Consciousness is not perceived

“The hard problem of consciousness asks why and how humans have qualia or phenomenal experiences. This is in contrast to the “easy problems” of explaining the physical systems that give humans and other animals the ability to discriminate, integrate information, and so forth.” (Wikipedia)

Warren Mansell’s richly stimulating chapter in the PCT Handbook, vol. 2 does not claim to answer the 'hard problem '. It is an excellent survey of the requisites for a perceptual control hierarchy to create and control the perceptual signals that we know as conscious experiences. Its aim is “to explain why and how human consciousness is required” (p. 52). Framing it this was appears to accept the assumption that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon.

Many researchers and philosophers today assume that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. This assumption is a necessary corollary of materialism, and PCT is a materialist science. Materialism is the philosophical doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. The alternative seems to be mind-body dualism, Koestler’s ‘ghost in the machine’.

PCT promises an account of mind immanent in matter. Gregory Bateson proposed this in a more discursive way, informed by cybernetics but without the discipline of PCT, in various writings but especially Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. PCT shows how this proposal might be spelled out. In PCT the mystery is not a mind-body problem, it is about the relation of consciousness to mind-body. With a grounding in PCT, we can accept that a complex AI system implemented on a computer does things mentally without imputing consciousness to it.

PCT holds that perceptions-as-neural-signals are analogs of physical variables (CEVs) and success in controlling them confirms this belief. However, perceptions-as-signals are constructed by the control hierarchy, and control systems act to bring environmental variables into conformity with reference values for them. Not only humans but arguably all living control systems (LCS) live in a ‘built’ environment, to the extent that by persistent or recurrent control actions LCSes alter their environment in ways that make it easier for them to control. Rabbits have dens, paths, and familiar locations of food, water, peers, and exposure to risk. Perceptual control is creative; it contributes to creating the world in which it operates.

Perceptions-as-neural-signals are analogs of physical variables (CEVs), but perceptions-as-experiences are not analogical to consciousness. There is nothing to which to form an analogy, because consciousness itself is featureless. Consciousness is that which experiences. Consciousness doesn’t do anything, it just experiences. Perhaps consciousness creates perceptions-as-experiences from perceptions-as-neural-signals.

That is not a solution to the ‘hard problem’. The relation of perception-as-neural-signal to perception-as-experience is mysterious in just the way that consciousness is mysterious. Consciousness is that which experiences, and what it experiences is

  • Perceptual correlates of the physical environment.
  • The inner sensorium of corporeal perceptions (which is also part of the physical environment of the nervous system).
  • The inner sensorium of imagined perceptions, not all of which have environmental or corporeal counterparts.

In the perceptual hierarchy, the ‘arrow’ of awareness always points downward. The point of view upon any perception is from the system that controls that perception. However, there is no vantage point ‘above’ consciousness from which to perceive or experience consciousness. Consciousness is the point of view for every experience, but there is no point of view apart from consciousness from which to experience consciousness. (Using ‘point of view’ in its customary figurative sense.)

Consciousness is that which experiences. However, we still don’t know how consciousness experiences perceptions-as-neural-signals as experiences. All we know is perceptions-as-experiences. Complex perceptions (experiments, reports, theories) tell us these correspond to perceptions-as-neural-signals. Molto mysterioso.

What if consciousness is not emergent from appropriately arranged organizations of matter? Consider the possibility that consciousness is a primitive factor antecedent to what we experience as material form.

Something like this has been proposed by Bohm, Bell, and other theoretical physicists in the relation between implicate and explicate order and in broader proposals by physicists and others under the rubric of ‘Quantum Mind’.

I am not proposing a mind-body dualism. PCT shows how mind is immanent in appropriately organized matter. PCT explains how mind does things. Consciousness does not do anything. Consciousness is that which experiences. The difference that emerges with evolution is not an increase in consciousness, it is an increase in complexity of that which consciousness experiences.

There are many traditions of subjective investigation into the nature of consciousness in relation to perception and phenomena. Although they are geographically and temporally separated from one another there is remarkable unanimity among them that consciousness is primitive and that a grasp of the nature of consciousness depends not on discussion but on experimental practice. Experiment, as in all departments of life, is essentially subjective but accessible to test and replication. For example, Qabalah teaches that by identifying with consciousness, a subjective experience of receptivity, one’s personality becomes a more effective center of expression for that which is creating the universe. Buddhism affirms that the appearance of separateness of phenomena and self is illusory, and offers a variety of practices for identification with bare consciousness. The crux of the ‘sudden’ approaches, as e.g. in a Zen (Chan) koan, is beating your intellect and emotions against the paradoxical impossibility of being conscious of consciousness.

There is widespread lay recognition of beneficial effects of meditation and other practices which conduce to bare consciousness. Bill Powers reported, and demonstrated with a subject in at least one CSG meeting, that experimental MoL practice tends to this. In MoL therapy simple awareness of the terms of a conflict concurrently seems to release them into reorganization. In PCT, we can perhaps see that in a collective control situation (which is most of the time for most of us, directly or indirectly) mere consciousness is a point of view orthogonal to the personal agendas of all the players yet common to all, and therefore most welcoming of reorganization. This principle is the basis of Quaker decision-making (Sheeran 1983), and is why their concept of ‘unity’ is different from consensus. It might be said that consciousness does nothing, but it enables anything to be done well.

If consciousness is a primitive inherent property at every level of complexity, then its vantage point is not hierarchically ‘above’, it is pervasive. It fits the description omnipresent and omniscient. As to omnipotence, that is up to the various arrangements and interactions which it experiences, especially those arrangements that are structured as control systems, and their collective control capacities. To attribute properties of a control system to it is theology, systems of perceptions that are collectively created and controlled by humans, some more fanciful than others.


Bateson, Gregory. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: E.P. Dutton

Mansell, Warren. 2023. “Conflict to collage”: A perceptual control architecture to underpin human consciousness. Interdisciplinary Handbook of Perceptual Control Theory, Volume II: Living in the Loop, Chapter 2, pp. 29-58. London: Academic Press/Elsevier.

Sheeran, Michael J. 1983. Beyond Majority Rule: Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends. [Originally presented as the author’s thesis (Ph.D.)–Princeton University, 1977.] Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.


Hi Bruce,

This theme is fascinating, thank you for sharing. You may like a recent episode of The Joy of Why podcast. Strogatz had Prof. Anil Seth talking about his take on consciousness and how he faces the “hard problem” as a materialist.

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about the Predictive Coding approach (or the FEP in general): sometimes it sounds like PCT, which I find interesting, at other times its emphasis on prediction bores me.