A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World

A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World

A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World

A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World


What place does consciousness have in the natural world? If we reject materialism, could there be a credible alternative? In one classic example, philosophers ask whether we can ever know what is it is like for bats to sense the world using sonar. It seems obvious to many that any amount of information about a bat's physical structure and information processing leaves us guessing about the central questions concerning the character of its experience.

A Place for Consciousnessbegins with reflections on the existence of this gap. Is it just a psychological shortcoming in our merely human understanding of the physical world? Is it a trivial consequence of the simple fact that we just cannot be bats? Or does it mean there really are facts about consciousness over and above the physical facts? If so, what does consciousness do? Why does it exist?

Rosenberg sorts out these problems, especially those centering on the causal role of consciousness. He introduces a new paradigm called Liberal Naturalism for thinking about what causation is, about the natural world, and about how to create a detailed model to go along with the new paradigm. Arguing that experience is part of the categorical foundations of causality, he shows that within this new paradigm there is a place for something essentially like consciousness in all its traditional mysterious respects.

A striking feature of Liberal Naturalism is that its central tenets are motivated independently of the mind-body problem, by analyzing causation itself. Because of this approach, when consciousness shows up in the picture it is not introduced in an ad hoc way, and its most puzzling features can be explained from first principles. Ultimately, Rosenberg's final solution gives consciousness a causally important role without supposing either that it is physical or that it interacts with the physical.


My intention in writing this book was to create something whose importance lies beyond the details of its arguments. I myself consider this primarily a book of ideas. Of all my hopes, my dearest is this: that A Place for Consciousness should provide inspiration to those like me who were raised with the physicalist orthodoxy, accepting it but not fully comfortably, whose disquiet always has been silenced at the end by the baffling question: How could it be otherwise? I believe this book points to a place in the space of philosophical ideas where something truly new and interesting exists. I am, above all, trying to lead readers to that place so that they can return without me to explore it on their own. The space of ideas is a public space, after all, and these particular hidden woods can surely be mapped better than I have been able to map them.

We all know that in some sense there is a ghost in the machine. The question that grips us is, why? Why does consciousness even exist? What use has nature for an experience machine? This book proposes a place for consciousness in nature. The framework developed here is ambitious in its scope and detail: It ties experience into a theory of the categorical foundations of causation. Scholars should see it as an attempt to make a substantial advance in the development of Bertrand Russell’s Structural Realism by borrowing some inspiration from Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy. General readers can simply see it as an attempt to explain the mystery of the soul. Liberal Naturalism is my name for views of this type.

Both Russell and Whitehead argued that physical science reveals only a structural aspect to nature. If physics is all structure, it is natural to suppose that intrinsic properties related to the intrinsic properties we experience in consciousness are the intrinsic content of the physical. This suggestion raises several questions: (1) Why should the intrinsic properties of a physical system be experiential? (2) Why do they exist above the level of the microphysical, where largescale cognitive systems might experience macrolevel intrinsic content? (3) Why should they form a unity of the kind we are acquainted with in consciousness? and (4) Why should phenomenal content, as the intrinsic content of the physical, correspond so closely to the information structure within the brain? By constitutively linking experience and causation, I answer these questions from first principles.

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