(I do not have a philosophy background but I do read philosophy myself.)

I have read some review papers of emergence theory, where philosophy of mind is a major battle ground. I find an absence of a standpoint which I think could be valid. It proceeds in this way:

(1). The phenomena that we observe, or so called qualia, are the only source of truth (regardless of the possibility that they may be biased by either extrinsic factors (e.g. social environment) or intrinsic factors (e.g. heritable biological traits)).

(2). Our conception of the world, physical or mental, is only a modelling of the phenomena being observed, with the modelling process following a certain set of rules (that is strongly regulated by innate properties of human learning and constantly influenced by the changing context).

(3). Thus, all the structures in the model constructed by such process only have conceptual existence confined in the model. Therefore, there is no sense of distinguishing the world as being physical or being mental or being of dualistic nature.


Is there a name for this thinking? Is there some fallacy in such reasoning? I cannot find a school of thought from the current literature to which I feel affiliated to. So, I am curious where this can go wrong.

I would also like to see some references from where I can inform myself more about this subject.

Some review papers I read:

[1] Emergence in the Philosophy of Mind [Markus Eronen, 2004]

[2] Can Science Explain Consciousness? [Dan Bruiger 2017]

  • This is called (metaphysical) anti-realism, it is popular among empiricist minded philosophers. In some sense, it goes back to Kant, who distinguished between the appearances that our concepts apply to, and "things in themselves". But keep in mind that the same debate reemerges in a different guise: which models are more apt at describing phenomena, physicalist, dualist or idealist? It is not that easy to get rid of perennial questions.
    – Conifold
    Apr 28 '19 at 22:37
  • Perhaps ilspme call it 'scientism'
    – Richard
    Apr 28 '19 at 22:51
  • Thank you for your help! I am kind of aware Kant. The distinction between anti-realism (AR) and that Stated Above is (SA): AR presumes the existence of mind, which is kind of idealism (I guess ?), while SA does not. It is only because of the necessity of presentation that I put "phenomena" as a concept at the beginning. There is no concept possible until the subjects are capable of certain level of reasoning. It prioritises epistemology to ontology. (which is I think a way to avoid the physicalist and dualist debate? as they all come down to a model ideally constructed, e.g., maths.) Apr 28 '19 at 23:05
  • @Richard Thank you for the new name I did not hear about. However, I am not sure that the position above appeals to some scientific methods or reductionism. The rule set in (2) is only a description of how the subjects forms concepts from phenomena. An example is, human children prove to be capable of inferring or creating grammatical rules based on limited examples of the language [refer to Chomsky]. Chomsky deduced there must be a very strong prior on what a language is like in children's mind. Thus, the "set of rules" refers to these kind of rules (mixed with prior and posterior). Apr 28 '19 at 23:30
  • @ClémentDato sorry. The name was not a name but a typo. And i may have misunderstood your question.
    – Richard
    Apr 28 '19 at 23:46

You might look into present-day neuro-representationalism of the sort provided by Metzinger, Hohwy, Frith, etc. These philosophers argue that our contact with reality is confined to a neural representation of the world. According to this view, the brain is a Bayesian prediction machine. It accepts incoming sensory signals and, using probable priors, infers to the probable cause of its sensory signals. The brain thus extracts the causal structure of its environment from statistical regularities in nested, highly-structured world-models. Following Hermann von Helmholtz, these philosophers argue that the extensive processing required to render a sensory signal into a perceptual content renders dubious any resemblance between the internal effect of and the external cause.

The apricot-pink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain. The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all. […] Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths (Metzinger 2009, p. 20).

Metzinger goes so far as to claim that our perception of reality is much like a well-defined hallucination:

In our present context, a fruitful way of looking at the human brain, therefore, is as a system which, even in ordinary waking states, constantly hallucinates at the world, as a asystem that constantly lets its internal autonmous simulational dynamics collide with the ongoing flow of sensory input, vigorously dreaming at the world and thereby generating the content of phenomenal experience (Metzinger 2004).

I suppose where the neuro-representationalists might depart from your proposal concerns this overcoming of dualism. Certainly most neuro-representationalists think of consciousness as an ultimately physical phenomenon. In fact, in some cases, their proposals depend on an implementation of an information-theoretic notion of entropy. From a physical standpoint, this suggests that consciousness is a solution to an entropy problem. That is to say, a solution to the problem of making it more statistically likely than not that the organism maintains its circumstances within an acceptable scope to maintain its systematic integrity against the harsh truth that without intervention a system is vastly more likely to enter into a state with higher entropy than a state with lower entropy than the prior state.

Frith, C. (2007). Making up the mind: How the brain creates our mental worlds. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hohwy, J. (2013). The predictive mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Metzinger, T. (2009). The ego tunnel. New York: Basic Books.

Metzinger, T. (2004). Being no one: The self-model theory of subjectivity. mit Press.


  1. seems like empiricism, because you say that the senses "are the only source of truth"

Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge

  1. seems, broadly speaking, like a representational theory of consciousness, because you say that consciousness is a "modelling of what is being observed"

Like public, social cases of representation such as writing or mapmaking, intentional states such as beliefs have truth-value; they entail or imply other beliefs; they are (it seems) composed of concepts and depend for their truth on a match between their internal structures and the way the world is.

(emphasis mine).

  1. seems like anti-realism, because you say that the "existence [of everything is] confined in the model".

There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence. Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table's being square, the rock's being made of granite, and the moon's being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence. The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter.

e.g. Berkley was an anti-realist and empiricist, so you may want to learn about his philosophy

If the notion of mind-independent existence is incoherent, as anti-realists contend, what should we put in its stead? Berkeley famously answered “Mind-dependent existence!” where the Mind in question, for the good Bishop, was, of course, the Mind of God. Modern anti-realists tend not to be theists and tend not to relativize existence to any single mind. Instead of God they posit conceptual schemes as that on which the notion of existence depends. To that extent they follow Kant rather than Berkeley, though unlike Kant they tend to be pluralists—it is conceptual schemes which they endorse rather than a single transcendental scheme which Kant held to be obligatory for all rational creatures.

I'm afraid I'm not sure how he would think about representation, and intentionality (how consciousness is about something). Or whether he would agree with you that our ideas are a "modelling" of the world we observe. My characterization of 2 is weakest.

It seems coherent to argue for anti-realism based on the idea that our beliefs are only true if they match the senses. I take it that's the argument you mean. This would be something like phenomenalism

the phenomenalist claims that to say that a physical object exists is to say that someone would have certain sequences of sensations were they to have certain others. For example, to say that there is something round and red behind me might be to say, in part, that if I were to have the visual, tactile and kinaesthetic (movement) sensations of turning my head I would seem to see something round and red

If it does have ontological commitments, and is not just a thesis on knowledge, these would likely be anti-realist, so denying an independent reality, be that ideal, physical, or dualist.

There are very few contemporary philosophers who embrace phenomenalism. Many reject the foundationalist epistemological framework which makes it so difficult to avoid scepticism without phenomenalism.

There is also the probably intractable issue of how we "translate" "statements describing sensations" into talk about actual physical objects. I take it that's what you mean by beliefs "modelling" sensations, that all our beliefs about the world, rather than say the world itself, can be reduced to sense data.

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