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The Importance of Qualia to Transhumanism and Science pt2
Kris Notaro   Jul 2, 2014   Ethical Technology  

In my last article on transhumanism and qualia we looked at the definition of qualia and biological experiments that suggest qualia are nothing more then a physical outcome of a complex system, (for now the brain). But what if qualia is not physical in nature in the same way we think of the typical physicalist notion of an atom? What if qualia was not purely biologically evolved, instead was/is part of the universe like the “strings” in M-theory and String Theory, or the basic hydrogen atom? I will argue in defense of quaila and suggest that logical operators can be “felt” by the current human mind.

In recent news, transhumanists got very excited over the “passing of the Turing Test”.

Indeed, in a recent poll the IEET audience voted 65% that “Yes, the [Turing Test] is a strong indication of a mind like a human's.”

However, As NPR puts it:

“In the recent Royal Society competition, a bot called Eugene Goostman managed to convince a third of the judges it was a human on the basis of a five-minute exchange. That narrowly exceeded Turing's more or less arbitrary 30 percent threshold, and the organizers proclaimed it a "historic milestone."”... And Goostman's creators ratcheted down the judges' expectations still further by having the bot claim to be a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine. That seemed to account for its faulty English and limited world knowledge, not to mention some of its off-the-wall answers — what sounds merely witless in grown-ups is apt to come off in a 13-year-old as simple attitude.” - NPR

If we look deeper into the recent situation, we find that many in the transhumanist community have their doubts. But this does not keep us from seriously thinking about a conscious mind made of computer algorithms and fast supercomputer's. Many still believe in the technological singularity, and I personally cannot blame them. IFF (if and only if) the mind can be reproduced in a computer simulating exactly that of neurons, why not believe it can also produce consciousness? The subject of different ways to create a mind beyond replicating the human mind, or an animal's mind, is, for now, not a deep concern of this particular article.

Last year the Blue Brain Project claimed a signal of “brain waves” coming from their simulation. If this is true, it is an argument for simulated consciousness. But we run into issues all over the place. We know that parts of the brain do not necessarily contribute to consciousness. Brain waves can exist without consciousness (although some have shown that Gamma waves (detected from the brain) are needed for consciousness.

This all brings up a very important dilemma – can computer algorithms based on logic, create true Strong Artificial Intelligence (SAI)? Here I think of two concerns:

1. SAI is not “AI”, for there is no “artificial” anything involved.

2. Logic, the very basis of computer programming languages, is still totally up for grabs concerning the epistemic significance and understanding.

First, let's look at #1. It seems very likely that if SAI were to exist in it's fullest – consciousness and all – there is nothing un-natural about it. Indeed, if the simulation or neural network passes the Turing Test and beyond, so that it is not solely based on logical outputs (like the latest “Turing Test” stunt), but instead “critical thinking” and awareness, it then is a result of evolution in very much the same way we evolved.

Although we “created” it, it may not be so “artificial” in nature after all. It may just be tapping into the universe's ability to create consciousness, which, even though the overall mechanism is built by humans, is only an example of human intelligence.

Second, lets look at the epistemic problem of logic. Metaphysically we do not know how it is that “and”, “or” and “not” are “hardwired” into the universe. It does seem that these logical operators are hardwired into our universe, a priori – but this does not help us at all in understanding machine consciousness if it is purely based on logic like in the Turing Test.

As a fan of Turing, and his life's works, I unfortunately need to turn to the basis of the logic, and in so doing, undermining the Test a bit.

So back to qualia and problem #2. If we look at the epistemic and metaphysical significance of “and”, “or”, and “not”, we also have on our hands the very essence of their acceptability to a conscious mind.

If you do not “feel” “what it is like” to experience “and”, “or”, and “not”, you may be missing the entire point of this article. It does indeed feel like something to think “well I can go to school today or not.” That feeling is just that, a feeling, in which you are conscious of. Why we feel qualia and are conscious of metaphysical and epistemic properties (which most likely are a priori) will be the subject of my next article on the subject of qualia and "AI."

Kris Notaro served as Managing Director of the IEET from 2012 to 2015. He is currently an IEET Rights of the Person Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


@ Kris..

Look forward to your next article, However I cannot bite my tongue here, and need to question this statement.

“If you do not “feel” “what it is like” to experience “and”, “or”, and “not”, you may be missing the entire point of this article.”

I can honestly say myself, hand on heart that I do not “feel” anything for/towards “and”, “or”, and “not”. I fully comprehend the meaning of these, (ie; symbolism as memorised and processed by my neurons, and this comprehension beyond merely empirical and perhaps even as you hint a priori, (a la Kant). Although, saying this, it is still difficult for me to rationalise that I ever had a meaning of “and”, “or”, and “not”, as a baby and before I was fully Self-reflexive and witness to my own sense of Self and separation from all other things around me?

However, to go one step further..

“Second, lets look at the epistemic problem of logic. Metaphysically we do not know how it is that “and”, “or” and “not” are “hardwired” into the universe.”

Are they hardwired into the Universe? Quantum mechanics proposes that there is no definitive substantiation of “and”, “or”, and “not”, just a resultant wave function collapse that results in an electron/photon expressing itself and position in a certain way? Before wave function collapse there is simply no “and”, “or”, and “not”, at all?

And this is precisely the attribute that Quantum computers are aiming to take advantage of? The probabilities calculations of multiple outcomes is then “expressed” as “either/or/and” or “not” etc. yet the process is far from definitive, but integral?

And moreover, we may even question resultant outcomes of “and”, “or”, and “not”, as only fleeting and momentarily perceived within illusions of spatial time - ie; The “River” of the quantum level of Universe is forever and constantly “flowing” with no definitive outcomes holistically, (impermanence). Although this does not rule out our experiences at the macro level, or the representation of forms and matter at the macro level - Stars do most “definitively” produce Iron and other elements, substances do hold their form for x - time period.


I do feel something when there is choice to be made from a proposition.

“I can go to school today” OR
“I can skip school today”

In fact the OR creates a kind of existential angst, its a feeling of making a decision.

For the mind and especially for consciousness, it seems to me, a priori, “and” “or” and “not” are a type epistemic, a priori knowledge.

@ Kris..

I think I understand your meaning

May I suggest that it is the symbolism/words “school” that evokes any feeling or sensation, (and along with all of the baggage we associate when the “thoughts” of “school” come to mind)?

Also this Existential angst you mention may come from the pressures of time/duty/workload that may possibly be attributed/associated to the symbolism/words “today”, (as opposed to less stress if tomorrow/next week etc.)?

Regarding the OR choice dilemma… I see your meaning here, what now provokes contemplation is the mechanism of this angst within the brain. Perhaps, and as speculative example:

1. You find yourself duty bound to go to “school” “today” to complete tasks/exams other pressures and your “mind” is constantly reflecting upon this responsibility and impinging upon physical states and causing neurons to fire, perhaps encouraging stress and cortisol release?

2. You don’t really want to go to “school” “today”, would rather defer, so you have “mind” to “veto”, (Libet), even though you know you should not.

3. You are thus caught in a dilemma of duty bound continual reminder of your responsibility by your “neurons” firing, and your expression of freedom/free will to continually veto - the result is existential angst. The dilemma finally resolved when you have “mind” to reject one option either submit to your responsibility, or express your freedom?

Obviously this example of angst can be applied throughout our whole day of duties/responsibilities, and you can imagine the existential angst of a child/teen who is constantly bullied at school and is receiving no support to help overcome such dilemma?

However, if the above is correct, it again indicates that we are “suffering” for a large part due to dilemmas of our own creation/mind, life and health threatening dilemmas over which we have not control placed aside that is?

The expression of “freedom” is a strong force, of great benefit, yet also creates much conflict both inner and outer?

In the movie Transcendence, which I saw two days ago, the AIs/uploaded minds respond to the question, “Can you prove you are self-aware?” by saying, “That’s a difficult question. Can you prove you are?”

The answer, of course, is, “No,” and this forms the initial basis for my own views on qualia. I know that I have qualia - or to be more precise I am having the experience now of seeming to remember having also had past experiences, from which I extrapolate (dubiously) to a belief in a continuous self that indeed has qualia - but the mere fact that I am saying so clearly provides no proof that it is true.

I assume that other humans have qualia essentially by the same process of extrapolation that leads me to believe I have had qualia in the past, i.e. by analogy. Given that other humans are, in the most relevant respects, so very much like me, it indeed seems reasonable to assume that you also have qualia. For example, Kris and CygnusX1 may differ subtley in the way you engage with the idea that you can experience logical operators in the sense described by Kris, but the fact that you are discussing the issue at all is indeed suggestive that you are having broadly similar experiences of what it means to be alive, and that you indeed have qualia.

What I’m wondering, though, is what (if anything) this tells us about the doubts Kris raises regarding whether computer algorithms based on logic can exhibit consciousness, and thus qualia. I certainly agree with Kris that the word “artificial” is problematic; the best that can be said about it is that it reflects the fact that the “evolution” in question is no longer biological evolution (based on the natural selection of genes), but rather technological evolution based on the natural selection of ideas. This makes the process by which machine intelligence is evolving somewhat fundamentally different form the process by which we evolved - the unit of reproduction being the idea rather than the gene - but the basic natural selection principle is still at work. Selective breeding and more sophisticated forms of genetic manipulation are also examples of technological rather than (purely) biological evolution, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to suggest that this would have a bearing on whether the products of such evolution would experience qualia.

Rather than worrying about qualia, I suspect that a better approach to grappling with this issue is to clarify to what extent biological intelligence is or is not based on logical operations from a functional (and thus externally observable) point of view. I guess I’m just not convinced that much insight can be gained by considering to what extent we “feel” logical operators. But to add my two-cents’-worth to that debate, I have the impression that you aren’t really saying different things. Kris says he can “feel” the “or”, while CygnusX1 - while clearly sceptical as to whether it is appropriate to use those words in that way - speculates (quite plausibly) on why the “or” might have arisen in that particular case. Perhaps the discussion - as so often - essentially boils down to semantics?

CygnusX1, I’m not sure what to say, I agree with your questions, but I want to get kind of “crazy” on you and Peter…

Peter said: “Rather than worrying about qualia, I suspect that a better approach to grappling with this issue is to clarify to what extent biological intelligence is or is not based on logical operations from a functional (and thus externally observable) point of view.”...“Perhaps the discussion - as so often - essentially boils down to semantics?”

Peter, yes, I agree with you as well. However, if I understand some stances on “qualia”, it is very much worth worrying about. Even though David Chalmers believes in ‘multiple realizability’, I cannot totally agree with him. He is, after all, the philosopher who made “philosophical zombies” popular. In saying that I don’t think he should believe in multiple realizability, because of the complexity and “struggle” evolution went through to create the most simple of conscious minds. (99 percent of all species have gone extinct via natural selection)

OK, so what am I getting at? Qualia is up for grabs as well, as is the basic logical operators. Qualia is/are thought of as a part of monistic materialism and even dualism.

But let me ask everyone this simple question (others reading this article and comments) - it is the case that in a monistic materialism framework we found neutrinos, expected by many theoretical physicists. But why not treat qualia almost the same.

What if the zombie argument is true? What if multiple realizability is false?

I think it is time to create a “qualia detector” (not a soul detector, but a real detector of the brain’s ability to experience experience: angst, the color red, etc)

Here is a photo of the neutrino detector:

In my crazy opinion, it is time to have a qualia detector built with the same amount of money and research.

We know that when one dies, no weight is lost, no soul is detected.

What I am interested in, is a computer free of anything and perhaps even excluding brain waves, detect, what we hypothesis as “qualia.”...

As nutty as that sounds, I think it is extremely important - for it is mid 2014 and still no comprehensive theory of consciousness. We need extremely creative ways to deny or explain why it feels like something to experience.

In fact, it may be the case that, we understand the lack of or the existence of qualia before we ever even understand the a priori nature of logical operators.

It’s a wonderful idea, Kris, I’m just wondering how qualia can ever be detectable, even in principle.

After all, why did theoretical physicists predict the existence of neutrinos? Basically using Occam’s razor, the same way all scientific theory is developed: it emerged as an elegant, simplest-theory-to-fit-the-facts explanation of an externally observed phenomenon, namely (Wikipedia informs me - I confess I had to look it up) the conservation of energy, momentum and spin in beta decay. That enabled scientists to make predictions about what would happen if the products of beta decay were made to collide with protons, and when their predictions proved accurate that confirmed (though didn’t prove - one never proves) the theory that neutrinos exist.

So for this to work as an analogy for qualia detection, there has to be some externally observable phenomenon, for which the existence of qualia provides an elegant, parsimonious explanation, and which then allows us to design an experiment and use the existence of qualia as the basis for a predicted outcome that would otherwise be very unlikely. Yet it seems to me that the very definition of qualia precludes such an approach.

What we can do, of course, is look for neural correlates of reported (and/or remembered) qualia, but I don’t think that’s what you mean, is it?

Coming back to the movie Transcendence, when people ask if the uploaded versions of Will is “really him”, they seem to be conflating a valid question with an apparently meaningless one. The relatively good one is whether Will’s mind has been copied sufficiently faithfully to make reasonable predictions about how he is likely to behave. I say “relatively” since the suggestion (made by Max) that one single missed memory would significantly alter this seems far-fetched, and even if the copy was perfect and it was “really him” you still don’t know what someone will do with that much power. The meaningless one is whether there has been some fundamental continuity of identity.

It seems to me that it is only because we cling to this false (even if necessary for survival) belief in continuity of identity that some of us are tempted to see subjective qualia as something that could somehow be measurable. In fact, I suspect that our fear of “philosophical zombies” (and other monsters) is an expression of our tendency to cling to is false belief in our own identity. If so, rather than trying to “deny or explain why it feels like something to experience”, it might be better to accept that our identity is a fiction created by our minds, useful for the purposes of living in the world as it is now, but possibly ill-suited to prepare us for a world in which such a fiction will be difficult or impossible to maintain.

@Peter - I think that science can actually rule out many possibilities, therefore, if we have an idea which we are looking for, (qualia) “what it is like”, then maybe, just maybe we can exterminate the very dualistic notion of qualia.

Im here for the facts and research, not to push a personal opinion. That being said, I want to see qualia either disproved (like vitalism, or the Christian “God”) or proved (in theory, like Darwinian Evolution)

What we may want to detect is an outcome of the complex system of the human brain for now - that being consciousnesses. If scientists and philosophers cannot come up with a good hypothesis to detect qualia, then we must accept physicalism? no?

I agree we all yearn to have an “identity” that “feels” and is “me”, but that is not what I am questioning, nor am I very concerned (like you pointed out) about the Neural Correlates of Consciousness.

I do believe science and philosophy can come up with a coherent theory of anything rational, questionable, and/or “real” - like Darwinian Evolution.

So it is my life’s goal to help “disprove” or “prove” that “what it is like to experience” in the phenomenological sense of the phrase, is either dualistic in nature, monistic, a bit of both (emergence theory) or something else.

If AI are Zombies, coming back to the IEET’s audience, then we might have a huge problem on our hands. But, the point is, we need to exhaust every logical and rational theory possible concerning consciousness before we make robots our brother’s and sister’s - per se.

If we can’t come up with a comprehensive theory of consciousness soon, I would have to agree with IEET Affiliate Scholar, Kate Darling, that we may just want to give even the smallest amount of sentience rights.

Imagine if I and others who think qualia is real deny machines with some sentience rights. And how Darling puts it, how we treat an object that contributes to personification and anthropomorphism, may say something about ourselves.

Therefore, I wish that the subject of qualia can come to a sort of close, so that we can move on to not just multiple realizability, but also a comprehensive theory of not just the universe, but also - what we perceive as “consciousness”

The problem I have with “looking for” qualia is that its very definition (individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, the keyword here being ‘subjective’) seems to preclude it. That it seems unobservable by definition is of course an attribute it shares with the Christian God, but unlike the latter it is not riddled with internal inconsistencies and logical fallacies, which is the only way in which I think the Christian God can really be said to have been “disproved”.

Certainly my working assumption, like most people’s I suppose, at least as applied to human adults, is that qualia are real. And I also think it is clear that how we treat an object that contributes to personification and anthropomorphism says something about ourselves - no “may” about it. I suppose the question, though, is what would we like it to say? Just as I am not obliged to deny that life begins at conception to be pro-choice, neither do I have to be a Jainist to believe that flies have qualia. Nor do I need to be an amoral psychopath to kill a fly despite suspecting that that fly might have qualia.

To some extent I think our angst over these issues springs from the imperative we have learnt from civilisation to avoid harming each other, coupled with a hardwired tendency to believe we are better than we are. To kill a fly while suspecting that it may be conscious means being willing to kill another conscious being. Yet we have been so indoctrinated to see this as utterly taboo that we turn in horror at the thought that THIS may be what our actions are saying about ourselves. Some of us even become Jainists to avoid this, though most of us find more practical solutions - such as denying that flies (and farm animals) have qualia. Anything to avoid being a murderer, right?

Yet, assuming that qualia are real, murderers we are, whether we like it or not, and I don’t actually think civilisation will break down - or even become more violent - if more of us accept that. In fact I think it will probably become less violent. And as far as giving robots rights is concerned, we will need to be balanced and practical, without necessarily assuming there is a “right” answer. (Here of course I am relying quite heavily on my moral subjectivist stance.)

One thing I don’t think we will have any difficulty doing is incorporating the fact that people report have and indeed believe they have qualia into a scientific theory. And if science tells me that I am likely to believe I have qualia, then I should not be surprised that I do believe this. But do I actually? Am I actually experiencing something now? Do any of these words mean anything at all? Do I exist as an independent being that can have qualia? Or, conversely, is my current perception of a flow of qualia the only reality there is, and all the scientific theories that I imagine to be true are in reality just phantoms existing in this single qualium? The solipsist position cannot be disproved either, only discarded as not being terribly helpful for the purpose of living one’s life.

In the development of scientific theory we try to recognise patterns, which seem to correspond to a more or less deep structure of the universe, which then rewards our efforts by behaving in accordance with our predictions. Can this ever happen with qualia-in-themselves, as opposed to reported, imagined or remembered qualia (and their neural correlates)? What kind of predictions might we be able to make as a result?

In any case, no scientific theory has ever provided an exclusive basis for normative principles such as the allocation of rights. There is always a moral choice to be made. Science can inform it, but (pace Sam Harris) can never dictate it.


From plato.stanford:

In the past, philosophers have often appealed directly to introspection on behalf of the view that qualia are intrinsic, non-intentional features of experiences. Recently, a number of philosophers have claimed that introspection reveals no such qualities (Harman 1990, Dretske 1995, Tye 1995, 2000). Suppose you are facing a white wall, on which you see a bright red, round patch of paint. Suppose you are attending closely to the color and shape of the patch as well as the background. Now turn your attention from what you see out there in the world before you to your visual experience. Focus upon your awareness of the patch as opposed to the patch of which you are aware. Do you find yourself suddenly acquainted with new qualities, qualities that are intrinsic to your visual experience in the way that redness and roundness are qualities intrinsic to the patch of paint? According to some philosophers, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘No’. As you look at the patch, you are aware of certain features out there in the world. When you turn your attention inwards to your experience of those features, you are aware that you are having an experience of a certain sort but you aware of the very same features; no new features of your experience are revealed. In this way, your visual experience is transparent or diaphanous. When you try to examine it, you see right through it, as it were, to the qualities you were experiencing all along in being a subject of the experience, qualities your experience is of. “

So I agree with 90 percent of what you said. Although I think in the next couple decades, that NCCs and detectors for introspective properties will exist. Although we continue to develop technology to read people’s thoughts, and to access their memory and properties of current experience (like looking at “roundness”) we have not thought of a technology to really capture the qualia, or are we?

Reading brain waves, to electrodes attached to the brain and bring up impressive images that the brain is experiencing. Now, is this just an advance in the finding of NCCs? I don’t know, but I do lean towards the existence of qualia. I also do not think that qualia is very subjective, (maybe for now) but in the future with nano-bots reading each neuron, etc we will lose the essence of “solipsism.” I think.

However, we must think of qualia as a part of the universe, we must think it can be detected somehow in the future. If we give up on trying to detect them, in my opinion, that would be a shame. Although if qualia do not exist in the way we think today, as a real part of experiencing, then we must rule it out.

But, then, what is the difference between us and farm animals? I truly do not think that one should eat meat – however, because it’s a totally expectable social construct as of now in our culture, then it does not really make you a murderer, but maybe in the future it will. Why would someone prefer meat with a brain, over healthy “in vitro meat?” Plus add all the other ethical reasons to not eat meat on top of that.

Anyway, I think if we continue to think of qualia outside of Dennit and the Churchland’s views, etc, we are claiming that they exist in a different way. But what that way is, we dont know yet, and how we can come up with a good experiment to make sure the Churchland’s are “wrong” is something we just don’t know how to do yet. But I dont think people will stop trying, in fact, if Weak AI never really gets to the point of Strong AI in the next 100 years, we will absolutely need to explain why. 

More later.. hope all are having a good holiday weekend!

I think I agree in general that NCCs and detectors for introspective properties will exist. But given how qualia seem to be defined, “really capturing the qualia” indeed seems to be a different proposition.

One of the more surprising (to me) things I found while skimming through the Wikipedia page on qualia was John McDowell’s apparent fear of solipsism as a reason for denying their existence. According to Wikipedia, his objection to qualia is that their existence “puts the entities about which we require knowledge behind a veil of perception” and this leaves us vulnerable to “the dangerous regions of relativism and solipsism”. Even more susprising (to me) is that the article then seems to take this objection as a more or less mainstream twentieth century view. But can anyone today seriously doubt that such a veil of perception exists, knowing all we know about the vast amount of data processing that goes on in the brain before “we” are able to “perceive” any “thing”? If we wish to avoid solipsism, we must surely find better ways to do it than by denying the obvious.

Kris, you mentioned that your life’s goal is to prove or disprove the existence of qualia, and certainly having goals seems to be a better defence against solipsism than denying their existence. Whether having nano-bots reading each neuron will help with that seems to me more questionable. It seems to me that solipsism fails to thrive much as an idea for two reasons: our own thirst for social engagement requires us to believe that other people exist other than as figments of our imagination, and denying that other people exist to their face tends to provoke hostile responses. Some pretty fundamental changes to human intelligence will have to occur in order for solipsism to really gain ground other than as an idea-that-cannot-be-disproved, of which some of us are afraid. I think it is more likely to just fade away than to really be disproved.

Anyway, you have not yet given up on trying to detect qualia, and I certainly have no objection to that! I do not expect you to succeed, but doubtless they said the same of Columbus. I do think that weak AI will progress so as to be (even more) indistinguishable to outside observers from strong AI, without that actually proving that it is the latter.

Finally, I hesitate to rely on social expectations as a justification for not considering myself a murderer for eating meat. Clearly they play an essential role in my willingness to do so, but the same can be said of what went on in the Nazi death camps. I will no more go around telling people I’m a murderer than I will tell them they don’t exist, but I do find it wise to hold my belief that I am not rather lightly.

con·scious - aware of and responding to one’s surroundings; awake.

I posit that we already have AI that is aware of and responds to it’s surroundings.

But what I think you mean is this:“kara”-video-demo-from-quantic-dream/

I personally think it ought to pass the “Doberman Test” whereby the AI is indistinguishable from an animal in it’s behavior as it relates to interfacing with the environment.  When I see a mechanical device that gives me the feeling of having a spirit, of being animated - not just mechanical, then it passes the Doberman Test.

Debate over feelings is most definitely down to semantics, yet even words are translated to symbolism and associated with the baggage of past memory/imagery experiences and alike within the “mind” and brain.

I myself still have absolutely no “feelings” towards logical operators “and”, “or”, and “not”.

Regarding proving Self-awareness - is the answer obviously “no”?

Is Self-awareness likened, similar or is it “exactly” the same as (Self) consciousness?
Does Self-awareness rely on consciousness as precursor?
Or does consciousness rely and emerge from the mechanism of process of Self-awareness and synaptic bonding within the brain?

The Mirror Test

“The mirror test is an experiment developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. to determine whether an animal possesses the ability to recognize itself in a mirror. It is used as an indicator of self-awareness in non-human animals, marking entrance to the mirror stage by human children in developmental psychology.”

The test itself has not changed much over the past decades, (much like the Turing test), and has been used as proof that other animal species do possess Self-awareness, ie; Elephants in particular.

Yet, this is what intrigues more..

“In 1970, Gordon Gallup Jr. experimentally investigated Darwin’s initial observations with two male and two female wild pre-adolescent chimpanzees, none of which had presumably seen a mirror previously. Each chimpanzee was put into a room by itself for two days. Next, a full-length mirror was placed in the room for a total of 80 hours at periodically decreasing distances. A multitude of behaviors were recorded upon introducing the mirrors to these wild chimpanzees.

Initially, the chimpanzees made threatening gestures at their own images, ostensibly seeing their own reflections as threatening. Eventually, the chimps used their own reflections for self-directed responding behaviors, such as grooming parts of their body previously not observed without a mirror, picking their noses, making faces, and blowing bubbles at their own reflections. Gallup expanded the experiment by manipulating the chimpanzees’ appearance and observing their reaction to the mirror.

Gallup built on these observations to devise what is now commonly known as the mirror test, a method to gauge the self-awareness of an animal by determining whether it recognizes its own reflection in a mirror.”

The above seems to imply that Self-awareness has “emerged” from some state of non-reference and non-experience before the Chimps had witnessed the mirror, can this be true? If it is, then it would imply that evolved synaptic bonds within the brain have “established” a strong sense of “Self” awareness and thus supported by physicalism?

Although I would still be surprised if the Chimps did not already possess some level of Self-awareness, as any intelligent animal must possess awareness of it’s own limbs for survival prior to any intellectual reflection upon it’s own being? This learning curve must however imply there is an evolved substantiation/strengthening of Self-reflection and of Self-reflexivity?


@ Kris

Concerning the universalism of multiple realizability

“I think it is time to create a “qualia detector” (not a soul detector, but a real detector of the brain’s ability to experience experience: angst, the color red, etc)”

Well science is part way there, as I suggested previously in other articles, vision and the accumulated knowledge of the Human eye and it’s neurons, (cones/rods), describes a specialist biological mechanism that acts as transducer for a limited spectrum of light waves, this is converted to electrical impulses for the brain, (as we would expect as ALL things in nature appear constricted by the nature of electro-magnetism, including the propagation of light waves/photons), and thus may be described as/by physicalism? In fact we already have similar detectors to the Human eye. Do these measure the attributes of light? Yes, by means of amplitude/strength, Hue/frequency but not defined as “quality” of experience nor Qualia.

However a Human and a machine/Robot are already well equipped to agree on an experience of the same colour - just that the machine has no reference of “Self-reflection”/consciousness to evaluate the “quality” of light from past/present experience?

Yet, what of the sense of odour and smell? Nitrogen and Hydrogen are two elemental gases, Nitrogen is described as mostly inert and invisible to our senses, yet Hydrogen we can smell, (smells like “pear drop” candy). How is this possible? Does Hydrogen, (the most elemental and simple of atoms), possess qualities/Qualia of odour? Or is it our nose that creates this attribute and quality?

We know that this smell and these types of experience are common between dissimilar minds/individuals, and we can readily test this.. get two individuals to smell “pear drop candy”, and then get them to smell Hydrogen gas, if they agree that the two experiences are similar, then there is common agreement for experience of qualia between both individuals?

Do I think that Hydrogen, (the most simple of atoms), possesses attributes beyond merely electro-magnetism such as a sense of smell - experience tells me it must, yet logic tells me otherwise?

Thought experiment..

Most of us with only a rudimentary skill can memorize a familiar/favourite song or piece of music and commit this to memory, and also bring this to mind as we wish. Musicians and composers possess greater skills and talent and may even be able to compose and memorize music down to fine nuance and intricacy, however, for most of us we can still recall from memory quite accurately both tempo and key, in that we can appreciate when a favoured piece of music is too fast/slow or out of key.

When we recall music/songs from memory these may also provoke “feelings”, and provoke other memories which “supervene” upon physical states in the brain and also stimulate “emotion”?

Q: When we recall music/song does this qualify as qualia? Or are we simply deluding ourselves that memory and information storage within neurons qualifies as qualia, if it does then qualia must equate to memory storage, (physicalism)?

How can we distinguish between “mental” states which supervene upon physical states, from physical stimuli?

Well.. we know that when we “listen” to our favourite music our senses and neurons are heightened/excited to much greater degree than when we recall music from memory - simply decide for yourself what is missing from the music you recall within your mind = dynamism

So do we measure qualia specifically from senses and physical states, or do we include these mental states derived from memory?
Is there a difference?
Can we measure by degree the difference between mental states/memory neurons and neurons exited by senses?

“Does Self-awareness rely on consciousness as precursor?
Or does consciousness rely and emerge from the mechanism of process of Self-awareness and synaptic bonding within the brain?”

Intuitively I feel it has to be the former. They way I see self-awareness (but we are not talking about qualia here) is that there is some kind of model of oneself existing (as seem kind of neural/informational pattern) within the brain. And yes, I would take this to be a synonym of self-consciousness. As so defined it would then be a special case of consciousness in general. However, I may be confusing “consciousness” and knowledge here.

In fact, as we find of more and more about how the brain works, and how the mind emerges within it (I guess I’m probably argue from an emergence theory standpoint here), we will find out existing vocabulary woefully inadequate and will start to invent new terms (and, for a while, argue bitterly over what they mean until maybe some kind of consensus is reached). For the moments I think we just need to keep a rather light hold on our existing semantic categories.

That said, I am still inclined to think that the way the word “qualia” is currently defined pretty well precludes it as referring to something that we will ever be able to detect.

Re hydrogen possessing the qualities of odour, I think the answer clearly has to be no. The smell of hydrogen (I had no idea that it smelled, by the way), is clearly the result of the interaction of hydrogen, our noses, and the part of our brains that processes smell.  I think we will definitely be able to understand the nature of this interaction to the extent that we can categorise it far more precisely than we have been able to so far, but I still don’t think this will make it a measurable “quale” in the sense in which that word is generally understood.

Basically, my contention is that the very definition of qualia rules it out as something that can be measured or detected.

> Metaphysically we do not know how it is that “and”, “or” and “not” are “hardwired” into the universe.

We do not know whether they are, either. Logic is constructed in terms of truth preservation. The universe might not even follow the same rules as classical logic.

@PeterDJones, I was referring to the philosophical nature of logical operators. Also known as “a priori knowledge”. A priori is very different from posteriori, though I agree with you that it is extremely hard to claim any concept, feeling, or essence is “a priori knowledge”

I lean towards, in the philosophical sense, that the essence of “or”, “not” and “and” are indeed a priori knowledge that exists independent of a conscious mind, but needs a conscious mind to “experience” them.

@CygnusX1, yet again I agree with all your statements and questions (although, like Peter, I did not know hydrogen had a smell)

Anyway, smell evolved from millions of years of evolution. Smell itself, very much like color is a kind of sense that is an illusion. These illusions resulted again from evolution (remember 99 percent of all species went extinct - so you can imagine an animal that had a sense of smell or lack of, detecting waste as food - it would die)

This is what I call “the mixing of qualia for evolutionary purposes”, it creates an illusion of what seems to many, innate features of a mind.

But they are not innate at all - what is innate is very much debatable.

The ability to simply be conscious of an evolutionary illusion is fascinating: it brings up the very problem of consciousness.

That which is innate per se, that which can be claimed to be felt as a priori knowledge or even innate qualia is partly what I am concerned with, the other half is the simple awareness of the experience.

Maybe an alternative way to approach qualia would be to define them in terms of our ability to identify such feelings. I’m convinced that we will be able to find NCCs for that, and Kris I think that would resonate well with your earlier statement, “I also do not think that qualia is very subjective.”

I think this would also resonate quite well with my initial idea that “I assume that other humans have qualia essentially by the same process of extrapolation that leads me to believe I have had qualia in the past, i.e. by analogy.” To illustrate this, the examples of “qualia” you gave in your earlier article” - finger over sandpaper, smelling a skunk, sharp pain on finger, seeing the colour purple, becoming angry - are (with the exception of smelling a skunk, which I don’t think I have ever done!) all things I recognise as having experienced myself. So first I had the experience, then I remembered them and learnt to identify them as distincts feelings, then I read your list and it confirmed that you have similar experiences. I still don’t know for sure that you do (or indeed that my own memories correspond to anything that actually happened), but it does seem to be the simplest explanation to fit the facts.

I don’t actually have the impression that this is how the term “qualia” has generally been used by philosophers up to now, and I certainly don’t think it solves (or even really addresses) the hard problem of consciousness, but perhaps it’s a more useful definition, and it does if anything seem to be closer to how you are using it?

As you say, smell evolved from millions of years of evolution. Whether you call it an “illusion” depends very much on how you define “illusion”, but certainly smells, like colours, are constructs of the mind in the first place. A “red” surface may tend to reflect visible light at a certain frequency and absorb the rest, but it is our minds that interpret this as a colour (and that colour will change depending on the light falling on the surface, and on whether one is colour-blind).

Not that this in itself prevents such “qualia” (in the sense described above) from being innate features of a mind, or at least the ability to have such experiences may be innate (obviously one needs to be receiving relevant sense-data, except in the case of hallucinations which may be an interesting issue to explore). At least as “innate” is usually defined I don’t think being the product of evolution precludes something from being innate.

However, in practice I think many qualia (as defined above) are as much social constructs as they are products of (biological) evolution. A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book about colour (don’t remember the title or author I’m afraid) where I learnt that the ancient (per-classical I think) Greeks did not recognise the same colours as we do, for example they could not distinguish blue from black: they would describe the sky as “black” where we would describe it as blue. It’s not that their eyes or brains were biologically different from ours, simply their culture hadn’t yet identified “seeing blue” and “seeing black” as separate experiences. So if the ability to be conscious of an evolutionary illusion brings up the problem of consciousness, then consciousness also appears to be a distinctly social phenomenon.

As an aside, understanding this may be helpful for the purposes of understanding points of view that differ from our own. In a very real sense we do all live in our own worlds, in worlds of our own making - and of our surrounding culture’s making. For example, trying to convince someone with an active prayer life that the God to whom they pray is a figment of their imagination may really feel to them like telling them that the colour “red” doesn’t exist. I never had that kind of certainty myself, but doubtless that was because by the time I was growing up England was already a rather secular place.

Once again, keeping a rather light hold over our existing semantic categories - and the theories we have built on top of them - would seem to be a sensible strategy.

CORRECTION: Hydrogen does not possess a smell and is odourless. However, my experiences with this gas and specifically applied for use in Hydrogenators did indeed produce a sweet smell like pear drops, it was one of the first danger signs we learned to indicate leaks on manifolds. However, after some checking, this smell may be due to the link with fatty acids producing enzymes/vapours in the air.


“That said, I am still inclined to think that the way the word “qualia” is currently defined pretty well precludes it as referring to something that we will ever be able to detect.”

I agree with this, which was my point regarding attempting to differentiate between memories, (real & physical manifestations from neurons firing), and the delusions our “Self-consciousness” creates and reflects upon to convince us of this “notion” of “what it is like..” which supports the paradox?

In other words, does/must qualia include “mind” manifested representations from “memory”? What is the inherent “quality” and reliability of these memories? And yet still, all of this points directly back to physicalism, (for mechanism of memory), as well as qualia/sensation which is experienced directly from sensory input, (electromagnetism)?

So as yet we are no closer to an answer as to whether Qualia is real or valid, or whether we can really qualify this at all, aside from example of just more imagery/symbolism from memory. Yet the discussion is important and interesting, and kind of like circling the event horizon of the mind/body problem, the importance of the duality of this is highlighted once again.

However, the motive to seek to find the answer to this “Hard problem” is essential, as uploading would be a total failure without the “realisation” and artificial duplication of sensations/qualia, else we would be simply creating/transferring minds as P-Zombies, like Mary?

As I have hinted before, I am sure that once the problem of re-creating sensations for substrate independent minds has been overcome, then there is possibility for individuals/separate minds to share “memories” of experiences, so even for a mind that has never witnessed “Red”, they can draw from others or from default memories/qualities, (physicalism), to both experience but most importantly “understand” and comprehend in communication with others, rather than be totally isolated and “locked-in”?

Everyone seems to have also missed the point regarding “Self-awareness” and the possibility for the emergent nature of “consciousness”. And for sure consciousness, (awareness), would seem to be the necessary precursor to any Self-consciousness, (awareness of awareness). Yet this also depends on how we define the term “consciousness”?

Does consciousness include these reflections/sensations of mental states now termed “Qualia” as a comprehensive description of our entire consciousness, or can we separate the two, in which case I will again propose that ALL entities, subatomic and upwards “present” this attribute of “awareness” as natural and of Universal nature, thus this is not a hard problem, but a given.

By reduction, does this fundamental and Universal “awareness” describe physicalism alone.. ah well, does energy describe physicalism alone? Moreover, is interaction between particle entities a description of inherent natural characteristics and will to action, (electromagnetism), that gives the illusion of awareness? Well.. to answer this we need to decide whether an electron is and will forever remain an electron, which means there must be a finite number, and also a finite number of indivisible entities that describe nature, which rules out monism and describes material dualism?

In the end whether multiple realizability is real in nature or not, we should be able to artificially create substrate independent minds/AGI that will possess a very real and practicable method of experiencing, understanding/comprehension, and communication between entities?

What price are YOU willing to pay for longevity as uploaded “mind”, would you be willing to forsake the “quality” of sensations of your past memories, or does this miss the point of uploading entirely?

If mind uploading was able to recreate the relevant neural correlates (obviously a huge “if”) then I would expect to experience the “quality” of sensations of my past memories as surely as if I continued living in my physical body. And (applying second mover advantage) I would look for evidence of this in the reported experiences of already-uploaded minds.

My working assumption is that if it walks and talks like a duck, it is a duck, and that’s the assumption I would be applying then. (I just wouldn’t be able to prove it.)

Might respond in more detail later.

A thought experiment: suppose both your mind AND body could be replicated (rather than uploaded) so that after the procedure both the original and the copy woke up, lying in separate beds in a hospital room, both with the same memories of life before the procedure, and with no way of knowing which was the original and which was the copy. What would the two of you say to each other?

@Peter, I would say “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” and “your, your-own person now - go out there and be ethical, moral, and remember what “I” am all about.”

There would need to be some kind of symmetry-breaking event, as with identical twins in the womb. Otherwise, both of you would deliver (or at least start to deliver) the same statement at the exact same time, which would be awkward, kind of like a transatlantic phone call with time-lag when you keep both speaking at the same time.

My point is: something would break the symmetry (perhaps the one nearer the window wakes up first) and gradually you would evolve into two distinct persons, but it wouldn’t be determined by any fundamental difference at the outset. The copy would be as likely to give the original a pep talk about what to do and what not to do as vice versa.

Of course, one important aspect of our identity is our legal identity, and as with a nation state or company that fissions, there would need to be some way of determining which one of you took over your previous identity, with concomitant rights, obligations, assets and liabilities, including perhaps a criminal record, while the other one would be a new person. Or perhaps society will set some ground rules defining certain requirements: assets and (civil) liabilities have to be shared equitably between you perhaps, qualifications but also criminal liabilities apply to both of you.

My wider point is this: these issues of identity are ultimately practical ones, matters of perception and choice. Relevance to qualia? Again, it depends to some extent on exactly how you are defining qualia, which remains somewhat opaque to me, but to the extent that the existence of individual personal identity, remaining intact and continuous as the “person” (organism?) evolves through time, is central to it, I think this needs to be taken into account.

Our semantic choices need to reflect and respect reality, but above all they need to be practically useful.

Hi Peter,
Very good article and conversation.  I like much of what you have to say about “detecting qualia”.  I gave a talk at an MTA conference on just that: “Detecting Qualia”: .  I would love to know everyone’s thoughts on this.  Would you agree that this is the right way to go about “detecting qualia”?
I may miss it if you respond here, so please e-mail me: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) .


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