Does Real = Feel?

Consider two fundamental distinctions:

  1. Real vs. Unreal – In the space of all possible worlds, only one is the “real” world; the rest are unreal.  Or if you prefer, among all mathematical structures, only some describe real things; the rest are only abstract math things.
  2. Feel vs. Unfeel – Many think they can imagine physical objects just like our brains, except that those brains do not have an associated internal life, i.e., feeling or experience or consciousness.

Once can deny each of these distinctions.  Some claim that all math objects are equally real, or that all possible worlds are just as real.  Others say all physical objects with the right info processes must experience.

While both these concepts seem to me reasonably understandable, it isn’t obvious to me that they are distinct concepts – maybe they are the same concept.  That is, I’m not sure it makes senses to talk about unconscious but real physical brains, or conscious but unreal brains. Maybe what it should mean for a world to be real is that its brains, at least of the right sort, really do feel.

Added:  To clarify, it is not clear it makes sense to posit a real world made of parts which could never be conscious, no matter how they were arranged.  Actually assuming a conducive arrangement is not required.

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  • Yes, you get it!

    I’ve been putting it this way for years:

    Imagine an actual, real universe that has no consciousness in it, nor can this universe be observed by any consciousness.

    Now imagine another universe that is only imaginary, not real at all, just a concept in our minds.

    What is the difference between those two universes?

    In fact, “reality” is “consensus reality”. That is, the consensus of perceptions determines what we call “real”. Without consciousness, there is nothing “real”.

    When this fact is profoundly contemplated, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and the solution to the “hard problem” is suddenly clear. . .

    • Robert Koslover

      Matthew, so if I understand you correctly, you are asserting that if a tree falls in a forest, and if that forest is growing in a universe which contains no conscious inhabitants, then NO, it does not make a noise! Right? Well, I’m glad that philosophical question has finally been settled. 🙂

      • Robert,

        I am asserting that the notion of a “real” universe without consciousness perceiving it, is incoherent. Which is what Robin basically said above.

        All of our references to “real” things involve consciousness measuring / perceiving them. So if you mean something *else* by “real”, I’d love to hear it.

      • Robert Koslover

        You seem to be saying that nothing is real, i.e., can be argued as even existing, unless there is a sentient being (aka a consciousness) to observe it. With that view in mind, consider the “Big Bang” theory of the formation of our universe. Are you arguing that a consciousness fundamentally had to exist at the time and place of the big bang for that space-time event to even occur? Or alternatively, can it occur simply because billions of years later, a scientist observed the 3 deg microwave background radiation? Again, you really do seem to be saying that the falling tree makes no noise unless there is someone there to hear it. And valid or not, I think it would be proper to refer to such a view as an “ego-centric” model of the universe.

      • “You seem to be saying that nothing is real, i.e., can be argued as even existing, unless there is a sentient being (aka a consciousness) to observe it”


        I am saying that our definitions for “realness” all point back to a conscious observer. If you have some better definition of “real” then please bring it to the thread. The word “real” is not some kind of magic talisman that proves whatever you already believe. . .

    • What is the difference between those two universes?

      In one case you’re imagining: a vast universe. In the other case you’re imagining: someone imagining a vast universe. Amongst other differences, the latter is much smaller.

  • Prof. Hanson,
    I haven’t yet seen you grapple with the distinction between sleep walking and talking (sleep interaction) and awake interaction. I understand you don’t have deep expertise in cognitive neuroscience, but I think that would cause you to be less likely to reach firm conclusion about neuroanatomical phenomena, rather than more likely to reach them.

    Also, I’d like to see you grapple more seriously with the possibility that a only subset of people have the “theatre of consciousness” qualia experience, perhaps due to neuroanatomical/neuroalgorithmic differences that we haven’t yet mapped.

    I think you’re still reaching for strawmen/weaker topics, such as claiming that the concept up interactive people that lack theatre of consciousness qualia has to be hitched to a claim of identical neuranatomy/neuroalgorithm, when you’ve been exposed to the concept of difference due to not yet detected structural differences.

    For example, the concept of different neurological behavior for different mental states preceded our ability to detect these different neurological behaviors at the level of brain function and anatomy.

    • Eric Johnson

      HA, An interesting angle is the evo one, why do qualia enhance fitness? An absolute mystery. I cant make the least inroad into it.

      • Or alternatively, why would a mixed population enhance fitness? Some with theatre of consciousness qualia, some competently interactive, but without that theatre of consciousness.

    • Jonas


      I am not sure if I understand your concept correctly.

      Are you saying that a subset of people (1) have the “theatre of consciousness” qualia experience, therefore being able to act and choose upon free will, while another subset of people (2) do not have the theatre of consciousness qualia experience, therefore are deterministic machines, collectively imagined by the people (1) who have it (related to the simulation theory) ?

      If this was your argument, than I have concerns because there is some totalitarian logic involved, which is never good (normative). If I imagine potential future societies that “run” with this logic, I would guess them to be less humane, dividing the world population once more into A / not A.


      I find this discussion very interesting and I have my own layman ideas about it.

      I don`t know if thinking about it is sensible (because it is pure metaphysics).
      1. We can only logically think of worlds that exist without a conscious observer in it.
      2. If we imagine them in a visual sense, we are still observing them.
      3.The question of the unconscious universe is bound to a conscious observer asking the question. It is a thinkable question, but not sensible.

      • Asher

        I would guess them to be less humane, dividing the world population once more into A / not A.

        Ah, but this happens all the time. Consider the various “oppression studies” types, web search the term SWPL, where heterosexual, white males are asserted to have an over-arching “privilege” that is beyond any empirical investigation. Consider the two following scenarios:

        A) Poor, white males in the south utilize violence to minimize the incidences of black men having sex with white women (the leftist economist Gunnar Myrdal studied segregation exhaustively and concluded that sexual competition was the dominating reason behind it).

        B) Educated, upper-class Arabs blow themselves up in order to kill average civilians going about their daily lives.

        According to the post-modern left the first is an example of unmitigated evil, while the second is a product of oppression. See, for the post-modern left whites are the only autonomous moral agents capable of evil, and the only possible moral good available in the world is to reject “white privilege”. In fact, the post-modern left agrees with the most staunch 18th century colonialist in attributing any lack of moral agency to non-whites. The only difference is that the leftist concludes that the putative lack of non-white autonomy absolves non-whites from any moral obligation to whites, while the colonialist concludes that this same putative lack absolves whites of any moral obligation to non-whites. There has never exist an intellectual totalitarianism so complete as that of today’s post-modern left.

        Human beings are pretty much little, totalitarian thugs and there’s not much we can do about that but create alliances to protect ourselves from such thuggery. Which is pretty much what Hobbe’s Leviathan is all about.

      • Asher

        I would also point out that this seems to commit the logical fallacy of moralism, the inverse of the naturalist fallacy, whereby we try to derive “is” from “ought”.

  • Robin – it seems we need both concepts in order to distinguish between various kinds of fictional (“unreal”) worlds. Some fictions describe their inhabitants as conscious, whereas other fictions describe their inhabitants as p-zombies. How do you accommodate this?

    (Of course there is a sense in which fictional characters are not “really” conscious, because “they” are not real at all — there is no “they” to be conscious. But this is nothing special about consciousness. In just the same way, Rudolph is not really a reindeer. Nonetheless, we may speak of such merely possible flying reindeer, and in just the same way we should countenance merely possible conscious beings.)

    • Imagine someone said that their concept of “God” was intrinsically a creature without limits, so yes he could make a rock so big no one could lift it, and then yes he could lift it. If you reply that this is an incoherent concept they might insist that even if this God did not exist, they can imagine him therefore we need a concept for that sort of God. The moral: just because someone claims they can imagine something doesn’t make it a coherent possibility. Similarly, I am here questioning the coherence of the concepts of real but unconscious worlds, or of conscious but unreal worlds.

      • This is non-responsive. My point was not merely that once can “claim to imagine” that the two concepts diverge. We can actually prove that they must be distinct, because the two concepts belong to different categories: one is intrinsic or internal to a world-description, whereas the other concerns whether the description corresponds to reality.

        In particular: attributions of consciousness (like reindeer) are internal to a possible world — it provides the qualitative, descriptive content of a way for things to be. It is then a further (independent) question whether things in reality actually are that way. That is to say, ‘actuality’ is an external property of possible worlds: it is the property had by a world-description just in case its descriptive content accurately describes how things really are.

        Now, if X is an intrinsic property of possible worlds, and Y is an extrinsic property of possible worlds, then X and Y must be distinct. Your proposal to the contrary is conceptually confused.

        P.S. An illustration might help. I’m currently sitting down right now, but I could have been standing up. If I had instead been standing up, then I still would have been conscious. (Whether or not I’m conscious is not contingent on my posture!) Adopting the idiom of possible worlds, this is equivalent to saying that there’s a non-actual possible world “where” (or “according to which”) I am both standing up and conscious. A fortiori, there’s a merely possible world containing a conscious being.

      • P.S. An illustration might help. I’m currently sitting down right now, but I could have been standing up. If I had instead been standing up, then I still would have been conscious. (Whether or not I’m conscious is not contingent on my posture!) Adopting the idiom of possible worlds, this is equivalent to saying that there’s a non-actual possible world “where” (or “according to which”) I am both standing up and conscious. A fortiori, there’s a merely possible world containing a conscious being.


        If the world in which you stand up is physically consistent, perhaps it necessarily exists for the same reason that this world exists, that is, its feeling-status is identical to this world’s feeling-status for the same reasons.

        If the world in which you stand up is not physically consistent, then like a set of axioms which proves 2=1, it would have no model; there would be no possible world like that, and you could not say that there was a person within who was conscious but not actual.

      • er, substitute P&~P for 2=1, sorry, I’m a bit sleepy right now

      • A strengthened version of your argument would say that the Born probabilities in many-worlds show that two beings can both be conscious and yet have differing quantitative degrees of realness.

      • Richard, how exactly do we know that “real” is an extrinsic while “feel” is an intrinsic property? I expect you’ll answer that this comes from the “nature” of the concept “real”, but I don’t see why I should be so confident that you understand its nature well.

      • Yes, these are obvious conceptual truths. The claim “Bob feels pain” describes a way for things to be. Feels are, in this way, descriptive ‘qualities’. You can coherently understand what is being claimed here — the internal “content” of the proposition — independently of assessing whether the possibility thus described is actual (i.e. corresponds to external reality).

        Let’s turn now to “possible [states of the] world” talk. Let W denote some such “possible world”, or way things could have been. To say that W is “real” or “actual” just means that things are that way. W makes a bunch of claims, and those claims correspond to reality.

        Do you really want to deny any of these platitudes?

        P.S. Are you at all sympathetic to the ontological argument for God’s existence? It seems to rest on the same kind of mistake as you’re making here: conflating ‘internal’ or represented qualities with the external question of whether things actually are as represented.

      • An object iterating (aka traveling) through space may have changed trajectory many times. How would we know? This makes reality polymorphic and multi-behavioral – complex.
        We can think of intelligence or consciousness as reciprocation.
        The eye brain interface is fixed in SpaceTime. The locality and orders of events are fixed – individual photo receptors and first in, first out through each. Our perception of reality is a concert. Many regions of the brain each contributing to the abstraction of the whole. It feels like a singularity because it has no feeling. Any encapsulation of reality whether it be simple perception or Technologically Augmented Perception must be an aggregate of trajectory and frequency.
        We, The RMCM, encapsulates intuition as a graduated aggregate of high frequency events lying close to the machine, or “soft machine”, dispersing outwardly toward low frequency events that we can deliberately manipulate.
        All singularities are mere abstractions, hence the term “mind” is an archaic or anachronistic encapsulation.
        We speak of it as levels of consciousness. Technologically it is aggregates of frequency, some, much much faster than cognition.
        Watching children grow up is essentially watching what we consent to refer to as evolution.

  • Since feeling is a complex thing that we already know must break into parts, while realness has not yet been broken into parts, it is reasonable to expect that if these two concepts collapse into one, it is because the “realness” of a structure necessarily implies and entirely subsumes the “feelness” of that structure.

    • Ah, but we have many containers. Some are simple metabolisms. Others give rise to the sensory network – the neuromusculature. We can’t feel colour, synesthesia notwithstanding; we can feel heat.
      We have no capacity to perceive movement; we only perceive motion, effect, difference closed.
      While we can “experience” movement, doing so is always an extrapolation of changes.
      It is the same as the difference between cause and effect. We see effect, yet we must always extrapolate cause.

    • Well in those terms I didn’t so much mean the actual complex feeling as the parts capacity for feeling when combined into the right structure. But yes I’m suggesting realness necessarily implies such a feeling capacity.

    • Allen

      The contents of my conscious experience are complex and break into parts, but my conscious experience itself is unitary and indivisible. I only experience things as a single consciousness. I only experience things as myself, i.e., from my point of view.

      So, it seems to me that your example is a bit off target.

      • Yep, exactly correct.

      • komponisto

        I don’t see why that’s relevant. The unitary experience of consciousness is a complex illusion created by the brain (split brain patients, etc.). It doesn’t bear on questions of fundamental ontology,

  • haig

    That is, I’m not sure it makes senses to talk about unconscious but real physical brains, or conscious but unreal brains.

    I agree, but with a caveat regarding the context in which these two concepts are routinely discussed.

    Whenever people talk about ‘unconscious but real’ brains, as in p-zombies, they are making claims about what is possible in this world, not in another, distinct from ours, possible world, real or not. It’s like someone talking about a square without four sides actually existing in this world, not the idea of such a thing. You are right in saying this makes no sense.

    But when people talk about ‘conscious but unreal’ brains, or for that matter, unreal anything, they are referring to an idea, an abstraction sufficiently removed away from the original sense-perception of any real things that exists. To discuss such things can make sense just like discussing superturing oracle machines can make sense in the right context to further abstract reasoning, but not to make claims on (our) observed reality.

    • Yes, people are referring to their idea of some other world besides ours, which they think is a self-consistent alternate world, but I’m not sure that is a coherent world.

  • mac

    I have read a few odd comments on this tread so far. However, the odd have most assuredly been out numbered by the thoughtful.

    In response to early comments about the tree falling in the forest that no one hears, When you ask some one to deny the reality of a tree falling in a forest, the perception of it not withstanding, you are making some very subtle assumptions. Assumptions, that when deeply considered, undermine the question itself. A tree has no inherent existence, neither does a forest. They are concepts of the conscious mind, and moreover, are dependent upon many other factors for their conditioned existence.

    You can even argue that a tree, while not possessing a human consciousness, is conscious on a rudimentary level. It seeks nourishment, it shies from that which would bring it harm and develops defenses against the same. You see, the generally accepted concept of a tree depends on an intellect that can perceive the object, and the object itself depends on a degree consciousness itself. Therefore, it is entirely correct to assert that in a universe with no consciousnesses, no tree would exist that would be capable of either falling or standing.

  • Nathan

    Well, if the consciousness these people describe is a lawful physical system (as opposed to some crazy thing you aren’t allowed to look at too closely) then think about how much uglier the laws of physics would be if they included a term for a complicated (not for humans, but really) macroscopic property, also requiring code for grouping collections of quarks into things like brains (not to mention the intermediate steps), also requiring code to interpret the patterns within those brains (to “hear” them), also requiring code for determining whether to assign all this special machinery to one of those macroscopic objects, and a hundred other things that disappear to humans. Sure, a copy of that universe with all of the metadata removed could be built, and is vastly more likely to be randomly rolled up. But this doesn’t say *anything* about the way our minds work. That’s like saying the possibility of laws of physics containing an extra special term for five of something means that fiveness is independent of the properties of a physical system.

  • Is there any way to address whether there is more than one mathematically consistent universe? It seems as though a world in which one stood rather than sat is still possible, but that may be a measure of what seems plausible rather than what’s possible.

    Pure speculation here, but maybe not having a theater of consciousness leads to faster reactions, while having the theater leads to more accurate reactions in complex situations which benefit from reflection.

    How certain is it that there are people without qualia? Even with sleep-talking, what’s lost might be memory rather than consciousness.

  • Allen

    Well, I would say that all we really know is what we consciously experience. And from this we *infer* the existence of everything else.

    Which is to say that we construct narratives (often involving many mathematical equations!) that are consistent with our observations, but these narratives are about our observations, not about what really exists.

    I say this because, for example, we could be in a very realistic dream (or maybe in “The Matrix”)…in which case the things that we observe would be no more real than the things we see in a regular dream. You could do scientific experiments in your dream, and these experiments might tell you something about how your dream-world works, but they wouldn’t tell you anything about the real world that underlies that dream-world (or that exists outside The Matrix).

    So we know from dreams, hallucinations, mental illness, thought experiments like The Matrix, etc. that our perceptions are not necessarily a true reflection of what exists.

    But ultimately we can never pierce the veil of our perceptions to see what *really* lies beneath it. You can believe in an external world, but doing so requires a leap of faith.

    So, we have our observations, and we want to explain them. To do this, we need some context to place our observations in. So we postulate the existence of an external universe that “causes” our observations. But then we want to explain what caused this external universe…and the only option is to postulate the existence of a much larger multiverse. But then what explains the multiverse?

    So this leads to the need for an infinite series of ever larger contexts against which to explain the previous context that we used to explain the previous context that we used to explain the fact of our initial observations.

    So nothing can be explained in terms of only itself. To explain it, you have to place it in the context of something larger. Otherwise, no explanation is possible, and you just have to say, “this is the way it is because that’s the way it is.”


    Basically there’s only two way the process can end. Two possible answers to the question of “Why do I observe the things that I observe?”:

    1) Because things just are the way they are, and there’s no further explanation possible.

    2) Because EVERYTHING happens, and so your observations were inevitable in this larger (largest!) context of “everything”.

    What other option is there, do you think?

  • V.G.

    In the end, it is all about consciousness. Even now, while you are reading this comment, hundreds of events are happening inside your body that you do not perceive or think about normally (such as breathing).

    Consciousness delivers a patchy picture of “reality” on a certain level of organismic existence. Everything below the threshold of attention or even below the sensor triggering threshold is not “real” – it is “sub-real”, and the mind cannot account for it.

    Why the consciousness operates in this way is now clear – it improves the fitness of the organism. We can even say that the “reality” of things is a by-product of evolution, and as such is predetermined by the evolutionary pressures.

    So we should ask ourselves – why is that evolution was possible in the first place? We do not know that answer yet. It may turn out that evolution itself is a byproduct of some more fundamental processes that we do not understand (if our universe is part of a bigger system).

  • tndal

    Polonius: “What do you read, my lord?”
    Hamlet: “Words, words, words.”

    (Hamlet, 2.2.191)

    Once this blog posted reasonable essays on AI and cognitive science. Now it is bogged down in medieval philosophy.

    • AI — a field without a subject. . .

  • Eric Johnson

    > I don`t know if thinking about it is sensible (because it is pure metaphysics).

    It wont be metaphysical at all when you are 5 minutes from croaking. Therefore one might question whether it is metaphysical on balance.

  • Asher

    I have to agree with tndal. I will leave this post with no greater or lesser understanding of how to operate in this world than I had prior to stumbling across it. It seems to access the, probably hard-wired, prejudice that there is a absolutely clear distinction between consciousness and reality.

    I once had a girlfriend who constantly talked about “people making choices”, so, I held up a red pen in front of her and asked her what I was holding. She instantly answered without contemplation that it was a red pen. Now if someone pokes me in the eye with that red pen the pain I would “feel” is no less a product of sense experience than my seeing a red pen, although I’m probably using different parts of my brain to process those different feelings.

    We’re just seeing problems of language and incompleteness in human ability to understand the entirety of existence.

    • “We’re just seeing problems of language and incompleteness in human ability to understand the entirety of existence.”

      We sacrifice the whole truth of any given experience for the value to which we are constrained.

  • Eric Johnson

    > Once this blog posted reasonable essays on AI and cognitive science.

    Things which of course have nothing to do with consciousness and qualia.

  • Eric Johnson

    This is not really a metaphysical question. It may be meta the physics we have now, but is it meta the physics we will have tomorrow? Does the physics we have now actually deal with physis, Nature?

    Its not metaphysical but it may well be totally impragmatic depending on your disposition.

  • Eric Johnson

    If you were born with the soul of a materialist, the feelings of a behaviorist, this topic will always bore and even irritate.

    • Asher


  • Eric Johnson

    I have to admit the reverse is also true: emergentism and compatiblism not only seem wrong but really irritate me. If Robin started writing about those, I’d probably be like “this is stupid — you didnt write about anything this dumb before.”

  • Jackson


    We’re just seeing problems of language and incompleteness in human ability to understand the entirety of existence.

    I once suggested, to a person who had given a short talk on free will, that perhaps the semantic shift from causation to effection (actually I said effectation) might help. Does it? I mean, we have affection, why not effection? I think actually that’s probably a good thing – affection is key here.

  • dj superflat

    you either make the leap past the demon to believe in an external world, or you don’t and all you’re left with is your experience (with no basis to assess whether it correlates to anything, has any meaning, etc.). once you believe in science — and it’s a matter of belief as much as religion — then the tree makes noise even when no one’s around. that leaves imaginary worlds as nothing more than internal brain states, language games, etc.

    as for zombies, i love the idiocy of assuming something could be configured just like us, but not have whatever consciousness is. what’s the basis for assuming the existence of this extra special secret sauce called consciousness, rather than just assuming it’s how it feels to have a brain arranged this way, operating this way, etc. people playing zombie games have this weird quasi-religious need to assert we’re magic in some way, rather than just matter like any other. (once you believe in science, the need for an observe to make the world real similarly seems silly (yes, i know about the silly anthro quantum theories, etc.).)

    bonus: if you believe in evolution, it’s silly to posit that we’re the only one’s with consciousness, and that it doesn’t arise naturally out of a certain kind of brain structure. given that evolution explains how we developed, and from what, and how much we have in common with those things, occam again requires we assume it’s pretty much all the same throughout the closely related mammals. (so dumb every time people are amazed animals use tools, or language, or mirrors, or etc.)