I'm asking variations of this question (in discussions elsewhere).

Some people seem to get what I mean, and say "I think that important etc etc but I do not know the answer" and others say "You do not understand anything and the answer is NCCs"

So I'm asking for help to see how is this question incorrect, or why is it producing so polar behaviours for answers.

The question is:

  • Why do we have a perception of - say - a chair, but all we can explain is that it correlates to an electric pattern ?
  • In other words, why is there a -say - chair (or any object) in our visual field ?

Some may point to illusions as a hint. Indeed, I can see a white chair that "isn't there"; but my question remains untouched: why is there the experience of that illusion ?

Others point to the Hard Problem Of Consciousness when I describe this. But to a large extent of people, especially cognitive scientists, my question seems an insult to their intelligence, and being rather dumb, I do not see how.

I hope you can see the question with kindness and help me see the path forward and maybe the flaws, or point to a book that would help with it.

  • 2
    Is your question supposed to be more specific than just "why are we conscious"?
    – causative
    Jan 4 at 9:39
  • 9
    I think you probably HAVE a useful and interesting question in your head, but I think you're not wording it in a way that communicates it effectively to other people. I think you just have to figure out a way to ask the question more clearly.
    – TKoL
    Jan 4 at 9:55
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    This is an abridged variant of Levine's explanatory gap question, but it is too abridged to do much good. Without a long explanation of context, like what an answer is supposed to deliver and why traditional physical explanations are unlikely to deliver it, a substantive discussion is unlikely.
    – Conifold
    Jan 4 at 10:18
  • 1
    Conifold's perspective on this is far from universal - in fact most polled philosophers, including David Chalmers who came up with the term "hard problem of consciousness," believe a physics-like explanation for consciousness is the most likely path.
    – causative
    Jan 4 at 11:05
  • 1
    SEP article on Hermann von Helmholtz includes a section called Theory of Perception: plato.stanford.edu/entries/hermann-helmholtz/#TheoPerc. While Müller explains the correspondence between sensation and object by means of an innate configuration of sense nerves, Helmholtz argues that we construct that correspondence by means of a series of learned, “unconscious inferences.” Sigmund Freud (founder of psychoanalysis), without reference to Helmholtz, argues that the Unconscious (Ucs) generates Conscious (Cs) ego-perceptions as the product of an unconscious neural process. Magic! Jan 4 at 18:10

6 Answers 6


Half-answer: You are consciously aware of a chair in your visual field because what you are consciously aware of is information available to the conscious subsystem of your brain. And your visual cortex is supplying information about the chair to the conscious subsystem of your brain.

This is a half-answer because it doesn't explain why it looks like a chair, and not a blob of static or some other thing. In your brain the information consists of nerve impulses, and if we could see it in a microscope (we sadly can't with current technology) these nerve impulses do not look like chairs. Under a hypothetical futuristic microscope, the nerve impulses might look more like blobs of static.

The other half of the answer is that it doesn't look like a blob of static because we are not looking at it with a microscope. The way things look depends on what instrument you are using to look at them. If you could look at them with a microscope, they would look like static. If you could look at the nerve impulses with a spectrogram, they would look different and there might be patterns visible. If you used analysis tools to project the data onto a lower-dimensional space, such as principal component analysis, then the data would look still different and there could be different patterns.

What instrument are we looking at the nerve impulses with? Well, we're looking at them with... the conscious subsystem of the brain! That's the instrument. Not a microscope, not a spectrogram. The attributes of this instrument determine how the nerve impulses look, and it just so happens that the attributes of this instrument make the nerve impulses look like a chair.

But which attributes of the instrument make the nerve impulses look like a chair?

To answer that, we need to look at the relationships between the different patterns handled by the conscious subsystem. The meaning of a pattern is encoded by how it relates to other patterns. In what ways can other patterns lead to the pattern? In what ways can the pattern lead to other patterns? What other patterns is the pattern associated with, and what other pattern does the pattern tend to oppose?

What I mean by that is, the nerve impulses look like a chair to the conscious subsystem because of how they relate to other patterns available to the conscious subsystem. For example, perhaps the chair is brown. There are patterns, that we may call "brown-ness" patterns, that associate with the chair pattern and that also associate with "earth" patterns and "some people's hair color" patterns and "tree bark" patterns and so on. And it is by these pattern-to-pattern associations - and many more - that all of these patterns acquire their meaning, including brown-ness and chair-ness and tree-bark-ness. As part of this constellation of associations, chair-ness is associated with brown-ness, and that is why the chair looks brown. To say the chair looks brown is nothing more than to say that the chair looks like other things that look brown - which is to say that certain fragments of the chair neural impulses relate to other patterns in a similar way that fragments of the patterns for those other things relate to other patterns.

Of course, it is not enough for the chair-pattern to look brown, for it to look like a chair. It is also necessary to have the right spatial arrangement of the parts of the chair, the right shadings of light and dark, the right conceptual expectation of what you are looking at. All of these attributes are given by the relationships between how all these different patterns are processed by the conscious subsystem, in the same way that brown-ness was given.

We might use a metaphor for these "relationships between patterns": intrinsic curvature from differential geometry. I hope I can explain this clearly without getting technical. In geometry we can measure the curvature of a 2d surface, such as the surface of a sphere, by first embedding the sphere in 3d space and seeing how curved it "looks" within 3d space. That is called extrinsic curvature, and it is a measurement of the relationship between the 2d surface and the 3d space it is embedded in. But we can also measure curvature in a different way, intrinsically, which means without embedding the sphere in 3d space. The intrinsic curvature is how the surface looks "to itself": it is a measurement of the relationship between different points of the 2d surface, independent of being embedded anywhere. We may say, metaphorically, that your subjective experience is how your conscious subsystem of your brain "looks like to itself": how it intrinsically relates to itself, or how patterns within it relate functionally to each other.

  • Right, a music CD (remember those?) doesn't look like music. Anything with a spectrum - light or sound - can be visualized with a Fourier analysis, which shows frequencies rather than a time sequence of amplitude. Substances can be analyzed with a spectrograph or chromatography, which is a similar concept for molecules. Analysis doesn't look like what we are analyzing or we would never get anywhere. My car doesn't have anything to do with my workplace. I often wonder why this comes up so much. Maybe we need better minds in order to comprehend consciousness?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 4 at 11:57
  • I disagree with this sentence since I doubt I'm consciously aware of information available to the conscious subsystem of my brain. Even if I were to admit that, it could occur without any representation i.e a chair or any other object, right ? Maybe you'd say that's the sole purpose in evolut. terms. I'm still unsure this is a logical set of steps. In other words, do you really think that the cause why there is that chair is then NCC (as I suggested in the post.)
    – Minsky
    Jan 4 at 12:12
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    @Minsky Consciousness is what certain patterns of nerve impulses actually look like when measured by a certain instrument. It doesn't seem right to just call them "correlates" - when you look at a slide under a microscope, do you call the bacteria "correlates" of the microscope image? No; you say that you are actually looking at the bacteria, and the microscope image is what the bacteria look like when you look at them in that way (through that instrument). The relationship between the bacteria and the microscope image is stronger than mere correlation; causation, not correlation.
    – causative
    Jan 4 at 16:09
  • @causative That confuses mere description with a 'why' explanation. This is clear if you read actually look like. But maybe rephrasing it helps. I'm asking: why do those neural patterns produce an experience. If it's unclear, I can expand.
    – Minsky
    Jan 4 at 16:14
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    @Minsky "Why is there an experience at all" is a different question from, "why is the experience of a chair." My answer is for the second question. For the first question, everything material is made of experiences - there's only one substance making up the universe (experience), not two (experience + matter) - and the laws of physics are also laws of thought. Everything "looks like" something, when measured by something else, the only question is what it looks like. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/106953/…
    – causative
    Jan 4 at 16:22

You do not perceive a chair you think chair. What you perceive is splotches of color. Originally those colors had no names such as white.

In fact you do not even perceive volume/perspective/depth — all these are experientially learnt. It's just that normally they are learnt so early in life that we have no recollection of the percept→concept learning process. (Do you recollect the first time you saw your mother's face and the correlation of that vision with the sound of her calling/cooing out to you? It happened of course but we don't remember).

One of the effective means of driving a wedge between our raw perceptions and our thought-out conceptions is to study patients who have an absent sense organ restored. Eg. Here is an adult who sees for the first time.

Another possibly more effective way is a meditation technique like vipassana that directs the practitioner to go below thoughts to the underlying sensations.

  • The question is why there is any representation happening, please see comments. Why did I use chair (or objects) instead of the word consciousness ? Because I'm asked to define consciousness or experience etc otherwise. This - i thought - would make it more clear. For many people in the comments, it was indeed clear, but not for everyone.
    – Minsky
    Jan 4 at 17:02
  • @Minsky That's the consequence of our education process. Do you think a bushman who'd never seen a chair or sat in one would have anything like your representation?
    – Rushi
    Jan 4 at 17:07
  • Because you are thinking of the concept of chair, and I am thinking of anything in the visual field. I return you this question: do you think he lives in the darkness ?
    – Minsky
    Jan 4 at 17:09
  • @Minsky You seem to think that consciousness is somehow primal. Maybe it is but are you sure? To put it differently, how do you know that what you understand by the word 'consciousness' is the same as what I understand? Consider the example of basic sense of left right forward back. Now there's this strange tribe that has no such egocentric directions but just the absolute north south east west which they instinctively flawlessly know. Do you seriously think their consciousness and yours are similar??
    – Rushi
    Jan 4 at 17:23
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    Ok I now see your other question which makes it (slightly) more clear what you're asking
    – Rushi
    Jan 4 at 17:33

Your question is not pointless, or insulting. It is instead a significant subset of the "hard problem of consciousness".

An important preamble is that perceptions are very different from direct sensory data. Our eyes jitter, and create a highly time-variant scan pattern of a very narrow FOV, and this is the raw data from our sensors. This data seems to go into a memory buffer, and runs thru an unconscious grouping and categorization process, with significant intermediate steps such as edge detection, and object assignment. Whiteness, brownness, chairness, these are much higher tier post-processing outputs of our unconscious neurology.

The best functional explanation of what role our perceptions do for us, is spelled out in Thinking Fast and Slow -- where perceptions are how system 1 submits its evaluation of our world, along with its meaning, and preferred reaction, to System 2 for double-check.

Your question seems to be why this handoff uses "perceptions" rather than just being logic states. This is a very legitimate question, and is a key feature of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. Another excellent book that offers major hints about this question is Incognito, which describes consciousness as a corporate Chief Executive, who is misinformed about how central he/she is to the initiation actions of the corporation, most of which are initiated long before the CEO even knows about them. Incognito, among other insights, notes how many times this handoff to consciousness does NOT include qualia/perception -- such as when we are driving while daydreaming about something else too. We can bring our attention back to driving, and then get perceptions as well, but often we DO just get logic states passed by our system 2 for it to monitor system 1.

THAT perceptions are how this handoff is done, is only a partial answer. And partial answers are how science operates, every answer has a follow on question, which in this case is "why perceptions, why does system 2 consciousness seem to do much of its processing using qualia, while system 1, our unconscious neurology, does not use qualia at all? Why do a format transform like this?". The full statement of the Hard Problem is that under purely physicalist models, in which perception/qualia is not causal, these models would predict that evolutionary variance would lead to our no longer having perceptions -- hence that we DO have perceptions is a refuting test case for these models.

The only physicalist answer I have found that comes even close to answering the hard problem of consciousness is strong emergence, where emergent phenomena can be causal independent of their substrate. I consider "emergent phenomena to be causally independent" is actually to be emergent dualism, which is Popper's approach to dualism. This "near-physicalist" answer is still only a partial answer to the question, because it does not explain why the emergent phenomenon is qualia/experiences.

As an interactive spiritual dualist, I have a proposal -- that qualia/experience/selfhood/agency were already aspects of souls prior to ensoulment, and souls ensouling life early in evolution provided early proto-bacteria a significant capability advantage over the proto-bacteria that were not ensouled. And I postulate the frame-transform from chemical/logic states to qualia has been part of living things for billions of years. This answer is once more only a partial answer, which per the methods of science can only push "why" back one question at a time, with further "why"s spawned.

One further question this one spawns is why our neurology does so much of the hard work of processing our inputs, rather than letting the soul side of the interface do this. My proposal for this answer is that there are thruput limits to soul's processing, and while souls could handle the processing needs of a proto-bacteria, they need a massive pre-processing assist to handle the complexity of info and decision choices that we humans get as inputs.

  • " ... agency were already aspects of souls prior to ensoulment, and souls ensouling life early in evolution provided early proto-bacteria ..." I'm quite reluctant to take this seriously. The history of science has been the history of getting rid of unnecessary assumptions, and although I can't prove it is one, it seems one (alike ether.); even a seemingly ethereous entity like evolution, or selection, are defined by a clear physical mechanism.
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 11:28
  • @Minsky -- A knee-jerk dismissal of dualism is common in philosophy, and academia in general. See SEP's Problem of Perception, and 3.1.5, the objections to Sense-datum theory, paragraphs 3 and 4. plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/#ObjSenDatThe The best model of perception has been rejected because it meshes so well with dualism. Dualism can be entirely "scientific" as Popper, our founder of contemporary science, demonstrated in The Self and Its Brain. And many non-reductive physicalists are implicitly adopting his strongly emergent dualism, without admitting it.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 13 at 15:12
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    Interesting; well, I'm ready to change my notions (in fact, that's essential to me). I reckon it could well be that I just can't see that far, and won't be able to; I see the archetypes operating in my mind: the clean scientific theories and ideas that we have, seem to blur other theories that at face value I'd say are less mechanistic or informational. I'll read the article though.
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 15:18
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    @Minsky -- My personal philosophic project for decades now has been to find ways to reconcile spiritual dualism with contemporary science. I believe I now have a credible method of doing so. If you are interested -- I have run my thinking up against the best counterarguments I have found. Here are my reviews of three dismissive books: amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/… amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/… amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/…
    – Dcleve
    Jan 13 at 15:31
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    Well, I would mind to try a rebuttal myself, but I don't see where; I don't use amazon very much. I'll take a look at the reviews.
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 15:37

First, thank you for the great question! However, the simple answer, I'm afraid, is this: You don't know why do you have perceptions, and you never will. This concept is known as "Cartesian doubt", after a French philosopher René Descartes (although I wonder if Socrates' "The true wisdom in knowing that you know nothing" describes the same idea).

Descartes started with a simple question: What can we know without a doubt? After some investigation he concluded that he cannot be sure that anything exists -- that anything is real -- beyond his own mind and its perceptions. Those are the only two things that must somehow exist. However, in what form does your mind exist -- or why it does -- and whether your perceptions reflect the reality out there, or your dreams, or something else, or why do you have those perceptions in the first place -- those things, according to Descartes, you simply cannot know. Strictly speaking, you can't even tell that you existed 10 seconds ago, that your memories (of your perceptions in the past) are real!

Now, when we put it that way, it might sound rather discouraging. The good news, however, is that we don't need to stop here. Instead, we might what to ask ourselves the next question: What assumptions could we make about about all those things mentioned above -- things that we cannot know? And why we should make any?

  • 1
    You can 'know' anything "without a doubt", but often we should be doubting.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 4 at 19:12

You perceive a chair because light hits the chair and then enters the eye through the pupil, strikes photoreceptor cells, which sends nerve impulses to the occipital lobe in your brain, which also interfaces with the parietal lobe for depth perception, the temporal lobe for memory, which helps you know what a chair even is, and possibly also with the frontal lobe.

Your brain operates through the firing of neurons and various chemicals.

That's about the extent to which we're currently able to answer this question (although I'm naturally simplifying and omitting a lot of details, and this isn't a neuroscience website).

As for where consciousness and first-person experience itself comes from, this IS just the hard problem of consciousness (which some would say is not even a problem). There are varying ideas on that.

  • Materialists would say that consciousness seems to just be the firing of neurons and chemicals - that's all we have evidence for, and there's a strong seemingly-inseparable connection between brains and consciousness - the only instances of consciousness we know of (at least those that have been demonstrated to exist) are contained within brain, and die brain injury and disease affects how you think, and thinking affects neural activity we can see in brain scans.

  • Others would say there is something beyond that, but they seem to just be trailing behind materialism. Materialism has given us all the above (and much more) knowledge about how brains work, and how this corresponds to how we think, and this keeps refuting non-materialist ideas about consciousness, so (across generations) non-materialists just keep shifting their position to beyond what materialism has demonstrated. Non-materialism has not given humanity any reliable knowledge about consciousness, and they're just making assertions about what consciousness is, without any demonstrable evidence-based justification for this.

We've incrementally been expanding our knowledge of how we think, but we don't yet have a full and all-encompassing explanation of it. Non-materialists say that's because there's something else responsible for consciousness. Whereas materialists say not having a full explanation yet is fine and expected - that's just how knowledge gathering works. You don't start off knowing everything about something. You incrementally increase your understanding of it.

  • Upvoting but prior to " As for where consciousness and first-person experience " isn't part of the question; the question is whether one could demonstrate that those produce (and exact mechanism) consciousness, or it's actually out of scope for the current paradigms of science. The positions are informative, and I agree with the non-materialists part, although I do not discard the possibility of it being non-material.
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 11:40
  • @Minsky I was just trying to highlight that there are a lot of steps between there being a physical object and you having a conscious awareness of it. In the past, none of the steps were known. In the future, we may know more of the steps. I don't know that there is a clear line to be drawn between "consciousness" and nerve impulses sent from you eyes to your brain. The materialist position (or at least one such position) views consciousness somewhat similar to how we view the electrical signals flowing between the components in a computer.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 14 at 0:16
  • Denying subjective experience is denying the only fact that we know for sure, and it's not an electric signals; if it's produced by those patterns, there is still the need to explain why matter experiences things.
    – Minsky
    Jan 14 at 9:18
  • @Minsky I wasn't denying subjective experience. There isn't any explanation for subjective experience that's more than idle speculation, except for materialism: we have strong evidentiary support that subjective experience is tied to the firing of neurons and chemicals in the brain (a fact that even most non-materialists accept). But we don't (yet) know exactly which of those things lead to subjective experience, and how it does so, or if there's some other thing in that gap in our knowledge that creates subjective experience.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 14 at 15:34

OP: help me see the path forward and maybe ... point to a book that would help with it.

This might help, from limited preview: What is a Thing? pages 13 & 14

The English physicist and astronomer Eddington once said of his table that every thing of this kind—the table, the chair, etc.—has a double. Table number one is the table known since his childhood; table number two is the "scientific table." This scientific table, that is, the table which science defines in its thingness, consists, according to the atomic physics of today, not of wood but mostly of empty space; in this emptiness electrical charges are distributed here and there, which are rushing back and forth at great velocity. Which one now is the true table, number one or number two? Or are both true? In the sense of what truth? What truth mediates between the two?


It now turns out: the things stand in different truths. What is the thing such that it is like this? From what point of view should we decide the being-a-thing of things? We take our standpoint in everyday experience with the reservation that its truth, too, will eventually require a foundation (eine Begründung)4.

  1. Begründung: "A foundation," "establishment," "argument," "reasons for," "explanation," "proof." The English "ground" is equivalent to Grund; but the German includes the idea of a foundation of a building. Heidegger seems to emphasize this aspect of its meaning.

Amazon reviews here.

  • Very interesting, thanks. What is said there, if I understand correctly, is: we can describe objects at different levels. Yet, what I ask is: why do we have an experience of an object?
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 11:10
  • 'This' object is determined by oneself, (what is that?), I.e. p.26: "that "this" is only a "subjective" determination of the thing is recognizable from the fact that we are just as justified in calling it "objective," for objectum means something thrown against you." And p.48: "If the thing is considered as that which, as object, faces the "I," i.e., as the "not-I," then the "I" is the unconditioned, the absolute "I" of German Idealism. ... Only with this question do we advance in the direction of the possible ground for the determination of the thing and the proposition and its truth." Jan 13 at 17:15
  • Well, I mean appearance, as when you open your eyes, with or without self, real or illusory: that which appears.
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 18:20
  • In indeterminacy there is actually a nice absence of reason. I mean, suppose there was a reason, that would be such an elephant in the room. So I would say there is a good reason to have no reason as to why, when you open your eyes, something appears. As unconditioned and indeterminate that is the case. Jan 13 at 18:30
  • What do you mean ? I think that's one interesting question to try to answer.
    – Minsky
    Jan 13 at 18:59

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