Explaining consciousness as a phenomenon

Abstract: Can we explain consciousness as a phenomenon today? The problem is already rooted in matter: why do unexpected properties arise from certain physical organizations? Important subsidiary remark: these properties only appear at something at least as complex. It is therefore impossible to reduce the points of view of the constitution and the emergence to each other. It is in this opposition that a fragment of consciousness is born, whose planes are surimposed as reality becomes more complex, first in the material levels of information, then virtual in the depth of neural networks. Each level of reality constructs its own bidirectional interaction, the one that constitutes and the one that experiences its constitution. The higher the complexity, the richer and deeper the experienced phenomenon.

Part 1: The epiphenomenon is critical

This article wants to solve one of the great mysteries resistant to the pure scientific approach: the phenomenon of consciousness. Neuroscience has established precise neural correlations but still does not know why the phenomenon itself appears. Why in the brain and not in other excited neural networks? Does the phenomenon exert a causality of its own or is it a simple epiphenomenon, that is to say that being conscious brings its own decision-making faculty or is it only witnessing the process of its neurons?

Philosophy refuses to make it an epiphenomenon for an elementary reason: it does not correspond to our direct experience, “in the first person”. This impression is a mixture of randomness and control. Thoughts come out of nowhere and then we control and direct them. Consciousness is not a passive phenomenon but a dirigiste one. On board “I” feels as a source of free will, rather than the result of an analysis already finalized.

The reduction to an epiphenomenon is all the more unacceptable since this state is only one of the possible among the multitude of conscious impressions. When attention is relaxed, the “empty” thought, “I” feels like the supernatant of a sensitive body, epi-sensational consciousness of an organism at rest. But the slightest external incident or unresolved internal problem brings back, like a galloping sea, an epi-critical consciousness that urgently summons all its mental functions.

A rainbow of qualia

The experience is not that of being a general of an army of neural corps with countless tentacles traversed by electrochemical sparks. The epiphenomenon could look like this. But no, the experience is that of an incredible range of abstractions and ineffable impressions that we translate with great difficulty into words and attitudes, knowing that the interlocutor will only be able to know the reality if she has a comparable cerebral complexity.

The very hard problem, then, that science has not yet hooked, is how do neurons traversed by ionic reactions become support for such an implausible phenomenon? A question so arduous that, discouraged, the eliminativists denigrate its reality. The scientific, structuralist explanation stops at information systems. Nothing in these systems indicates why the quality of the result differs in both neurons and other interacting cells. Something essential is missing.

Finding the right material

Doesn’t this defect already exist in the physical description of ordinary matter? The scientist does not know how to predict the qualities of a physical organization until she has observed them. She knows the properties of materials, the talents of the living, the abstractions of neurons, and connects them to their micromechanisms. But she cannot show the same assurance in the other direction, that is, from micromechanisms never observed and know their final properties. Why?

Properties only make sense for things of similar or greater complexity, capable of interacting with these new entities. The substance of a material, the attitude of a living being, or the thoughts of a brain, have meaning only for an evolved observer. They have none for their micromechanisms. A meaning appears, both in the material and mental realm, only if something comes to use of it. Matter observes its own constitution as neural groups observe the activity of those which precede them. A hierarchy of information is indispensable in structuralism if we only want to give meaning to the notions of quality, substance and property.

Why is the explanation difficult?

Explaining the phenomenon of consciousness is a task that is considered particularly difficult. When it comes to explaining things, the usual procedure is this:
1) Observation of regularities and properties of the thing.
2) Representation created spontaneously. This is the “phenomenon” as we experience it.
3) Search for the mechanism in the constitution of the thing.
4) Operating model designed and tested. If it reproduces the properties of the thing, it constitutes an explanation.
5) Adaptation of the initial representation. The combined observation of the explanation changes the way we experience the phenomenon.

Change is sometimes radical. Thunder, as a phenomenon experienced by our forefathers, was the wrath of the gods. Explained, it has become commonplace noise to which most of us are indifferent. It is necessary to know the figures of the explanation to be moved again: shock wave of the air heated by lightning to 30,000 ° C in less than a second. Impressive but not divine. No one worries anymore about looking for the origin of heavenly wrath in their recent actions. The phenomenon has come down from its pedestal.

Blocking on consciousness

The procedure described above stalls for consciousness. Observed, represented (we can communicate with a ‘conscious’ being), so far everything is fine. Analyzed (generated by the activity of neurons), soon reproduced (with artificial neural networks), but still not explained. It is therefore impossible to adapt our phenomenological impression to it. Some would simply like to delete it, calling it an illusion.

Ridiculous! We experience this phenomenon directly. Without intermediary. This is the most objective thing there is, the only one for which we do not need to launch neural circuits of translation, to make it a subject. It is ours. We are that thing.

Eliminating the problem is a desire, not a reasoning

The eliminativists are not convinced. They prefer to eliminate their experience and reduce themselves to their materialistic representations. Since neuroscience does not provide an explanation, consciousness would not really exist as a phenomenon. It doesn’t matter if these representations are questionable or incomplete, the history of science tells us. The eliminativismist prefers a self-image free of all unknowns.

Self-image is always a desire. This is a useful lesson. It obliges us to an epistemological investigation. How do we postulate the existence of invisible things, such as mind, organism, nature, evolution? These things are not directly observable. They do not belong to the elementary physical forces. Physicists can build the material universe without them. And yet we observe their effects.

Paradox between the ontological non-existence of these things (they are not constitutive of reality) and their teleological existence (their function is clear). Or in the language of the double look: an organism is invisible to the upward look, visible only to the downward look.

Exterior or interior? 

How can physical changes cause conscious changes, and moreover the conscious representation of something outside of us? This last point is easier, once the first one is solved. Representation is nothing more than mimetic information about the thing represented, regardless of its medium. Neurons can arrange it in a way that allows the thing to be manipulated as if the representation belonged to it in its own right. It continues to behave as expected by our inner scene. Our consciousness is ultimately only the observation of this scene. Groups of neurons observe their respective productions.

That the thing is classified as ‘external’ is an automatism based on the origin of the data. Those of the ‘I’ are the visceral afferents. The other senses provide information about the outside, a vast universe that they patiently discriminate. Universe so rich that sometimes bodily data hold only an insignificant place. Self-preservation ceases. Body health no longer matters. The modern human, in her universe virtualized to the extreme, is no more than an outside, and seeks in vain an inner core.

One of the looks is formalized, but the other?

The initial point remains: How do physical changes become conscious changes? It is not by observing only neurons that we can understand it. To remain monists, we must look for the explanation in our understanding of the physical world. What is it missing? A dimension so obvious that even more than time, we did not try to formalize it: the complex dimension. Big worksite that I tried to clear in Surimposium. Before giving you the keys, however, we must verticalize our thinking together. To do this, we will reinterpret the controversy between dualism and monism from the classics to contemporary neuroscientists.

Part 2: Everyone is right?

Descartes was right

This header is a sting for “Descartes’ Error”, a book in which Antonio Damasio criticizes the philosopher’s ’emotional body/rational mind’ dualism, and his choice to place origin in thought/soul rather than neural networks/body. Damasio is not wrong to put physical existence before thought, of course, but the thought in question is the most primitive. It will be many years before networks build adult thinking. Do not intermediate thoughts, which are searching themselves in sensory reality, have an influence in return on the organization of networks? The relationship is more bidirectional than it seems.

However, the controversy that deserves a rehabilitation for Descartes is the one that pitted him against Hobbes on the subjectivity of the mind, still alive today. For Hobbes, physiology and neural subjectivity are two sides of the same reality. For Descartes, the effects of the body being themselves corporeal, by virtue of what magic would they produce a subjectivity, a phenomenon of a completely different order? Hence Descartes’ certainty that it is the soul that experiences physiology in terms of sensations and thoughts.

Do not hesitate to reread the previous paragraph if necessary: both speeches seem perfectly justified. Why are they irreconcilable?

Hobbes’ mistake

The mistake is in Hobbes, who uses without realizing it the fusional concept of the soul. He is right about “two sides of the same reality” but summons incognito a single observer stating that it is “the same” reality. Where does the uniqueness of this observer in Hobbes’ “I” come from? From the fusion of concepts into a single conscious workspace, his own. But this space can be inhabited without difficulty by a multitude of different observers, depending on the paradigm that dominates. They can see alternative “sides”, which are no longer those of “the same” reality since this uniqueness of representation has disappeared. Hobbes’ discourse actually uses the philosophical homunculus, an ultimate and invisible decision-maker, to define the uniqueness of the point of view on reality that his consciousness experiences. But he is this consciousness, multifaceted, and not the hypothetical homunculus.

By denigrating the existence of the soul, Hobbes commits the hidden and fatal mistake of involving his own, or at least his conscious integrating space, which is the closest concept to it. Beware, I am not supporting the existence of a disembodied soul. On the contrary, it must be concluded that it is embodied. Descartes is right in postulating the existence of something that holds the role of soul, to experience. The question becomes simply, with contemporary progress: how can this role be embodied in neural functioning? And how does the observer come to experience her own thoughts?

Journey to the Global Workspace

The Global Workspace (GWT), one of the leading theories of consciousness, does not answer this question. It does not leave the neuroscientific field. It individualizes a very extensive network across the brain, richly connected to all higher mental functions, forming the highest control space we can identify. The correlations between its activity and awakened consciousness are excellent. GWT is indeed the physical support of full consciousness.

At least it is the final layer. For if we managed to isolate this network and make it work independently of the rest of the brain, it would produce no consciousness, not even disembodied thoughts. It is almost certain. The GWT is first and foremost an integrative network. Its properties appear only as an integration of the rest of brain activity. In isolation it is no smarter than a comparable set of neurons in a digestive tract.

Why does the Workspace traveler feel conscious?

In isolation it also does not explain why this final layer suddenly produces the phenomenon of consciousness. The GWT easily accounts for the richness of conscious content, by the number of aggregated mental tasks. The GWT accounts for self-observation, through re-entry mechanisms that show the observation of neural groups by others. But the GWT does not explain in any way the phenomenon of consciousness that concerns us, this double side of a neural reality that opposed Descartes and Hobbs and which one wonders why it appears in this network and in no other.

Self-observation is not an exceptional mental function, which would be the prerogative of GWT. This is actually the very basis of brain function. Networks observe others, to assemble visual points into shapes, then objects, to the complexity of the representations that inhabit the GWT. This brain functioning is a deepening of the analysis of sensory data. In this depth are structural representations that are sought in the data. This is how information becomes intentions.

Powered by Integrated Information

The other flagship theory of consciousness, Integrated Information (IIT), accounts for this structural process much better. It has also successfully served as a model for the creation of artificial neural networks, whose progress is constantly impressive. Let us bet that the negative commentators, who dwell on detailing all that is missing from these IAs to equal the human spirit, will one day find themselves stunned before the next ones, freed from these limitations and become minds far superior to theirs. Will they be conscious? Koch, who collaborated at Tononi’s IIT, thinks not.

He is wrong, as we will see in a supplement to this article. What interests us here is the source of his error, which is the same as the one that limits the scope of the competing theory. The GWT sees teleologically the phenomenon of consciousness in the observation of neurons by others, but fails to explain it ontologically (in the rules of operation of networks). IIT ontologically explains conscious depth (it even quantifies it in the parameter called Phi) but does not see why the process would produce a phenomenon such as conscious impression.

Let’s win a level

Presented from this angle you guess that the two theories are not competing but rather complementary, right? This is a good example of the problem of the uniqueness of conscious space that we were talking about earlier. Two contradictory paradigms try to share the same space. When they fail to do so, proponents of either theory separate. But if they manage to integrate together, what happened? It seems impossible. The workspace is always unique, illuminates in one piece in fMRI, as before, under the eyes of neuroscientists. What has changed?

A level of conscious depth has been added. The integrated information has gained an organized level. In terms of depth of information, the GWT is not a space but a hierarchical pyramid. Mental functions aggregate into elementary concepts that form more complex abstractions. The structural dimension of GWT is vertical in complexity and not three-dimensional in space. As for the rest of the brain, from which the GWT is not separate.

To the aid of the soul

Reading this text, you have added a level of consciousness to the many you already possess. Because it takes a certain eclecticism to advance in my article. Without multidisciplinary knowledge, the text is incomprehensible to you. Provisionally, because the basics are accessible by reading the threads proposed on this blog. Suppose I have not lost you entirely. There remains a critical question: the two theories, GWT and IIT, complement each other, but together they still fail to explain the phenomenon of consciousness to the satisfaction of a philosopher. We need a soul, fulfilling the expectations of spiritualists. But we must give birth to it in the flesh, respecting the monism of the materialists. How to give birth to it? Virgin Mary, help!

This is definitely not possible by simply observing our neurons in action. These cells are themselves only representations of our minds. What is fundamental in them to a materialist? Quantum mechanics is as alien to them, on a phenomenal level, as synaptic excitations are alien to conscious thoughts. The problem of the expression of phenomena therefore begins well before the evolution of the brain and its productions. It concerns the intimate relationship between a physical constitution and its properties, the two sides of the same ‘substance’. It is in this report that we must seek the birth of consciousness.

Part 3: The outcome of the ‘hard problem’

Stop panpsychism and quantism

Am I taking you into a new iteration of panpsychism? Let us take a quick look at the meaning to be given to this position. One version of panpsychism that I call ‘horizontal’ or ‘quantitative’ is to see consciousness as a vast separable field whose ‘grains’ would accumulate to produce a more vivid and pervasive consciousness. We would thus be the sum of the microconsciousness of our particles. This naïve hypothesis does not solve any of the problems posed by consciousness. The conscious field is purely speculative, as is its interaction with matter. No link between the quality of the phenomenon and the quantity of consciousness. Why does a consciousness in the human brain disappear at the slightest alteration of a physiology that does not change the nature of the particles? Loss of consciousness is a neural disorganization and it is therefore in the organization that we must seek its appearance.

The term ‘panpsychism’ is in itself defective since it consists in looking for a ‘psychology of atoms’ which is nonsense. The same nonsense is found in the most recent ‘quantum consciousness’, which is the reverse invasion of the field of psychology and sensations by that of particulate interactions. Quantum psychologization and psychic quantification are two comparable drifts, which try to reduce one phenomenon to another because they fail to neighbor in the same mental workspace.


Consciousness is a “hard problem” because we have two irreconcilable positions that need to be reconciled. There is a soul (we can keep this term for consciousness as a phenomenon), it is unmistakable since we experience it in first person. It does not need any micromechanism to exist, is the least illusory phenomenon since we inhabit it, all the others being represented. Conversely, physical reality, that of micromechanisms, sees no soul. These two positions are capable of existing independently, and yet are part of the same reality. What dimension can connect them?

The chains that weigh on our mind, in this research, are those of horizontal thinking. We include micromechanisms and their production in a horizontal reality of sequences of events. This is not the right monism. It is the confinement in a cage so gigantic that it seems to encompass everything: the spatio-temporal framework. Whatever its infinities, however, this framework and its elementary particles are unable to explain complexity. There is no equation of Everything. Physics remains the description of energy levels, each responding to a pattern, none predicting what the next will be. The predictive power of a model sometimes collapses suddenly, reflecting the existence of a crossing of reality, a change of framework, where the spatio-temporal scales are modified. Monistic reality is also multi-dualistic.

Consciousness, a material birth and virtual maturity

Reality is not a vast system of particles where we simply juxtapose our own with those of other matter, which leads us to think that if ours carry consciousness they all do. Mischief of horizontal thinking. By straightening our thinking vertically, we see a complex dimension appear, layering levels of reality, each in relative independence from the previous one. Each presents a substantial new appearance and adds a thickness of consciousness. This is defined very simply by the layer of new information added to the previous ones. Independence is that of properties that do not vary while the micro-constitution evolves. Consciousness arises from the conflict between a higher context that says ‘stable’ and a constitution that says ‘unstable’.

That is a brief summary. The reasoned detail occupies a book of 800 pages. If you haven’t read it, consider the above model to be highly speculative. Regardless of its validity, the bottom line is that it has what we need to bring together our irreconcilable positions. It reveals two sides at each level of reality, that of constitutive information and that of emerging information. The lowest levels are subject to impavid rules and it is difficult to find the slightest resemblance to our conscious experience. But the stacking of information levels gradually expands this consciousness born of their crossing. It first thickens from the levels of material substance, then virtually when neurons take the information and deepen it in their networks.

Return of an appropriate reality

In this way, we gradually arrive at the intensity and depth of the conscious experience when it is “turned on”, in a period of awakening. We find the notion of substance and that of the ‘same reality’ on two sides, dear to Hobbs, not exclusively in our mental representations, as a human observer, but within the very elements constituting this reality. We give back to objects as to other living beings the property of their reality. Just as ‘consciousness’ exists only for neurons, in its phenomenon as in its formation, the ‘matter’ of an object exists only for its molecules, in its properties as in its constitution. The two sides of this ‘same’ reality are those of the elements and their whole, independent emergence, existing through the integration of the elements. An emergence is a tiny leap of consciousness. A complex consciousness is the surimposition of many of these jumps, as realized by neural networks.

The relative independence of these emergences means that a consciousness is only able to recognize itself in itself. It is the stereotype of the Global Workspace and the functions it brings together that makes the resemblance of human consciousnesses, and their mutual recognition. Consciousnesses exist everywhere, in beings with a brain like the living who do not have one, as well as inert but individualized things in an interactive system. These are not “psyches” even fragmentary but consciousnesses whose quality is totally foreign and inaccessible to another level of consciousness. I want to outlaw the term ‘panpsychism’ and replace it with the term ‘surimposing’ levels of information, each stack ultimately producing its unique experience. There is no global consciousness but a multitude of its spikes. To each his own consciousness.

“I think so I’m qualia”

The concept of surimposing information levels offers two decisive advantages:
1) It restores qualitative properties to the depth of neural processing. Indeed, notes the philosopher Yves Charles Zarka, neuroscience has replaced Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” with a “I think therefore I am a brain” which makes the phenomenological being disappear. The qualitative reappears, with the surimposition, in the discontinuity of the levels of abstraction. Each of them is a leap of complexity and meaning that intertwines with the previous ones, stating a new “I am”, until its final meaning at the conscious summit. I am an ethic, I am an aesthete, all the ‘I am’ reintegrate into this model of the mind.

2) It gives an account, finally, of the phenomenon experienced. Indeed, each level of abstraction is an observation of the previous one. Its relative independence is the same as that seen previously in matter, a stable information overlapping an unstable constitution. The higher abstraction is maintained even when its constituents evolve, within certain limits. This higher abstraction is a ‘consciousness’ of its constitution, which surimposes itself on the previous ones. The phenomenon is thickening. But above all it is, this time, in the right direction: it is the emergence of the level of abstraction that looks at its micromechanisms and generates the experience of being this level in full activity.


2 thoughts on “Explaining consciousness as a phenomenon”

  1. “…the problem is ….rooted in matter…” is it? I question this assessment because, unlike some current thinking, my appreciation of Panpsychism is less-than-tentative. Unlike those next-big-thing thinkers, I cannot accept the consciousness is everywhere and in everything hypothesis.
    Matter v. Non-matter is dualism, in my humble opinion. At bottom, DesCartes-tian—pardon the fractured French. There are other references heard, for example, conscious mind. Granted, there are processes happening in the mind, human and other, that enable some level of consciousness to BE. (See: Heidegger, if you dare…). It is process, NOT brainflesh, that fulminates this eventuality. Finally, keeping this short, sub-atomic particles—matter, sorta— are not sentient or conscious. Neither is the wild, blue yonder. Just saying.


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