Consciousness and experience

by Neil Rickert

One of the questions that people raise about consciousness, is that of how it is possible to have experience.  By experience, here, I mean things like pain, color, smell, etc.  These are often discussed as qualia.  I don’t find qualia talk to be useful, and perhaps I’ll say why in a future post.  But there is still the question of why we experience something, rather than nothing at all.  And that’s my topic for this post.

Can a material object have experience?

It would seem strange to say that a chair or a table can have experience.  If you think of people as material objects, then you have to wonder how they could have experience.

Personally, I do not think of people as material objects.  Rather, I think of them as processes.  I’m not made of atoms, because the atoms come and go, while I stay who I am.  To me, the question of experience is to be looked at in terms of processes rather than material objects.

Before we look at processes, I should mention panpsychism.  That’s the view that everything has a little bit of psychology and a little bit of consciousness.  So a panpsychist might believe that atoms have some sort of experience.

I’m ambivalent on panpsychism.  I cannot rule it out.  But I don’t see that it helps.  I suppose the idea would be that human consciousness is somehow built out of the consciousnesses of all of the little parts.  But that would seem to imply that when I breath out, and some molecules leave, a little bit of my consciousness goes with them.  And when I breath in, I import a little bit of replacement consciousness.  It’s hard to see how we could understand human consciousness in that way.


Take a river such as the Mississippi.  All of the water will eventually flow out to sea, while new water from rain and snow melt will replace it.  Even though all of the atoms of water have been replaced we will still consider it to be the same river.  And if we removed all of the sand from the river banks and replaced it with different sand, we would still consider it the same river.

Clearly what make it the Mississippi river, is not those atoms that can be replaced.  It is the flow of water.  And that’s a process.

Processes are sometimes defined as molecules in motion.

Without the motions, the flow of water, you would have a lake or a pool, rather than a river.  So the motions seem to be an important part of what constitutes the process.  In the case of a river, the molecules might be less important.  You cannot have molecular motion without molecules.  But we can replace all of the molecules with different molecules, and still consider it the same process.

Primitive experience

Imagine a small eddy in a river.  I place a canoe paddle in the water to change the flows.  And the eddy changes as a result.

The eddy, as process, consists of molecules in motion.  And I have changed the motions.  Changing the motions constitutes a change in the being of that eddy.  So I want to call that a “primitive experience.”

To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is anything conscious about that primitive experience.   But if we want to discuss “experience” then we have to start somewhere.  And I am starting before consciousness is likely.

Looked at this way, perhaps we should say that a chair has primitive experience if it sags under my weight when I sit on it.  But it would not be the chair a material object that has this primitive experience.  Rather, it would be the process involving forces that are active as the chair sags.  So “primitive experience” is something that I ascribe to some processes, but not to material objects.

Awareness of experience

Suppose now that we have a homeostatic processes.  Homeostasis refers to the idea of processes regulating themselves in order to achieve some sort of stability.  It is most commonly used in reference to biological processes.

A homeostatic process is monitoring itself.  This monitoring is sometimes described in terms of feedback loops.  And when that monitoring detects a change in the process, it makes changes elsewhere that seem to keep the process from varying too far from its stable state.

Here we have primitive experience — changes in the process.  But we have what might be called a reactive awareness of those changes.  The homeostatic process reacts to the changes that it is monitoring, in order to stay close to the stable state.

I’m inclined to say that this still falls short of what we mean by “conscious experience”.  But, with reactive awareness, we are getting closer.

Conscious experience

What is missing with reactive awareness, is something like thinking.  Once a process has the added ability to think about its own activity and about its reactions to change, then I see that as the beginnings of conscious experience.

As to what we mean by “thinking” — I’ll plan to discuss that in a future post.


13 Comments to “Consciousness and experience”

  1. So you think there is pre-reflective and reflective consciousness?


  2. The chair is there because of consciousness. The atoms come into play because of the observer. If there is no conscious observer there is no chair. There is no universe without the present ability to be aware of it. But, on the other hand, if a chair is in the room during a double slit experiment, it does not affect the outcome of duality. But a living thing may count as an observer,so I would be curious if they were to use a tree, a plant, or a dog in the observation to see if particles appear or remain in wave forms.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Careful, you are sounding like Bishop Berkeley.
      But I think you are striking at the heart of the confusion. If our knowledge is the reliable breakdown of our experience, then we should expect that it is inseparable from the terms of consciousness.
      Yet we are constantly surprised by the situation.

      Liked by 3 people

    • The chair is there because of consciousness.

      I don’t agree with that. As keithnoback says, that’s too close to Berkeley’s idealism.

      However, I partially agree. The world does not contain objects. Rather, we treat parts of the world as if they were object. In that sense, our consciousness is involved in their being a chair. Perhaps that’s what you mostly meant.

      My earlier posts on “carving up the world” are related. That is how we decide to treat some part of the world as if it were an object.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree with most of what you say. But a couple quibbles/thoughts:

    (1) “Material Objects” like tables are themselves processes too. Maybe you want to distinguish between the processes that are more object-like, and those that are less so, but at root it’s all dynamical relations.

    (2) Your objection to panpsychism is on the right track, but the important point is not that you’d gain and lose bits of consciousness as molecules come and go, but that there’s no sensible mechanism of aggregation that would make the consciousness of molecules relate to my conscious experience. Panpsychism doesn’t help solve the problem that is supposed to motivate it — and it’s independently quite absurd.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Material Objects” like tables are themselves processes too.

      Yes, I agree. Everything is a process.

      Atoms are processes. And, arguably, stable atoms are homeostatic processes. That’s why I cannot rule out panpsychism. On the other hand, I agree that panpsychism doesn’t explain what it is supposed to explain.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Guilo Tononi + David Chalmers + QUALIA RESEARCH INSTITUTE are my current favourites.


  5. Lol. It’s interesting to think about, but George proposed the chair wasn’t even there at all. It’s Neil’s fault for bringing up the damn chair anyway. Too much thinking going on and I’m guessing my processors need a break. I’ve been reading a lot of consciousness and physics and if one is not careful he can sound like an old debunked theory for sure.

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  6. The chair is surely there regardless of any observer. I’m concerned that folks can buy into the magical notion that it’s not.

    Not sure that “flow” alone is what makes the river. Other qualities are required: wetness, a geographic ravine of some sort, H2O atoms in said ravine, a certain size and appearance, etc.
    Flow alone suggests the ancient, early Greek notions of motion defining or underlying the root of reality, which has merit for sure. All material is subatomic motion at the quantum level. This seems incapable in generating self-reflective consciousness. Consciousness cannot be understood by any naturalistic explanation; not even remotely based on my reading to date.

    I agree that panpyschism is absurd.

    I love this sentence: “I’m not made of atoms, because the atoms come and go, while I stay who I am. ” What makes us who (not just what) we are? Do we all agree that we have an ongoing unique identity even though all of our atoms might be different at later stages of life? Isn’t this what we call our ‘soul’? I do not think that the ‘soul’ is a useless or imaginary idea as some do.

    Thought provoking post. Looking forward to the next one…..


    • Do we all agree that we have an ongoing unique identity even though all of our atoms might be different at later stages of life?

      I don’t think our notion of “identity” works very well. It works better in a logical world than it does in the real world. That’s why identical twins can present a puzzle. That’s why you could have a Star Trek plot where the transporter goes wrong and there are two Captain Kirks.


  7. We have an ongoing, unique identity just in case our atoms are different from moment to moment. Only, that backwards. Or is it upside down?
    Anyway, identity is a nice idea: It squishes 4 dimensions down to 3, and you can get ahold of 3 much easier than 4.


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