A technician explains measurements whilst a scientist explains observations.

An Introduction to New Empiricism

If I try to describe my conscious experience I should use a scientific approach where I observe, describe my experience and then devise a theory to explain my observations. This approach of observing then theorising is known as an "empirical" approach. The empirical approach is at the heart of science and of "New Empiricism".

So what is an empirical description of my conscious experience? When I look around, my experience contains slabs of colour and movements. The slabs of colour, such as the sky and the ground, are made up of simultaneous parts. Sounds are distributed around about as are smells and textures. I have the impression that my experience is centred on a sort of "mind's eye". The separations between things in my experience are present as angular separations relative to this "mind's eye".

Now look around for yourself. Is your experience colours, sounds etc. distributed around a sort of observation point? Is it a view?

My worst mistake at this point would be to introduce a theory about all experience being subject to doubt and hence dismiss my observation. The use of such theories to trump observation is surprisingly popular despite being unsustainable (see You are totally incorrigible). I could also haul out some rusty old bit of school physics to "prove" that views are impossible. For instance if I use school physics it is "obvious" that I cannot have a "mind's eye" that is the centre of a view because all the light rays would get mixed up in a point! However, if I took this stance I would be putting theory before observation. If I take a closer look at my experience I notice that light doesn't flow into a point in my experience, it is distributed around the point, and in my dreams and imaginings there is certainly no flow of light, just distributed experience. I can say that things are arranged around a point but I cannot infer that there are any flows into that point. My experience is geometrical, not dynamical, it has arrangements of things but no flows into a viewing point. So using school physics to dismiss my observation would be "jumping the gun" because on close examination my observation has a centre point but no flow into that point.

Returning to my observation, when I say "now!" the "now" is always in the past. The present, as a boundary between the past and future, has no duration, it is no time at all so what I call the "present moment" is actually a small slice of the past. I also find that events are laid out in the immediate past in a similar way to how they are laid out in the space of experience. For instance, when someone says "hello" the "h" - "e" - "l" - "o" sounds are heard spread out over about a second at the apparent location of the speaker's lips. This is the crucial feature of my experience: events occur as extended arrangements in dimensional time at locations in mental space and they are arranged around a central point but do not occur within this central point.

My school physics is now becoming useless, I would need a more advanced knowledge of physics to have any physical understanding of events being laid out in time like things being laid out in space. All I could say on the basis of school physics is that "this can't be happening!". But it is happening - just look and listen. My experience is geometrical with time being one of the directions in which things can be arranged. Our minds are four dimensional. Extra dimensions have unexpected consequences, for instance, if two black ink dots are separated on a sheet of white paper they are always separated by white space along the two dimensional sheet. However, fold the sheet through the third dimension and the dots can be joined without any intervening space. The extra dimension has allowed a new phenomenon to occur. It has allowed the dots to be joined in the extra dimension without any motion along the 2D sheet. In a similar way, if my experience is four dimensional then there are possibilities, such as the disappearance in the separation between things, that are almost inconceivable in 3D.

I am not aware in no time at all so being aware "now" implies that a stretch of the past is present, there at a speaker's lips, in the same way as a stretch of space is present, there in the form of the speaker's lips. I am aware because the same experience is both "now" at a connecting point and also extended in time and space.

And that is the essence of the simplest observations available to the "New Empiricist". My experience is a geometrical form that has at least four independent directions for arranging things or "dimensions".

So much for observation, what about a theory? A physical theory of conscious experience has two stages. The first stage is a geometrical hypothesis about conscious experience itself. The second stage is a theory about how this arrangement of events could be supported within the brain.

Possible physical descriptions

Casual readers should probably avoid this section. I raise ideas here that depend upon a knowledge of modern physics and there is not the space in a short article to explain the physical theory. The various points raised here are discussed in more depth, with explanations, in the other articles on this site.

It seems that a physical theory of mind is possible but even if a particular theory were incorrect the empirical observations would still stand and would still require an explanation. New Empiricism does not depend on a particular physical theory, it is about accepting the primacy of observation and experience. However, it is possible to propose a general outline for a physical theory that might describe conscious experience.

The first stage of a theory of conscious experience, a geometrical hypothesis, seems possible although complex. If these dimensions of my mind are like the dimensions of physical spacetime then my experience is feasible provided that time exists and has the character of a dimension. In modern physics dimensional time has an opposite signature to space in the spacetime metric and so permits the disappearance of separation between points in certain directions (those corresponding to the path of light rays). This disappearance of separation produces a new sort of "point" that might correspond to what I have called a "mind's eye". My "mind's eye" would be due to the disappearance of separation between things in my experience, not a result of flows into a point. This possibility of foci in four dimensional forms makes them very different from simple 3D forms.

The second stage, an hypothesis about how part of the brain might contain the form of conscious experience is more problematical. Our measurements give us data on the 3D arrangement of events in the brain at an instant. These measurements show that at any instant the events that represent occurrences in the sense organs are spread out so that adjacent events continue to be adjacent along two dimensional surfaces of brain tissue. The transformation from this basically 2D form to the multidimensional form of experience is the central problem of any second stage hypothesis. Somehow, with increasing distance in time from a volume of brain activity the activity becomes arranged in a form that corresponds to our experience. There are two alternatives, either there is a place in the brain, such as the thalamus, where events become arranged on a spherical surface or there is some transformation that occurs between the past and the present in any given piece of brain tissue so that brain activity from a second or so ago adopts the geometrical form of experience now. To summarise, either brain events are rerouted to a particular place in the brain where they become organised like our experience or spacetime itself is used to provide the rerouting or both.

It seems that a physical theory of mind is possible but even if a particular theory were incorrect the empirical observations would still stand and would still require an explanation. New Empiricism does not depend on a particular physical theory, it is about accepting the primacy of observation and experience.

This was a quick summary of "New Empiricism". Read the other articles for a closer discussion and more explanation.

A Note on Four Dimensionalism

Even those who accept that the universe is four dimensional often make a mistake in imagining the form of four dimensional spacetime. It is common for four dimensions to be represented as:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But this is a pseudo-three dimensional representation of four dimensions. It is actually seriously wrong when used to describe anything other than the path of an object in 3D space.  Four dimensions cannot be portrayed on a sheet of paper, the nearest we can get is to consider the "light cone":

Image courtesy of Wikibooks: Special Relativity.

The light cone is a consequence of the four dimensional metric of spacetime and given by:

0 = x2 + y2 + z2 - (ct)2

which has a negative sign in front of the term for time so what is happening is that, if dimensional time exists, all of those points on the surface of the cone are no distance at all from the centre point along the path represented by the cone. This "path" is actually a zero separation in spacetime so many events are AT the centre point but not IN the centre point.


At this stage you may be shaking your head and hope to just go back to thinking that you can't rely on your own experience, you can only rely on measurements and you can't directly measure experience. Sounds good, fine, a nineteenth century outlook is comforting and lots of people know no better so will agree with you, but remember, your measurements are only 3D slices of a universe that is known to be much more than a set of things arranged in 3D. Your conscious experience confirms this but our primitive measurements do not.


  1. Could you sometime do a post on the difference (as you'd call it) between "physicalism" and "materialism"? You seem to treat the two as vastly different, but many others use those terms interchangeably.

    I'm very drawn to Aquinas/Aristotle's views on the mind, or the argument that some aspect of the mind must be immaterial. But I also have a feeling that my 'immaterial' may be your 'physical'. Funny how that works.

  2. I am also drawn to Aristotle's view on the mind and would accord Aquinas considerable respect. (See Perceiving perception and seeing seeing).

    There is a difference between materialism and physicalism. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for physicalism it states: "Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism. Historically, materialists held that everything was matter -- where matter was conceived as "an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist" (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, par. 9). The reason for speaking of physicalism rather than materialism is to abstract away from this historical notion, which is usually thought of as too restrictive -- for example, forces such as gravity are physical but it is not clear that they are material in the traditional sense (Dijksterhuis 1961, Yolton 1983)."

    Whitehead's diatribe is most revealing of the difference between materialism and physicalism. See Perceiving perception and seeing seeing. Whitehead (1920) sums up materialism: "It can be summarised as the belief that nature is an aggregate of material and that this material exists in some sense at each successive member of a one-dimensional series of extensionless instants of time. Furthermore the mutual relations of the material entities at each instant formed these entities into a spatial configuration in an unbounded space. It would seem that space---on this theory-would be as instantaneous as the instants, and that some explanation is required of the relations between the successive instantaneous spaces. The materialistic theory is however silent on this point; and the succession of instantaneous spaces is tacitly combined into one persistent space."

    This fixed space and time are not part of physicalism. The modern materialist says loudly that they are physicalist but then denies that the geometrical arrangement of events in space and time has got anything to do with phenomenal experience. Of course, as Aristotle spotted, if the universe were purely 3D then phenomenal experience could not exist so the only honest position for a materialist is eliminativism.

  3. Thanks for the reply, and I have an additional comment.

    It seems that traditional materialism - even before we get to mental questions - is false. At least according to the SEP, which is saying something.

    Thus, we have physicalism, which does not have that "too restrictive" definition. But that would lead me to ask, what are the limits of physicalism? That same source (The SEP, I believe) indicates, if I recall right, that panpsychism is conceivably compatible with physicalism.

    But if that's the case... where does it stop? Is cartesian dualism "physicalism"? Is idealism? Is Aristotle and Aquinas-style "dualism"? Are formal and final causes just another part of physicalism?

    Mind you, I don't ask these as if I have some dispute with you. I'm sympathetic certainly to your criticisms of materialism, and the suggested problems of 'theory coming before observation'. But one of my problems with the idea of "physicalism" has always been that it seems like a move made by naturalists in an effort to forget that "materialism", frankly, took a beating during the early 20th century.

  4. I see that the SEP entry for physicalism has recently been revised with the distinction between materialism and physicalism being downplayed and relegated to a section on "Terminology" - ho ho. That said, I think the SEP article does a good job of describing the current state of play in the philosophy of physicalism.

    I am willing to be educated but I cannot see how the state of a measuring instrument or other sensing device can ever be anything but an indication of (related to) the state of an object that is being measured. A measurement cannot be an object itself, it is always a state of a sensing device. For me, with my current knowledge about this subject, this limits science to the study of relations between states.

    Measurements might allow me to say that an object is 10 mm in diameter and composed of n particles but length and particle number are not that object, even though the combination (10mm,n) might be specific to only a few objects.

    This then opens the issue of whether "mind" contains states that are accessible to sensing devices. As an example, if "mind" is an extended object then it should, in principle, have properties that can be sensed by devices in the world at large.

    Some philosophers have attempted to elevate "physicalism" beyond the science of theory and measurement and further theory. I would prefer the term "physical realism" for this attempt. As a scientist I am uncomfortable with "realism" because the only reality that I know for certain is my own conscious experience. I can perform an experiment and compare my experience with that of other scientists but I am uncomfortable with believing the reality of other things - for instance the electron has gone from being a little football to a cloud to a swarm of probabilities to...etc.

  5. Re-reading the last post I realise that it is too non-committal to encourage debate. I do also know that there are ordered events although the nature of events and the nature of the directions in which they can be ordered is obscure. When I say I can "think" and therefore "be" I am saying "ordered events exist".