Is the brain in the world or the world in the brain?

The title is taken from Max Velmans, Where experiences are: Dualist, physicalist, enactive and reflexive accounts of phenomenal consciousness, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, Volume 6, Number 4 (2007), 547-563


In the paper, the reflexive model of perception is suggested.

In most respects Figure 3 is the same as Figures 1 and 2. As before, there is a cat in the world (perceived by E) that is the initiating stimulus for what S observes, and the proximal neural causes and correlates of what S experiences are, as before, located in S’s brain. The only difference relates to the ontology and location of S’s experience. According to dualists, S’s experience of a cat consists of “stuff that thinks” that is located “nowhere”; according to reductionists, S’s experience of a cat is a state or function of the brain that is located in her brain; according to the reflexive model, both of the former models are theoretically rather than empirically driven with the consequence that they systematically misdescribe what S actually experiences. If you place a cat in front of S and ask her to describe what she experiences, she should tell you that she sees a cat in front of her in the world. This phenomenal cat literally is what she experiences, located where it seems to be—and she has no additional experience of a cat either “nowhere” or 10 “in her brain.” According the reflexive model, this added experience is a myth. Applying Occam’s razor gets rid of it.”

Crucially, perceptual projection refers to an empirically observable effect, for example, to the fact that this print seems to be out here on this page and not in your brain. In short, perceptual projection is an effect that requires explanation; perceptual projection is not itself an explanation. We know that preconscious processes within the brain produce consciously experienced events, which may be subjectively located and extended in the phenomenal space beyond the brain, but we don’t really know how this is done.”

Lehar (2003), however, points out that if the phenomenal world is inside the brain, the real skull must be outside the phenomenal world (the former and the latter are logically equivalent). Let me be clear: if one accepts that

a) The phenomenal world appears to have spatial extension to the perceived horizon and dome of the sky.
b) The phenomenal world is really inside the brain.

It follows that

c) The real skull (as opposed to the phenomenal skull) is beyond the perceived horizon and dome of the sky.

Put your hands on your head. Is that the real skull that you feel, located more or less where it seems to be? If that makes sense, the reflexive model makes sense. Or is that just a phenomenal skull inside your brain, with your real skull beyond the dome of the sky? If the latter seems absurd, biological naturalism is absurd. Choose for yourself.”

A related paper has been mentioned by Paul Peters during discussion on Linkedin

Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At — Part 2: Its Implications for Theories of Vision, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 12, Number 6, 2005 , pp. 32-49(18).


In the paper, there is a nice historical account of theories of vision. The author takes even more radical step then and introduces a perceptual field.

My own hypothesis is that projection takes place through perceptual fields, extending out beyond the brain, connecting the seeing animal with that which is seen. Vision is rooted in the activity of the brain, but is not confined to the inside of the head (Sheldrake, 1994; 2003). Like Velmans, I suggest that the formation of these fields depends on the changes occurring in various regions of the brain as vision takes place, influenced by expectations, intentions and memories. Velmans suggests that this projection takes place in a way that is analogous to a field phenomenon, as in a hologram. I suggest that the perceptual projection is not just analogous to but actually is a field phenomenon.”

To this end, there is a nice comparison with Many World Interpretation

The quantum physicist David Deutsch, a leading proponent of this extravagant hypothesis, postulates that there is ‘a huge number of parallel universes, each similar in composition to the tangible one, and each obeying the same laws of physics, but differing in that the particles are in different positions in each universe’ (Deutsch, 1997, p. 45).

Compared with an observer splitting the universe by looking at a cat, the sense of being stared at seems conservative.”

In general both papers shows that a theory of vision is far from being complete.


4 responses to “Is the brain in the world or the world in the brain?”

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  1. Dick Gordon says:

    Yes, Rupert Sheldrake promulgated the same nonsense for morphogenesis with a higher dimensional “morphogenetic field”:

    Sheldrake, R. (1985). A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation Los Angeles, J. P. Tarcher, Inc.

    This explains nothing. John L. Casti promoted this nonsense in a few of his books. He ran out on a meeting at which he was guest of honor we both attended when he learned I worked in morphogenesis.

  2. Dear Dick,

    First we should separate Velmans and Sheldrake view. Sheldrake takes Velmans’ idea rather literally, although I should say that his paper on vision is written pretty good. Say why his idea is worse than Many World Interpretation?

    Second we could discuss what is nonsense and what is not when we solve Velmans’ paradox. Could you please take your position on whether the brain is in the world or the world is in the brain?


  3. In the paper Computing with space, a tangle formalism for chora and difference I propose the following hypothesis, which may be relevant for the subject:

    (A) reality emerges from a more primitive, non-geometrical, reality

    in the same way as

    (B) the brain construct (understands, simulates, transforms, encodes or decodes) the image of reality, starting from intensive properties (like a bunch of spiking signals sent
    by receptors in the retina), without any use of extensive (i.e. spatial or geometric) properties.

    The problem (B) is known in life sciences as the problem of “local sign”.

    These equivalent problems are dicult and wonderfully simple:
    – we don’t know how to solve completely problem (A) (in physics) or problem (B) (inneuroscience),
    – but our ventral/dorsal streams and cerebellum do this all the time in about 150 ms.

  4. Thanks for the link. You may want to promote it on the everything-list.

    Some paradox in my view is that people in natural sciences easily accept the existence of say atoms (or information/computation) and at the same time they tend to reject consciousness as something that impossible to concieve.

    As for a map and a territory, I’d rather stay with Van Fraassen:

    Scientific Representation is a nice book where this question is considered in detail.