This section is about how regression and recursion seem to undermine the idea of conscious experience being anywhere in the universe..


The conflict - supervenience and the location of the contents of consciousness Edit

When we touch something or look at a view what we are probably touching or seeing is a thing in the world, out there, beyond our bodies. Many philosophers and almost all scientists would agree with this surmise. However, the thing that occurs in conscious experience could also be a virtual reality in the brain based on the world beyond the body or a representation of the original thing. Or it could be the thing itself, viewed directly through some unknown phenomenon.

Strangely, this idea of where the contents of conscious experience are located has provoked the fiercest battles in the philosophy of consciousness. There are three broad positions, the first is Direct Realism in which it is held that the contents of conscious experience are directly things in the world, the second is Indirect Realism where it is proposed that the contents of conscious experience are representations, usually in the physical brain, based on things 'out there' in the world and the third is idealism where it is held that there is no physical world, only non-physical conscious experience. These three classifications overlap considerably, for instance some Natural Dualists believe that the contents of sensory experience are directly the world beyond the body but some thoughts are based in a non-physical soul.

Philosophers often use the concept of 'supervenience' to examine the location of the contents of consciousness. Supervenience is the relation between two sets of properties. Supervenience can be simple, for example a golden ring supervenes on a piece of the metal gold. Supervenience can also be quite complex such as the idea that life supervenes on the biological processes in a cell. The most difficult cases of supervenience are where a high level description is related to simpler physical properties such as form and content. There are formal statements of supervenience:

The properties of A supervene on the properties of B if no two possible
situations are identical with respect to the properties of A while
differing with respect to the properties of B (after Chalmers 1996).

Lewis gives a simpler, if less technical, definition of supervenience:

A dot-matrix picture has global properties -- it is symmetrical, 
it is cluttered, and whatnot -- and yet all there is to the picture 
is dots and non-dots at each point of the matrix. The global 
properties are nothing but patterns in the dots. They supervene: no 
two pictures could differ in their global properties without 
differing, somewhere, in whether there is or there isn't a dot". 
Lewis, D., 1986, On the Plurality of Worlds, Oxford: Blackwell

One set of properties is said to supervene locally on another set of properties if the second set is determined by the first. Shape is an example of local supervenience, for instance a gold ring is determined by a gold wire forged in a circle. A set of properties is said to supervene globally on another if the entire context of the properties must be included; for instance, two organisms could be physically identical but demonstrate different behaviours in different environments. In this case the physical form of an organism does not totally determine the behaviour. Philosophers also divide supervenience into logical supervenience and natural supervenience. Logical supervenience deals with possible relations in possible worlds whilst natural supervenience deals with relations that occur in the natural world.

See elementary information theory for a discussion of supervenience in information systems.

A particular problem posed by consciousness studies is whether conscious phenomenal experience supervenes on the physical world and, if so, where. To answer these questions philosophers and neuroscientists must have a good understanding of physics. They should be aware of elementary physical ontology such as kinetic energy being the relativistic mass increase of a particle in a four dimensional universe and Newton's laws being due to the exploration of all paths in space-time. Without a good knowledge of physics there is the danger that we will be asking whether phenomenal consciousness supervenes on an abstract model of the world which does not supervene on the world itself (ie: we may be asking if conscious phenomenal experience supervenes on Newtonian physics or supervenes on information systems theory rather than asking how phenomenal consciousness might supervene on the natural world).

(See for instance:

Special relativity for beginners

Quantum physics explains Newton’s laws of motion )

The problem of regressionEdit

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle was concerned with what he called the intellectualist legend which requires intelligent acts to be the product of the conscious application of mental rules. The intellectualist legend is also known as the "Dogma of the Ghost in the Machine," the "Two-Lives Legend," the "Two-Worlds Story," or the "Double-Life Legend". Ralph Waldo Emerson summarised the intellectualist legend in the statement that "The ancestor of every action is a thought." Ryle argued against the idea that every action requires a conscious thought and showed that this 'intellectualist legend' results in an infinite regress of thought:

"According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything 
intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal 
act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his 
practical problem. [...] Must we then say that for the hero's 
reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how 
best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress 
shows that the application of the criterion of appropriateness does 
not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion."
(The Concept of Mind (1949)) 


"The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this. The 
consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution 
of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, 
for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical 
operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it 
would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the 

Ryle's regress is an adaptation of the regress argument in the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology). In the epistemological regress argument every effect has a cause and every cause must be the effect of a further cause ad infinitum.

Variants of Ryle's regress are commonly aimed at cognitivist theories. For instance, in order to explain the behavior of rats, Edward Tolman suggested that the rats were constructing a "cognitive map" that helped them locate reinforcers, and he used intentional terms (e.g., expectancies, purposes, meanings) to describe their behavior. This led to a famous attack on Tolman's work by Guthrie who pointed out that if one was implying that every action must be preceded by a cognitive 'action' (a 'thought' or 'schema' or 'script' or whatever), then what 'causes' this act? Clearly it must be preceded by another cognitive action, which must in turn must be preceded by another and so on, in an infinite regress unless an external input occurs at some stage.

As a further example, we may take note of the following statement from The Concept of Mind:

"The main object of this chapter is to show that there are many activities which directly display qualities of mind, yet are neither themselves intellectual operations nor yet effects of intellectual operations. Intelligent practice is not a step-child of theory. On the contrary theorizing is one practice amongst others and is itself intelligently or stupidly conducted."

Ryle noted that "theorizing is one practice amongst others." and hence would translate the statement by Emerson into, "The ancestor of every action is an action." or "The ancestor of every behavior is a behavior,". Each behaviour would require yet another behavior to preface it as its ancestor, and an infinite regress would occur.

It should be noted that Ryle’s regress is a critique of cognitivism which arises from the Behaviorist tradition. Near the end of The Concept of Mind, Ryle states, "The Behaviorists’ methodological program has been of revolutionary importance to the program of psychology. But more, it has been one of the main sources of the philosophical suspicion that the two-worlds story is a myth." But Ryle’s brand of logical behaviorism is not to be confused with the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner or the methodological behaviorism of John B. Watson. For as Alex Byrne noted, "Ryle was indeed, as he reportedly said, ‘only one arm and one leg a behaviorist’."

Arguments that involve regress are well known in philosophy. In fact any reflexive, or self referencing process or argument will involve a regress if there is no external input. This applies whether the agent that engages in the process is a digital computer or intelligent agent (cf: Smith (1986), Yates (1991)).

Ryle's regress suggests that intelligent acts are not created within phenomenal consciousness. They may have non-conscious components or even be entirely non-conscious. Ryle argued that this might mean that consciousness is just a "ghost in the machine" of the brain because consciousness would be epiphenomenal if it is not the creator of intelligent acts. However, as will be seen below, this conclusion may be premature and certainly cannot be used to dismiss phenomenal consciousness as non-existent or not present in the brain.

The Subject-Object paradoxEdit

The Subject-Object paradox points out that a conscious subject appears to observe itself as an object. But if it observes itself as an object then, as an object it cannot be a subject.

Wittgenstein gives an example of this paradox:

"5.63 1. The thinking, presenting subject; there is no such thing. If I wrote a book The World as I Found It, I should also have therein to report on my body and say which members obey my will and which do not, etc. This then would be a method of isolating the subject or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject: that is to say, of it alone in this book mention could not be made. 5.632. The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world. 5.633. Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be noted? You say that this case is altogether like that of the eye and the field of sight. But you do not really see the eye. And from nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seen from an eye... 5.64 1. ...The philosophical I is not the man, not the human body or the human soul of which psychology treats, but the metaphysical subject, the limit — not a part of the world."(Wittgenstein 1949).

Thomas Reid also uses this paradox to suggest that everything that is observed must be external to the soul. James (1904), Lektorsky (1980) and many others have attempted to resolve the paradox by proposing that there is really no observer, only the observation or 'reflexive act' of perception. These authors have all identified the content of perception with the world itself to avoid the paradox, however, as will be seen later, there are other solutions to the paradox.

The homunculus argument in philosophy of mindEdit

A Homunculus argument accounts for a phenomenon in terms of the very phenomenon that it is supposed to explain (Richard Gregory (1987)). Homunculus arguments are always fallacious. In the psychology and philosophy of mind 'homunculus arguments' are extremely useful for detecting where theories of mind fail or are incomplete.

Homunculus arguments are common in the theory of vision. Imagine a person watching a movie. He sees the images as something separate from himself, projected on the screen. How is this done? A simple theory might propose that the light from the screen forms an image on the retinas in the eyes and something in the brain looks at these as if they are the screen. The Homunculus Argument shows this is not a full explanation because all that has been done is to place an entire person, or homunculus, behind the eye who gazes at the retinas. A more sophisticated argument might propose that the images on the retinas are transferred to the visual cortex where it is scanned. Again this cannot be a full explanation because all that has been done is to place a little person in the brain behind the cortex. In the theory of vision the Homunculus Argument invalidates theories that do not explain 'projection', the experience that the viewing point is separate from the things that are seen. (Adapted from Gregory (1987), (1990)).

In the case of vision it is sometimes suggested that each homunculus would need a homunculus inside it ad infinitum. This is the recursion form of the homunculus concept. Notice that, unlike the case of regress, the recursion would occur after the event.

An homunculus argument should be phrased in such a way that the conclusion is always that if a homunculus is required then the theory is wrong. After all, homunculi do not exist.

Very few people would propose that there actually is a little man in the brain looking at brain activity. However, this proposal has been used as a 'straw man' in theories of mind. Gilbert Ryle (1949) proposed that the human mind is known by its intelligent acts. (see Ryle's Regress). He argued that if there is an inner being inside the brain that could steer its own thoughts then this would lead to an absurd repetitive cycle or 'regress' before a thought could occur:

"According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his practical problem."

".... Must we then say that for the ..[agent's].. reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress shows that the application of the appropriateness does not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion."

The homunculus argument and the regress argument are often considered to be the same but this is not the case. The homunculus argument says that if there is a need for a 'little man' to complete a theory then the theory is wrong. The regress argument says that an intelligent agent would need to think before it could have a thought.

If the homunculus argument is applied to the problem of the "intelligent agent" a subtly different result from the regress argument occurs. The homunculus argument applied to Ryle's theory would be phrased in terms of whether the mental attribute of 'reflecting upon things internally' can be explained by the theory that 'the mind is intelligent acts' without the appearance of a homunculus. The answer, provided by Ryle's own logic, is that internal reflection would require a homunculus to prevent it from becoming an infinite regress. Therefore with these assumptions the Homunculus Argument does not support the theory that mind is wholly due to intelligent acts.

The example of Ryle's theory demonstrates another aspect of the Homunculus Argument in which it is possible to attribute to the mind various properties such as 'internal reflection' that are not universally accepted and use these contentiously to declare that a theory of mind is invalid.

The ontological status of regression, recursion and the subject-object paradoxEdit

Ryle's regress, when applied to consciousness, is based on an analysis of conscious intellectual activity as a succession of states. At any moment the conscious intellect contains one state such as 'I will think of a word'. This means that either the state has just popped into mind or there was a previous state that gave rise to it such as 'I will think of thinking of a word'. Descartes and other empiricists have noted that thoughts do indeed just pop into mind. So if we transfer Ryle's analysis to the real world we discover that the regress is avoided by removing the starting point of a series of thoughts from conscious phenomenal experience. A train of thought just begins, it has no conscious origin and has probably been synthesised non-consciously.

Suppose Descartes and our own experience are correct, suppose thoughts do just pop into mind, if this happens can there still be a conscious intellectual agent or are intellectual agents largely non-conscious? One of the simplest intellectual processes is a test for equality ie: 'does A equal B?' and a routing of flow as a result of the test ie: 'if A = B then goto'. Can an intellectual agent perform an equality test in conscious phenomenal experience?

Consider the test of whether 'A = A', you attend to the left 'A' then the right 'A' and declare them equal. What have you actually done? The feeling that the symbols are equal just pops into mind. Psychologists and philosophers use the word 'intuition' for this popping of answers into mind (Kant 1781). It is usually accompanied by emotional experience (Damasio 1994, Bierman 2004).

If intellectual activity is actually a succession of things that just pop into phenomenal consciousness then Ryle's conclusion that phenomenal conscious is like a "ghost in the machine" of the brain is to some extent justified. Phenomenal consciousness is not intellectual activity. Notice that this was also the conclusion when the Homunculus Argument was applied correctly to intellectual reasoning (see above). Phenomenal consciousness contains the stages, or succession of states, of intellectual activity but does not contain the processes that connect these stages. This observation that conscious experience is a succession of passive ideas is well known in philosophy (cf: George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, 25)

The illustration below shows how processing and intuitions are related to conscious phenomenal experience. According to the materialist model (top of picture) conscious experience would be no more than a succession of instantaneous and disconnected ideas. However, the combined empirical descriptions of Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Clay and James on phenomenal time and intuition and decision making are also illustrated and it can be seen that the extension in time contained in these descriptions removes the problem.


What Ryle's regress and the recursion argument are telling us is that phenomenal consciousness itself is unlikely to be intelligent acts, processes in a causal chain, although the contents of consciousness could be the succession of states created by such processes. If the contents of consciousness are a succession of states created by non-conscious processes then nothing would flow from place to place within phenomenal consciousness. This would resolve the Subject-Object paradox because the separation between the observation point and the content of consciousness would be due to geometry and time extension, not an impossible dynamical flow of data into the observation point.

More on the conflictEdit

Click above for more on Phenomenal consciousness, access consciousness, Direct Realism, Indirect Realism, Dualism, Idealism and Panpsychism.


The problem of regression

  • Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind. The University of Chicago Press, 1949.

The homunculus argument

  • Gregory, R.L. (1990) Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, Oxford University Press Inc. New York.
  • Gregory, T.L. (1987). The Oxford Companion to Mind. Oxford University Press.

Subject-object paradox

Ontological status

  • Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam Book.

Direct Realism

  • Aydede, M. (2001) Naturalism, introspection, and direct realism about pain. Consciousness and Emotion, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2001, pp. 29-73.

  • Chapman, C.R., and Y. Nakamura (1999). A Passion of the Soul: An Introduction to Pain for Consciousness Researchers. Consciousness and Cognition, 8: 391-422.
  • Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown
  • Fowler C A (1986): “An event approach to the study of speech perception from a direct-realist perspective”, J of Phonetics 14(1):3-28.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1966) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Houghton Mifflin Company,Boston.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1979) Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Hillsdate.
  • Gregory, R.L. 1988. Consciousness in science and philosophy: conscience and con-science. Chapter 12 in Consciousness in Contemporary Science. (Editors: Marcel, A.J. and Bisiach, E.). Oxford Science Publications.
  • Oliveira, André L. G. and Oliveira, Luis F. (2002) Toward an ecological conception of timbre. In Proceedings Auditory Perception Cognition and Action Meeting 2002, Kansas City.
  • Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior . New York: Macmillan, 1953.
  • Skinner, B. F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.
  • Skinner, B. F. 1948. Walden Two. New York: Macmillan.

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