Physicalism and the Puzzle of Qualia

In my previous posting I discussed Julian Baggini’s “articles of 21st-century faith,” an attempt to find common ground among many atheists and progressive theists. It seems to me that these articles require an agreement that nothing exists except physical reality, and I see this as overly restrictive.

Let’s be clear: I’m not just talking about the fact that some things are hard to describe in physical terms. For instance, I have heard people object to physicalism on the grounds that it excludes love, beauty, and humor. How could physics ever describe the thrill of a kiss or the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa? But in principle, such phenomena could be described in terms of the behavior of elementary particles, if we knew absolutely everything there is to know about such particles. We do not, so we are not remotely close to expressing love as an equation, but ultimately it might be possible.

And it might not be. I’ll mention two problems with the physicalist viewpoint. In both cases I will state my opinion, and also admit that I may be wrong.

First, scientists have not figured out how to deal with paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition (predicting the future in certain peculiar ways), and telekinesis (moving objects with one’s mind). I am a longstanding skeptic about such matters, but I admit that there is some evidence for paranormal events. I am not persuaded, but my skeptical stance may turn out to be mistaken.

If such events actually occur, a completed physics would probably explain them naturalistically. But this is not certain. Paranormal processes might involve mysterious entities that could never be understood by the scientific method. That seems unlikely, but it is might be the case.

Second, scientists and philosophers are not sure how even in principle we could ever have a physical explanation of conscious experiences. That’s part of the reason it seems odd to imagine explaining love, humor, etc. in terms of quarks and quanta.

Why do philosophers think it’s so hard to know how experiences could be brain events? Is it because the brain is so complicated that we don’t know where to find consciousness in its tangled circuitry? Is it because conscious and unconscious processes are so tightly intertwined that we aren’t sure how a brain scanner could ever tell which is which? Those are indeed difficult problems, but academicians seldom lie awake at night wondering about them. In fact, philosopher David Chalmers calls these the “easy problems” of consciousness, not to make light of them but to contrast them with what he calls The Hard Problem.

The hard problem of consciousness is ‘hard’ in the sense that once we understand the issue we have no idea how to even begin addressing it! We are perpetually stuck at square one.

There are actually several understandings of the hard problem and several ways of expressing it. But in brief, even though there is a lot of evidence that conscious experiences are brain activities, it seems difficult or impossible to see how this could be true of so-called qualia, sensory qualities such as our experiences of colors, sounds, tastes, touches, tingles, pains and pleasures.

As Colin McGinn writes in The Problem of Consciousness, “Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” “What has matter in motion got to do with the way a rose smells? What is it that converts brain ‘gook’ into visual experience?”

I think we will be able to solve the hard problem. In fact, my current book project addresses this very issue. But having wrestled with this conundrum for twenty years, I am keenly aware that it might permanently elude physical explanation.

Those who think this problem is insoluble have two alternatives. (1) Conscious experiences are physical, but we cannot know how this is so. (2) Conscious experiences are non-physical.

Each of these options will be endorsed by highly intelligent and well-informed individuals. This is another reason the Articles of Twenty-First Century Faith should not require the acceptance of physicalism.

Roger Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

7 thoughts on “Physicalism and the Puzzle of Qualia

  1. I wonder when philosophers will be content to do away with the “ghost in the machine” – just because it is more romantic to imagine emotions like love or experiences of wonder cannot simply be neurological occurrences, doesn’t mean they aren’t. Interesting post – thank you.

  2. Roger wrote:

    And it might not be. I’ll mention two problems with the physicalist viewpoint. In both cases I will state my opinion, and also admit that I may be wrong.

    First, scientists have not figured out how to deal with paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition (predicting the future in certain peculiar ways), and telekinesis (moving objects with one’s mind). I am a longstanding skeptic about such matters, but I admit that there is some evidence for paranormal events. I am not persuaded, but my skeptical stance may turn out to be mistaken.


    I’m not sure what you mean by “scientists have not figured out how to deal with paranormal phenomena.” From what I’ve read, most alleged paranormal claims have been found wanting when closely examined by scientists and other technical experts.

    In fact, one could claim there are one million reasons why one should doubt most paranormal claims:

    Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence in a total and absolute sense. But it may be enough for one to make a provisional conclusion. One million dollars sitting there unclaimed may be a persuasive provisional argument for now. If Sylvia Browne or Uri Geller claims this prize tomorrow, this provisional conclusion may change.

    Additionally, if psychic phenomena were real in any sense, natural selection would have selected for it the same way that vision developed during the Cambrian explosion of diversity 540 million years ago (estimates are that one can get from simple photosensitive eyespots to complex eyes in about 400,000 years — a “blink of an eye” on the evolutionary timescale).

    This evolutionary biology argument against psychic phenomena isn’t original with me so I’ll quote a section from a blog article where Greta Christina wrote about this and I first encountered it:

    If telepathy were a real phenomenon, natural selection would have selected for it long ago.

    We would all have it. And it would not be a subtle effect, occasionally telling us who’s on the phone when it’s ringing. It would be obvious. We wouldn’t be having debates about whether it’s real, any more than we have debates about whether language is real.

    Think about it. If telepathy existed — even to a tiny degree — it would confer an enormous selective advantage in evolution. Even a tiny amount of telepathy would be far more useful than a tiny amount of camouflage, a tiny amount of a wing for gliding, a tiny amount of language. It would enable you to know, just a little bit quicker than your competitors, that there’s a delicious duck with a tasty nest of duck eggs right under that bush… or a ferocious tiger behind that other bush waiting to make you into a meal… or an enemy crouching in the tree branch over your head, waiting to conk you with a stone axe. Even a small amount of telepathy would give you enough of a survival advantage for natural selection to sit up and take notice.

    And, need I say, telepathy would confer a ridiculous advantage when it comes to reproduction. If you could know whether the person you’re trying to mate with is interested or you’re just wasting your time; if you could know what their turn-ons and turn-offs were and work your angle accordingly… you’d be in like Flynn. The ability to know what the opposite sex is thinking, or even to be slightly better at guessing than your competitors, would get your DNA replicated so fast it would make your head spin.

    The rest of Greta’s article on the can be found online here:

    “Telepathy, or, Why You Need Directions to the Psychic Fair”

    It sounds like you’re really wanting to hang on to the “vitalism” concept when it comes to humanity. I’m not sure how productive vitalism will be for us learning how the world works and how we work.

    • Hi Steve,

      I’ve seen some impressive presentations on research into paranormal phenomena at venues such as the biennial Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson AZ (coming up again April 10). I have tended to discount such data because extraordinary claims require lots and lots of extraordinary evidence.

      Thanks for the evolutionary argument against paranormal powers. I had not run into this line of reasoning and it makes excellent sense to me.

      Can you say more about how I seem to be wanting to hang on to vitalism? In stating that I think we will be able to solve the hard problem of consciousness, I meant that I think we will be able to show how consciousness could, in principle, occur within the brain. That’s the main thrust of the book I’m writing now.

      Roger Schriner

  3. I agree that it is wise not to commit oneself too much to either the physicalist or non-physicalist perspective. We don’t know enough about consciousness nor the relationship between neurological events and conscious experiences to be confident either way. I am happy to keep an open mind and enjoy the mystery and challenge of the hard and easy problems.

    I wonder whether we should distinguish between describing e.g. love and explaining it? We may or may not eventually construct an equation for love, but even if we do, can this ever capture the subjective experience? Won’t we always need music, poetry, painting as well as our own unique intoxicating experience of falling in love?

    I recently read this which made me laugh:

    “Adrenaline means more than fear,” said Fireweed. “And divine love is more than adrenaline and dopamine.”
    “Certainly. There’s phenylethylamine and oxytocin. Love is a most complex and difficult problem.”
    (Slonczewski, J. (2000). Brain Plague. New York: Tor Books.

    It is similar to trying to describe what something tastes like, or someone’s face. Could you ever pick out the right taste or person on the basis of someone else’s description?

  4. Another interesting issue I hope you will discuss in a future blog is the problem of combinatorial explosion in attempting to artificially create information processing at the same rate as the human brain. I would like to suggest that this can best be explained by a commitment to intentional realism, ie that mental states do refer to something in the physical world and that we are therefore able to answer queries like “Have you ever danced with a movie star?” whereas artificial networks cannot. What does this imply about the relationship between physical reality and mental states?

    It is also important to distinguish between sensory experiences, dispositional and occurrent beliefs, and implicit and explicit beliefs as different types of conscious experiences. It may be that arguments for one may not apply to the others.

  5. Does anyone know about evidence for dogs being able to sense their owners coming home? I seem to remember that is quite compelling.
    Surely there are lots of things that haven’t been selected for that would be to our evolutionary advantage? And the same for other species? Might they not get selected for in the future? Not everything has happened yet, has it? And are ALL properties heritable – could it be that telepathy is not? I don’t know enough about genetics to answer this.

  6. Thanks for your interesting comments re possibilities such as: Psychic abilities might not yet have been selected for by evolution, but might be selected in the future. Clearly, abilities do not instantly materialize due to natural selection, and some take longer than others.

    Regarding “psychic pets,” I saw a presentation by Rupert Sheldrake on this topic a few years ago. A member of my congregation in Laguna Beach, California had told me about Sheldrake in the mid-1990’s. Rupert was making several claims that seemed outlandish, which were also eminently testable and of great practical import. I made a mental note to see if his theories had revolutionized our physical world-view after another 10 years or so, and clearly they have not. (I don’t recall the specific items I thought were testable and of practical importance, but paranormal powers of pets were not among them.)

    With this background, I expected to be unimpressed by Sheldrake’s presentation, but he came across as bright, insightful, and relatively objective. His videos on dogs that know their owners are coming home were also impressive, but of course there are lots of ways to slant videos so as to make shaky evidence seem solid.

    Here are some links:

    Click to access psychicdogreply.pdf

    Roger Schriner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s