shall I come face to face with gods?”

Coming “face to face” with gods is a reference to religious experience, with the “living” communication of, e.g., Moses hearing God’s voice on the mountain top.

Another clear example of the “age of prophecy” ceasing is Zechariah 13:

“And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord of hosts, that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered: and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.

3 And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the Lord: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.

4 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the prophets shall be ashamed every one of his vision, when he hath prophesied; neither shall they wear a rough garment to deceive:”

What we have here is not a cessation in the phenomenon itself (hearing voices is still with us today in some people), but rather, a cessation in the social authorization of voice hearing by the priest-class as a divine communication from God. Jaynes’ theory is that once the previously authorized hallucinations were written down, the text had to become the sole social authority on divine communication in order that newer prophets like Joseph Smith don’t overturn everything.

As for evidence of hallucinations being more prevalent in ancient civilizations, one piece of evidence is the egyptian notion of a “ka”, translated as a “spirit-double” that my might now imagine as the famous Jiminy Cricket figure, but was once then interpreted culturally as a demi-god spirit double that counseled. Everyone had one of these Kas. One theory is that if the common phenomenon of imaginary friends is given a socially encouraged metaphysical context, then these “guides” would become a hallucinatory self-regulation strategy. An interesting reference here is John Geiger’s book on the “Third Man Factor”.

Also, Jaynes thought that the decline of bicamerality was social not biological. He speculated that if a human baby born today was born in a bicameral society today it would probably hallucinate more often in times of acute stress. Vice versa, if a bicameral period baby was raised today it probably would not hallucinate as much as a stress-coping mechanism, as this would not be rewarded socially and the main Western cultural context is pathological (though this is changing, thanks to forces like the Hearing Voices Network).


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 3:44 pm

Agog #142: “the Sufis sub-divide(d) your two types of experience into many many states and stations”

Do you have the name of a Sufi or anything in print? That would be great! Thanks!


Agog 09.16.13 at 4:14 pm


I was reading some of that stuff years ago, and talking to a friend more knowledgeable than I am (“The sufi says to the Buddhist ‘Oh, your so-called enlightenment is only the second station in our path'” – that kind of thing). William Chittick has some good books, and there’s this one that contains excerpts from early sources. I’m sure you’ve seen the wiki page on Sufi Philosophy.

And if you have Arabic, Ibn ʿArabī no doubt wrote several books on the subject. There is a society devoted to promoting his work, and there are some translations available.


Jeffrey Davis 09.16.13 at 5:25 pm

Homer was a participant in a bardic tradition in which many thousands of lines of poetry were memorized and changed according to the preference of the singer and the needs of the day.

It seems to me that there are still benefits to making speculative statements about metaphysical phenomena.


chris 09.16.13 at 5:31 pm

Do we really know that this kind of phenomena was more common among the early Greeks than among for instance 7th century Arabs, medieval Europeans, or 19th century North Americans?

Or 20th century North Americans, even. Didn’t David Koresh and Jim Jones both proclaim themselves as prophets? The 21st century is still young, but we may yet have our share.

Of course, these days, some people who claim direct experience of God wind up on medication. Society’s current attempts to understand what it is like to be a prophet are probably contained in the DSM-V. (Not that I claim any originality for seeing similarities between prophets and madmen, of course.)


Hidari 09.16.13 at 6:40 pm

“The ‘Theory of Mind’ approach has been associated with probably the fastest-growing body of empirical research in psychology over the last 25 years, and has given rise to a range of different theoretical positions and elaborations within those positions. The basic idea is that understanding other people involves bridging a gulf between observed ‘behaviour’ and hidden mental states by means of a theory. The articles in this Special Issue subject ‘Theory of Mind’ to sustained critical scrutiny, and also present alternative accounts of how we make sense of—and make sense to—other people. They trace the historical sources of ‘Theory of Mind’, criticize its fundamental assumptions and favoured methods, and examine its applications to child development and the explanation of schizophrenia and autism.”


cf also Leudar, I. and Costall, Alan, eds. (2009) Against theory of mind. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. ISBN 9780230552739


Patrick C 09.16.13 at 7:04 pm

I’ve personally experienced continuity of consciousness. For example, when I wake up from sleep or anesthesia, the early stages of my development, or when I’ve consumed large quantities of alcohol. I’d imagine that a self-examination of most personal experiences will suggest that a continuous range of consciousness is very plausible. The thread that there is a switch just seems to be a bit of antiquated anthropocentrism, probably derived from religious threads of philosophy(e.g. only creatures with souls can be conscious), threads that are gradually unraveling.


John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 7:07 pm

@143 True bugs – I did know this, but couldn’t resist writing it that way.


John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 7:10 pm

Isn’t the central claim of born-again Christians that they have direct and personal communication with God, as opposed to giving mere intellectual assent to a set of religious doctrines?

That’s a genuine question, not intended rhetorically. Is there a good source on the way in which born-again Christians experience God?


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 7:40 pm

Agog #152 — It is true that the Hindu and Buddhist traditions describe subdivisions of attainable states. There is much confusion within each tradition however, and the progress in an adept is never linear anyway.

If you categorize them by described effects, there are only two main states: the one which occurs shortly after meditation is stabilized (and this one has the most number of named subdivisions), and a final radical transformation after many years, which may or may not be achieved. (After many years for most; Ramana Maharshi was rather immediate.)

I am sitting here looking at a bookshelf with about 130 practical mystical manuals from all the traditions. That does not include theology or “mystical theology” (whatever that is; I think it is what the Roman Catholic priests call “spirituality” literature), –just practice manuals!

The all-time winner in the number of named, attainable states may be the Visuddhimagga, which is an 800-page Buddhist compilation. There are even subcategories of final extinction (nirvana). It is entirely on-line here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/PathofPurification2011.pdf

The later chapters are fascinating, with lists and tables of consciousness-aggregates and so forth. (The basic problem with Christianity IMHO is that it did not go in this direction.) Brain scientists really ought to have a look at the Visuddhimagga, it could keep them thinking about research topics for decades more!

The Paulist Press book “Early Islamic Mysticism” contains excerpts of the emotional (devotional) path, and it ignores various state discriminations and descriptions.

This is true of the emotional/devotional paths across the board, even the “bhakti” paths in Hinduism. Hinduism of course has a big tradition of intellectual expositors too, who go into discriminative details about attainable states of consciousness. Judeo-Christian descriptions are almost entirely emotional/devotional, with the exception of Richard of St. Victor, John of the Cross (for my money, the best of the intellectual Christian mystics), and a very few others. Imagine a physics professor lecturing about physics — but only by discussing his feelings about it!, and you get the idea.

Ibn ‘Arabi would be the likely candidate, an intellectual writer, but his practice was heavily emotional/devotional. Even his nice little manual “Journey to the Lord of Power” (recalling Sankara and Patanjali in directness, concision, and hard results-orientation) only identifies the state of “fana”, i.e. the final release. He describes some resident effects of meditation (which he calls “dhikr”, remembrance) but does not name attained states. The Bezels of Wisdom is highly emotional/devotional; it reads like Catherine of Genoa or Catherine of Siena.

A possible exception to my findings so far, might be Gurdieff, if he is considered to be in the Sufi tradition. He broke it down, lathered it over with a verbose quasi-science fiction story to sell it Westerners, and made a delicious Persian soup (according to Ezra Pound, who was otherwise disinterested, in Guide to Kulchur). I heard a leading Gurdieff-follower strongly criticize Ouspensky for breaking away from Gurdieff after attaining meditational stabilization, but never learning anything about the final transformation, thus starting his own sub-cult of people who don’t know the whole show! And indeed there is not a wisp of the idea of the second transformation, nirvana-fana-samadhi-beatific vision, in any of Ouspensky’s books. Interestingly, I think Ouspensky is the basic source of the tradition of those executive-training seminars at the airports.


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 8:57 pm

JQ #158: “Isn’t the central claim of born-again Christians that they have direct and personal communication with God, as opposed to giving mere intellectual assent to a set of religious doctrines?”

For the most part I think that is the claim. The problem is they don’t have a developed tradition to evaluate that claim, and a lot of born-again Christians may just be having buzzing and tremors of the usual psychological phenomena. The fact that a lot of their leaders are charlatans makes it even worse.


Lee A. Arnold 09.16.13 at 9:01 pm

I promise to quit commenting after this one.

It may be that the distinction of “states of consciousness (or being)” from “residing effects” presents a descriptive problem. What is consciousness, what is a perception? The only way to try to solve that is to elaborate. So, at the risk of alienating/boring everybody, the following are the practical states of the mystical path from my own long research in comparative mysticism.

I tried to be objective, and I used a categorization that was formulated in an old article in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (and if I ever get access, I’ll cite it).

I think it also maps over modern psycho-therapeutic phenomenology, — with a huge number of caveats, there. But it might be useful to brain researchers, who knows?

The 3 categories are semantic criteria:

A) states of being, as named or characterized by mystics. It turns out that there are three main states. The first one, everybody knows: waking consciousness. The two “altered” states are: meditational fusion of subject/object (aesthetic epiphany), and final ego-extinction.

B) psycho-technologies, as named and described to attain those states (i.e., purification, meditation, plus refusal to engage in resulting hallucinations and illusory powers), and

C) residing effects, named at each step — this is more of a catch-all, stimulus-response category, but you’ll get the idea.

I retained only those things that are reported by these people, one from each tradition: Patanjali (Yoga), Sankara (Advaita Vedanta), Buddaghosa (Buddhism), John of the Cross (Christianity), and Ibn ‘Arabi (Sufi Islam). These were the most intellectual + some of the most fully “realized” folks, by the acclaim of others in their traditions, and they surely left us the best rational descriptions, all the way through to the end of the process. The only exception is that Ibn ‘Arabi does not characterize or name the second state, at least in the English translations. If you read him, I think you will agree that this is more a matter of not caring to have a category.

Progress isn’t linear, but I put them in their most common order. I hypothesize that my result is rather similar to the idea of the child-developmental stages in Piaget, which are not precisely the same for each individual, but close enough—and similarly, there are cumulative aspects as well as sudden changes.

So again, according to A) states of being, B) psycho-technology, and c) residing effects:

(1. FIRST state of being)—Waking consciousness.
(2. psycho-technology)—Practice of virtuous conduct and purification.
(3. residing effect)—Quiet and inner strength.
(4. psycho-technology)—Direct the mind to one object, and hold it for as long as possible (i.e. meditation).
(5. residing effect)—Massive counterattack by the sins, very specifically, the preventers of holding the mind on one object: Greek Christian sin = “hamartia” = “missing the mark,” Vedantism “unwholesome roots,” Buddhism “nivarana” = “hindrances,” Islamic Sufism “Satan’s character traits”.
(6. psycho-technology)—Reapply the mind again and again to one object, and hold it for as long as possible.

—At this point there is a jump of many months or years until you can maintain:

(7. psycho-technology)—Maintain a continuous, non-discursive flow, via #6.

—-And at that point there is a jump of only a few days or weeks until there comes a the first discontinuous change:

(8. SECOND state of being)—Fusion of subject and object, fusion of visual foreground and background, the mind seems fill in space (e.g. Buddhism’s “second dhyana”).
(9. residing effect)—Continuous growth of what is reported as a combined emotional-intellectual function: usually termed something like “illuminated wisdom-love;” plus:
(10. residing effect)—But the sins or “unwholesome roots” remain, to resurface and torment throughout; plus:
(11. residing effect)—Powers, visions, pseudo-nirvanas, which are to be strongly rejected (in #12).

—-And then it may take decades until the following is perfected:

(12. psycho-technology)—Via #6, renounce and sacrifice #9,10,11, all entirely, and renounce and sacrifice one’s own self.

—-Which, upon total accomplishment, immediately leads to an enormous discontinuity:

(13. THIRD state of being)—Ego-death, “nirvana” (extinction), “samadhi”, “deiformity,” “fana”, “aloneness;” with:
(14. residing effect)—Freedom and detachment.


bill benzon 09.16.13 at 9:22 pm

Also, Theory of Mind (ToM) covers some phenomenona that Piaget covered under the rubrics of perspective-taking and egocentrism. John Flavell has an article comparing the two: Theory-of-Mind Development: Retrospect
and Prospect, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, July 2004, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 274–290.

Abstract: his review begins with a brief history from Piagetian perspective-taking devel- opment, through metacognitive development, and into the past and present field of theory-of-mind development. This field has included research on what infants and children know about a variety of mental states, on possible causes and con- sequences of mentalistic knowledge, and on similarities and differences in this knowledge across individuals, cultures, and primate species. The article con- cludes with some speculations about the future of the field.


Ronan(rf) 09.16.13 at 9:32 pm

I remember liking Paul Boyers ‘When time shall be no more’, back in the day (which was on Millenarianism and Biblical literalism in US Evangelicalism, IIRC)
Doesnt this tradition (born again fundamentalist religiosity) have a long history in the US, traced back to the second awakening (or probably longer)?


geo 09.16.13 at 9:55 pm

Lee @161: Massive counterattack by the sins

Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”


js. 09.17.13 at 2:16 am

if anyone would like an explanation of how state-contingent production leads to a better understanding of the moral hazard problem (or a zillion other abstruse problems in modern econ), you just have to ask.

Here’s me asking.

(Also, you say: ‘I thought that Thomas Nagel’s famous paper on “What is it like to be a bat?” might address this problem, but as far as I can see he skates straight over it.’ And the question you’re pointing to is certainly an interesting one [tho to be honest, not one I myself could ever get very exercised over], but in fairness to Nagel, it’s not really within his purview in the ‘bat’ paper. TN wants to argue against the explanatory adequacy of certain [roughly] reductive theories of consciousness/subjective first-person experience, etc. Even if there is a Sorites-type problem here, the argument should go through for anything that manages to get the ‘heap’-style designation—i.e. anything we do want to designate as ‘consciousness’. That the status of some beings is indeterminate with respect to the question of consciousness doesn’t, as far as I can see, affect Nagel’s argument one way or the other.)


Lee A. Arnold 09.17.13 at 2:31 pm

JQ — “if anyone would like an explanation of how state-contingent production leads to a better understanding of the moral hazard problem”

John I know I said I wouldn’t comment again, but if you could put that explanation in a brief paragraph, it would help me right now! My next one-minute animations are about the idea of “institutional cost-saving” at very different organizational levels, and therefore about how “institutional cost-saving” is a rather close analogy to “increasing returns”, a concept which of course has been identified already at certain of the levels, such as at the levels of individual innovation and business firms. The natural next step is to look at the regulative functions at the centers of all of these different levels, i.e. the analogies to the two-way flows of “reponsibility and judgment” as they are found at these different levels. So for example, Ostrom’s criteria of good common-resource institutions contain a design provision to try to avoid free-riding; industrial sectors attempt to mitigate monopoly through protections of competition; and gov’t must provide transparency so the voters might discover cronyism. This probably sounds like as much gibberish as the list of mystical states; but anyhow, your brief description would help!


Norwegian Guy 09.17.13 at 3:39 pm

Gary Williams,

I don’t know, but these Egyptian Kas sounds very much like what later became called angles. Believing in angles, and to some extent talking to them, is apparently acceptable among both Christians and New Agers, and everything in between.

And the Book of Malachi wasn’t the end of history. Only a few centuries after the Old Testament was completed, a new prophet that claimed he was the Son of God did overturn everything. 600 years later a new Middle Eastern prophet did the same. Even today, parts of the priest class encourages divine communication through speaking in tongues and its interpretation. I don’t think talking to God ever went out of favour.

If the proto-Greeks were bicameral, the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been as well. But at some point in time the whole of Europe had abandoned this. I’d like to see some estimates of when this bicamerality ended in different cultures, and whether it happened at the same time in all social classes.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.17.13 at 3:55 pm

Well, you could try reading his book:
Of course it’s merely a hypothesis, a controversial one.

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