Qualia as information processing, and philosophical thought experiments

My good friend Mike Smith recently published two posts that I consider largely meant to counter some of my own positions. The first comes from his belief that qualia exist as processed information alone, and the second questions the validity of philosophical thought experiments. I consider the premise of qualia as the generic processing of information to require supernatural dynamics, and reasonably displayed through the “thumb pain” thought experiment that I’ve often mentioned at his site and elsewhere. I’ve decided to address these matters with this dedicated post, given how involved my response happens to be.

When we’re trying to decide if something should be believed (and I mean anything), I consider us to carry out that premise in other ways so that its implications can be explored more fully. For example, from the premise that there is a gravitational attraction regarding mass, it stands to reason that we should observe a given metal ball’s attraction to the earth to be similar at various locations around our planet. Or if the person that you’re married to is covertly having an affair with someone, then there should be evidence of that infidelity which might clue you in. And whatever people believe in a metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological sense, there should be ways to carry such ideas further to help clarify their meaning, whether directly testable or not.

My second principle of epistemology states that there is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. Here the agent takes what it thinks it knows (or evidence), and use this to assess what it’s not so sure about (or a model). As a given model continues to remain consistent with evidence, it tends to become more believed. Thus my assertion that philosophers must also be permitted to use humanity’s exclusive tool from which to figure things out.

The essential problem highlighted by the thought experiments flagged by James Wilson, I think, is not that thought experiments are referenced, but rather that the discipline of axiology resides under the social tool of morality.

For example, Peter Singer is correct to observe that I’d destroy something like my expensive Italian shoes to save a child who is drowning in front of me. It’s from this premise that he says that I should spend similar sums of money to help save the lives of even more children. He’s wrong about that however — they’re not causing me nearly as much unhappiness as a child drowning in front of me would.

This is where I get blamed for being an jerk, or I essentially get penalized through the social tool of moral persuasion. Apparently because few psychologists permit themselves to explore their field amorally (which is how all hard sciences are explored), there is a refusal to support the idea that feeling good constitutes the value of existing. It’s an obscure thesis sometimes referred to as “psychological egoism”.

So my point is that modern ethical reasoning does not fail because it’s provided with thought experiments, but rather because the social tool of morality rarely permits philosophers (and people in general) to think about these matters effectively. Until a respected community of professionals is able to agree upon something like my single principle of axiology (or that it’s possible for a machine which is not conscious to produce a value dynamic from which to drive the function of a machine which is conscious), the basic behavioral science of psychology should fail to provide a broad general theory from which to found our soft sciences.

If there is reason to believe that ethical thought experiments fail because of an existing social tool rather than because there’s anything wrong with extending a premise further in such matters, then my “thumb pain” thought experiment remains to be reckoned with. In this effort let’s consider how I responded to Mike’s first post on the matter:

Philosopher Eric May 28, 2020 at 5:33 am

It seems to me that as the term is commonly used, “information” can both be provided to a conscious entity, as well as animate the function of a given non-conscious machine. I’ll quickly display each, as well as suggest that the two shouldn’t be conflated.

If I feel a strong pain associated with the need to urinate, this will tend to “inform” me about the circumstance. Though I wouldn’t quite say that pain “exists as” information (given the conflation issue that I’m about to address), I certainly do say that I’m informed by pain.

Beyond information provided to the conscious entity, or the term’s traditional form, today it’s commonly also used in reference to non-conscious machines. A television picture may be animated by means of television signals, for example, and we’ve come to refer to such signals themselves as “information”. Note that typing provides information to your computer, and it may process that information to then provide a different set of information which helps animate a computer screen.

Regarding the conflation of the two, given that we’ve come to refer to stuff which animates our machines to exist as “information itself”, and that things like pain will inform the conscious entity in a traditional sense, it’s understandable that some today have decided that qualia probably exist as information beyond any specific mechanism — only the pattern matters here.

Beyond conflating the conscious and non-conscious forms of the word, consider a lesson that exists even from the non-conscious variety. I don’t know of anything produced by our machines which is said to exist as information alone. In all cases that I know of, specific mechanisms must be animated in order for information to help produce any output function.

Apparently some prominent scientists and philosophers have become heavily invested in qualia existing without mechanism based instantiation, however. (I’d forgotten that professor Schwitzgebel referred to information as “causality itself”, which seems like a tautological mess.) If the thus “non problem” of qualia is explained away by dismissing any need for specific mechanical instantiation, note that this frees theorists in all sorts of otherwise sci-fi ways. Few seem to have acknowledge there to be a naturalistic downside to this convention however. Wouldn’t this mean that the right set of information laden paper which is converted into another, should create what we experience when our thumbs get whacked? Strange! So it could be that causal dynamics “of this world” instead depend upon information animating the right kinds of mechanisms.

Should humanity ever grasp why any of the four forces exist? Even if further progress does happen to be made, such speculation should always end in “…because”. The naturalist however will presume that they’re mechanism based, like all else. And what mechanism might the processed information associated with brain information be animating to produce qualia? My money is on certain electromagnetic radiation produced by neurons. (And it could be that some of the popular “information only” qualia theories in neuroscience would survive such a paradigm shift anyway. Some may effectively describe what it takes to animate such mechanisms.)

Next consider Mike’s response:

SelfAwarePatterns May 28, 2020 at 9:24 am

P Eric,

So, on the two types of information, let’s give each of them a name. The more primal one, the one I equate with causation, represents information in the sense typically used by physicists, so let’s call it physical information, or p-info. The more restricted version involving usage by conscious minds, let’s call that conscious information, or c-info.

So, the question is, why do we use “information” to refer to both of these? I think the answer is that when we discover p-info and learn about its role, it becomes c-info. We refer to DNA as information because we recognize its role in transmission of the recipe for replicating biological organisms. But before we discovered it, it operated for billions of years as p-info. Once we discovered it, it also became c-info.

All c-info is also p-info. (If you can identify cases where this isn’t true, I’m very interested.) As far as I can tell, all p-info has the potential to be c-info, at least in principle, though there may be cases where it will never be practical.

So, while we can talk about these as different types of information, the use of the word “information” for both strikes me as both rational and coherent.

On the qualia argument, aren’t you the one always arguing that we should accept the other person’s definitions? If so, what objection remains for qualia being p-info, or at least processing of p-info? Wouldn’t any mechanism inevitably involve p-info? And once we understand those mechanisms, wouldn’t they become c-info? If not, why not?

I think the argument for electromagnetic fields playing a major role is weak, but even if they did, it seems it would be just another information processing mechanism.

To finally respond, no I can’t think of a single situation where c-info becomes p-info. For example, my understanding that electromagnetic radiation is able to animate a television, should not be equated with the electromagnetic radiation which actually does this. (There’s an irony here since I do suspect that understandings exist through the medium of electromagnetic radiation, though surely not the same kind that can animate one of our televisions!) So as I see it, separate ideas have been conflated, thus resulting in a supernatural idea regarding the creation of qualia. If qualia does exist this way, then what would be a second example of something which exists by means of information independent of any specific mechanisms?

The point of my thought experiment is to display that in order for information to create something, such as a television picture or thumb pain, causal dynamics mandate that associated mechanisms will need to be animated. Certain prominent scientists and philosophers seem to have unwittingly removed any causal instantiation mechanism for qualia, and thus presume there to be no associated “hard problem”. I consider this to be an unwitting use of a supernatural idea, to combat the one famously proposed by David Chalmers.

A simple solution does exist for those who would regress to the natural side of things, or to presume that qualia exist by means of associated mechanisms. This could be the electromagnetic radiation associated with neuron firing, or some other such medium. And note that bold proclamations for the status quo that qualia exist “as causation itself”, will concern a precarious tautology.

What I Stand For — Part One

I’ve developed several controversial positions during my 52 years of existence, and certainly over 6 years of blogging. But I’ve also neglected my own blog in favor of spicing up the blogs of others. I’ve found it too fun (and educational) to stay away from the blogs of others long enough to write content for my own. Apparently I haven’t yet felt enough motivation.


Recently however I met a quite intelligent and motivated young blogger who might help me out of this rut. We haven’t yet had many deep discussions, and I’ve only read a handful of his posts, though I’m certainly impressed!


In a post recently he asked if anyone would like to debate him to help provide content for his new YouTube channel.  Link   I thought about this and then offered to write a post regarding my central thesis that he could interview me about for his show. He’s accepted, and you’re now reading the post that I propose for us discuss.  (We’ve done the video and you’ll find it at the end of this post).
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What’s known as “philosophy” might be said to have formally existed for two and a half millennia in the western world. Furthermore what’s known as “science” might be said to have emerged from philosophy three or four centuries ago. While the substance of philosophy might be referred to as “academic” rather than “practical”, harder forms of science have provided understandings which have utterly transformed our species.


But what about softer varieties of science, or the fields which aim to help us better understand ourselves? These fields have remained relatively primitive, and I suspect largely because they’re naturally more vulnerable to the sorts of things which philosophers have been unable to straighten out.


Consider for example the hard science of physics. Diverging metaphysical positions do not seem to exist here, since without accepting the metaphysics of “natural causality”, such exploration makes very little sense. Furthermore note that the topic of value (or “axiology”) lies well beyond its scope, and so standard uncertainty here shouldn’t impact the field. The only significant impediment to physics given philosophical uncertainties, may be epistemological. This is to say that modern physics may be somewhat harmed given that philosophers have not yet formally agreed upon any structural guidelines from which to do science.


A far more serious situation however may exist for psychology. How might we effectively grasp the nature of something which “values”, and yet have no basic conceptual agreement regarding what’s valuable? Add to this clear epistemological failures in the field (given an ongoing reproducibility crisis), as well as metaphysical influences which aren’t always “natural”.


So in these regards the softness of this science should not be surprising. I propose one principle of metaphysics as well as two principles of epistemology from which to potentially improve science in a general sense, and certainly fields such as psychology. For this post however the focus will be on my single principle of axiology.


Observe that before life existed on our planet, nothing should have been “valuable” to anything. And would the emergence of life itself create valuable existence? For example, do trees value their existence? Though some may believe this, it’s clearly a fringe idea.


What about brains? Does such a machine in itself cause existence to be valuable? Instead I’d suggest that value exists by means of something which certain types of brains do. To be explicit, I believe that value exists given brain production of qualia, sentience, utility, valence, affect, pleasure/ pain, or whatever term is being used to represent what personally matters. This seems to be the stuff that provides life with purpose, also known as teleology.


Observe that if this does happen to be the case, then the value of existing may functionally be defined as nothing more than the existence of this specific stuff. How good/bad will my life be to me before I die? Add up my positive valence and subtract my negative valence over this period, and that should be a pretty good conceptual answer. How good/bad will my life be to someone else? That would depend upon how good/bad I cause them to feel. How good/bad is the existence of a given city over a certain period of time to that entity as a whole? Add up the positive valence and subtract the negative valence of each sentient constituent over that period. Conceptually this is an extremely simple idea.


The field of psychology has not yet reached this conclusion however, and I consider this to largely explain why it hasn’t yet developed any experimentally successful broad theory regarding our nature. (Conversely the “side science” of economics has developed reasonably successful general theory regarding our nature, though its theory is founded upon the just mentioned premise.)


One significant reason that the “central science” of psychology has not yet been able to take such a step, I think, is because of the social tool of morality. This is to say that social pressure exists for us to be perceived as people who do positive rather than negative things for others.  This lies in opposition to the idea that we’re all self interested products of our circumstances, as I propose.


To potentially help help take some of the pressure off psychologists who would otherwise be inclined to go this way, I believe that a respected group of philosophers will need to accept a version of my single principle of axiology. It states:

It’s possible for a machine which is not conscious (like a brain), to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic, or a type of stuff which constitutes all that’s valuable to anything, anywhere. Just as electricity powers the computers that we build, and neurons power the brains in our heads, this is the stuff which powers the conscious form of function by which existence is perceived.

Note that while it’s quite standard for people to consider what’s moral as a welfare proxy, my own perspective is quite different. I consider what’s moral to exist as what a given society tends to approve of, and so essentially exists as a mechanism of social influence. As for welfare itself, I consider this to exist as the positive to negative valences which are felt by a given sentient subject.  These are two very different ideas! Furthermore mixing them up should make it difficult for humanity to intelligently lead its various lives, as well as structure its various societies.


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4 – 21- 20 update

Liam and I had our discussion on Saturday and he’s just posted it.  I was obviously quite nervous!  Beyond a  few brain farts I guess it went okay.  It was certainly good practice, and  plan to be more composed in the future.



Blogging for Posterity

Though I’m an avid blogger, for the 5+ years that I’ve been at it I’ve also been content to simply leave my writings at the sites of others in the form of commentary. This shall continue, both because I love it and also because as a working family man I don’t currently have enough time for this as well as to produce and service worthy content at my own site. But lately I’ve been thinking that I should at least document what I do online right here. (There will be no documentation of my email discussions however, since I consider them private.)

One reason for such documentation is so that any interested person could see what I’m up to right now or in the past. You know, for friends and potential friends. Then another is for posterity. If my ideas do turn out to be as good as I think they are, then once this particular paradigm does shift, my own life might become a matter of public interest. Why not help out the historians? 🙂

The kicker for me has been an excellent series of videos produced by the Crash Course people. This one is entitled “The History of Science” and is hosted by Hank Green. (I consider him to be the best of the lot. Nicole Sweeney may be fun, though to me her normative “oughting” presents cases which are sometimes less than scientific.)

The recurrent point that got me thinking this way is that good ideas would commonly surface, and yet be ignored until someone had the resources to muscle them through. This makes perfect sense from my perspective — we’re all self interested products of our circumstances. Politics do matter! Sure the better ideas seem to rise to the top in the end, often leaving original visionaries to die in frustration.

The theme to my own possibly “better ideas”, is that science suffers today given that it does not yet have generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology (or “value”), from which to work. Given this void a loose “scientific method” has permitted certain sciences, such as physics, to become “hard”, while other sciences, such as psychology, seem quite unable to develop broad theories from which to explain observations of our nature.

For the past few years I’ve been proposing one principle of metaphysics, two principles of epistemology, and one principle of axiology, from which to potentially found the institution of science better. I believe that they’d help harden up our soft sciences, which is to say permit them to develop broad general theories which are finally effective. Regardless my position is that we’ll some day have a community of professionals with such accepted principles at their disposal, and thus these “philosophers” will become one with the institution of science.

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I’m through 12 of these Crash Course History of Science videos, though apparently there are 46 so they’ll be getting quite modern! Here’s the first one:

The Debate about Funding Basic Science

The comment below concerns the article here:


I find the issue of objectivity/subjectivity to be where some critical mistakes are commonly made, and have three points here: i). Issues must be assessed objectively. ii). Good/bad is naturally subjective. iii). The nature of ultimate good/bad does still require definition.

i). When a given idea of good/bad is being considered, such as “Should more public money be devoted to general science research?” maintaining an objective position can be difficult. This is presumably because we’re all naturally selfish, and thus tend to let our own personal interests taint such assessments. In this post Massimo Pigliucci seems to have done a good job of building an objective assessment, while Michael White quite clearly seems to have let his own interests taint his assessments. In fact this seems to be such a common problem that we often don’t even complain when we see such subjectivity, and perhap just ask to hear the other side as well. I do find this unfortunate however. As mother always said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!” Though it may be appropriate for a lawyer to represent his/her client in a biased manner, such subjectivity in science and philosophy shall simply bring failed assessments on each side.

ii). The tables then become turned regarding that which is good/bad itself, since this will always be subjective. This can be an even greater problem since it commonly isn’t formally understood (and yes even though Coel keeps mentioning, “Objective good does not exist!”). Nevertheless those who do formally understand good/bad to be subjective, do need to set this example and thus formally state exactly who’s good is to be promoted for any such question. (I suppose Massimo thought it clear that the subject here was “America,” though formal declarations can still be useful since other subjects may be substituted, and we also must not propagate the myth of “objective good.”)

iii). Then the final piece of the puzzle here happens to be “meta.” What exactly is ultimately good/bad for a given subject? It isn’t difficult to see why such discussions can become nauseating for those in the business, since this issue has exhaustively been explored for thousands of years without much consensus. Will we here do any better, or instead produce beaten down meta-ethics speculation? And if only the latter, perhaps we must then each just develop our own faiths from which to live by? I do, however, hope that youthful optimism can emerge once again!

The answer which I propose is “qualia.” I see this as a crucial engineering feature which permitted non-conscious minds (such as the computers we build) to evolve into conscious minds. Given this punishment/reward aspect to reality, good/bad for any given subject over a given period of time, will be the magnitude of its positive qualia minus the negative. So what is the best use of public funds regarding science research? Whatever brings the greatest amount of happiness for any given subject.