The bogus mysteries of consciousness

Explaining the supposedly unexplainable

Apparent mysteries

In Part 1 the concept of consciousness was elucidated. It is a widely ramified concept with multiple centres of variation. But there is nothing mysterious or arcane about it. Nevertheless it is widely held by neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers that, as Francis Crick (a neuroscientist and Nobel laureate) wrote, consciousness ‘is the most mysterious aspect’ of the mind/brain problem. Eric Kandel (another Nobel laureate) asserted ‘perhaps the greatest unresolved problem…in all of biology, resides in the analysis of consciousness’. Psychologists concur: Stuart Sutherland remarked ‘consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved’. John Frisby held that consciousness ‘remains a great mystery, despite considerable advances in our knowledge of perceptual mechanisms’. Philosophers, who should know better, go along with this mystery-mongering: Daniel Dennett observed that consciousness ’is the most mysterious feature of our minds’ and David Chalmers stated that ‘conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious.

What was found to be so mysterious? At the most general level, neuroscientists were puzzled by the neural correlates of consciousness, biological scientists in general were puzzled by what consciousness is good for, what evolutionary advantage it has, how and why it emerged in the development of species. Philosophers were puzzled about what difference consciousness makes: could there not be creatures who behave exactly as we do, but who lack consciousness (were mere ‘zombies’)? Scientists and philosophers alike were baffled by the question of how consciousness could 'emerge' from mere matter. Given what we know about the physical universe, they queried, how is consciousness possible? Is the existence of consciousness reconcilable with everything we know about the physical universe?

Scientists and philosophers alike were baffled by the question of how consciousness could ‘emerge’ from mere matter.

The seeds of the confusion were planted by seventeenth century philosophers, – Descartes and Locke and their followers – both philosophers and scientists. To give a composite representation of the picture that held them all in a vice: it was generally thought that consciousness was the defining feature of the mind. Its objects were one’s own current ‘thoughts’, ‘perceptions’, or ‘experiences’. It operated by means of introspection, inner sense or apperception. The deliverances of inner sense were certain, indubitable, and infallible. There was only a causal connection, not a constitutive (conceptual) connection between consciousness and behaviour. The subject of consciousness was the mind or the self. The self had privileged access to what it apperceives. The self’s apperception was held to be self-consciousness. In the fullness of time, materialists displaced dualists and held the subject of consciousness to be the brain, so consciousness was then held to be a property of the brain. Hence the neuroscientific quest for the neural correlates of consciousness commenced, as did the quest for the locus of the self in the brain. With this baggage of conceptual confusions, it is small wonder that consciousness thus conceived seemed a mystery.

With a variety of increasingly sophisticated modifications, this conception dominated philosophy until the end of the nineteenth century. Its popularity among philosophers and experimental psychologists suffered a hiatus with the rise and flourishing of behaviourism in the inter-war years, when consciousness was held to be a fiction or a redundant postulate of non-behaviourist science. However, it returned to its former prominence with the rise of cognitive psychology in the 1970s, which was meant to return thought in all its forms to the domain of psychology. In fact the new school of experimental psychology should have been named ‘computational psychology’, since it explained psychological attributes in terms of inputs (stimuli) and behavioural outputs mediated by transformational functional operations in the brain. But these operations are not objects of experience. They are postulated as functional states of a ‘black box’, as it were. So all psychological attributes, such as believing, wanting, hoping, expecting, pleasure and pain, loving and hating, and perceiving, are to be analysed as functional states mediating between stimuli and behavioural outputs. (This programme of analysis was never successfully carried out for even a single psychological attribute). Functionalism seemed to render us biological robots. It left out everything that makes us human: our perceptual experiences of the world, our emotions such as love and hate, human desires and will. As far as functionalism was concerned, we might just as well be ‘zombies’. How then can our humanity be saved?

Functionalism seemed to render us biological robots. It left out everything that makes us human.

Instead of cleaning the drawing board, rejecting functionalism, behaviourism, and dualism alike and starting afresh, the philosophical inspiration was to build on functionalist, behaviourist theoretical foundations. Thomas Nagel, in a notorious paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ argued that functionalism omitted human experience and its distinctive nature. For any conscious experience, he contended, there is something it is like for its subject to have it. For surely, there is something it is like for one to be in pain, to see or hear, to love or lust, and so on. A conscious creature, unlike a zombie, is a creature that has conscious experiences. The ‘what-its-likeness’ of experience was denominated ‘the qualitative character of experience’. Every experience, it was held, has a unique ‘qualitative feel’. Knowing what it is like for one to have the experiences one has is ‘phenomenal consciousness’. It is phenomenal consciousness that distinguishes us from zombies. The notion of experience was stretched (as the notion of ‘thought’ had been stretched by the Cartesians and ‘perception’ by the Lockeans) to include knowing, believing, understanding, wanting, intending, and so forth. So there is something which it is like for you to believe that 25 x 25 = 625, which is different from what it is like for you to believe that 25 x 25 = 624. There is something it is like for you to intend to retire at 11.30, which is different from what it is like for you to intend to get up at 7.00. These are distinct qualia.

The mind was characterised as the domain of phenomenal consciousness. With respect to any conscious creature, there is something that it is like for it to be the creature it is. So there is something it is like for humans to be humans or for bats to be bats – whereas there is nothing it is like for a brick to be a brick or for an ink-jet printer to be an ink-jet printer. Of course, we cannot know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. But we know what it is like to be ourselves. I know what it is like to be me, even if it incommunicable.

It is no surprise that phenomenal consciousness thus conceived is a mystery, indeed, the deepest mystery in the universe. One might indeed wonder why consciousness, the what-its-likeness of experience, evolved, what its evolutionary value is, how it is compatible with a naturalist view of the universe, how it emerges from mere cortical tissue, what its neural correlates are. This conception of consciousness and the thought of its mysteries swept through philosophy, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience departments like wildfire. But the mysteries are one and all bogus, rooted in conceptual confusions.

This conception of consciousness and the thought of its mysteries swept through philosophy, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience departments like wildfire.


To begin at the beginning, namely with the lack of mysteries with respect to the forms of consciousness that we distinguished in Part 1: intransitive and transitive consciousness; somatic, affective, reflective consciousness in their multiple forms; and consciousness of actions as well as self-consciousness in its various forms.

It is clear that there is no mystery about falling asleep and waking up, or about being conscious and being unconscious. There is ignorance, but nothing mysterious: We do not know why animals need sleep. But the question of why animals are awake or even more blatantly what being awake is good for is misconceived. Scientific research into various forms of unconsciousness and into global neural correlates of being conscious will yield new knowledge, but there is nothing mysterious about the subject.

The question of what perceptual consciousness is for is trivial. Since perceptual consciousness is largely concerned with peripheral perception, it is obvious what its advantages to an animal in the wild are – survival prospects without it are poor. Somatic consciousness facilitates an animal’s optimal functioning: consciousness of increasing pain is an incentive to decrease stress on an injury; consciousness of overall somatic condition such as weariness signals the need to rest; without kinaesthetic sensation movement would be sorely impaired. Affective and reflective consciousness are by-products of mastery of a developed language, and hence prerogatives of human beings. Since it is our being language users that liberates us from many of the restrictions of natural selection, it makes little sense to ask what the evolutionary advantages of these forms of consciousness are. But they clearly serve various purposes. Affective consciousness enables us to reflect on our moods and emotions and to bring them under rational control in a manner unavailable to other animals. Reflective consciousness facilitates deliberation, and self-consciousness, in its Proustian sense, is the pathway to self-knowledge and self-understanding, albeit at the risk of self-deception. It is clear that there are no mysteries about consciousness in any of its forms if it is correctly understood.

It is clear that there are no mysteries about consciousness in any of its forms if it is correctly understood.

Consciousness misunderstood is a seedbed for mystification. If consciousness were an ‘inner light’ (the searchlight of the mind), the perception of perceptions, the domain of subjectivity consisting of the qualitative character of experience (qualia), essentially private and inaccessible to all save its subject, then it would indeed be a mystery. How can something as strange as qualia, the what-its-likeness of experience, emerge from the physical world? How can physical bodies in a physical world contain any such thing as consciousness. How can qualia emerge from physical events such as the excitation of neurons? What is the point and purpose of qualia? Could there not be creatures just like us that dispense with these entities?

The world does not contain conscious states and events. It ‘contains’ sentient creatures like us who are conscious (or unconscious) and are conscious of various things. But it is confused to ask how physical bodies in a physical world can contain consciousness or how mere physical systems can have consciousness. Sentient creatures such as humans do not contain consciousness, they are conscious. They are not mere physical systems like volcanoes, the atmosphere, or a computer. They are living animals with a multitude of powers characteristic of living beings. Sentient beings are precisely what we contrast with ‘mere physical systems’. It is obvious why we do so, for they have capacities that mere physical systems lack: capacities to acquire knowledge of their environment by the use of their sense organs, to feel pleasure and pain, to adopt goals and to pursue them in the light of their knowledge. The question of how the brain (‘this grey and white gook inside my skull’ as John Searle put it) can be conscious is misplaced, for the brain cannot be conscious. It is the living being whose brain it is that can be said to be conscious or unconscious. So, it is not hard to see how mere physical systems could be conscious, but altogether logically impossible. For mere physical systems cannot be conscious. Consciousness is a feature of animate, sentient life, and transitive reflective consciousness as well as self-consciousness (in the Proustian sense) are capacities of mature language users.

The puzzlement about qualia and the what-its-likeness of experience rests on grammatical confusion. The question ‘What is it like to V?’ can be asked of things we do or undergo. It is an enquiry about the hedonic and anti-hedonic character of V-ing. So one may ask ‘What is it like to see tigers in the wild?’, ‘What is it like to break a leg?’ or What is it like to climb the Matterhorn?’ , the answers to which may be ‘Awesome’, ‘Very painful’, or ‘Wonderful?’ But one cannot ask this of just any experience or undergoing in normal circumstances. Were one asked ‘What is it like to look at the buttons on your shirt”, ’What is it like to see this lamp post?’, or ‘What is it like to stand up?’, one would respond ‘What do you mean?’.  For such things have no hedonic character save in very special, abnormal circumstances. So the idea that every experience (let alone thinking, believing, knowing, understanding, which are not experiences) is such that one can ask what it was like is mistaken. Moreover, even when one can ask ‘What was it like to V?’ and there is a cogent answer, e.g. ‘It was wonderful’, it does not follow that there was something it was like to V. If one is asked ‘What was it like to see the Sistine Chapel?’ and one replies ‘It was awesome’, then it follows that there was something that it was to see the Sistine Chapel, namely awesome. But it does not follow that there was something it was like to see it, unless seeing it was like awesome.

Sentient creatures such as humans do not contain consciousness, they are conscious.

The idea that qualia, the what-its-likeness of experience is what characterizes human nature or indeed so called conscious experience is chimerical. It is equally misguided to suppose that one can always ask ‘What is it like for A to be a so-and-so?’. Of course, one cannot ask what it is like to be a brick, since bricks are inanimate objects and have no hedonic preferences or experiences. To be sure one can ask what it is like for A to be a soldier, sailor, tinker or tailor, and the answer should specify the salient responses A feels towards his career or social role, the comparative merits and demerits of being a so-and-so. But one cannot ask a human being ‘What is it like for you to be a human being?’ for a human being cannot be anything other than a human being, and there are no merits or faults in being a human being that could be avoided by being something other than a human being. Hence too, there is nothing it is like to be a bat – no ‘private experience’ accessible only to bats. But, of course, one can readily describe the general character of the life of a bat. There is no mystery about that. Nor is there anything it is like for me to be me. After all, it is not as if there were someone else I might be. But, of course, I can relate episodes from my life.

The mysteries of consciousness are no more than a skein of mystification. Remove the conceptual confusions and the illusion of mystery disappears.        

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ida sanka 2 September 2021

Great! didnt know about this before, I had doubts but thanks for clarifying.   tattoo removal cost

Elizabeth Ann Curran 6 February 2021

Thank you, Ian Wardell.

The demystification section of this article amounts to, “it is this way because I say it is.”

Such hubris.

By the way, Peter Hacker, was “trapped in a vice” a typo, a pun, or did you mean “an immoral or evil habit or practice?” The device with jaws is a vise. Actually, it’s quite funny the way it is. ????

Ian Wardell 26 March 2020

Well, this article was great until about 60% of the way through until the heading "Demystification". But this first 60% was essentially an outline of the history of the mind body problem and why it's considered a problem. After that point, when it was his turn to provide his solution, he never said anything of any substantive nature at all. It was all just words without much, if indeed any, meaning. Philosophers and scientists always seem to do this when discussing the mind-body problem i.e a good description of the origins of the problem followed by meaningless twaddle when they propose their own "solution".

Consciousness is only a intractable mystery if we assume the brain (or the whole body) somehow produces it. Why do professional scientists and philosophers assume this? No-one has ever provided a satisfactory answer to this question.