MaCro Philosophy

Why am I Conscious? Cats on Mats and Zombie Hats

Why am I conscious? This question is lurking behind most of the posts in this blog. Consciousness precedes everything (we notice) we do. Without consciousness, there would be no noticing of anything. The universe, in whatever sense it exists independent of observation, would be empty of anything we, as self-aware observers, call meaning.

It is therefore almost cruel that the question by itself is so misleading. It seems innocent, but the natural interpretation of those four words pushes us towards a fallacy in our thinking about consciousness. Being clear about this potential fallacy makes the mystery around the question drop away, leaving the way for open for solving the real question(s) of consciousness.

Contrast Cases

If you want to discover why you're conscious, first ask why the cat is on the mat.

Question 1: Why is the cat on the mat?

Question 2: Why is the cat on the mat?

The preceding shows how context completely changes the meaning of a question. 'Why is the cat on the mat?' is a completely different question to 'Why is the cat on the mat?'. What may be a good answer for one, would be a bad answer for the other. Yet, for brevity, we often state the question simply as 'Why is the cat on the mat?'. To avoid confusion we need always to keep in mind the contrast case: 'Why is the cat on the mat as opposed to under the mat?'.

Just like 'Why is the cat on the mat?', 'Why am I conscious?' has multiple possible contrast cases. Unfortunately, the shortest, simplest, potentially the most natural one, is nonsense.

The Bad Question

Why am I conscious?

Consciousness is clearly the key word in the sentence, so it is natural to emphasise it. This leads to the question 'Why am I conscious - as opposed to (keeping the 'I' constant) not conscious?' This is David Chalmers' so called hard problem of consciousness. It asks for an explanation, not just of which underlying processes give rise to consciousness, but of the difference between those mechanisms and consciousness itself. However, this difference doesn't exist.

Zombie Planes and Zombie Hats

The hard question is linked to the idea that it is possible to imagine a philosophical zombie. Your philosophical zombie is exactly the same as you, made up of the same stuff, capable of all the same behaviours, except that it is not conscious. This philosophical zombie is the contrast case in 'Why am I conscious?'. It has always struck me as odd to say that it is possible to imagine such a thing, and Anil Seth gives a good example as to why in his excellent 3hr podcast with Sam Harris.

Can you imagine a plane flying backwards? At first blush, this seems possible. But the more you think about it, the more physics seems to get in the way. Why doesn't it immediately come crashing down? To an aeronautical engineer, perhaps the concept is simply not conceivable. Consciousness should be similar: the more qualities of mine that I attribute to the philosophical zombie, the more it seems necessary for it to be conscious.

It may be possible to go even further than this. Even to an engineer, it is possible to at least begin to imagine a plane flying backwards. Similarly, even keeping in mind all that I know about solid objects, I can imagine walking through walls. But consciousness isn't a property like that of 'flying backwards' or 'walking through walls'. Consciousness is the name we give to what it feels like to be a certain type of system, and the 'what it feels like' is itself a state of the system. You can't take that away without changing the system itself.

On the left is a hat. On the right is the corresponding zombie hat. It is exactly the same as the left hat in almost every way. It is made of the same stuff. It can be used in the same way. However, it is missing one thing: it does not possess the property of hat-ness. It is not, in fact, a hat. I personally can't imagine the zombie hat. Every time I try it ends up being a hat as well as just having all the properties of one. I think the same goes for consciousness. If you have all the properties that conscious entities have, then you are conscious. Consciousness is not some additional property. The bad version of 'Why am I conscious?' isn't a real question at all.

The Good Question

Why am I conscious? or Why am I conscious?

Fortunately, there are good contrast cases. In 'Why am I conscious?', the contrast case is a different entity that is not conscious. This corresponds to questions such as 'What components of me are the key components associated with consciousness?' There are many ways to begin answering these questions and it is certainly possible to conceive of the contrast case where I am missing key capabilities and not conscious.


It is all too easy to fall into the trap of answering the bad version of the question. It's the natural extension, and unless the contrast case is made explicit, it is possible to not even realise that is what you are doing. Remembering the contrast case immediately dispels any illusions we may be under about the magical nature of consciousness as a thing over and above our physical selves. If you're ever stuck or confused by a question, write down its contrast case. You may find you've been unknowingly attempting to answer the wrong question all along.

The greatest and worst questions of all time may be 'Why am I conscious?' and 'Why am I conscious?'.

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