Every time we create an explanation for something in the physical world we represent the world with objects with various different structures and properties etc. We then relate these structures to other structures or describe a change in properties. But we can’t model consciousness then since it is a quality that doesn’t have a sort of form or structure that you can represent.

At the same time, it is clear that we can at the very least imagine a world with no consciousness and a world with consciousness even if we can’t exactly model the experience. So at the very least, it atleast seems tenable to think that there could be a reason as to why certain physical components (which consciousness does seem tied to) give rise to consciousness and others don’t. But what would a reason look like?

I have seen literature on the hard problem of consciousness that ultimately calls it a category error and says that the concept of an explanation for this doesn’t even make sense but that seems to be just restating the hard problem of consciousnesses.

As the IEP notes,

Basic physics is silent about the intrinsic categorical bases underlying the dispositional properties described in physical theory. But it seems plausible that there must be such bases—how could there be dispositions to behave thus-and-so without some categorical base to ground the disposition? And since we already have reason to believe that conscious qualities are intrinsic, it makes sense to posit phenomenal properties as the categorical bases of basic physical matter.

The above which is the panpsychism route seems interesting since it claims that we already can’t model intrinsic physical dispositions and tries to explain that with consciousness. But this just posits consciousness as fundamental without explaining why there seem to be different “bodies” of consciousness and why certain objects seem to display obvious signs of consciousness and others don’t.

On the other hand, many physicalists seem to just say that the concept of explaining consciousness doesn’t make sense.

Are these our only two options even though there is no reason to think consciousness is apriori necessary?

  • 1
    Can you, in fact, imagine a world with no consciousness? I think you'll find that the mental picture you have of a world with no consciousness is exactly the same as the mental picture you have of a world with consciousness. Picture a dog. Now picture a physically identical dog but without consciousness. Is there any difference between the two pictures?
    – causative
    Commented Apr 12 at 9:46
  • I'm a physicalist, and I don't think the question is a category error, or useless, or uninteresting, or malformed. I think it's a beautiful, wonderful, complex question, and it occupies my philosophical thought lately more than just about any other question.
    – TKoL
    Commented Apr 12 at 9:52
  • One can imagine themselves to be the dog @causative. The point is there is no apriori reason, purely based on logic, for consciousness to exist. This doesn’t mean consciousness isn’t fundamental, but it does mean thinking of a world without consciousness is not incoherent Commented Apr 12 at 10:36
  • @Stella I think you'll find you cannot imagine being a dog that lacks consciousness. The most you can do is refrain from imagining it. You can refrain from imagining being a dog that has consciousness, just as well.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 12 at 14:26
  • Of course you can’t imagine a dog that lacks consciousness. That’s incoherent. But you can imagine being a dog with consciousness. And you can also imagine a dog in the third person with no consciousness like a table (even if it’s physically impossible) Commented Apr 12 at 15:32

4 Answers 4


Certain mental processes are conscious, others are not. The most simple conscious mental processes are qualia, e.g. colour perceptions.

  1. Neuroscience searches for the neural correlates of consciousness (NCR). Integrated information theory of consciousness (ITT) proposes a mathematical model for the consciousness of a system. Hence the phenomenon of conscious perception enters the domain of scientific research. A good survey is Christof Koch: Consciousness.

  2. I do not understand the main objections against investigating consciousness by methods from neuroscience. The essence of your question and the linked reference seem to state principal objections (category error).

    Possibly you could clarify these objections in some more simple terms.


OP: "many physicalists seem to just say that the concept of explaining consciousness doesn’t make sense."

Commencing from Descartes' cogito as the doubtful observer, Galilean & Copernican science figures out the orbits of the planets from observation. Likewise Newtonian physics from observation of gravity. However when the observer asks about their cognitive origin they have no foothold. All the cogito knows is that they doubt and therefore exist, and by watching the movements of planets and apples figures out a few mathematical theories.

Exploring from an advanced scientific viewpoint cognitive science hits the hard problem. Viewed from the cogito there is no explanation for how one's thoughts have arrived, and how could there be because it would have to be before graspable thought is formed.

So on the one hand we have Descartes in his splendid isolation wondering "How did I get here?" and answer came there none. And on the other hand, tenuous theories of how memories are encoded in neurons etc., with no demonstrable certainty, to say nothing of higher cognitive capabilities.

In Heidegger's analysis of Kant the contradiction of the ego trying to establish its own cause is mentioned. (Time in the sense below is the observer's experiential 'authentic' time in distinction to 'ordinary', objective clock-time as defined by scientific observers.)

The internal sense does not receive "from without" but from the self. In pure receptivity, internal affection [i.e. production of effects] must arise from the pure self, i.e., be formed in the essence of selfhood as such, and therefore must constitute the latter. Pure self-affection provides the transcendental ground-structure [Urstruktur] of the finite self as such. Therefore, it is absolutely untrue that the mind exists in such a way that, among other beings, it relates certain things to itself and in so doing posits itself [Selbstsetzungen ausübt]. Rather, this line of orientation from the self toward . . . and back to [the self] first constitutes the mental character of the mind as a finite self.

It is at once obvious, therefore, that time as pure self-affection is not found "in the mind" "beside" pure apperception. On the contrary, as the basis of the possibility of selfhood, time is already included in pure apperception and first enables the mind to be what it is.

The pure finite self has in itself a temporal character. Therefore, if the ego, i.e., pure reason, is essentially temporal, the fundamental determination which Kant provides for transcendental apperception must first become intelligible through this temporal character.

Time and the "I think" are no longer opposed to one another as unlike and incompatible; they are the same. (pages 196-197)

. . .

It would be contrary to sense to try to effect an essential determination of primordial time itself with the aid of what is derived from it. The ego cannot be conceived as temporal, i.e., intra-temporal, precisely because the self originally and in its innermost essence is time itself. Pure sensibility (time) and pure reason are not only homogeneous, they belong together in the unity of the same essence which makes possible the finitude of human subjectivity in its totality. (pages 200-201)

Even if a physicalist were to argue that consciousness emerges from physical processes the problem remains that these processes are objectively unknown, so not even a category error, just wishful thinking. Subjectively, consciousness asking where mind came from is like asking where something like existence comes from. So for example, if consciousness were complex enough to understand its origin its origin would be too complex to understand.


Ryle, whose concept is the category error ("where is the university"), does not, IIRC, mean to dissolve any potential explanation, but he's often cited by behaviourists, who might say that psychology reduces to biology, see his phrase “the ghost in the machine".

Assuming that minds do not exist and are just the body, then there is no hard problem of consciousness; there's basically nothing (I can find) on Ryle and 'the hard problem of consciousness', perhaps for that reason.

"mind" is "a philosophical illusion hailing chiefly from René Descartes and sustained by logical errors and 'category mistakes' which have become habitual."


So, if there is a hard problem of consciousness, then no, though perhaps there isn't.

Anyway, I can in some sense explain lots of things about my mind (from this grass looks green because grass is usually green, to this grass looks green because of these neurological pathsways being actviated by my eyes), so I am reluctant to agree that physicalism implies any such thing.


Does physicalism imply that an explanation for consciousness is a category error?

No. In fact, inasmuch as physicalism holds that there is a physical basis for every observation, and I observe in myself characteristics that I classify as "consciousness", it seems that finding a category error in the desire for an explanation of consciousness must constitute a denial of physicalism.

That is, I don't see how one would find a category error except by saying that consciousness is not part of the physical world, but admitting anything non-physical contradicts physicalism.

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