Fine-tuning and intrinsic value

I’ve been thinking a bit about the fine-tuning argument for design, and in particular about this Scientific American piece by Philip Goff. I’ve also been talking to Philip about it. Here are few thoughts arising from the process.

(Note added 8/11/21: Below I talk about fine-tuning as evidence for design — a word which might be taken to imply the existence of a personal creator god of the kind believed in by the Intelligent Design community. Philip has asked me to clarify that he does not align himself with that community and that he prefers to talk of fine-tuning as evidence for ‘teleology’ or ‘goal-directed activity’ in the early universe rather than design. The points made below equally to this weaker claim.)

The fine-tuning argument starts with the uncontroversial claim that if the fundamental physical constants of our universe had been different, then life would have been impossible. There is only a tiny range of possible values within which stable complex physical structures, and hence life, could arise. That is, it looks as if our universe has been designed to support life. More precisely: given the evidence (the actual nature of the constants — call this E), the hypothesis that the universe was designed (D) is more probable than the hypothesis that it arose by chance (C). Schematically, Pr(E/D) > Pr(E/C).

One reply to this is that is there is another, equally probable, hypothesis — namely, that there is a multitude of universes (a ‘multiverse’), each member of which has different constants. Our universe was not specially designed for life; it just happens to be one in which life is possible. It seems special to us because it enabled us to exist. Compare a lottery winner who thinks there must have been something special about their ticket. There wasn’t really anything special about it. It seems special to them because it made them a winner. It doesn’t seem special to anyone else, and our universe doesn’t seem special from other perspectives either.

I think Goff would agree that if there were a multiverse, then the existence of our universe would be no more improbable than if there were a designer. But he argues that the existence of our universe does not make it probable that there is a multiverse. To think it does, he argues, is to commit the reverse gambler’s fallacy (the fallacy that an observed lucky throw of the dice must have been preceded by long series of unobserved unlucky ones). To underline the point, he describes a scenario in which a deranged kidnapper will kill you unless a certain monkey types out an English sentence within a set time (an analogy for the universe having just the right constants for us to exist). Goff points out that if the monkey comes through with the goods and you survive, you won’t be tempted to infer that there are lots of other typing monkeys around, on whose productions the lives of other, less fortunate, victims depend (analogous to a multiverse).

The issues here are tricky, and I don’t claim to be clear about them. But even if Goff is right about the multiverse hypothesis, I don’t think the result is a win for the design hypothesis. For the obvious alternative to the design hypothesis is a simpler one: that our universe arose by chance, with random constants (analogous to the monkey just happening to type English). Our universe had to have some constants, and they just happened to be ones that made life possible. It seems amazingly lucky to us, of course, but that is because we are living beings and wouldn’t be around if the constants had been different. The specialness is in our eyes only — analogous to the specialness of the lottery’s winner’s ticket. Why is this hypothesis less probable than the hypothesis that the universe was designed to support life? Why should we think that a designer tuned the constants to make our existence possible, any more than a lottery winner should think that someone fixed the lottery to make them win?

Now we can easily imagine a case where design would be more probable than chance. Suppose our universe had some feature that made it objectively special, not just special in our eyes. Suppose that, in virtue of having the constants it has, it supported something intrinsically valuable, which a universe designer would plausibly want to promote. Then, other things being equal, design would be more probable than chance. Analogously, if there were something about the lottery winner that made their winning independently significant — say, that they were married to the chief executive of the lottery company — then we would be warranted in suspecting that the lottery had been fixed. Proponents of the fine-tuning argument can claim that this is in fact the case, and that life is the specialness-conferring feature.

In short, the fine-tuning argument requires the assumption that life itself, or the experiences of living beings, is intrinsically valuable. (This is in fact Goff’s view.) This isn’t to say that that the assumption is sufficient for the argument to work — there might be other problems with the argument, particularly with the design hypothesis itself — but it is necessary to get it going.

Should we make the assumption? It is a big issue, but I think not. Of course, life and the experiences of living creatures matter enormously to us, but I don’t see any reason to think they matter in the way required by the fine-tuning argument — that they have an intrinsic value, independent of the interests of living creatures. Indeed, I find it hard to make sense of the claim. As I see it, value and meaning are rooted in the interests of living creatures, even if we sometimes speak of them as intrinsic properties of things. But that’s another story. The moral I want to draw here is that the fine-tuning argument needs the assumption that life is intrinsically valuable.

Introducing jekylls

Philosophers of mind talk a lot about zombies. I want to introduce a related species of philosophical monster, which I shall call jekylls. Like zombies, jekylls are atom-for-atom duplicates of us, inhabiting a world with the same physical laws as ours — a world which, let’s assume, is causally closed. Your jekyll twin has all the same physical and functional states you do, including mental ones. It has the same functionally defined perceptions, sensations, thoughts, desires, memories, and emotions, and it is conscious in a functional way too. It also has a sense of self, built of memories, emotions, and introspective and interoceptive states — all functionally defined. (For simplicity, I’ll use ‘psychological’ as David Chalmers does in TCM to mean ‘psychological in a functional sense’.)

So far, then, jekylls are just like zombies. There is a difference, however. Jekylls also have phenomenal states, understood as qualitative mental states that can’t be characterized in functional terms. The phenomenal lights are on inside, as they supposedly are in us. But jekylls aren’t just like us, either. For their phenomenal states are not aligned with their psychological ones. There is a deep incongruity between what they are thinking and feeling psychologically and what they are thinking and feeling phenomenally. When they are psychologically calm, they are filled with phenomenal rage, when they are in psychological pain, they feel phenomenal bliss, when they are psychologically confused, they experience phenomenal clarity, and so on. They are phenomenal/psychological self-inverts.

As a consequence, jekylls have dual selves (you see now why I chose the name). As psychological beings, they have no introspective access to their body’s phenomenal states (which have no distinctive effects), and their phenomenal states make no contribution to their psychological sense of who they are. The subject of their phenomenal states — whatever it is — is completely isolated from the self manifested in their reactions, overt and covert. Each jekyll harbours a phenomenal Mr Hyde. (As with zombies, the literary parallel is not exact, since jekylls never morph into hydes; their inner hyde is forever locked away in a metaphysical limbo.)

Are jekylls conceivable? If zombies conceivable, then jekylls are too. We can conceive of zombies because there is no conceptual connection between functional facts and phenomenal facts. And if there no conceptual connection between functional facts and phenomenal facts, then jekylls are conceivable too. If you think that jekylls are not conceivable, then you have a conception of the phenomenal that is not the one employed in the zombie argument.

Now if phenomenal realism is true, then we are like jekylls, except that our phenomenal selves are beautifully aligned with our psychological ones. You, too, have an ineffective hidden self, but it perfectly mirrors the worldly self manifest in your reactions.

But wait a minute! How do you know that aren’t a jeykll — that you don’t harbour an inner hyde? If you are sure you don’t, then there are two explanations. The first is that you identify with your phenomenal self rather than your psychological one, and know that you are not a hyde. Your mind harmonizes perfectly with the psychological mind your brain processes implement. The downside of this option is that you are strangely alienated from the self manifest in your reactions. You are a phenomenal ghost ineffectively haunting a psychological machine. The other explanation is that at heart you identify with your psychological self and don’t really think you have a phenomenal self at all. You are a complex psychological being, and if you are tempted to think you have a phenomenal self as well, that’s due to features of your psychology. The downside of this is . . . you’re an illusionist!

Old poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

‘Illusionism as a theory of consciousness’ translated into Spanish by David Vanegas

David A. Vanegas-Moreno has made a Spanish translation of my 2016 article ‘Illusionism as a theory of consciousness’ , which he has kindly allowed me to share here.

David is a psychologist and cognitive scientist from the Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia. His work has focused on the evolution of language and its role in human cognition. At the moment he is working on the “representation wars” in 4E cognitive science, and on the explanatory and integrative approach to cognitive science proposed by the new mechanical philosophy. He posts on Twitter as @evolanguagemind.

I am very grateful to David for his careful work in making my article accessible to Spanish-speaking readers. The translation is also available on my Publications pages.

The dynamical combination problem

Panpsychism is the idea that basic physical entities are essentially micro-consciousnesses and that our macro-consciousnesses result from combining the phenomenal natures of the physical entities that constitute us. The view faces the combination problem: how do simple, discrete micro-consciousnesses combine to produce complex, unified macro-consciousnesses? This problem has been much discussed, but there’s an aspect of it that has, I think, been relatively neglected. Here it is.

It looks like a sensible methodological assumption that if two entities are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, then they are phenomenally identical too. If panpsychists don’t make this assumption, then it’s hard to see how they could construct anything like a science of consciousness. If panpsychism is true, then we are acquainted with only a tiny fraction of phenomenal reality — the portions that constitute our consciousnesses. The rest can be known only indirectly, by inference from corresponding physical features. But if phenomenal properties could vary independently of physical ones, then there would be no stable phenomenal-physical correspondences, and the bulk of phenomenal reality would not be even indirectly accessible to us. This could be case, but if it is, then there is no hope of explaining consciousness.

If the assumption is true, however, then it follows that there is very little phenomenal variation at the fundamental level. There are only a few types of fundamental particles, and all tokens of these types are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, differentiated only by their spatio-temporal location. Every up-quark is physically identical to every other up-quark. So all tokens of each particle type are phenomenally identical too. (Differences in their spatio-temporal location are relational ones and cannot affect their intrinsic natures.)

It follows that fundamental phenomenal reality is quite uniform. There will just be a few different phenomenal ‘notes’ played billions upon billions of times. The combination problem is thus doubly difficult: the phenomenal elements from which our macro-consciousnesses are formed are not only simple but few in number, and we must explain how variety emerges from uniformity as well as how richness emerges from simplicity.

But this isn’t all. There is another aspect to the problem, which looks even more challenging. It’s a dynamical aspect. For if our assumption is sound, the phenomenal properties of the fundamental entities never alter. Fundamental particles do not change or age. So, except in exotic circumstances where particles are created or destroyed, the overall phenomenal soundscape stays the same, unaffected by particles’ changes in location (which, again, are irrelevant to their intrinsic natures). The fundamental phenomenal world is almost completely static. How, then, does a dynamical, ever-changing human consciousness emerge from a static phenomenal base? We might call this the dynamical combination problem.

Of course, all this assumes a rather old-fashioned picture of the microphysical world as one of discrete fundamental particles located in spacetime. The problem may look different, and perhaps more tractable, if we adopt a more sophisticated physics.

If you have any thoughts on this problem or any references to relevant discussions in the panpsychist literature, do please post them in the comments.

Essential-state materialism and multiple realizability

Suppose that phenomenal properties, such as the intrinsic feel of pain, are not physical properties in the standard sense. It’s a fair bet that science will be able to identify physical causes for all the effects of experience. So how can phenomenal properties have any effect on us? How does the feel of our experiences make a difference to us?

Panpsychists have a neat answer to this. They say that the phenomenal properties of experience are the intrinsic natures of the physical states that play the functional roles of the relevant experiences, including causing their characteristic effects. So (to use a hoary example) if the firing of C-fibres in the brain is the physical state that plays the functional role of pain, then the feel of pain is the intrinsic nature of C-fibre firing. Assuming this intrinsic nature does at least some of the causal work in producing pain effects, then it follows that the feel of pain is a cause of pain behaviour.

This view is, in effect, a radical form of type identity theory or central-state materialism. It says that pain is type identical, not with the brain state that plays the pain role, but with the essential nature of that brain state. We might call the view essential-state materialism.

And like type identity theory, the view faces an objection from multiple realization. The same functional role could be played by different physical states. This may actually happen in other creatures — octopuses, perhaps — and we can easily imagine it happening in us. The brain is highly plastic, and existing structures can be recruited to play new roles in response to damage. In the future, we may even be able to replace damaged brain structures with artificial ones that play the same role.

This poses an obvious problem for the essential-state view. If pain is the essential nature of C-fibre firing, then creatures who lack C-fibres cannot feel pain, even if they have functionally identical states and respond exactly as if they do feel pain. This is a counterintuitive, and possibly cruel, view. How do panpsychists respond?

It is implausible to say that all the physical states that could play the pain role have the same intrinsic nature. (And even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t solve the problem, since those states could also play other functional roles, with the result that pain could cause behaviour quite unrelated to pain, which is equally counterintuitive.) And of course panpsychists can’t say that the phenomenal nature of a physical state changes with the functional role it plays, since that would mean that a physical state’s phenomenal nature is not intrinsic to it.

I’d be grateful for any thoughts on this problem or for references to discussions of it in the panpsychist literature.

Introducing mephistos

Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
— J. W. Goethe, Faust I, 1338

Zombies are not conscious but believe they are. They are as tempted as we are to believe that their experiences possess nonphysical qualitative properties, but they are wrong. I want to introduce another class of creatures, who are conscious but don’t believe they are. They are consciousness deniers. As a nod to the denying spirit depicted by Goethe, I’ll call them mephistos. Let me tell you a little about them.

Mephistos are conscious in just the way we are. Their brains are like ours and they inhabit a world like ours, with the same physical laws, the same psycho-physical laws (if there are any), and the same quiddities (if there are any). So if our experiences possess nonphysical qualitative properties, then theirs do too.

However, mephistos don’t conceptualize their consciousness in the way we do, as involving acquaintance with private mental qualities. Though every bit as reflective and self-aware as us, they don’t think of themselves as having a phenomenal inner world. If you ask them to describe what their experience is like, they tell you about the world, rhapsodizing about the vibrant red of ripe strawberries, the rich texture of velvet, the smokiness of dark roast coffee, and so on. They think of these as sensible qualities belonging to external objects or parts of their bodies, not as sensory qualities belonging to their minds.

Of course, mephistos know that their senses sometimes mislead them about the world. They dream and hallucinate and are subject to perceptual illusions just like us. But they don’t think of these episodes as demonstrating the existence of an internal world. When asked what happened, they just shrug and say that their senses lied. They thought they were aware of something, but they were wrong. They aren’t inclined to say that they really were aware of something mental.

If you point out that objects look different under different viewing conditions, mephistos generally deny it, either saying that their senses misled them or insisting that the objects in question didn’t look different at all. The tomato still looked red in the dim light, they say, just as a high tower still looks tall when seen from a great distance.

Mephisto philosophers and scientists do not think there is a hard problem of consciousness. Consciousness, they believe, is an immensely complex set of informational and control processes, all of which can, in principle, be reductively explained. Many have, however, argued that there is a hard problem of sensible qualities — the problem of explaining how surface textures give rise to colours, how molecules give rise to tastes, how pressure waves give rise to sounds, and so on. This problem has generated a lot of metaphysical speculation among mephisito scholars. (If you’re interested in their theories, have a look at this paper by the philosopher Alex Byrne, who has made a study of them.)

Today, however, a growing band of radical mephisto philosophers argue that this hard problem is misconceived. Sensible qualities, they argue, are illusory, and philosophers should turn aside from metaphysical speculation and focus on explaining how and why the brain produces the conviction that they exist.

So these are the mephistos. Their situation is just like ours, but they conceptualize it very differently. Is it we or they who are getting things wrong? And if there is any doubt, how can we be certain that the existence of phenomenal consciousness is a datum?

The last word about Mary

What happens when Mary leaves her black-and-white room and has a red colour experience for the first time? Here’s the answer, in outline. (I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Mary has developed the neural circuitry required for colour vision.)

  1. Mary’s visual system begins tracking something red, generating a huge set of active, interconnected first-order informational states, which in turn generate a vast range of reactions and reactive dispositions. Call complex of first-order informational and reactive states R1.
  2. Mary’s introspective system begins tracking the states in R1, generating a huge set of active, interconnected second-order informational states, which in turn generate a vast range of reactions and reactive dispositions. Call this complex of higher-order informational and reactive states R2.

  3. Mary has never instantiated R1 and R2 before and there was no practicable way to induce them in her pre-release.

  4. The informational states in R1 and R2 carry a mass of information about the world and about Mary’s current state.

  5. None of this information is about anything essentially private and non-physical (in the structure/dynamics sense). The informational states involved were generated by tracking physical features which could also be tracked by suitable scientific instruments and which were fully described in Mary’s textbooks.

  6. Mary’s total informational situation is novel. She has not previously instantiated this combination of active, interconnected informational states, and there was no practicable way she could have done so pre-release.

That’s it. (5) preserves physicalism, while (6) accounts for the intuition that Mary enters a new knowledge state. Fill in the details with your preferred theories of perception, introspection, and so on.

There’s no more to say ;)

Illusionism and compassion

I often get emails from people who have questions about illusionism. Most of them focus on the theory itself, but recently I received one that raised concerns about its emotional and ethical implications. The writer was persuaded that that illusionsm was true, but found it a deeply disturbing view, which, they felt, undermined the bases for empathy and compassion. Why should we care about other people and creatures if what’s happening in them is just a bunch of physical processes with no subjective component? Why should we even care about ourselves, if our subjective experience is an illusion? How, they asked, did I handle these implications of my view? Or were they not genuine implications after all? (That is a brief paraphrase the writer’s concerns, which were eloquently and feelingly expressed.)

Now, I don’t believe that illusionism has these that pessimistic consequences (just the opposite, in fact), but it worries me that some people think it does, and I plan to address these issues in my future work. For the moment, however, I will share my reply to my correspondent. Here is it, revised and edited a little.


I can see why you think that views like mine and Dennett’s might have negative consequences for the way we feel about other people and about ourselves. Many people share this concern, but I believe they are wrong, deeply wrong. I don’t think these negative consequences follow, and, in fact, I think that a materialistic perspective provides a much better foundation for value, empathy, and self-worth than the dualistic alternative. There’s a huge amount to say here, but let me sketch the outline.

The first point to make is that, like Dennett, I do not deny that we have conscious experiences, including bodily sensations of pain and pleasure, nor do I deny that these states matter morally. I just reject a certain theory of what conscious experiences are — the theory that says they involve acquaintance with private mental qualities or qualia. It’s qualia that I think are illusory, not consciousness itself.

Of course, some people think that qualia are essential to consciousness, and so I am denying consciousness in their sense. But to assume that their sense is the right one is to beg the question against my alternative. You can’t make a theory of consciousness true simply by defining consciousness as whatever your theory says it is! Science is continually correcting our naive theories of things.

So what is my alternative view? Roughly, it is that conscious experiences are complex informational-cum-reactive states: to have a conscious experience of something is to be receiving a stream of detailed sensory information about it and to be reacting to this information in a characteristic range of ways. So being in pain, say, doesn’t involve being acquainted with a private mental awfulness, but reacting in a host of negative ways to sensory information about the state of one’s body. The idea that our experiences have a private qualitative nature is a sort of illusion, which arises from the fact our brains monitor their own reactive processes and generate reactions to them in turn.

Here’s a recent article in which I try to explain this in a bit more detail: https://iai.tv/articles/the-demystification-of-consciousness-auid-1381

So why is pain bad? The short answer is that it’s bad because it signals that we are in a bad physical state — a state of sickness or injury — and because the reactions involved, both physiological and psychological, are of a negative, aversive kind. It’s a state we don’t like being in and that we want to stop being in.

I believe this account makes pain more real, more morally important, and easier to empathize with than the qualia one. Why do I say that? Because on the qualia view, pain is something that is wholly private and only contingently connected with pain reactions. We are all locked into private mental realities, and no one can ever really be sure what another person is feeling. That’s a view that seems to me scary and alienating.

A key point for me is that, even if they were real, qualia would only matter if they had effects on us. Pain qualia would only be a matter of moral concern if they produced pain reactions. If they didn’t, or if they produced other reactions instead, then why should we care about them? Suppose I am having intense pain qualia, but they are disconnected from the rest of my psychology and I’m sitting quietly, relaxing, sipping a drink, and assuring you that I feel absolutely fine. Should you be concerned for me? And what on earth could you do if you were? Any action you took would only affect my reactions, which are fine anyway. Can you even imagine the scenario? Can you separate out a pure essence of pain, distinct from all pain reactions, mental and physical? I can’t. Yet qualia realists have to say that scenarios like this are at least theoretically possible, since they hold that qualia are only contingently connected with reactions: it’s not what they do that matters, but what they are.

Look at it like this. Suppose I convince you that I don’t have qualia. And suppose you see me injure myself horribly. My stress levels soar, and I exhibit all the psychological and physiological signs of intense pain. I’m tensed up, grimacing, crying out, telling you that I feel terrible, and begging for assistance. What would you do? Would you help me, or would you ignore my pleas on the grounds that these are just physical reactions and I’m not experiencing the mental essence of pain? I’m sure you’d help. The point is that we don’t need to posit a hidden qualitative essence to justify empathy. The fact that someone is reacting negatively is enough. Pain is as pain does; it’s all there in our psychological and physiological engagement with the world, and it’s evident to anyone who cares to look. (The real cause for pessimism here is that too often people don’t care to look.)

In short, value is rooted in effects, not essences. Here’s a short piece by Daniel Dennett which uses the example of monetary value to drive home the point: https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/consciousnessmoney.htm

The same goes for ourselves. We don’t need to have some non-physical essence — whether it be an immaterial soul or a private world of phenomenal properties — in order to have value and self-worth. Those things come from how we live and interact with the world and other people. We create value and self-worth through our engagement with the world around us and the people in it. It’s what do and how we react that matters, not some hidden essence.

So that’s roughly how I see it. I believe that the implications of illusionism are the opposite of the pessimistic ones some people see. As I see it, we aren’t sealed off from each other in private mental worlds, and our value doesn’t depend on mysterious essences. Everything that matters is out here in the open, in this wonderful physical world, and this is where we must seek meaning and value. I find this a comforting view. It means that that we are, in a sense, all one, part of the same world, and that — if we try hard enough — we can truly understand each other.

Consciousness is a life-transforming illusion

In 2015 I was invited to write a short piece on consciousness for the magazine Aeon. The text now appears to be unavailable on Aeon, so I am reposting it here.


From the moment we wake we are bombarded with stimuli. Electromagnetic radiation floods our eyes, pressure waves hit our ears, surfaces press against our skins, molecules adhere to the membranes of our noses and tongues. Our sense organs react, sending nerve impulses to our brains, where they trigger waves of neural activity, which may culminate in motor commands to our muscles (shielding our eyes from the light, for example). But something else happens, too. We have conscious experiences. We see a bright light, hear a scream, feel the roughness of a surface. There is something it is like to detect the stimuli; each experience has a distinctive qualitative aspect — a quale in philosopher’s jargon (plural qualia). Such experiences constitute what we call consciousness. But what is consciousness for? What do qualia do?

This may seem an odd question. The answer, surely, is that qualia carry information about the world. A red visual sensation tells us there is something red present; an acrid smell tells us something is burning; a pain tells us our body is damaged. There’s a problem, however. For we could get this information without qualia. Engineers build robots with computer vision systems that can detect and classify colours, shapes, and movements with considerable accuracy. They don’t need to give the robots qualia. Indeed, sometimes we behave in a robotic way ourselves. Most drivers have had the experience of driving absentmindedly, without paying attention to the road. Yet during these spells we must still be taking in visual information or we would crash. Or consider blindsight, a condition discovered in the 1970s by the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. Humphrey studied a macaque monkey, Helen, whose primary visual cortex had been surgically removed. By the usual tests Helen was blind, but Humphrey discovered that, with encouragement, she could detect a range of visual stimuli, and in time she was able to interact with her surroundings almost as if fully sighted. (See a video of Helen and read Humphrey’s report.) Blindsight has been discovered in humans too, and the patients confirm that, though they can accurately ‘guess’ shapes and colours, they have no conscious visual sensations.

It appears, then, that the brain can do the work of perception without qualia. So, again, what is consciousness for? In his 2011 book Soul Dust, Humphrey proposes a novel idea. He argues that consciousness enriches life. It doesn’t add information; it adds interests and goals. Qualia are wonderful, magical things, and conscious creatures enjoy having them. They relish their sensations, and this relish gives them a deeper interest in their own existence. They also project qualia onto their surroundings and take a deeper interest in them too; and they come to think of themselves as having a self, which is of great importance to them. These developments, Humphrey argues, have great survival value and explain why evolution equipped with us consciousness. (Watch Humphrey talking about these ideas.)

This may be just the change of perspective we need to understand consciousness. There’s a catch, however. For qualia are very strange things; they are utterly unlike any properties known to the physical sciences, and many philosophers argue that they are nonphysical. But there is good reason to think that everything that happens in the physical world has a physical cause. Since we are part of the physical world, this means that if qualia are nonphysical, they cannot affect us. Humphrey’s proposal threatens to be self-defeating. Qualia enrich life because they are magical; yet because they are magical they can’t affect us and enrich life!

There’s a possible way out of this, which Humphrey himself adopts. It involves another radical idea. Maybe qualia are a sort of illusion. Evolution couldn’t set it up so that brain states really have qualia, so it did the next best thing. It set things up so that they seem to have qualia when we attend to them (when we introspect). Consciousness is, as Humphrey puts it, a sort of inner magic show, in which brain states are the actors and introspection the audience.

This is a big pill to swallow, and even if you’ve gone along with the argument so far you will probably want to get off here. An obvious objection is that, when it comes to qualia, seeming is reality. If I seem to be having a sensation of red, then I’m having one. This looks like a knock-down objection, but maybe we can edge round it. Here’s the idea.

Cognitive science sees the mind as a representational system, a system that records information about the world in a sort of internal code and uses this information to guide behaviour. On this view, for us to be aware of anything, our brains must represent it. This goes not only for external properties accessed through the senses (which can be represented in a robotic, blindsighted way), but also for internal properties accessed through introspection. Even if our brain states did have qualia, our brains would have to represent these qualia in order for us to be aware of them. Unrepresented qualia would be no more to us than unheard sounds. But representations are not always accurate — sometimes our brains misrepresent things. Indeed our surroundings might be set up precisely to induce such misrepresentation. A prankster might use scenery and video projections to trick a person into thinking they were seeing things they weren’t. And maybe evolution has pulled a similar trick on us — setting up our internal landscape so that introspection represents it as illuminated with magical, nonphysical qualia. Of course, it doesn’t seem that qualia are an illusion, but it wouldn’t if evolution has done its work well.

This is counterintuitive, but is it more so than the view that consciousness does nothing? It is very plausible to think that consciousness transforms the lives of the creatures who possess it, but maybe it is a transformation that can be wrought only by trickery.

Originally published in Aeon online magazine, 25 June 2015.

Nothing but

Many people find physicalism an inhumane, philistine view. I wish I could dispel that idea. What underlies it, I suspect, is the ‘nothing but’ thought: If we are nothing but matter, then where is our specialness, our value, our subjectivity?

But why does it matter what we are made of? Suppose we were immaterial souls instead of physical beings. Would that make us special? Why? Couldn’t we still worry that we were nothing but soul stuff?

So where does our specialness come from? Perhaps our physical bodies are infused with a nonphysical essence that confers subjectivity and value? But that suggestion explains nothing at all. It’s just saying that are special because we possess an intrinsic specialness.

I think there’s a better way of looking at it. It’s not the stuff we’re made of that matters, nor some essence within it. It’s the way the stuff is organized. Is Michelangelo’s David ‘nothing but marble’? Yes; there’s no extra ingredient or special essence. But it’s marble shaped in a meaningful way by the hands of a great creative artist. And we are matter shaped in a meaningful way by billions of years of natural experimentation and selection.

It’s this billion-year heritage of natural design that has endowed us with the sensitivities and reactive dispositions that underpin our sense of value and subjectivity. We’re matter that nature has made special — and we’re beginning to understand how nature did it.