Qualia, Consciousness, and Zombies (RJS)

Qualia, Consciousness, and Zombies (RJS) August 23, 2012

I am currently reading Christof Koch’s memoir Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Christof Koch is a Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at CalTech. You can find the first two posts of his book here and here. In chapter 3 of the the book Koch looks at the nature of consciousness and why this concept challenges the scientific view of the world. Consciousness is a hard problem – according to philosopher David Chalmers of the Australian National University it is The Hard Problem (more information on Chalmers here). In fact Chalmers suggests that consciousness is a serious challenge for materialism – although it doesn’t invalidate science or darwinian evolution, and as far as I can determine he is an atheist or agnostic. This video from 2009 provides an interesting overview of his Chalmer’s ideas. Zombies come into the discussion about 2:20.

As The Hard Problem, consciousness appears to be inexplicable in the context of reductionist science, yet Koch remains convinced that an explanation exists. Science should be able to explain the world within us as well as it explains the world around us. Koch introduces the concept of qualia, used as well by Chalmers (definition about 5:40 in the video above). Quale is a philosophical term that describes the essence of an experience, qualia is the plural of quale. The experience of red or green or bitterness are qualia. “Qualia are the raw feelings, the elements that make up any one conscious experience.” The essence of these experiences are natural phenomena wired into the brain.

According to Koch:

I believe that qualia are properties of the natural world. They do not have a divine or supernatural origin. Rather they are the consequences of unknown laws that I would like to uncover.

Many questions follow from that belief: Are qualia an elementary feature of matter itself, or do they come about only in exceedingly organized systems? Put differently, do elementary particles have qualia, or do only brains have them? … Does my Mac enjoy its intrinsic elegance, whereas my accountant’s slab of non-Mac machinery suffers because of its squat gray exterior and clunky software? Is the Internet, with its billion nodes, sentient? (p. 28)

In a number of places in his discussion Koch pits the natural mechanisms for qualia – or consciousness – over and against the religious concept of the soul.  Consciousness is not separable from the physical brain and as such it obeys, on some elementary level, the laws of physics. Koch suggests that the dualist approach with a soul inhabiting a body does not seem to make much sense. We are fully embodied creatures. Although Koch uses this as part of an argument against religion, many Christians take a more unified, wholistic view. The concept of humans as fully embodied unities is not intrinsically inconsistent with Christian faith. I, for example, don’t consider myself a dualist.

The Difficulty of Defining Consciousness. Neuroscience in general, and the study of consciousness in particular, is a field in its infancy. There are several consequences of this – the most important is that it is a work in progress. Conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt – not because they represent bad science, but because they represent attempts to get at the truth. They are subject to refinement and redefinition as the field progresses. Here Koch makes an important point:

A habitual misperception is that science first rigorously defines the phenomena it studies, then uncovers the principles that govern them. Historically, progress in science is made without precise axiomatic formulations. Scientists work with malleable, ad hoc definitions that they adapt as better knowledge becomes available. Such working definitions guide discussion ans experimentation and permit different research communities to interact, enabling progress. (p. 33)

This is true across the board, in physics, in chemistry, in evolutionary biology, and in neuroscience. Scientists work at proving or disproving hypothesis based on definitions – but everything is subject to revision in the face of evidence. The object is not defense of some pet construct, but determination of the most accurate explanation of the world around us and within us. Any working hypothesis will need to be revised, and may need to be rejected.

Working Definitions. Koch gives four working definitions of consciousness, none of them complete but each capturing an important part of consciousness.

Common sense definition: Consciousness is equated with our inner mental life.

Behavioral definition: A checklist of actions or behaviors that would certify an organism as conscious. A medical diagnosis. Emergency room personnel will evaluate consciousness according to a range of response.

Neuronal definition: This relates to “the minimal physiological mechanism required for any one conscious sensation.”

Philosophers definition: Consciousness is what it like to feel something. (Although as Koch notes later on emotion is not essential, the experience can be “flat” and still reflect consciousness.)

None of these definitions is foundational. None describes in unequivocal terms what it takes for any system to be conscious. But, for practical purposes,  the behavioral and neuronal definitions are the most useful. (p. 34)

It isn’t exactly surprising that a neuroscientist would find these definitions the most useful. That non-human animals experience consciousness seems hard to deny – and they certainly can plan and scheme. My cat is particularly devious at times. The difference is one of degree along a continuum not a fundamental change in the nature of being, it is quantitative not qualitative. (Although no other creature can sequence its own genome, or “build a globe-spanning internet”).

The Science of Consciousness. And here is another important assumption according to Koch (but always recall that working hypotheses in science may be revised or rejected later on):

As a starting point, I assume that the physical basis of consciousness is closely linked to specific interactions among neurons and their elements. Although consciousness is fully compatible with the laws of physics, it is not feasible to predict or understand consciousness from these laws alone. (p. 35)

David Chalmers reflects more on this in another YouTube video – dated a couple of years earlier than the one above.

Personally, I think the study of consciousness may precipitate a revolution in world view something akin to the materialist revolution brought about by the age of science. But like Koch, I expect the answer to the problem of consciousness to be consistent with the laws of physics. Unlike Koch and Chalmers, I think it might point us back toward God. I don’t think there will be a “gap,” that is, a phenomena inexplicable without God, providing empirical proof of the existence of God. Rather I think we may see a serious twist in the nature of our understanding of at least part of reality. This is all speculation, however.

Is consciousness a hard problem? What do you think of Chalmers description of it as The Hard Problem?

Do you think this is a problem that may require a solution beyond materialism?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS and Scot,
    Speaking of reductionism, John Armstrong of ACTS 3 is hosting Brendon Purcell on Sept.12 (Wed) at noon (Chicago, Ill). People can look up John’s website for more information. Purcell’s book, “From Big Bang to Big Mystery” deals with both determinism and reductionism as problems in the intersection of science and religion.

    By the way Scot, I like the changes here to your website (It is so much easier to scroll down and see past threads). Thanks!

  • Rick

    It would be nice to have a scientific accomplishment that simply buffered the faith, rather than one that we have to reformulate around. I feel that we may have qualified reasons for such reformulations, and that they still fall under the orthodox faith, but that we lose the PR war due to the changes, and/or their complexity.

    Just sayin’

  • phil_style

    @Rick I feel that we may have qualified reasons for such reformulations, and that they still fall under the orthodox faith, but that we lose the PR war due to the changes, and/or their complexity

    Isn’t in interesting how science is allowed to constantly reformulate, but religion is deemed unworthy of such flexibility?
    Is it because we have allowed science to be a process, but required religion to be static?

  • Rick


    I think that is a good question, but should religion be a process? Was God’s initial revelation(s) so unclear? If so, why?

  • RJS


    I think God’s revelation has been a process from the very beginning. It has been a process because it has been in relationship with his creatures. Frankly the idea of “process” is the only way I can understand the OT. Otherwise the OT seems inconsistent to me – and this is without ever broaching the ideas of the NT.

    This does not mean that I think God is changing – but that his creation, including humanity, is “unfolding.”

  • Rick


    I don’t necessarily disagree, but the fact that you had to explain “process” is an example. For so often, it seems, we have to put a qualifier ahead of our revised understanding. Although I understand the reason, but the constant qualifications in the face of each (seemingly) new scientific breakthrough/theory looks…well….like excuses.

    Again, I get the reasoning, and agree with much of it. However, it would be nice to have a straightforward “victory” from that field so people (who are skeptical or have limited time) can see some reasonable “evidences” of the faith.

    Have we so strayed from the understanding of the faith that we have to totally recalculate how we understand revelation, or has God just made it (for some reason) so “complex” and/or confusing from the beginning- if so, why? Why does it have to “unfold to such a degree”?

  • phil_style

    @ Rick but should religion be a process?
    Well I’m not sure I can answer the question of whether or not Religion ought to be a process.. But I think we are stuck with one that is. It’s not a particularly difficult historical task to show this.

  • Rick


    “It’s not a particularly difficult historical task to show this.”

    If so (and I agree with you), why has it become such an obstacle, for so many, to understand such issues/developments?

    Instead of seeing it as an “unfolding”, it comes across more as if we are “retreating”.

    Again, I am not in disagreement, I am just kind of venting as I prepare to carefully teach people and challenge their presuppositions. It would be nice to be thrown a bone now and then.

  • phil_style

    If so (and I agree with you), why has it become such an obstacle, for so many, to understand such issues/developments?

    Well, I think the issues/reasons that lie behind the resistance to seeing this are manifold. Probably for each individual and group, the need/desire for holding on to and maintaining a constant is going to be different, and often not deliberate.
    There are biblical warnings about falsehood of course – which cause many a great deal of fear/ caution about “getting it wrong”.
    Then there is events like the disciples being asked by Jesus who they thought he was. Does a “wrong” answer put one outside the faith? Are we afraid to end up with “wrong answers”? I think all of this drives the challenge.

    Is there a bone I can throw you… maybe…. I think there is a way through this, and science has shown us a little gap in the door into that room. In fact, it’s probably a room our faith once quite happily occupied…
    And that is to see our faith as a process – and that the PROCESS is the constant. That way, we have the sure foundation of a constant (i.e. Christ) and the flexibility of conviction to land wherever that process leads.

    Can we see Christ as a process? I think so, in so far as he models behavior. Processes are, after all, behavior modifiers. Science is. Science is not a belief, it is a behavioral modifier – a method.

    Does describing Christ as a process deny Him of orthodox attributes?
    I would say no. Mimicry is the greatest act of worship. It is behavior that puts words in practice. Following Christ is the acknowledgement of who he is.

  • CGC

    HI RJS,
    I know this is not my area but there has been some books written on consciousness and near death experiences (NDE’s). Others on this list have studied some of this. I noticed two books that speaks about life after death are by Chris Carter and Pim Van Lommel. I don’t know if you have read anything by these two, but the Chris Carter book especially looked promising?

  • James Rednour

    Great stuff! Looks like I’m going to have to pick up a book by Chalmers. I agree with him that consciousness is not a problem that will ever be fully solved by materialistic explanations. I think a model may eventually form that helps make sense of it, but I don’t think it can ever be fully grasped. I think guys like Dennett, Harris and Pinker are way too optimistic about solving the mind-body problem with pure computational theory.

    I liken the consciousness problem in a way to quantum mechanics. Yes, QM is quite possibly the most successful scientific model even formed, but nobody really “gets” QM. It’s too alien from our everyday world to make sense to us. Even men as brilliant as Richard Feynman and Niels Bohr agree that it is impossible to truly understand the quantum world. I suspect that consciousness is very similar.

  • Rick — “why has God made it so confusing?”

    Your question brought to mind a Pascal quote from a post a few days ago:

    “God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will”

    The fact is, God is not an object or discipline that can be known by way of reason and facts. God is known only known in the desire to know Him and the rest in being known and loved.

    To the very same extent our faith is based on knowing correct things about God we worship an idol.

    No one has seen God. Like Moses, the best we get is a view of the gaping expanse created by his absence. God is revealed and known most fully not in seeing evidence of Him, but in the very act of embracing his absence.

    “My God my God, why have you forsaken me??”

  • I’m a scientist who has little trouble maintaining a de facto materialist view when it comes to actually doing science. But, I’m open to the possibility that reality is also composed of nonmaterial entities, and do not necessarily find it a problem that science may not be able to touch such realities. I think that consciousness is quite possibly a representative of such a distinct nonmaterial world, based quite a bit on Chalmers’ arguments for the nonmaterial nature of consciousness. I really think he’s on to something when he discusses the implications of qualia and such thought exercises as Mary’s room and philosophical zombies. The materialist criticisms I’ve read of these arguments have not been convincing to me. But, I hold this view rather tenuously and provisionally, and I don’t think that one needs to hold to such a dualistic view in order to be a faithful Christian, by any means. In fact, I would say that my position can be summed up something like this: 4 days of the week I’m some sort of dualist, and the other 3 a materialist.

    It’s also worth pointing out that there are different kinds of philosophical dualism. The one that most people think of when they think of dualism is “Cartesian” or “substance” dualism– that is that there are two distinct substances that comprise a human: a nonmaterial mind, and a material brain, and these two communicate somehow to make the whole person. More common these days is “property dualism”, which states that although there is one type of substance to reality, call it the “material”, nevertheless mental states and physical states are distinct irreducible properties of the mind, and no amount of characterization of the physical states of the brain will provide an explanation of the associated mental states.

  • Rick

    Phil and Nate. W.-

    Good thoughts, and I hear ya. Again, I don’t disagree.

    I am approaching this from a teaching standpoint, and see posts here (by RJS) that would appear to give the (current) advantage to the skeptics (I am not blaming RJS. She is doing good, challenging work here that needs to continue). The skeptics do seem energized.

    It just would be nice to now and then see one that reflects a development that confirms longstanding beliefs (scientific, archeological, etc…), rather than one that reflects the constant need to re-evaluate. I guess I am looking for a little balance (not that RJS has to provide it). I am not wanting the faith we have, and how it unfolds, to change. But I would like some reaffirmations, of what already is “traditionally” held, that can be relayed to the faithful.

  • Rick – Gotcha. I guess if I were teaching and felt te confidence of my students slipping I would feel the same way you do.

    Perhaps, in teaching though this is an opportunity for you to bolster the faith of your flock by sharing in some way the VERY good news that we do not need to be able to scientifically explain God, that our faith does not need to be threatened in the least by any natural account of our world. People need to hear that it is not knowing about God that saves them an that salvation doesn’t always mean living in a world that makes sense. salvation lie in faith that we are known and the life that flows out of that. That the best news!

  • napman

    I think Chalmers has shown that materialists indeed have a difficult time explaining consciousness on materialistic grounds alone. Dennett’s explanation is a reductionistic redefinition of consciousness rather than an an explanation of consciousness as it is.

    Assuming that a materialist explanation will one day be made seems to be a “materialism of the gaps” assumption. On present knowledge I think a variety of solutions to the mind body problem are possible. But to me it is hard to explain the first person perspective, the “unity of consciousness” without believing that there are mental properties or an immaterial node of consciousness. As a theist I have no antecedent preference for metaphysical explanations that are wholly materialistic, though that is what is in favor among our increasingly secular culture.