Is the phenomenon of "subjective consciousness" or "qualia" formally captured or defined by any state-of-the-art Theoretical Model in Physics? If so, can you share a brief summary of such formalization and references for further reading?

  • 1
    If they were captured by a science, it would not be physics, it would be psychology. This notion that everything its physics is just reductionism gone berserk.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 15:05
  • Arguably, in the Strange Loops philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/22926/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 15:16
  • Not in physics exactly, but some physicalist philosophers presented speculative models of "qualia", Phenomenal Consciousness by Carruthers is perhaps the most detailed attempt. There is a controversy, however, even about what "capturing" qualia means. For Carruthers it simply means finding physical correlates for "private" feels with their functioning explaining why they seem "private", but that is not what Chalmers, Nagel etc., would accept as an explanation of "feels" as such.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 22:55

4 Answers 4


No it isn't. The whole point of the concept of qualia is that it is something outside of physics. The basis of the scientific method is that a fact can be objectively verified. Subjective consciousness by definition, is not objective, so it can't be analyzed using the scientific method, unless some radical new development occurs.

See Thomas Nagel's "What's it like to be a bat" or David Chalmer's "Hard problem of consciousness".

  • If only more people grokked this point. Consciousness cannot be detected empirically. It cannot be incorporated into physics. Some would say this is because it is prior to physics. Metaphysics is as close as we can get intellectually and after this there's nothing for it but to follow the Oracle's advice and study the phenomenon first-hand. .
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 11:25
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    Hmmm. That sounds like "psychology doesn't exist." Or at least "social sciences are not sciences." Much of psychology obviously needs to discuss qualia. Theories of perception have no basis whatsoever if those 'can't be analyzed using the scientific method'.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 15:05
  • 2
    @jobermark psychology deals with people's reports on qualia, not the qualia themselves. Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 15:11
  • @jobermark maybe quaila can only be discussed as some sort of Hidden Markov variable (that's half jest). Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 15:12
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    There is no evidendence for anything besides our own experience. If eighty people look at something and determine it is mauve, we can do science with that. And it is a behavior, so even the Behaviorists should be satisfied. It is still evidence that mauve exists, even if only psychologically.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 15:32

Qualia aren't physics. They are psychology.

To the degree that each science builds upon emergent properties of all the other sciences that are more basic, psychological theories are about physics. But that is a long stretch for no gain. (We just need to stop obsessing about physics like it is the pretty boy in the room and none of us are going to date any of the others. Or if you are on the other side of this, like he is the gang leader and if we cow him we are safe from all the others. Physics is A science. It is not The Science.)

From a defensible psychological perception theory, translated into philosophy by Dennett, qualia are labeled memories much in the same sense James and Lange characterized emotions. From the unified view of someone like Antonio Dimasio, this suggests that qualia, emotions and logical sense are all a single sort of thing, a broader category of 'emotional impressions' that the mind handles in a fairly uniform fashion.

We form these after we have already reached enough certainty to act, and we incorporate them into explanatory narratives, which we experience and record in their place.

We know the first of these because many responses that depend upon given qualia or express a given emotion start before awareness of the qualia or emotional state and their potential reporting. We know the second because we can modify people's supposed real-time accounts, even their visual memories, over time by suggestion or in real time by psychological manipulation.

Since we also have a neurological model of memory, these fit into the realm of things that we can vaguely explain with physical processes.


Here are a selected few physicalist theories of consciousness, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Consciousness:

Bernard Baars' Global Workspace Theory describes consciousness in terms of a competition among processors and outputs for a limited capacity resource that “broadcasts” information for widespread access and use.

According to Jesse Prinz's Attended Intermediate level Representation theory (AIR), a conscious perception be a Representation of a perceptually Intermediate property (such as colors, shapes, tones, and feels) that is Attended to with gamma (40–80hz) vector activity in sensory cortex.

Tononi's Integrated Information Theory (IIT) identifies consciousness with integrated information of the relevant sort.

A sampling of recent neural theories might include models that appeal to global integrated fields (Kinsbourne), binding through synchronous oscillation (Singer 1999, Crick and Koch 1990), NMDA-mediated transient neural assemblies (Flohr 1995), thalamically modulated patterns of cortical activation (Llinas 2001), reentrant cortical loops (Edelman 1989), comparator mechanisms that engage in continuous action-prediction-assessment loops between frontal and midbrain areas (Gray 1995), left hemisphere based interpretative processes (Gazzaniga 1988), and emotive somatosensory hemostatic processes based in the frontal-limbic nexus (Damasio 1999) or in the periaqueductal gray (Panksepp 1998).

The physicist Roger Penrose (1989, 1994) and the anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff (1998) have championed a model according to which consciousness arises through quantum effects occurring within subcellular structures internal to neurons known as microtubules.

Well! No shortage of physicalist theories I would say. Too bad there's not even a hint of consensus in sight. Maybe next year!


Subjective consciousness and qualia are issues discussed also in the context of computational models of the brain. Although these models do not belong to physics, they are studied within the field of neuroscience.

One of the first computational models is due to Tononi, see "Giulio Tononi: Consciousness as Integrated Information: a Provisional Manifesto. Biol. Bull. 215: 216-242". Tononi uses as the basic theoretical concept the qualia space (p.224), the high-dimensional state space of the brain. A quale is a specific configuration in qualia space (p.227).

A more recent survey is "James A. Reggia: The rise of machine consciousness: Studying consciousness with computational models. Neural Networks 44(2013) 112-131". The survey reviews different computational models, including Tononi's Integrated Information Theory.

If you are interested in these papers I could send you a copy.

Aside: I doubt that a model based on physics exists because such models rely on the concept of information. It would seem a bit far fetched to consider information a concept from physics.

  • The measure S is commonly translated as 'information' rather than 'negative entropy' in the Hawking black-hole equation. So it can't be too far-fetched to consider that to be a subject of physics.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 16:16
  • The answer to the question "physics or informatics" depends for me on the results which can be obtained by the means of each of the two disciplines. Anyhow, in both cases one needs the help of mathematics :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 16:22
  • I'm not sure I understand your aside and your last comment. Information is one of the foundations of modern physics, Boltzmann's definition of entropy has been the heart of statistical mechanics for a very long time. Shannon showed us how to translate it into a more general idea, and so on the story goes. Where are you getting the idea that it's far fetched to say Boltzmann was talking about information and to say it's a physical concept? Especially given the trend in hep towards a a quantum information theoretic understanding of physics, it seems like a central conception now.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 2:02

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