Here I present the punchline, what I actually believe, as briefly as I can. I'm being blunt here, and I'm not trying to sound reasonable. There is no supporting argument, no sugar coating. If you read this first, and think "This guy is nuts or so obviously wrong as to be not worth thinking about" that's fine, but a bit unfair until you go back and read the rest of my essays, which actually make the case.
I am a qualophile in the mold of David Chalmers: I take qualia seriously in exactly the way Daniel Dennett says we should not. I am not, however, a dualist. I think that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe, but physics, as currently practiced, is incapable - even in principle - of describing that stuff completely. There are reasons for thinking this that have nothing to do with consciousness or qualia. All of this makes me a panpsychist, something like Bertrand Russell (or, if you prefer, a neutral monist). There is something qualitative that stands as part of the fundamental furniture of the universe, along with mass, charge, and spin. This qualitative essence is what instantiates or manifests the extrinsic, functional behaviors that our laws of physics describe so well.
I do not think that positing a causally efficacious conscious basis of physical reality means we have to violate known physical laws. Quantum mechanics already tells us that at the lowest levels, we can't know how things behave. We can only characterize their behavior in aggregate over time. Equivalently, for a single experiment we can only give a probability. We already live in a non-deterministic universe. This, I think, gives us wiggle room to allow the basic stuff of the universe to do what it wants, within constraints. Stuart Hameroff has speculated that some kind of quantum superposition is maintained inside the tubulin microtubules in the neurons in our brains. This may or may not be true, but I am committed to the speculation that at some point, brain scientists will find some crucial mechanism that depends on some kind of "indeterminate" quantum effect ("wonder tissue", in Dennett's derisive terminology, or "pixie dust in the synapses" according to Patricia Churchland.)
I want to make it clear that if you believe in causally efficacious qualia (as I do), then you must bite the bullet of violating the apparent causal closure of the physical universe, or claiming that your qualia can push physical stuff around without violating known laws. That said, we might not have to bite a big bullet. The brain could be a pretty chaotic system, in which a tiny nudge at the right place and time could have large scale effects which play out according to classical rules.
In the same way that I think that we should take qualia seriously, and believe that the fact of qualia has metaphysical implications, I believe that the unity of a percept is deeply strange to our usual way of thinking about how the universe is put together. Once again, quantum mechanics probably comes into play, since it allows for what William Seager calls large simples: things with potentially complicated behavior that are inherent wholes, and not merely aggregates of smaller things. I'm talking about things like entangled states, mixtures, and Bose-Einstein condensates here.
Each of our unitary, qualitative thoughts and percepts must be manifested physically as something objectively unitary itself, and that thing has causal latitude. Specifically, large simples' behavior does not supervene on that of their parts, since they don't have any. They may not get to violate existing physical laws, but they may have more elbow room to act than something that was a mere aggregate of smaller things. Each large simple is ontologically unique, which leaves us with a pretty extravagant picture of the universe, but c'est la vie. We prefer parsimony in our laws of nature, but nature does not owe us anything in this regard. The promise of this kind of large-scale unity is, perhaps, more important to me than the more often cited indeterminacy of quantum mechanics.
Like qualia and the unity of our percepts, our direct perception of time also tells us something important. This sense of temporal duration is perhaps more compelling when considering auditory percepts than visual ones. Consider the experience of even a short piece of music, for example. Frankly, I'm not sure how this plays into the larger picture, but there is some funky way in which consciousness is smeared out over time to various extents for various subjects, like William James' saddleback "specious present".
This does not mean that there is any such thing as backward causation (what could that term even mean, really?), or that somehow consciousness can see the future or reach into the past. Nevertheless, there is some way in which consciousness (or moments of consciousness) can span time, and I wonder what the limits of this span are. The notion that there is a durationless point called "the present" is an abstraction foisted upon us by calculus, among other disciplines. In real life, time does not come in points or infinitesimal slices.
Once the reductionist has broken the world down, he has a hard time putting it back together again, as the saying goes. In a universe made of almost unimaginably blind, stupid, amnesiac tiny billiard balls bonking this way and that, in which there are no efficacious levels but the very bottom-most one, things like "structure" and "relation" are only ideas in our heads.
Similarly with notions like "algorithm", or "if...then...". Unlike a Universal Turing Machine, we can step outside an algorithm, and see it from above, as it were. We see algorithms, processes, and sequences all-at-once, as a thing. We don't have to execute the code to think about it, and comprehend it. This intrigues me. I think it ties in with the metaphysics of time, and the way we can have a unitary percept that spans time. Minds are strangely good at turning processes into things.
Sensory qualia (the redness of red, the taste of salt) are just the tip of the iceberg. Everything we are aware of in our minds is qualitative, and just as mysterious as the redness of red. All of the "cognition", even the driest, most factual knowledge, is made of the same stuff in our minds as the redness of red. Our minds are not cognitive machines painted with a qualitative layer, nor are they cognitive machines bolted onto a qualitative base. They are qualitative through and through. We should not be lead astray by the fact that we have invented machines that are "purely cognitive" that seem to emulate some of the functions of minds. It is a mystery that salt seems salty to us, but it is no less of a mystery that anything at all seems like anything to us. Reductive materialists fail to appreciate just how little comprehension you can build with those billiard balls, even when you have a lot of them.
While what-it-is-like-to-see-red is fine as the gateway-drug quale, it is misleading to use it as the paradigmatic quale going forward. Qualia are ineffable, but it is a mistake to think they are unstructured. They can be quite complex and structured. What is it like to see a square? To prove a theorem? My seeing a power plant by a river on an overcast day is a quale. 2 + 2 = 4 is a quale. All thought is qualitative. Our cognition and our phenomenal consciousness are made of the same stuff, two sides of the same coin. Structure and relation, in our minds, are themselves qualia as much as the redness of red. The easy problems are hard too.
I keep coming back to some variation of this basic idea. Our minds are hives, or Darwinian memescapes, populated by what Daniel Dennett calls demons. As William James said, the thoughts are the thinkers. There is no sharp line you can draw between CPU and memory. We don't apply thoughts, they apply themselves. These demons are not just memories, although they can be that too. They do things, they are active, and whatever they do, whether they compete or cooperate, a lot of them are active at the same time. As Dennett says, what we take as our linear, computer-like mind is really something of a simulation, implemented on a massively parallel substrate.
Individual demons are punished for overactivation, most likely by simply getting tuned out by the other demons. There is a risk/reward calculation they do to decide if, when, how assertively, and how specifically they self-deploy.
Unlike the pandemonium model as Dennett describes it, however, I suspect that the demons are qualitative. There is a what-it-is-like for all of them, but whatever it is that we think of as ourselves is not necessarily patched into each of them. We each contain multitudes. The unified, continuous self, as we normally think of ourselves as being, is a useful fiction, a sort of virtual avatar, a me‑model at the center of my world‑model. Each demon may be considered a subject in terms of its being smeared out over a specious present, a moment of time.
This memescape/ecosystem Darwinian analogy has limits and leaves a bunch of questions unanswered. I don't know how demons cooperate or coalesce. Do they form some kind of union, then stick together from then on, or do they separate, but maintain some tendril of connection? Or do they reproduce, giving rise to a whole new demon, who then may maintain connections with its parents? Do demons really persist over time, or do they constantly regenerate themselves? Do they at least partially define themselves as deltas from other demons, or coalitions of demons? In general, we need to nail down the individuation criteria for demons. I also need to explain more about the qualitative nature of the demons, how the qualia (not just the redness of red, but the perception of process, the perception of parts and wholes simultaneously, and all the rest of it) play into the more purely cognitive pandemonium model. Somehow the demons, and what they do, are their phenomenology.
As the demons do their work, they engage in lots of feedback loops, a lot of iteration, on the way to forming anything we might describe as a stable thought or percept. As percepts are built up (synthesis), at the same time they are being broken down (analysis), then built up again with the pieces. Thoughts form in our heads, with this riot of demons trying this, then that, before settling on some kind of stable percept or concept, I suspect that quantum superposition is involved somehow, allowing for exploring a combinatorically explosive web of potential paths.
Panpsychism is far from a majority position (not to mention the speculations about quantum mechanics). Even putting all that aside, however, there are some things that either don't generally get the emphasis they deserve, or that most people don't think about at all, or think about them differently than I do. I think they all have a part to play in the final picture.
The holism thing: if you are at all sympathetic to the qualia arguments, and you think that there is something deeply mysterious about the redness of red, it should be just as disturbing that we perceive anything as a unit. We see even a stick lying on the ground all at once, end to end, in its entirety.
The time thing: This holism of our thoughts and percepts is deeply mysterious in general, but it is especially weird that we perceive/conceive of things as unitary even when they are smeared out over time (the notion of motion). As William James said, the thought of succession is just a completely different kind of thing than a succession of thoughts. As with the redness of red, "Oh, but that's just an illusion" is a weak, if not incoherent, response. We just couldn't perceive time, as time, in no time. Very little can actually happen in 0.000... seconds.
The phenomenology of cognition thing: just how little straight-up computational crunching buys you. If the redness of red is mysterious, any thought at all is just as mysterious. People who pooh‑pooh the mystery of qualia tend to try to sneak a lot of magic into words like "belief", "reference", and "meaning", but they are all just as inexplicable as the redness of red. If these kinds of terms (about which the Anglophone philosophic community has obsessed for generations now) are worthy of philosophical study at all, we must take qualitative consciousness as a given, and explain things like reference on the basis of consciousness rather than the other way around. Which segues directly into . . .
Internalism about reference: If reference is a real fact of the universe and not just some may-be-seen-as phenomenon or a folk concept, it is some kind of relation between things inside minds, and not a connection between things in the outside world. That is, if reference is a natural kind, it is bound up in spooky mysterious questions about consciousness. Seen this way, a reference is not inert and opaque, like a pointer in a computer program, but somehow subsumes, incorporates, or morphs into the thing referred to.