Re: Consciousness is information?

From: Kelly Harmon <>
Date: Sun, 17 May 2009 22:50:42 -0400

On Sun, May 17, 2009 at 9:13 PM, Brent Meeker <> wrote:
>> Generally I don't think that what we experience is necessarily caused
>> by physical systems.  I think that sometimes physical systems assume
>> configurations that "shadow", or represent, our conscious experience.
>> But they don't CAUSE our conscious experience.
> So if we could track the functions of the brain at a fine enough scale,
> we'd see physical events that didn't have physical causes (ones that
> were caused by mental events?).

No, no, no. I'm not saying that at all. Ultimately I'm saying that
if there is a physical world, it's irrelevant to consciousness.
Consciousness is information. Physical systems can be interpreted as
representing, or "storing", information, but that act of "storage"
isn't what gives rise to conscious experience.

> You're aware of course that the same things were said about the
> physio/chemical bases of life.

You mentioned that point before, as I recall. Dennett made a similar
argument against Chalmers, to which Chalmers had what I thought was an
effective response:


Perhaps the most common strategy for a type-A materialist is to
deflate the "hard problem" by using analogies to other domains, where
talk of such a problem would be misguided. Thus Dennett imagines a
vitalist arguing about the hard problem of "life", or a neuroscientist
arguing about the hard problem of "perception". Similarly, Paul
Churchland (1996) imagines a nineteenth century philosopher worrying
about the hard problem of "light", and Patricia Churchland brings up
an analogy involving "heat". In all these cases, we are to suppose,
someone might once have thought that more needed explaining than
structure and function; but in each case, science has proved them
wrong. So perhaps the argument about consciousness is no better.

This sort of argument cannot bear much weight, however. Pointing out
that analogous arguments do not work in other domains is no news: the
whole point of anti-reductionist arguments about consciousness is that
there is a disanalogy between the problem of consciousness and
problems in other domains. As for the claim that analogous arguments
in such domains might once have been plausible, this strikes me as
something of a convenient myth: in the other domains, it is more or
less obvious that structure and function are what need explaining, at
least once any experiential aspects are left aside, and one would be
hard pressed to find a substantial body of people who ever argued

When it comes to the problem of life, for example, it is just obvious
that what needs explaining is structure and function: How does a
living system self-organize? How does it adapt to its environment? How
does it reproduce? Even the vitalists recognized this central point:
their driving question was always "How could a mere physical system
perform these complex functions?", not "Why are these functions
accompanied by life?" It is no accident that Dennett's version of a
vitalist is "imaginary". There is no distinct "hard problem" of life,
and there never was one, even for vitalists.

In general, when faced with the challenge "explain X", we need to ask:
what are the phenomena in the vicinity of X that need explaining, and
how might we explain them? In the case of life, what cries out for
explanation are such phenomena as reproduction, adaptation,
metabolism, self-sustenance, and so on: all complex functions. There
is not even a plausible candidate for a further sort of property of
life that needs explaining (leaving aside consciousness itself), and
indeed there never was. In the case of consciousness, on the other
hand, the manifest phenomena that need explaining are such things as
discrimination, reportability, integration (the functions), and
experience. So this analogy does not even get off the ground.


>> Though it DOES seem plausible/obvious to me that a physical system
>> going through a sequence of these representations is what produces
>> human behavior.
> So you're saying that a sequence of physical representations is enough
> to produce behavior.

Right, observed behavior. What I'm saying here is that it seems
obvious to me that mechanistic computation is sufficient to explain
observed human behavior. If that was the only thing that needed
explaining, we'd be done. Mission accomplished.

BUT...there's subjective experience that also needs explained, and
this is actually the first question that needs answered. All other
answers are suspect until subjective experience has been explained.

> And there must be conscious experience associated
> with behavior.

Well, here's where it gets tricky. Conscious experience is associated
with information. But how information is tied to physical systems is
a different question. Any physical systems can be interpreted as
representing all sorts of things (again, back to Putnam and Searle,
one-time pads, Maudlin's Olympia example, Bruno's movie graph
argument, rocks implementing every FSA, Stathis's birds and trees, and
triviality attacks on functionalism).

> That seems to me to imply that physical representations
> are enough to produce consciousness.

The problem is that physical "representations" are everywhere. The
problem is coming up with a non-arbitrary way of deciding when a
physical system represents something that's conscious and when it

Physical systems are too representationally promiscuous!

Which leads me to abandon physicalism/materialism for idealism.

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "Everything List" group.
To post to this group, send email to
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to
For more options, visit this group at
Received on Sun May 17 2009 - 22:50:42 PDT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Feb 16 2018 - 13:20:15 PST