First, I must admit I'm having trouble formulating this question because I'm somewhat confused about the relationship between these two items (cognition and qualia). Please let me know if I can improve it or if it should be multiple questions.

I was recently reading a textbook (Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Study of Mind by Jay Friedenberg and Gordon Silverman) on cognitive science. Unsurprisingly, it advocated functionalism. More surprisingly, it flat-out admitted that there isn't a good functionalist account of qualia. (I've heard this objection from John Searle and others but was surprised to hear an advocate of functionalism admit so bluntly that that was a problem).

This strikes me as a rather fatal flaw: is cognition without qualia actually really consciousness? Can you actually separate the two?

On the one hand, you have an experience and awareness of thinking. Who or what, exactly, is having the awareness?

Cognition appears to be able to change and cause qualia; Albert Ellis et al (along with advocates of the Schachter-Singer theory of emotions) have argued (successfully, in my opinion) that your feelings about (and, therefore, your experience of) a particular situation is heavily cognitively mitigated. How can experience be both cognitively mediated and there be an awareness of cognition?

You can also have "subconscious" cognition of sorts, which seems to be a problem for those who say that you can't separate the two.

Is it possible to have consciousness that consists only of cognition (but not qualia)? Does it even make sense to talk about one but not the other?

  • (1) what is the name of the text book? (2) "Unsurprisingly, it advocated functionalism, but admitted that there isn't a good functionalist account of qualia." — you might find it surprising that most people don't find the second claim unsurprising. (3) experience is a third term. how do you define it? how does it relate to cognition and qualia? (4) "Your cognition can also change and cause your experience. How can experience be both cognitively mediated and there be an awareness of cognition?" — I find this obscure. can you clarify it?
    – nir
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 18:24
  • @nir Cognitive Science by Jay Friedenberg. Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 18:46
  • @nir I edited to clarify. I wasn't entirely surprised by the claim either, I heard the criticism from John Searle, I was just surprised that the book admitted the lack of a functionalist account of qualia so bluntly. I'm not sure if they address it more later as I'm not done with the textbook yet. Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 18:52
  • 1
    I meant that most people don't find functional accounts of qualia problematic
    – nir
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 19:20
  • the wikipedia article about Singer's theory of emotions does not mention qualia at all. it uses the terms experiences and experiencing which can mean various things unrelated to qualia. so I note again that your use of the term experience in your post is ambiguous.
    – nir
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 19:27

3 Answers 3


The 'multiple drafts' model that Daniel Dennet puts forward in "Consciousness, Explained" suggests a novel way of describing this disconnect: There is a problem created by the fact the brain is a massively parallel processor, and the memory has evolved primarily to turn everything into a story.

Our memory, and thus our 'mind' has contents that take the form of narratives, or audiovisual scenes, which are the equivalent of verbal narratives. Narratives are basically serial. Qualia are referents in these narratives, which are already recorded at the time we experience them.

But our brain, the machine that 'executes the mind' is not a serial device, it is a threshold-based neural network -- a massively parallel machine.

The model he proposes for how these things interact is that the parallel process constantly edits the serial narratives. So 'qualia' and 'cognition' cannot happen separately. If there were no narrative, there would be nothing to edit. And starting to write the first draft of an experience narrative is itself editing.

But the are entirely different things. One is the state, and the other is the process, in the brain's sort of 'pre-Von-Neumann' architecture. It is impossible to experience cognition, because the narrative needs to have a state in order to be experience. But cognition has no state information that is not recorded in the narratives themselves.

There is no experience of cognition, there is the experience of the constant change of state: "This event was not the same by the time I had a clear grasp on it as it was when I chose to reference it. I don't seem to be able to reference it and have it be the same thing it was that I chose to reference."

So from this point of view, all your processing is subconscious. Conscious processing is just subconscious processing that has a narrative recorded to explain it, so that it can be audited later.

  • Thanks, this is an excellent answer. Wish I could upvote it more than once. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 22:03
  • Well, lots of people absolutely hate it, Dennet's book is popular, but not with academic philosophers. I find it very compelling, but I come out of math and psychology -- it speaks straight to my preferred picture of the world.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 22:08
  • I echo jobermark's sentiment from computer science where the evolutionary pressures to take massive amounts of sensory data and find a way to have them unified for the sake of the organism would essentially be an engineering challenge of reducing parallel processing to serial processing. That the "scope" of processing by the serial stream would need to be limited, but not blind to the much more numerous parallel architectures makes perfect sense. Thus, a quale functions as an identifier for a physical state.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 14:32

There is a reason for qualia, i.e. it serves a critical purpose. Due to the significance of certain cognitive data, that data must be 'experienced.' It cannot be properly processed by blind non-conscious cognition. So the brain stops processing and invokes qualia. For example, pain serves an important function. Quite often, the brain is unable to protect the body from physical damage without invoking consciousness. CIPA patients suffer from self-inflicted harm to their oral cavity (tongue damage) and to their extremities because they do not perceive pain (qualia). The key point here is that the qualia 'pain' forces an urgent motor response promptly without dependence on slow and error prone cognitive interpretation.


So some incoming cognitive processing is halted and terminated with qualia. Qualia becomes the interface of input to output (efferent to afferent). That leaves qualia being invoked for a subset of all cognitive data. Much input becomes output without invocation of qualia. The criteria is that qualia controls motor output when cognition cannot stimulate a critical motor response. Conscious impetus works well because it is outside of cognitive control and so it is not subject to the latency or data errors of cognition.

I personally believe that in spite of all the forms it takes, qualia is largely (maybe entirely) pain and pleasure. By analogy, horses come in endless colors and patterns that all arise from two color genes, red and black. Qualia serves as the core motivating force for our mission critical actions. The primary deep purpose again is related to timing and purity of the signal. Our brain cannot take certain speedy and decisive actions (when needed) without invoking qualia.

As a complementary purpose achieving the same end, the same qualia may be viewed as highly pruned data. By revealing only the key items through qualia, lots of irrelevant data is discarded. Qualia may then also be viewed as a lens that reveals the critical narrative, just as a camera lens essentially filters data and ultimately only passes a relatively small portion to a sensor.


So with this hypothesis, pleasure and pain are fundamental extra-cognitive and extra-physical events. To feel is to somehow non-physically cause. Our cognitive processing architecture is comprised of probabilistic networks, which iteratively predict meaning of sensory input. This is where our perceived (alleged) free will resides. The qualia pain and pleasure are not outputs (regressive conclusions) of cognitive processing. They are non-probabilistic urgent terminations of cognition.

  • If you have references they would support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy! Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 3:44

Seeing as Cognitive Science makes no mention of ontology until page 361, it is no wonder they present a confused account of consciousness and you are left wondering how to distinguish cognition and qualia.

Qualia and quale are just plural and singular terms for first person subjective ontological states, i.e. what experiences are like, e.g. what it is like to drink a beer, or do your taxes, or cast out nines in arithmetic, watch the sunset, etc.

Cognition is either:

  1. the third person objective ontological and (hence) empirically verifiable aspects of ("unconscious" or "not-consciously perceived by the conscious agent") brain activity, or,
  2. the first person ontologically subjective experience(s) which constitute obtaining knowledge (which may include processing information, having emotions, thinking, etc.)

Also no surprise, the very first chapter mistakes metaphysics as a branch of philosophy (pg. 30). What proceeds from there is mired in all the conceptual and linguistic problems from Descartes extant with no means to extract heuristic value. This is an example of what Searle calls, "The Bad Argument." See his article, "Perceptual Intentionality"

What is wrong with the argument? On the surface, at least, it rests on a simple fallacy of ambiguity. The expression “aware of”, “conscious of”, and even “sees” in this argument, are ambiguous. The ambiguity can be illustrated by using a very simple and unproblematic example. If I push my hand very hard against the top of the desk, I am aware of the surface of the desk. This is the intentionality sense of “aware of” that has the desk as the intentional object. But it is obvious that I am also aware of a painful sensation in my hand assuming I push hard enough. So which am I aware of: the painful sensation in my hand or the top of the desk? After all there is only one object there and one experience there. Which one is the genuine case of awareness? The answer is that the expression of “aware of” is used in two different senses. In the intentionality sense the desk is the object of the awareness, and I am aware of the desk. But there is another sense being exhibited here, where I am “aware of” a painful sensation; and that case is not one of intentionality, because the awareness and the painful sensation are identical. This is a crucial point. Where intentionality is concerned the sensation is not identical with the object, but there is another constitutive sense in which the awareness and the thing one is aware of are identical. The proof then that there two different senses of “aware of” are being used here is that the semantics are different. In the intentionality sense, the subject S has an awareness A of object O implies A is not identical with O; but in the constitutive sense where subject S has an awareness of entity O, A is identical with O, the painful sensation and the awareness are identical.

See also "The Critique of Cognitive Reason" and "Consciousness"

  • 3
    How is this an answer to the questions in the post? your personal rant that metaphysics is not a branch of philosophy seems to be irrelevant to the questions.
    – nir
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 7:23
  • @nir the confusion which allows metaphysics as "philosophy" is the same confusion which conflates qualia and cognition as well leaves the multiple ambiguities unexamined (e.g. regulative/constitutive, 1st & 3rd person ontology and epistemology). There is not a single sentence from the OP which ends in a question mark that is not addressed in this answer. Your read of a simple statement of fact as a "rant" is blinding you to the demonstrative explicans.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 11:55
  • 2
    "Your read of a simple statement of fact as a 'rant' is blinding you to the demonstrative explicans" — I am sorry but it still reads to me as the eternal "these bloody idiotic earthlings have no clue" rather than a simple statement of fact, and all the poor fellow did was to make a reasonable claim with which you and others may disagree. Also, it may be that it all makes sense in your mind (and maybe to some subtle professors of philosophy) but we are outside of your mind, so please decrypt your answer so that we may all easily understand it.
    – nir
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 17:14
  • @nir your interpretation of statements of fact may be "true to you", however, there is a vast epistemic difference between what is true and what is "true to you" - else a mirage and an oasis would have ontological and epistemic equivalence. They do not. Philosophy contends with what is true, metaphysics issues imponderables and as imponderables can not obtain knowledge, metaphysics are simply not philosophy - and this despite popular opinion.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 21:13

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