It’s one of those things. You are thinking about a topic and then you see it everywhere. I was chatting to a friend about the Hard Problem and it pops up in a couple of items in my newsfeed.
First Marion Stamp Dawkins begins a defence of animal welfare in terms that since we evolved consciousness and attendant properties like desiring from animal precursor capacities, animals must have something of the capacities that we have. Then she says
Whatever anybody says, I feel that the hard problem of consciousness is still very hard, and to try and rest your ethical case on proving something that has baffled people for years seems to me to be not good for animals.
Often such work [on consciousness] addresses what might be called the “easy” problem of consciousness: How does the brain process environmental stimulation? How does it integrate information? How do we produce reports on internal states? These are important questions, but to answer them is not to solve the hard problem: Why is all this information accompanied by an inner life? [xi-xii]
Later he defined the problem more succinctly and clearly:
The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.
It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.
If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one. In this central sense of “consciousness”, an organism is conscious if there is something it is like to be that organism, and a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that state.
Chalmers thinks that it is intuitively obvious that there is such an inner life, that it is not reducible to physical states, and that we should be dualists. He’s not the only philosopher who does: Frank Jackson, another Australian philosopher who argued against physicalism, was interviewed recently. Jackson’s Mary Problem is another argument for dualism of some kind.
My issue with all this is simple: I don’t get it. I have a host of objections to the Hard Problem being hard. In fact I have a host of objections to there even being a Hard Problem, but basically they all boil down to this: I don’t see why we should assume there is an “inner life” of the kind described. I mean, there is no real justification for the claim that there is a qualitative inner life, a “seeming” or “what it is like” other than the presumption that it is the default intuition.
The problem with that presumption is that most people also have a default presumption that the weather and other natural processes are agents with intentions. We know that is false, and so by analogy we should not have much confidence in the qualia claim. In fact, it looks very much to me that the idea there are such entities is a fallacy of language: we have words for it, so it is real.
I am not, of course denying that we have inner lives, or that mental processes go on to which the rest of the world has little or no access, but these are Chalmer’s “easy” problems. What I am denying is that there is a problem of subjectivity, of “ineffable experience”. If it’s ineffable, then why think there is an explanandum in the first place?
Well we all experience subjectively, say the dualists. It’s something you know about that nobody else does (that’s the point of Jackson’s Mary case, in which a scientist who knows all the physical facts about seeing red but never has done, knows something new when she finally does, and for that reason it’s called the Knowledge Argument). It is something that cannot be described in physical terms. This is where I part company with the dualists.
For a start, it is not the case that dualism is the “default” view among all peoples. The ancient Hebrews, and I would say early Latins, for example, were physicalists. You died and perhaps your shade persisted, but you were just the body that lived. If God resurrected you (as in Ezekiel), he did so by reconstituting your physical body. I suspect that the idea of dualism came from the Indus valley, by way of Zoroastrianism, and then Platonism/Pythagoreanism, and it is worth noting that before the Vedic ideas of dualism and the Wheel were developed, there were materialist philosophers there, the Carvakists or Lokayata school.
Second, if you cannot express it, there is no target of explanation. If experiencing things, over and above just being whatever individual or member of a class of cognisers it is, is mysterious, then one might suspect there is nothing of substance to deal with. A common error is the Noun Fallacy: to think that if we have a noun for something there has to be a thing the noun names. Likewise the Verb Fallacy: if something is happening, there is something doing it. But it makes so much more sense to think that we fall into language habits and do in this case what we do in so many others; reify our words and concepts.
Third, there is a time bomb in the Hard Problem brought out by the Zombie and Swampman arguments. In these thought scenarios, there can be “philosophical zombies” (p-zombies) who are in every respect like us but lack consciousness, although they likewise report experiences such as pain and introspection under exactly the same conditions we do. In Swampman cases, the individual has no past, having spontaneously formed in a swamp, but is like us in every way. These cases are supposed to demonstrate that one cannot reduce experience (or related properties) to a physical state, but instead they remove the need for thinking that there is anything over and above physical states. Maybe we aren’t philosophical angels with souls; maybe everyone already is a p-zombie.
So I just don’t get it. I once gave an argument that there is a what-it-is-to-be-like a digital camera, which nobody thinks has a rich ineffable inner life (see also here and here). It boils down to having a perspective – to being that kind of system at that location. So to be a bat is to be a bat, and to know what it is like to be John is just to be John.
What of the Knowledge Argument, though? Surely Mary knows something when she first experiences red that she didn’t know by knowing all the physical facts? The solution here is to note a confusion in the idea of “to know”. I can know many things I am unaware of. If I were Plato’s slaveboy in the Meno and someone did to me the party trick that Plato did to him, showing that assumptions he holds imply some surprising result, I would perhaps now know what I did not before (that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square of the other two sides of a right angle triangle, etc.) but the sense of “to know” here is “to recognise”. The knowledge was implicit in the conceptual store already; but the recognition was delayed or prohibited by a lack of processing resources.
Mary has, in effect, a bandwidth problem. If she is so replete with physical facts about seeing red, that she already cannot know what-it-is-like to see red is likely (on the physicalist view) to be a matter of her ability to integrate and interpret the information at a rate that matches what would ordinarily happen in vision. It’s like using marbles as a computer – you can do it, but it takes longer and is less automatic. So she doesn’t recognise that she has this information. Visual systems are designed for just that sort of pattern recognition, both immediately and more abstractly. They are rapid and automatic. The “knowledge” of seeing red, or round things, or motion, is based on that evolved functionality.
So I am left unable to see any force in the Hard Problem. It is only mildly difficult to explain consciousness, and it doesn’t rely on ineffable states we all know, because I think we are confusing our words with our experiences. Maybe we should ascribe animal welfare rights based on their capacity to think after all.