‘It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.’ Oscar Wilde

I had not realised until by chance I came across the quotation above that Oscar Wilde had made any comment about the philosophy of mind. (Unfortunately, the context of the quotation I have not been able to find.)

He is surely right in saying that redness does not reside in the poppy  nor odour in the apple nor sound in the skylark. The poppy absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects others, the apple emits molecules which find their way into the human nose and the skylark’s throat sends waves through the surrounding air. There is no colour or smell or sound ‘out there’, only physical objects reacting to their environments.

But I don’t think that Oscar Wilde goes far enough in his challenge to common sense. For, surely, it is not correct to say that colour, smell and sound are in the brain. The brain is a material construct containing many billions of cells, each one a highly complex physical mechanism with mass, dimensions, location and it exists in the public domain, quite distinct from the private, subjective, phenomenal feel of a sense experience.

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Earlier this year I posted several pieces about purposeful behaviour in the animal world (‘Animal Architecture’, 24th January, ‘Animal Architecture 2’, 25th January, ‘Animal Architecture 3’, 10th February, ‘Animal Architecture 4’, 27th February).

Nest building in the behaviour of birds is a most persuasive instance of an animal activity which pursues a goal. In this category a very striking instance is the very complex behaviour of the weaver bird (‘Animal Architecture 2’). Furthermore, perhaps even more convincing is the activity of the piping plover which appears to involve a ‘deliberate’ intention to deceive another animal (‘Animal Architecture 4’).

I raise these cases in a spirit of enquiry. How does it come about in a cause-and-effect universe in which, according to our best understanding, every physical event that occurs has a physical cause, how in the midst of this closed system does there arise a set of events that we cannot escape from regarding as goal-seeking or purposeful?

Human beings, like nest building and cunning birds, are engaged in goal-seeking and purposeful behaviour. Human beings, as much as animals, are structures whose every cell and atom is derived from the physical stuff of the universe. Their bodies, their behaviour and activities, like those of their animal counterparts, operate under the power of natural forces and laws.

A distinctive property of humans (and, perhaps, some animals) is that there is in them an awareness of the purpose that is being sought in their behaviour. A bird builds a nest, I am assuming, without a conscious plan, a mental image of the intended result. A human builds a house fully aware of what he or she is about and why.

At some point in the history of the universe a new type of experience started to occur, consciousness of purpose.

How? Why?


On the mountain
streams and rainfall fill the tarn
and after swirls and ripples,
water settles, finds its level.
But it has no understanding why.

Pine trees flex within the bark,
Sap fed twigs and branches
spread, stretch, thicken
reaching for light.
But they have no understanding why.

A heron high on lollop wings
with sticks and grasses
for treetop nest
greets his mate with ritual nods.
But he has no understanding why.

A man, like them an outcrop of the planet,
rakes soil, draws a drill,
holds seeds in the hollow of his hand,
sows them one by one.
At last understanding.


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(An article in Brainpickings, 28th May 2017)

The quotation at the head of this article took me by surprise:

‘Without consciousness there is nothing … Consciousness is the central fact of your life.’

Please note that these are the words of a scientist, a neuroscientist, not a philosopher. They reminded me of the comments of the great physicist, Max Planck, in an interview he gave to the Observer in 1931:

‘I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing postulates consciousness.’

Consequently, I read the article with great interest. Christof Koch has written a book,  Consciousness, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. A ‘romantic reductionist’? An odd juxtaposition. What does the phrase mean? Apparently, Koch is a reductionist in that he works as a hard-headed scientist, looking for a ‘quantitative explanation for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with tens of thousands of synapses’. But he is also a romantic because ‘the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us’. I am less sure what he means by ‘romantic’, a rather loose term in any context and not explained well above (contrails?). Is he saying that he is both a strict scientist and at the same time aware of dimensions of existence that, though they do not conflict with science, are in some sense ‘over and above’ science? I am not sure.

Koch is quite clear about the centrality of consciousness to our lives:

‘… we only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness.’

Koch sees consciousness as a challenge to science but one that, at least in part, is open to scientific enquiry. He is particularly interested in qualia, the immediate and basic conscious experiences, for example, colours, smells, bursts of understanding or feeling. To Koch they are not supernatural but ‘inherent properties of the natural world’ but outside the range of laws as they are known today.

He approaches consciousness from four angles, in terms of: a common-sense definition as wakeful awareness, the behaviours that accompany consciousness, brain activity and a philosophical definition as what-it-is-like-to-be a conscious being.

And he explores some of the puzzles of consciousness from the mystery of its very existence to its location and its separateness but apparent dependence on physicality. His conclusion is to regard consciousness as ‘a fundamental, an elementary property of living matter’, as ‘immanent’ and ‘a property of complex entities’. Beyond this understanding cannot reach. This is the terminus of reductionism.

This book shows again how the intractable problem of consciousness continues to puzzle and intrigue the curious mind.

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‘Why be conscious?’ Comments

(‘Why be conscious? ‘ by Bob Holmes, New Scientist, 13th May, 2017)

The previous blog post (27th May, 2017) was a summary of this article


  1. I see the point of the question that the researchers mentioned in the article are trying to answer. Once there was no consciousness in the universe. Now there is consciousness in abundance. It is a historical enquiry in a sense, an attempt to identify a point in time when consciousness first manifested. But the difficulty of the problem is shown in the fact that there are several different viewpoints (five in the article) about what behaviours are evidence of the presence of consciousness.
  2. I don’t see how the question of which behaviours correlate with consciousness can be resolved. Of course, we assume in our everyday lives that there is such a correlation, that a burst of laughter signifies the inner understanding of a joke and so on, but scientific analysis is rightly constrained by the fact that it can only admit as evidence information about the physical world. The problem with consciousness is that it does not show up on any instrument; it doesn’t turn litmus paper a different colour or make mercury expand. How could it? It’s not made of material substance. So scientific analysis is stuck with a second hand (second rate?) recording of evidence which is supposed — no one is quite sure how — to tally with conscious states.
  3. I note an assumption in this and in other articles on similar subject matter, an assumption that consciousness has an evolutionary explanation, namely, that it arose and survives because it confers an advantage by virtue of what it does. But in the philosophy of mind there is an on-going debate about whether or not consciousness has any causal power at all. If it doesn’t, then this really muddies the water. Or, on the other hand, does it make everything clearer?

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‘Why be conscious?’ a New Scientist article

‘Why be conscious’
by Bob Holmes New Scientist, 13th May 2017
A review

‘Consciousness doesn’t leave any fossil record.’ Anil Seth, University of Sussex

The only conscious states I have direct knowledge of are my own. I know what it is like to feel warmth, hear sounds, see shapes and colours, be tired, have thoughts, memories and imaginings and so on. I take for granted, rightly or wrongly, that other people are conscious in much the same way that I am. But their conscious states I come to know not from direct acquaintance with them but by inference. Inference, for example, from their behaviour. I see someone wince or smile or redden in the face or look distracted and I assume that in their minds is pain or amusement or anger or a daydream. But, in addition, other people and I share a facility for language and we talk to one another about inner responses, our private experience. We can name and describe our conscious states.

But what of animals? They cannot speak in our language and inform us about how they feel but they can wag a tail or whimper, purr, whinny, flinch, snarl and bare fangs. From behaviours such as these should I or should I not infer the presence of conscious states?

For many of the fourteen or so billion year that the universe has been in existence, it was devoid of animals. We assume, rightly or wrongly, that stars, planets, rocks, water and all the elements in isolation or in inorganic compounds were not conscious entities. It follows that at some point in time between the origin of the universe and the present moment, consciousness made its first appearance. How and why is a question of great significance but not the one raised in this article. Bob Holmes, the author of the New Scientist article, is seeking instead to find out in which animals that first appearance occurred.

One problem that he must confront is the fact that, although it makes sense to believe that there is some sort of correlation between conscious states and brain states, it has not been possible to trace consciousness to particular sets of neurons. We cannot point to a part of the brain and say that is where consciousness resides.

In the article Holmes reviews recent attempts in biological research to pin down consciousness to certain behaviours in the hope that it might one day be possible to say such-and-such animal is not conscious whereas so-and-so animal is conscious.  Here are some of the points he makes:

  1. Self-recognition in mirrors and the way, for example, that ‘scrub jays will sneak back and re-cache food if another bird watched them hide it the first time’ is evidence of consciousness.
  2. Basic awareness of what if favourable or hostile in the environment implies consciousness in movements towards what is beneficial and away from what is harmful. (Holmes calls this ‘hedonic valuation’). Mammals, birds and reptiles show ‘signs of emotional response such as an increased heart-rate and elevated body temperature when handled’ whereas fish and amphibians do not show these responses.
  3. Another marker of consciousness that other researchers draw attention to is ‘subjective experience’ shown in an ability to switch and focus attention. According to one researcher (Bruno van Swinderen, University of Queensland) this is found in fruit flies. He commented, ‘The small fly brain really has a capacity for attention. That is to me the dawn of consciousness’
  4. The need to sleep is considered by others as an indicator of consciousness.
  5. And a different line again is taken by another researcher (Eva Jablonka at Tel Aviv University). The key for her is what she calls ‘unlimited associative learning’ by which she means the ability to connect different sources of information to trigger behaviour and, she adds, the ability to distinguish between the self and its environment. She traces the arising of consciousness to the Cambrian explosion about 540 million years ago when many animal groups first emerged.

I will make some comments on this article in the next blog post.

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Radio Review: ‘Altered States of Consciousness’

BBC Radio 4, 11.00 am 3rd March 2017

‘Altered States of Consciousness’ was the title of a recent radio investigation presented by Jolyon Jenkins. First the background. In the 1950s and 60s people experimented with LSD and other psychedelic drugs in order to experience altered states of consciousness. LSD was made illegal fifty years ago. Jenkins set out to explore methods now being used which purported to offer a similar sort of heightened experience but without venturing outside the law. The point was made that in other civilisations — I think he meant ancient Greece and pre-conquest America — mind altering drugs were part of the culture. In the modern western world the only legal drugs that induced any state that could be called ‘altered’ (and only in the most tenuous sense, surely, in the case of three out of the four) were alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. By the way, I learnt from the program that there is a name for those who seek to travel into unfamiliar mental states: psychonauts.

Here are some of the methods he explored and his comments on his own experiences:

  • FLOTATION TANK: Jenkins went to the Oasis Float Centre in Totnes, Devon. The tank contained Epsom salts in water at body temperature that allowed the person to float. He was told that after a certain time in the flotation tank the brain might enter into the same condition as that of monks who had been practising meditation for twenty years. (A short cut to bliss? asked Jenkins.) He found the experience relaxing but nothing more; certainly he had no experience that could be called, in this context, ‘altered’.
  • LUCIA LIGHT: A specially designed machine emitted flickering light at different frequencies into the eyes. There had been reports from some who had used this machine of unusual experiences, stress relief, enhanced creativity, inner peace and even astral travel. Jenkins reported that for him it was like looking at a kaleidoscope but again he had nothing that resembled an ‘altered state’.
  • ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS INDUCTION DEVICE: This device had been invented by Jean Houston, once a researcher into LSD and more recently an advisor to Hillary Clinton, in conjunction with Hoyt Edge, a philosophy professor and parapsychology researcher. The device was a sort of canvas stretcher on which you were swung back and forth and round and round. Again there were claims that it might induce visionary states, fairy tale narratives, even ‘visits to other worlds’. Jenkins made his own version of this device and tried it out on willing volunteers. There were reports of unexpected experiences, such as a feeling like that of being under water, but again not what might be classed as ‘altered’. Jean Houston wondered if the failure of this device, which she remembered being successful in the 1960s, was attributable to the contrast between that earlier decade when expectations were high and our present more sceptical age.
  • HOLOTROPIC BREATHWORK: Jenkins visited a farmhouse in Buckinghamshire. The technique centred on breathing. The experimenter took very deep breaths for up to three hours to the background of rhythmic music and in the company of a facilitator. Some people had reported having psychedelic experiences. Jenkins tried it. He described a tingling effect on his skin, a twitching, shaking, a sense of floating and some visual hallucinations. It was an experience he did not want to repeat and he put it down to the stress his body had been put into.

A couple of comments:

  • I was struck by the phrase ‘short cut to bliss’. I am by nature wary of short cuts, whether it is paths that seem likely to save a long round trip, quick and easy ways of making money or the latest trouble-free way to lose weight. The notion of a short cut to enlightenment sounds unconvincing to me. But maybe I am just too suspicious.
  • Jenkins reported that one interviewee had mentioned that he had given up one of the practices (the induction device, I think) because he found that people, even though they had experienced altered states of consciousness, had forgotten about them some weeks later. His point was that a genuine mystical experience ought to have some lasting effect on the person. I agree. Otherwise such experiences are not much more than diversions, amusements.

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Some additional points:

The question to which I keep returning is this.  On this planet, at least, when the biosphere is considered, there is evidence in abundance that the collections of atoms and molecules we call plants, animals and humans act in pursuit of goals. The particular example I found useful (in ‘Animal Architecture 1, 2 and 3’) was nest building. Here a complex set of activities is completed in a particular order with the result that a useful structure is built. But I could have selected from a countless number of goal-oriented tasks in the biological world.

And my question, a little naïve you might think, is how it came about that purposeful, goal-seeking behaviour occurred and multiplied in a universe of cause and effect mechanics.

I am being careful to draw a line between goal-oriented behaviour and behaviour with conscious intention. In the human domain goal oriented activity is accompanied by awareness of a goal and an intention to achieve it. I am not suggesting that this is the case when, for example, a spider spins a web. I think it unlikely that there is an image of a completed web in the mind of the spider as it sets about its work. A human, in the other hand, might have an image of a castle form when building with sand on a beach. Whether or not some animals share this ability to conceive goals in advance I leave to the enquiries of experts in animal studies.

I came across a relevant point recently in a review by Oliver Moody of From Bacteria to Bach and Back, the Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett in the Times, 25th February 2017. (A double coincidence since Daniel Dennett was mentioned in my most recent post, ‘What is Consciousness, A YouTube video’, 23rd February 2017). According to the reviewer Dennett makes the point that animals ‘carry out sophisticated tasks without understanding what they are doing — “reasons without reason” ’. Dennett’s example summarised in the review is more striking than mine concerning nest building.
‘The piping plover will draw predators away from her nest by feigning the dipping
flight of a bird with a broken wing so that her pursuer will think she is an easy target.
She is almost certainly not aware of her own deceit; it’s probably a reflex.’
Consider for a moment that this bird behaves in such a way as to deceive another animal and all without any understanding of why she is behaving in this way.

It seems that there are at least three distinguishable categories:
a) inanimate objects not goal oriented: stars, planets, rocks, minerals, liquids, gases
b) living beings unaware of the goals they pursue (plants and animals)
c) living beings aware of the goals they pursue (humans)



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