Metasubjective Cognition Beyond the Brain: Subjective Awareness and the Location of Concepts of Consciousness
by Titus Rivas
Consciousness has irreducible qualitative and subjective aspects that
cannot be represented in a physical, purely quantitative system. This
implies that an exhaustive conceptual ‘metasubjective’ representation
(i.e. a representation of the defining
properties of conscious experiences) in the brain as an exclusively
physical system is impossible. Similarly, individual memories of
conscious experiences must contain information about qualitative and
subjective aspects as well, since concepts of consciousness ultimately
derive from such information abstracted from episodic memories.
Therefore, the stored bases from which such individual memories of
conscious experiences are reconstructed must also contain elements that
cannot be represented in the brain. Both metasubjective concepts and
bases of our individual memories of subjective experiences can only be
stored in a personal non-physical memory linked to consciousness. There
must be a personal mind or psyche that embraces consciousness,
metasubjective concepts and bases of episodical memories of one’s
I would like to thank Anny Dirven, Jamuna Prasad, B. Shamsukha, Kirti
Swaroop Rawat, Hein van Dongen, Marcel Engeringh, René van Delft,
Arnold Ziegelaar, John Gregg, Lian Sidorov, Esteban Rivas, Karl
Pribram, and Ian Stevenson for their constructive criticisms, support,
Conscious experiences are often characterised
as qualia, i.e. as entities that are irreducibly qualitative and
subjective (Beloff, 1962; Popper & Eccles, 1977; Rivas, 2003a).
This is relevant for the status of consciousness within the philosophy
of mind. In a completely physical universe, consciousness could only
exist if our definition of physicality embraced qualitative and
subjective dimensions. This is a major problem, as being physical is usually understood as being non-qualitative and non-subjective.
In fact, this classical definition goes back to the notions of
so-called primary and secondary properties, based on the doctrines of
the Greek atomists such as Demokritus and Leucippus and developed by
Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Locke (1961). Some (so-called “primary”)
mathematically measurable properties of the physical world such as
size, shape, number and momentum are intrinsical to that world, and
other (so-called “secondary”) apparently non-mathematical aspects, such
as redness or sweetness, only exist in our subjective perception of it.
The main reason for this basic distinction is that the phenomenal
or subjective, qualitative way a physical object is perceived cannot be
an inherent physical property of that object itself. For example,
although both a congenitally blind person and a person with normal
eyesight may in principle have access to the same quantitative
information generated by a camera, their understanding of what can be
seen subjectively is radically different. In other words, subjectively
seeing an object implies more than having physical visual information
about that object (Nagel, 1979; Jackendoff, 1987). There is an
irreducible conscious visual mode which allows us to have subjective
visual experiences, e.g. of what an object’s spatial dimensions and
colour look like for a conscious subject. These experiences are
not part of the object’s properties themselves but exclusively of our
Not all philosophers accept the validity of the distinction
between primary and secondary properties. For instance, Berkeley (1998)
claims that all perceived properties exclusively belong to the mind.
Improbable as it may seem, this idealistic
ontological view is not incoherent (Rivas, 2003a). However, it is
incompatible with postulating a real physical world that exists
independently of our perception, which is one of the basic assumptions
of this paper.
Then, there are also scholars who believe that any type of distinction
between appearance and reality is baseless. Anything we perceive would
really exist in the world outside. This view makes it impossible to
distinguish between illusions or hallucinations and realistic
impressions of the physical realm. In contrast, it is almost generally
accepted that our subjective normal perception of the physical world is
created on the basis of non-subjective neurological processing of
physical stimuli. In other words, we do not perceive the physical world
outside directly or immediately, but we consciously experience the
outcome of neurological perceptual processes, which in turn exclusively
use mathematical properties of physical patterns that reach the brain
through our senses and nervous pathways. Even if the physical world had
non-mathematical characteristics, in normal perception we would never
be able to perceive them directly as our sensory perception is always
mediated by the nervous system.
All this has had important consequences for our understanding of matter
(the “stuff” the physical world is assumed to be made of) and
consciousness. It has led to the three main fundamental positions
within the philosophy of mind:
- “Both the physical world and the realm of consciousness are real and cannot be reduced to one another” or dualism. (In this literal sense, certain types of emergentism may also be regarded as forms of dualism.)
- “Only the physical world is irreducibly real” or materialism.
- “Only consciousness is irreducibly real” or idealism.
2. The reality of consciousness
Some scholars, such as Dennett (1995), claim that what we understand by a conscious mind is really an abstraction of complex neurological processing in our brain. In other words, there would be no irreducibly real
conscious experiences. Others (Rosenthal, 1994) claim that
consciousness is really nothing more than the way we experience the
brain from the inside. The brain as an objective physical system has no
qualitative, subjective dimensions, which thereby would only appear to be objectively real by our ‘first-person perspective’.
In other words, all of these theorists reduce consciousness to a kind of illusion
with no ultimate reality or they simply deny the existence of an
irreducible consciousness altogether, even in the sense of an
irreducibly subjective illusion. All of them concur in their view that
consciousness is not a real part of the ‘objective’ world.
Many scholars will not accept the ‘scientific’ reduction of their
personal consciousness to something that is ultimately non-conscious or
merely illusory. This explains the appeal of a position that does
acknowledge the reality of consciousness as more than an illusion even
though it also claims that consciousness has no impact on reality or
‘efficacy’ (Jackendoff, 1987; Chalmers, 1996, 2002), a position
commonly known as epiphenomenalism. However, this position contains a
fatal inner contradiction. If conscious experiences do not have any
causal impact upon memory, we cannot possibly have formed a concept of
consciousness on the basis of those conscious experiences (Rivas &
Van Dongen, 2001, 2003; Rivas, 2003b). In other words, we could not
have any valid reason to believe that we are conscious beings, whereas
this belief is a prerequisite of the very position of epiphenomenalism.
Therefore, if we acknowledge the reality of consciousness, we also have to accept that our conscious experiences have a real impact
on the world. In fact, this is also an important argument against the
theory that consciousness only exists as an illusion -or identity
theory-, since, accordingly, conscious experiences would not be part of
the real world and therefore they would not be able to exercise any
real influence either (Rivas & Van Dongen, 2003).
In sum, I think that starting from a criterion of coherence, we can
only choose between a full-blown acceptance of the reality of conscious
experiences and their impact on the world and a total denial of the
reality of consciousness (and its causal efficacy). This is only
problematic for those who believe that the world simply must be
primarily or even exclusively physical in nature, which is really a
matter of convention rather than logic.
Some have tried to redefine the physical world so that it may embrace
consciousness. A new definition would have to allow for a real
consciousness with an equally real impact on the world. As we have
seen, the important problem with this approach is that the distinction
between mathematical and non-mathematical properties cannot be regarded
as arbitrary, as it is a precondition for the distinction between the
qualitative, subjective way we perceive a physical object and the
object’s reality separate from our phenomenal perception of it. A real
physical world with real (rather than just apparent) inherent
qualitative and subjective properties would not be a completely physical
world anymore as commonly understood (Rivas, 2003a). As mentioned
above, one of the main premises of this paper is that there is an
irreducible physical reality.
3.1. Concepts of consciousness and the brain
Anyone who acknowledges the reality of consciousness implicitly accepts
that our concepts of conscious experiences cannot be empty. They must
refer to the diverse qualitative and subjective events we undergo as
conscious subjects. Now we may ask in what medium these concepts of
consciousness or metasubjective concepts
are stored. Presupposing the basic (dualist) assumption of the physical
reality of the central nervous system, are metasubjective concepts part
of a conceptual memory located in the brain?
Let me first explain the term metasubjective
as it is used in this paper. The word simply means ‘about subjective
experiences’ or ‘about consciousness’. So there is no link here with
other meanings such as ‘transcendent’ or ‘belonging to a social or
cultural context larger than one’s own personal experience’. My use of
the term is related to the word ‘metacognition’. A possible synonym
could be ‘metaphenomenal’.
However, the word ‘phenomenal memory’ is not a good equivalent, as it
implies that a memory is subjective rather than metasubjective (i.e.
about consciousness). For instance a memory of a physical equation may
temporarily be ‘phenomenal’ (consciously recalled), but it is not
metasubjective (about consciousness).
To complicate things a bit, I’m aware that in the literature of the philosophy of mind the term phenomenal concept
is sometimes used to denote what I call here ‘metasubjective concepts’
(Carruthers, 2004). The term can be found in discussions about the
irreducible qualities of consciousness or in debates about physicalism.
As said, I object to the use of the word ‘phenomenal’ in this sense, as
taken literally it seems to suggest that metasubjective concepts would
always have to be experienced ‘phenomenally’ (i.e. subjectively), just
as ‘phenomenal’ experiences are conscious experiences.
3.2. Storage of metasubjective concepts
In any possible physical memory, concepts are necessarily stored as
physical, quantitative patterns. The question therefore becomes whether
concepts of consciousness can be stored as physical, quantitative
Adequate, sufficient storage of any concept in a conceptual memory must
be such that its activation permits cognitive access to its main
conceptual dimensions. For example, if we store a concept of bats as
flying mammals that use echolocation, all of these three aspects
(flying, mammals, echolocation) must be included in the concept as it
Our scientific concepts of physical entities can only contain
information about physical (so-called primary) properties. This should
not be a problem for any physical system of conceptual representation;
as such a system is in principle capable of representing any type of
The same cannot be said about metasubjective concepts, i.e. concepts of
consciousness that also contain representations of non-mathematical
properties. In fact, such qualitative and subjective properties
(including for example intentionality (Searle, 1983, 1997)) are
essential to our understanding of consciousness (Jackendoff, 1987). If
we did not have access to these defining conceptual dimensions of our
concepts of consciousness, it would be completely impossible to think
about consciousness and its manifestations as such.
Can we imagine a physical system that contains exhaustive representations of the defining qualitative and subjective dimensions of consciousness?
Note that we’re not talking here about the presence of consciousness
itself in the brain as a physical system, but about the location of
exhaustive concepts of consciousness.
To rephrase our question once more: Can exhaustive metasubjective
concepts be physical? The answer obviously depends on whether we accept
that consciousness possesses non-quantitative aspects or not. As we
have already seen above, if we do not, consciousness itself may in
principle be regarded as a physical phenomenon. If we do, the
non-quantitative aspects of consciousness cannot be exhaustively
represented quantitatively. If
we could give an exhaustive quantitative description of consciousness,
there simply would not be any irreducible non-quantitative aspects to it.
This means that if we accept that consciousness has other than purely
quantitative aspects, it is impossible to conceive of an exhaustive
physical representation of concepts of consciousness in the brain or
anywhere else. An exhaustive representation of metasubjective concepts
can in principle only be realised in a non-physical medium (Rivas,
4. Possible objections
Let us take a look at possible objections to my line of reasoning.
Some of these objections were expressed by real opponents, whereas others are only hypothetical.
4.1. Do concepts of consciousness have to be exhaustive?
Some may want to escape from my conclusion by acknowledging that
metasubjective concepts cannot be exhaustively represented in the
brain, while asserting that we do not need an exhaustive, defining
concept of consciousness to be able to use it. We might reconstruct
what we mean by diverse metasubjective terms from our immediate
subjective experience of the types of consciousness they refer to.
However, we can never conceptually distinguish between the diverse
types of consciousness we experience if we have not already formed the
concepts beforehand. In other words, we cannot understand what a term
refers to if there is no defining conceptual representation in our
memory linked to that term. We need exhaustive [in the sense of sufficiently defining (addition 2009)] concepts of
consciousness, since otherwise we could not use metasubjective terms in
a distinctive way.
4.2. Innate concepts of consciousness
Another escape route that might be proposed is that metasubjective
concepts are not formed on the basis of consciousness. Instead, they
would be innate elements belonging to the blueprint of the human brain.
Thus, the brain does not need to abstract information about
consciousness but it already possesses all the relevant metasubjective
concepts as part of its basic tools.
However, this does not solve the problem either, as any innate concept
of consciousness located in the brain would still have to be completely
quantitative and therefore lacking several necessary dimensions.
4.3. Quantifiable dimensions of consciousness
Some might object to my analysis, pointing at the fact that
consciousness can indeed often be quantified. For example, subjects in
psychological tests are able to rate the intensity of a conscious
feeling in quantitative terms.
However, my claim is not that conscious experiences possess no
quantifiable dimensions whatsoever, but only that they possess
non-quantitative, qualitative and subjective aspects as well.
4.4. Metasubjective concepts and other concepts
Another objection that some might want to raise against my argumentation would be that all concepts as we subjectively experience them
can only exist in consciousness. This is not specific for
metasubjective concepts. So if we believe that non-metasubjective
concepts -for example of specific types of physical objects- can be
stored in a physical system, but only experienced subjectively through
consciousness, what would be the relevant difference between
metasubjective and other concepts?
However, my point is not that metasubjective concepts are different
from other concepts because they would have to be experienced
subjectively. My point concerns the content of metasubjective concepts.
Contrary to other concepts, this content has to include information
about the non-physical aspects of consciousness, i.e. information that
cannot be represented in a purely quantitative manner. In this crucial
respect, metasubjective concepts are very different from other
4.5. An interactionist alternative to the storage of metasubjective concepts?
A rather sophisticated objection to my analysis runs as follows. There
can be no metasubjective information in the brain, but perhaps specific
types of consciousness automatically cause specific neuronal changes
through some type of psychokinesis. Such changes would not involve
information about the specific types of consciousness, but via natural
laws of brain-mind interaction the changed cerebral patterns would
‘conjure up’ memories of subjective experiences whenever they’re
activated. The laws of interaction would be similar to the ones
governing normal perception in which physical patterns lead to
conscious impressions. Metasubjective concepts would in turn be
directly abstracted from the subjective experiences recalled.
However, the supposed analogy with normal perception is false, because
in normal perception the physical patterns certainly do provide
specific information about the objects in question reflected in
consciousness. Whereas in the supposed case of memory there would be no
informational relation to the subjective experiences (as such)
recalled. In this respect, the relation would be causal but not
informational, as the non-quantitative information
about the subjective experiences would not be stored in the
hypothetical physical patterns. The information contained in such
patterns could exclusively represent the non-subjective, quantitative
aspects of the subjective experiences. The subjective, qualitative
aspects of the subjective experiences would be solely recollected in
consciousness by activation of the hypothetical physical patterns,
rather than being represented in the patterns themselves.
By the way, if the supposed physical patterns would merely repeat the
(perceptual) physical pattern that caused the conscious experience to
be recalled, the hypothetical process would not constitute real memory
anymore, as we could not really remember the conscious experience as
such. Real memory of a subjective experience presupposes some direct
causal relation between the experience (itself) and its recollection,
which is absent if the supposed physical memory representation is not
caused by the conscious experience but only by its physical precursor.
As the subjective experience cannot be represented physically, its
non-physical aspects might at best cause a non-informational pattern in
Secondly, and this is a conclusive argument against the alternative
hypothesis, metasubjective concepts must be based on non-quantitative
information about subjective experiences, rather than on hypothetical
markers in the brain which themselves contain no non-physical
information. Information that would only be present in the individual
conscious memories of subjective experiences cannot be used for
abstraction. As soon as the individual conscious memory of one
subjective experience would be replaced by the individual conscious
memory of another subjective experience, the information contained in
the first conscious memory would immediately be lost. Thus, information
from one conscious memory could never be compared with information from
another conscious memory, and therefore no metasubjective concept based
on such a comparison could ever arise.
The possibility of a mere ‘working memory’ dealing with
metasubjective cognition would not count as an alternative for
non-physical memory, as such a hypothetical working memory would itself
have to be non-physical in order to handle metasubjective concepts!
4.6. Understanding the nature of metasubjective conceptual memory
philosophers who read my manuscript complained that if the conceptual
representation of consciousness stored in memory is not physical, we
could not possibly imagine what metasubjective conceptual memory would
‘look like’. We cannot make any physical model of it, or simulate its
representation in a computer. Also, we cannot understand exactly how a
non-physical memory should interact with the brain as a physical
system. These thinkers hold that we should not postulate any
theoretical entities unless we fully grasp their precise nature and
interaction with the rest of the world.
However, in the physical sciences some entities are postulated because
their existence seems necessary from a theoretical point of view. There
is no reason why this should be fundamentally different in the
philosophy of mind or theoretical psychology. If the existence of a
non-physical metasubjective conceptual memory logically follows from
our analysis, we ought not avoid postulating it, even if we do not
understand its exact nature or functioning.
4.7. Mathematics is part of the mind
Responding to the manuscript of this essay, Dr. Karl Pribram has
stressed that mathematics is part of the mind rather than of the
physical world. However, it is not my intention to reduce mathematics
to anything physical. Within ontology and the (physical) sciences, the
physical world is generally described in mathematical terms, but this
does not mean that the mathematical should be regarded as physical.
Perceptual subjective experiences usually have quantitative aspects and
we even derive the quantitative properties of physical objects from our
subjective experiences of them. Thus, the idealist claim that even the
apparent primary properties of matter only exist in the mind is
In other words, there is an important asymmetry in the relation between
matter and mathematical properties: anything physical possesses
mathematical properties, but not everything with mathematical
properties is physical.
5. Memories of conscious experiences
My analysis also applies to the building blocks of our episodical
memories of individual conscious experiences. Our metasubjective
concepts are based on our conscious experiences that are somehow stored
in episodical memory. This can only work, if during the process of
storage, information about qualitative and subjective aspects of those
conscious experiences is not left out. As we have already seen,
qualitative and subjective aspects cannot be exhaustively represented
in physical memory.
Note that I’m not claiming that individual memories are always
retrieved as complete and unchanging entities. I acknowledge that to a
large extent individual memories seem to be continuously reconstructed
and that they may change over time. However, what I am claiming is that
from which individual memories of conscious experiences are recreated
must necessarily include representations of the specifically
qualitative and subjective dimensions of those experiences.
This is not a mere repetition of my claim that concepts about
consciousness must be stored in a non-physical memory. I also claim
that metasubjective concepts are abstracted from episodical memories of
conscious experiences, and that the building blocks from which those
episodical memories are reconstructed must already contain information
about the non-quantitative aspects of such experiences. We must be able
to recognize the qualitative and subjective aspects of consciousness
from our (reconstructed) memories of subjective experiences. Without
such recognition, these aspects cannot make any sense to us. For
example, without memories of conscious olfactory experiences, we would
be unable to form any adequate idea of what it generally means to smell
Glenberg (1997) believes that the classical, sharp distinction between
episodic and ‘semantic’ or conceptual memory as two distinct and
separate memory systems is untenable. Episodic and semantic memories
would all belong to the same system. Be this as it may, metasubjective
concepts clearly relate to episodic memories of subjective experiences.
6. Non-physical memory and the psyche
Another question is how the non-physical memory in which conceptual and
episodical metasubjective memories must be stored, relates to
consciousness. It seems obvious that we only recall our own subjective
experiences. This means that there must be a personal psychical or
mental memory intimately related to consciousness.
I see this analytical conclusion as a firm basis for a rehabilitation of the psyche
or personal non-physical mind, which has to include consciousness, but
also metasubjective conceptual memories and building blocks of
metasubjective episodical memories (Rivas, 2003a, 2005; Bergson, 1908;
Bozzano, 1994; Gauld, 1982; Wade, 1996).
This also has an interesting consequence for fundamental theories about
telepathy. F.B. Dilley (1990) has tried to conceptualise telepathy as a
form of psychically ‘reading’ another person’s brain, i.e. a subtype of
clairvoyance of the physical world. However, this is inconceivable if
telepathy involves metasubjective memories or cognition. In that case,
telepathy must consist of a direct interaction between two or more
psyches (Rivas, 1990).
7. The brain and metasubjective cognition
Many contemporary psychologists believe that psychological theory
should always be “neurologically implementable”, which means that their
constructs should ultimately correspond to physical events in the brain
and accord with its neurological laws.
My analysis shows that this basic assumption must be wrong. Conceptual
memories and bases of episodical memories of subjective experiences
cannot possibly be exhaustively implemented in the brain as a physical
system, and yet their role in cognition is clearly very important. This
means that a large part of psychological theory can never be translated
into neurological terms. Psychology cannot be reduced to neurology
(Rivas, 2003a). All of our metasubjective cognitive processes must be psychogenic and primarily ruled by specific psychological mechanisms.
As the brain can contain no exhaustive concept of consciousness, it can
literally have no idea of what it means to be conscious. Therefore, the
brain cannot possibly be the primary source of metasubjective
cognition. The brain will often follow the mind, i.e. neurology will
often follow psychology.
All of this must not only hold for human psychology, but equally for
the psychology of individual animals of all other species that possess
subjective experiences (Rivas, 2003c).
Regardless of the exact role of the brain in memory processes, it
cannot be the location where metasubjective memories are stored. Also,
as conceptual and episodical memories about conscious experiences are
not located in the brain, brain death certainly does not automatically
imply destruction of these memories (Rivas, 1999a, 2000, 2003d; Van
Lommel et al., 2001; Parnia et al., 2001; Stevenson, 1987, 1997; Rawat
& Rivas, 2005). Storage of metasubjective memory outside the brain
during physical life implies that memories can be preserved without a
specific physical pattern or ‘substrate’ to account for this. Also, as
processes of metasubjective cognition are psychogenic it is a priori
conceivable that a psyche continues to function cognitively after brain
activity has ceased.
Although the brain may -by some kind of natural laws of
interaction- facilitate or obstruct storage and retrieval of
metasubjective concepts and bases of the reconstruction of individual
metasubjective memories in the mind (Rivas, 1999b), such storage and
retrieval cannot be embodied in the brain itself. Thus, despite popular
materialist doctrine on this issue (Augustine, 1997; Braude, 2003), no
amount of somatogenic impairment of our metasubjective memories can
ever make them physical or ultimately dependent on our brains.
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About the author
Titus Rivas, MA (Phil.), Msc (Psych.) (1964) is a graduate of
systematic philosophy and theoretical psychology. His main fields of
theoretical interest include, in alphabetical order: animal psychology
and ethics, axiology, general psychology, metaphysics, and
parapsychology. He has published articles about various topics within
these and other domains, and books on the philosophy of mind,
parapsychological reincarnation and survival research, general
parapsychology, and animal liberation.
Correspondence should go to: Titus Rivas, Darrenhof 9, 6533 RT
Nijmegen, The Netherlands, email@example.com
This interview in JNLRMI, II, 3 is related to my article.
This article was published in 2006 by the Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions, IV (1).