We know that a long time ago life emerged from a bunch of amino acids.

When I look at the world around me, I notice that it is made up mostly of inanimate matter. Yet this same inanimate matter must have come together in various permutation and combinations to provide a subjective experience - me.

How is it possible? What are the various theories for the same?

My own thoughts:
Matter might not be entirely inanimate.
The world is an illusion and everything is made on patterns involving the consciousness which was ever present.

  • 1
    How can animate matter provide subjective experiences?
    – user6559
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 7:38
  • 1
    @hurkyl if it is animate then it already has a subjective experience.
    – novice
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 7:43
  • 2
    Does it? It's not obvious to me... unless that's what you literally mean by "animate matter", in which case it's clear that inanimate matter does not. But then, the point I mean to make is the question "how can you tell matter is inanimate?"
    – user6559
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 7:55
  • 1
    @hurkyl we can't really tell, which is why I presented option one.
    – novice
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 10:38
  • 1
    @hurkyl how animate matter can provide subjective experiences is not obvious as well, I agree. But, this question ought to be easier to answer than how inanimate matter can do so, is what I feel. So answering the tougher question might provide an answer for the easier question.
    – novice
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 11:12

4 Answers 4


Yes, as @Schphol said, this is the mind-body problem, which is a ~2,000 year old issue that is still generating philosophy papers, books, talks, conferences, and entire professorial careers.

How is it possible?

There is no obvious or widely accepted answer for this within philosophy. About 25 years ago, I asked a philosophy of mind professor this same question. His response was, "No one knows." I think this is still a fair answer.

What are the various theories for the same?

  • Eliminativism. Denies there actually is subjective experience. Proponents: Paul and Patricia Churchland [Edit: Possibly Dennett, as quoted in linked Strawson piece.]. Recent noted opponent: Galen Strawson (see here)

  • Mysterianism. Affirms there is subjective experience, but thinks it (probably) will always be a mystery. Proponent: David Chalmers.

  • Substance Dualism. Subjective experience is due to some non-physical "soul" or otherwise disembodied mind. Proponents: most religious people, Sir John Eccles, possibly Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose (in their case, via quantum mechanical interaction with neurons' microtubules).

  • "Wait and see". Those who affirm there is subjective experience, but we just don't have the neuroscientific understanding yet to understand how this works. Proponents: Daniel Dennett (possibly; may be eliminativist, see above), John Searle, many others.

  • Panpsychism. Believes that all matter has some degree of subjective experience, however slight, and when you put it together in a nervous system, this somehow amplifies it such that we can have rich inner lives. Proponent: Galen Strawson.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it touches on some of the major ideas.

  • It seems that an obvious variation would be "Subjective experience is simply the description we give to certain observed behaviors of various configurations of matter". Is that on your list, just expressed in a form not immediately recognizable? (e.g. is that what "denies there is subjective experience" means?)
    – user6559
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 21:21
  • You're description of eliminativism is a popular misconception about it; E.M. isn't about denying subjective experiences, but rather (TLDR version) skepticism about the aptness of subjective categories. To use an example direct from Patricia Churchland about the subject, imagine you're faced with a believer of the four elements who has never been exposed to modern science. You can't really explain to him in terms of his own theory what coffee is really made of, because earth/air/fire/water aren't really what's fundamental. But we don't deny elements or matter exist.
    – H Walters
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 3:29

Philosophers refer to this question as the mind-body problem. See also section 5 of the SEP entry on consciousness.

Your own thoughts seem to lean towards a version of panpsychism. This is not a very popular position in contemporary philosophy, but it has a few articulate defenders, such as Galen Strawson or Philip Goff.


I would add to Chelonian's list the view of Idealism, as that seems to be a view the OP is leaning towards, especially with the last claim. Idealism states that consciousness is what constitutes reality, while the material world is really just an abstraction of the patterns in those conscious experiences. That is, when we do science, we quantify the abstract features of our experiences, and what we call the 'physical world' is merely a description of those abstract patterns.


This is a difficult and complicated matter. Briefly, it can be answered like this.

Matter is inanimate, but signaling patterns of matter are not!

Physically, what are subjective experiences, consciousness, and the phenomena called qualia? If you think of it carefully, you’ll find that they are just information about something.

Signaling patterns of matter can create information; therefore, they can create subjective experiences, consciousness, and qualia.

There is an emerging interesting theory addressing this puzzle. Anyone interested can check it out at www.mindtheory.net.

  • Are you talking about the Theory of Mind[s] (awareness of [other's] thoughts), or something else? Can you flesh this out a bit more? -- about patterns, complexity and feedback.
    – amI
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 19:48
  • No, it's not "the theory of mind". It is specifically "The Basic Theory of Mind". The names sound similar, but they are different. The former is a psychiatric concept while the latter is a physical theory of the mind and its related phenomena, such as qualia and consciousness: what they are, why they occur, and how they occur. The link I posted seems to not work. You can follow the new link here www.mindtheory.net.
    – user287279
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 2:24
  • It's a fairly long story. But in a nutshell, it proves that the mind and the information-processing part of the brain are identically the same entity. The mind is thus not an exotic, separate entity from the brain but just a functional part of the brain. That’s why the mind is so dependent on the brain on every aspect. Yet, they are not the same entity because the mind is immaterial while the functional brain consists of both the material and the immaterial (functional) parts.
    – user287279
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 2:33
  • Thank you for the clarifying link -- however, I found it's 'theorems' to be wishy washy (not amenable to simulation).
    – amI
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 20:24
  • It seems to me their theorems provide verifiable predictions, such as its theorem I states that “the predictions that are valid for the neural process in any event or experiment, such as that the neural process will start functioning, change, or stop functioning, will be valid for the mental process.”. Nowadays, this can be tested by magnetic stimulations or pharmacologic agents (suppressants or stimulants). Let’s see how they come out.
    – user287279
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 4:53

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