How hard is the Hard Problem?

Phrenological chartIt’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.

A fair point, but is the Hard Problem of Consciousness all that hard? The term was coined by Australian philosopher David Chalmers in his first book The Conscious Mind almost in passing:

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.

61 Comments

Filed under Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

61 Responses to How hard is the Hard Problem?

  1. How about this: Of course we have an inner life AND…the hard problem is nonsense. That’s more or less my default position. Some day I may even argue for it. On the “inner” of “inner life”–I don’t think it means much, and to the extent that it suggests a little homunculus in the head surveying a bank of monitors it’s counter-productive. There is no such homunculus. I agree w/ you on the Mary problem; it’s a matter of intellectual bait and switch (category error).

  2. DiscoveredJoys

    Interestingly the Conscious Entities web site refers to a paper by R S Bakker “The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness” @ http://www.academia.edu/1502945/The_Last_Magic_Show_A_Blind_Brain_Theory_of_the_Appearance_of_Consciousness in which he argues, if I understand him properly, that consciousness, sense of self, and sense of ‘now’ are a result of the limited and circumscribed amount of data reaching the recursive system that ‘generates’ consciousness.

    While I’m still working through the ideas the Blind Brain Theory does suggest ways in which the Hard Theory is really an illusion arising from a softer circumstance.

  3. I’ve always found your stance on this bizzare and incomprehensible (but then so is reality). Obviously, we have subjective experience that is not an artifact of language, even if as soon as we start THINKING about that subjective experience, language interferes (for example I cannot possibly isolate in my own mind the seeing-red quale from the knowing-colours-have-names-and-that-there-are-other-colours qualia). You can say that it’s simply built into the nature of reality that certain physical states give rise to subjective consciousnesses, but there must be some principle that governs the correspondence. (Of course, one aspect of the problem is lack of data: we don’t actually know for sure that rocks and clouds don’t give rise to consciousness too.)

    (BTW, I would say the word “qualia” does not make any existence claim not already made by the word “consciousness”, and that any distinction between “qualia” and “consciousness” is purely an artifact of language. To me, it’s a word we use when MODELLING consciousness as reducable to atomic components, without necessarily implying that it really is so composed.)

  4. “This subjective aspect is experience. ”

    Even that doesn’t get to one extremely difficult aspect of treating consciousness with science. The fact is that every single aspect of the universe commonly considered to comprise the objective reality which our consciousness addresses is the product of that subjective experience. We have no knowledge of anything external to us which isn’t mitigated by our experience, what we call objective knowledge is the product of a subjective processing of our wider experience. Our very understanding of external entities, including our analysis of it, is the product of “subjective” experience. Our tools aspiring to produce objectivity are created from that experience.

    To then try to treat the very thing, here identified as defining the subjective category, with the methods we pretend are somehow separable from it, achieving objectivity, but which are merely pretended to be in a separate category, makes anything “objectively” said about consciousness an illusion. It’s an attempt to, somehow, make a double does of “subjectivity” produce an objective view of consciousness, using, not only (subjective) conscious experience, but the products of our conscious attempt to address external entities through that experience.

    It’s kind of like focusing a very small mirror on a large mirror so that you get a full image of what appears in the other one. You might get an image in the smaller mirror – I’d call that the set of experience we define as objective knowledge – but it’s neither as inclusive nor as clear to the eye as what can be seen in the larger mirror. If you want to see it with the fewest distortions you’ll have to look at it in the larger mirror. But that’s only an inadequate sketch of what’s a far bigger problem of consciousness, which is far larger than what is able to be put into articulate forms.

    At least that’s how I’ve thought about it. I don’t think it’s rational to believe that science can treat consciousness.

  5. I’ll add that merely addressing what can be articulated might produce something that is satisfying to the habitual way of thinking in academia, but it won’t produce a complete picture of consciousness or conscious experience. And I wouldn’t count on academics coming to a unanimous opinion about the products of the exercise.

    In one of my favorite passages of A. S. Eddington, he points out that if there are laws of the universe which human beings are incapable of imagining, we will never be able to know those laws. The first time I read that delighted me almost as much as his point that everything we know is secondary to our experience, merely incidental to experience.

  6. In fact I have a host of objections to there even being a Hard Problem

    Yes, that’s my view.

    When Nagel ask “What is it like to be a bat?”, I simply ask “what is it like to be me?” And I don’t think I can do any better at providing an answer to my question, than I can at providing an answer to Nagel’s question. So I am inclined to think that the question itself is bogus.

    The term was coined by Australian philosopher David Chalmers in his first book The Conscious Mind almost in passing

    A quick comment on that. Chalmers was using the term “hard problem” years before he wrote that book.

  7. Richard Wein

    I’m not sure I agree that there is no explanandum at all, though I suspect that as soon as we pin down a meaningful explanandum it will seem deflationary and be rejected by many as not really being the hard problem.

    One way I look at it is this: explananda are observed phenomena in need of an explanation. But when we talk about consciousness (simpliciter) it’s not clear what observed phenomenon we’re talking about. Consciousness seems to be the process of observing, and not something which is observed.

    On the other hand, we might want to distinguish between conscious and non-conscious observation. Non-conscious observation might be what’s happening when (for example) we’re driving on “auto-pilot” and afterwards can’t remember what happened during that time, or perhaps what happens during sleep-walking. We do observe that such a distinction exists, and that could be our explanandum. We probably could give an account of the difference between these two types of observation, in terms of what sort of data processing or modelling is going on.

    On Mary, I think you’re right that linguistic confusion is at work, conflating two senses of “know”. What do we mean when we say that on leaving the room Mary “comes to know what it is like to see red”? I think we mean that she acquires a genuine memory of the experience of seeing red. (It has to be a genuine memory–one caused by actually seeing red–or we would say that it’s not real “knowledge”.) So she doesn’t “know” what it is like to see red in the same sense that she “knows” facts. One “know” refers to a memory of an experience; the other “know” refers to propositional knowledge. It’s true by definition that she can only acquire the first sort of knowledge (i.e. a genuine memory of seeing red) by actually seeing red, and not just from learning the theory of colour vision. And since it’s true by definition, it tells us nothing of substance, and certainly not that materialism is false.

  8. Richard Wein, I’d make a similar distinction to the one you call “driving on auto-pilot” and “consciousness” as being between aspects of consciousness that can be articulated and those that can’t. I don’t know if there’s any meaningful distinction to be made between consciousness and experience, I wouldn’t try to make that distinction. Much of experience can’t be articulated, only a small part of what we experience can be expressed abstractly. Anything about any topic that is considered scientifically or academically is limited to those aspects that can be treated that way, some which can be might make their way into the arts- but not all of experience can even be caught that way. To limit the consideration of consciousness to what can be articulated might produce something that academics can sell and ideologues can assert but it won’t be everything that is certainly relevant to consciousness and it is guaranteed to be a distortion of the entirety of the vast variety of whatever comprises consciousness.

    I don’t think making this into a struggle over materialism is going to help at all. If you begin on one or another side of that struggle it is more likely to lead to restricting what you hold can enter into the consideration instead of being more inclusive of it. There’s a reason that the most successful of sciences radically narrow their focus on problems they attempt to solve, those which go for a wider focus are prone to having theories, holdings and everything up to entire schools go in and out of fashion, those discontinued dinosaurs of schools relegated to a bone yard that it’s uncomfortable to talk about. In the case of the oldest of them, psychology, for example, the mass of now extinct “science” is, perhaps, far larger than the current field.

    I’d begin by questioning the motives and the consequences of those in an argument asserting that the latest and most fashionable of theories of consciousness just happened to confirm the ideological stand of the ones producing and asserting it. I think that science that begins with the desire to confirm materialism is fraught with problems of the sort I’ve mentioned, though, since science is created to study the material universe and many within science go for that ideology, those problems are seldom considered seriously. But consciousness isn’t the property of science or materialists, everyone who can articulate anything about the problem experiences consciousness, themselves, and anything they think is liable to be compared to their experience and they are the only possible expert on what their experience is. They’ll have their own ideas about what is most convincing to them.

  9. I entirely agree that this is not a hard problem and that our fellow mammals and birds are every bit as conscious as we are. I’ll argue that the phenomena we group under “consciousness” are actually immediate memory, which explains the lag between action and experience, and if it’s just this feedback between memory and behavior then insects must be aware as well.

    Consciousness is what we do, not what we think we do. I used to be an engineer, and I was lucky enough to come up with half a dozen inventions, a few of which my company patented. (So much for validation.) One popped into my mind, full-blown, like Athena birthed from the brow of Zeus. Others I had to tease out as though they were long-buried memories, or were whispered in my ear.

    The point is that we don’t directly experience what goes on in our brains, so we can’t usefully reason about how we work if our only guide is a thin recall of what we wound up deciding.

    • Your conscious experience doesn’t include new conclusions that are not part of your previous experience? It doesn’t include the transference of chemical and electrical impacts on your sensory apparatus into some kind of coherent information about the external world? Not to mention the indefinable entity and/or act of coherence? The same for being informed, both correctly and incorrectly and every shade of variation of success? Not to mention many, many other identifiable and certainly unidentifiable aspects of our conscious experience.

      Merely limiting the scope of what you’re going to define as consciousness and declaring that you’ve got that simple little problem licked and, by the way, it decisively supports your previously held positions, is an invitation to dissenting ideas and opinions. Positivism was only ever convincing to positivists and those who adopted the ideology without thought.

      • Clearly I’m not expressing myself very well, probably because I’m attempting to draw a distinction between different parts of cognition which don’t have commonly agreed upon names. Others might call the inaccessible portion the “unconscious”, which is problematic because it’s not obviously functioning in deep sleep and because it carries out the bulk of sensory and motor processing while we’re awake with little or no active attention.

        I contend that the accessible portion is our initial recording of an output stream from the main process. Quite often this memory is involved in complex cognition as in performing new tasks, navigating unfamiliar terrain, and producing or consuming novelties. It’s critically important, and the only account we have to offer ourselves and each other, but it’s definitely not the whole show.

        There’s no good reason to think any of this is peculiar to humans. The more we learn about our fellow animals, the more intelligent they prove to be. Almost everything posited about non-human intelligence by philosophers or animal psychologists until about the middle of the twentieth century is now known to be wrong. Some of the most egregious nonsense can be easily discarded by the casual but patient observation of crows (damned smart birds) and dogs (by no means the brainiest of mammals).

        • I also am convinced that animals, perhaps even extremely simple living organisms, have consciousness, though, since they can’t testify as to what that experience is, what that could be can’t really enter into human knowledge. Anything said about that through observation will, necessarily, be mitigated through human experience, a human explanation. Since human beings don’t seem to be able to experience life as a dog or a tunicate or even, perhaps, as a bacterium, it strikes me as monumentally unlikely that a human explanation of their perception and thinking will be accurate. It is hard enough for human beings to deal with the enormous and hidden variety of human consciousness and we can talk to each other about what we perceive that to be.

          The problem of having to rely on reporting of “subjective” experience to know anything about another person’s conscious experience is quite a hurdle to comprehensive or even adequate understanding, in itself. Consider how skeptical the self-defined skeptics are of people reporting experiences that they don’t like and how readily they accept reporting that they do like, as an example of the problem of achieving an “objective” consensus on those matters.

          I fail to see anything except difficulty in the matter of scientifically addressing consciousness.

  10. David Duffy

    The really odd thing is that we can describe these experiences to one another, and be (reasonably) certain we are talking about the same things. And sometimes we can say things like “it was exactly as I had imagined it would feel” ;).

  11. Ian H Spedding FCD

    Well, speaking personally, I think I am a very hard problem – for me.

    Take seeing red, for example. The eye does not see red. My understanding is that an object perceived as red is simply reflecting radiation of a very narrow band of wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. Photoreceptors in the retina are stimulated by that light which triggers a cascade of electrochemical reactions that propagate along the optic nerve and into the visual cortex. At some point, that signal is used to create a representation of what the eye is looking at which is perceived as being red. That red object becomes an element in the virtual model of what we assume is an external reality in which we all live. The redness is a property of the model not the thing being modeled. The question is, who or what is looking at the model? A model, after all, can be viewed as an abstracted representation of something else created for observers. Models do not observe themselves, or do they?

  12. John the Plumber

    Fifteen years ago through lack of sleep I lost the plot. – For a couple of days I was off the planet.

    Only with the plot lost do you realise you have one. The concept ‘me’ is still there but as to who am I, why am I, what am I about – questions that consciousness unthinkingly answers – the answers vanish. Experiencing is still fully functional – senses seem sharper than usual – but the framework on which to hang experience has disappeared.

    With no plot it is frighteningly hard to take a pace forward. This is where the fun starts. A new plot must be made, taken from the immediate vicinity, and the odd thought still flitting in the brain. This is where ideas of being Napoleon, the government is watching me, the mother ship will be here soon, come to the fore. As to whether you kiss or kill someone, depends entirely on the plot you invent for the moment. – With the makings of a new plot, you can set off adventuring. Of course round the next corner you are bound to find something that is not part of your new plot. This is seriously unsettling. Again you are unable to move until you fit the new experience into the just invented plot. – So the new plot thickens wondrously round each bend – following the route down which each new plot leads.

    The point is that we all have a plot to lose – formed from our first experiences and leading to the ‘me’ we end up being. – I have a plumber’s plot whilst Professor Wilkins has a Professor’ plot. – Our every move happens only with consent of our plot.

    How does this fit with The Hard Problem of Consciousness?

    Experience certainly forms the basis of our unconscious plot – unconscious because we don’t know we have it till we lose it. – But there is a second essential element – familiarity.

    Our plots seem to work as familiarity filters – a sort of ‘been there before’ regulator – controlling our actions. – If we are familiar with an experience, our plot lets us react with comfortable unthinking ease. – If we meet the unfamiliar to our plot, the unease alarm kicks in.

    Professor Wilkins plot has been enhanced by his ‘falling over a pavement experience’. – Now he has a ‘Professor familiar with a damaged knee’ plot.

    Our plot is not made of all our experiences – only a compilation of those experiences that have become ‘successfully’ familiar. – Kind of, ‘Well that worked OK – so I’m all right to do it again.’

    It is not just a matter of avoiding the fearful – more a case of, ‘Test the feared unknown – cautiously – until it is harmlessly familiar’ – then what starts as an unfamiliar fear becomes an acceptable part of the plot. – Of course there is the, ‘Oh s**t that really was fearful and I don’t want to get familiar with it or ever see it again,’ part of the plot.

    Interestingly, when the plot is lost, fear and caution has little place in the newly invented plot – fear only comes when the newly invented plot fails. This suggests that we start with an unbounded curiosity soon curbed by parents example attention and influence. – Their caution, and the subject of their caution, becoming a familiar to us, is added to our plot. – When we meet a familiar fear we are then able to act with rational calm, not panic.

    Meeting the unknown to our plot – that is our fear.

    That is why we argue interminably. – That which fails to match our comfortably familiar plot – our belief – is kept at arms length – feared till it becomes familiar – which at arms length it never will. – Our plot says, “I daren’t change what has become familiar – I’m frightened of what may happen if I do.”

    By following the familiar –that which worked for us yesterday – shunning the unfamiliar – our plot tries to ensure we remain the same for another day. – My notion is that evolution is about stability not change.

    This post began with the idea of animal rights if animals have consciousness.

    Many people have the conceit that they are somehow above animals – that they have a soul for instance, whilst animals do not. – There is one small difference though between man and the average animal. We have learnt to write – so record our experiences. The problem is, we can write both fact and fallacy.

    We gain much of our experience from the written word – so recorded fallacies can become familiar as fact. – We can be persuaded by familiarity to have plots which contain more fallacy than fact – and live by and for such plots.

    We can add knowledge of other peoples experiences to our own plots, without personally testing the validity of it.

    Animals without written history are obliged to rely on the limited knowledge of experience learned anew each generation, initially from their parents – but this knowledge has passed the sharply critical test of being pitted against death on a daily basis.

    Man’s current test for validity of knowledge seems often based only on the ideas of comfortably closeted theologians finding fact in some of the most outlandish familiar fallacies.

    Which brings me to a fallacy of yours Mr Wilkins. – In a couple of sentences in your reply to a comment to your recent post on Haldane you write:

    “The ultimate and constant source of eugenics is not evolutionary theory: it is animal breeding. This explains why it is a constant preoccupation of the monied classes. They are usually the equestrian class or the landowners.”

    You tar a lot of people with the same brush. – From youngsters who spend their pocket money to ride in a field at weekend, to nomadic herders on the Asian steppes – millions of horse across the world are working horses of working people. – I’ve bred horses for forty years and I’m horribly far from the monied class. – Horses are a familiar part of my plot. – It seems that to you, horses are no more than a status symbol of the rich. I put that down to your lack of any other experience – yet that thought has clearly become a familiar part of your plot – your consciousness and belief.

    What of the proverbial Mary living constantly in a black and white room – understanding completely the physical properties of the colour red – yet never has experienced seeing the colour red.

    She is familiar with the experience of black and white – and familiar with the experience of scientific knowledge – so both are part of her Mary plot.

    Leaving the room she experiences seeing red. – Initially a novel experience – unable to be gained by knowing physical properties alone – it will not part of her plot. – With familiarity though, it will become part of her plot. – If she only sees red once, she will forget the experience however startling it was. – Memory reinforcement and familiarity go hand in hand.

    Further, the idea of thought and action gap – that a thought with good result happening in that gap becomes belief – whereas one which is rejected does not – may also have a place in plot forming. (I understand that the jury is still out on this thought action gap business – does anyone have the current state of play?)

    It is extremely difficult to explain the mental state of having lost the plot to anyone who has not had the experience – yet to discuss it with someone who has, there is easy understanding. – Again the idea of familiarity comes into it. The vast majority of people never experience losing the plot, therefore they can never be familiar with it in any way.

    With the experience of losing the plot, it seems clear there is nothing special about mind. Losing ones mind is simply a physical loss of a processing facility – thus mind is surely a physical faculty. – Mental illness has nothing to do with thinking ‘bad’ thoughts – only failure to make physical connections in the grey matter.

    Part of any education for people involved with mental process should be a fortnight without sleep – then they will gain massive insight into how the mind works.

    Forty days and nights in the desert however would probably only lead to ideas that God is made of chocolate.

    To know what it is to have an open mind – in the short times between the old and the invented new plots – is a remarkably endarkening experience. – It clears away much dross that otherwise might be considered enlightening.

  13. I should reiterate that I am not doubting the existence of inner mental workings, nor even mental workings that are too distant from ordinary language to express. What I am saying is that we cannot argue from the mere existence of inner (sub- or pre-conscious) mental activities and our inability to describe in public terms what we experience (yes, we do experience them) to the claim that these are sui generis processes with no physical foundation. That is an argument from words to the world, which is just a mistake.

  14. It’s odd that colors come up so often in discussions of qualia, since color blindness is a fairly common condition. Bichromats do see color, of course, but the range they see is comparatively impoverished. Moreover, I know a couple of trichromats who are inclined to skirmish across the border between yellow and green. The odds are we all know people who actually experience colors differently than we do.

    If we really want to start an argument we could talk about taste and smell and acknowledge from the outset that we’re unlikely to agree. The downside might be that we’d wind up talking about food, but isn’t that an acceptable risk?

  15. Kel

    Somehow the gap between the phenomenology of red with the description of neurons seems at least somewhat plausible to me (though speaking as a layperson, that’s not worth much), but the zombie argument really doesn’t sell that gap very well. I’d really struggle to understand how it is a philosophical zombie could have musings on what it would be like to be a philosophical zombie (or any other reference to one’s inner life) without actually possessing such experiences to begin with.

    • I understand that it is hard to reframe the debate, given how well entrenched it is. But if you put the onus on dualism rather than on monism, you find a lot of the failures of imagination dissipate.

      • Kel

        I agree with you on shifting the onus. It’s one of those problems I’ve had with dualists – they are more than happy to argue for dualism via the inadequacy of “materialism”, yet won’t even dignify any attempt to show how dualism accounts for it. I’ve seen arguments along the lines of dualism being true because materialism cannot account for intentionality, or that dualism doesn’t need to explain what consciousness is because that’s the irreducible unit of mind; yet I don’t see how this is anything other than the dualist applying a double standard. Am I missing something?

        • Assigning the “onus” to one side is too convenient to make me think it’s anything but opportunism.

          As in Sagan’s stolen line about “extraordinary” evidence – in practice demanding an ever increasing level of confirmation, – a double standard of evidence can’t be valid unless it’s universally applied. Standards deemed insufficient to support “extraordinary” ideas couldn’t support “ordinary” ideas any better and would leave the “ordinary” ideas open to challenge. I think that the pseudo-skepticism promoted by Sagan and his buddies is responsible for a lot of the science denialism, most seriously in global warming denialists.

          A double standard isn’t anything anyone who is the target of it has to accept and it can be turned around and used against the favored side. And the hypocrisy that often follows is entirely fair comment. Sagan’s absurd grasping at any pop-psychological fad that he thought supported his materialist ideology, “The Amniotic Universe”, for example, undermines his integrity no matter how angry his fans are made when that is brought up. I seem to recall that his primary source said that Sagan had distorted what he said about his work in producing his article.

          Marcello Truzzi , from whom Sagan is widely believe to have lifted the idea, is reported to have been ready to refute the idea, shortly before he died. It’s a bad slogan that is only superficially appealing to a side that isn’t willing to have it applied to them.

          • Why? Dualists have been assigning the onus to Monists for a very long time now. Tu quoque!

            Enough about hypocrisy and the like. Set up your own blog if you want a soapbox; this one is mine.

          • Kel

            The double standard is that “materialists” are expected to answer problems of consciousness that dualists themselves don’t bother with. So we’re left with dualism by default (or more accurately, dualism as default) while “materialism” is attacked for actually trying to say something explicit about the nature of reality.

            As for the onus, what other substances are we working with other than physical stuff? We have very good grounds for thinking that we are physical stuff, we don’t have good grounds for thinking we are anything but physical stuff. The monist and dualist agree that we are physical, but the dualist argues that we are something more than physical. So the onus is on the dualist.

  16. It’s instructive to see how the materialist attitude – I won’t call it an argument at that level – hinges on the mockery of the consciousness with which they have both every idea they have about the matter and the very entity that is what those arguments hope are convincing, both to the materialist making the assertion and other “zombies”, “lumbering robots”, etc. Obviously there is something there that the materialists think is worth convincing, despite expressing the idea’s clear repugnance to them. My question would be that if we’re all just complicated chemical reactions, why that would be important.

    That is unless, as most ideologues eventually do, materialists, somehow, in contradiction to their stated beliefs, exempt themselves and their favored POV from their web of material causation. Which can produce rather hilarious results.

    http://www.leninology.com/2012/04/material-existence-of-ideology.html

    • First, I’m a physicalist, not a materialist, but my view is consistent with neutral monism. Second “zombie” is a term of the dualists, which we have subverted. If everyone is a zombie, then nothing is denigrated (apart from rejecting dualism). Third, it is not an ideology. I know many variant views under the rubric. Unlike religiously inspired dualism, there are no views that cannot be adopted if you think it worthwhile. Dennett is not the holy unprophet. Fourthly, substantiate that claim that we “exempt ourselves from our web of causation”. I went, for instance, to some trouble to do the precise opposite.

      Really, abuse is not argument, and hardly rational, but the action of a sophistical arguer.

  17. I didn’t mean what I said to be abusive, it was certainly no more abusive than introducing the term “zombie” into the discussion, which I didn’t do. If the charge is being ironic, I will admit that.

    I do think that the argument presented at Leninism, that ideology is is a material “thing” is a good example of the problems for materialism that arise, inevitably, through the assertions of materialism. If we are all merely the product of physical causation, of molecules and physical forces working themselves out, then materialism is no more a correct outcome of the particular chemical and physical actions that produce it than the ones that produce dualism in other people. Materialism can’t assert a privileged position that, by its own holdings, can’t exist.

    I don’t happen to be either a monist or a dualist because I don’t think either is likely to produce an accurate view of consciousness. I’d call consciousness one of those problems that is undefined among the rationals.

    Physicalism does have the virtue of not putting off the necessity of addressing the very real problem of the intersection of what physics asserts with the facts surrounding our limited access to external information and the necessity of what we perceive and conclude being something other than truly objective. Human physics is the product of human minds, it is of unknown validity to other, possible, ways of thought and is, ultimately, in imperfect picture of the universe. Though we can be pretty certain that it is a limited picture. I think, given the necessity of including those facts in the discussion instead of ignoring them, as is usually done, that any honest address of them will treat those as among the things of the utmost importance in making assertions about the physical universe.

    • Ah, I see your point. As it happens I have a published (or soon to be) argument on a similar issue: evolutionary naturalism. I and my colleague Paul Griffiths’ argument is that while the fact that cognition evolved means there may be false positives and false negatives in cases where cognition did not evolve to deal with (such as moral realism and knowledge of the supernatural realm), it does not imply that it fails badly in cases it did evolve to deal with – the ecological world.

      So let’s do an analogous argument: if materialism/physicalism says that ideas, and hence ideologies are physical, then all that they need for self-consistency is that materialist ideas are material, etc. If they do not deny this, or require this not to be true, then there is no problem. In short, they had better meet their own criteria. I do not see why a Leninist or any other materialist is being self-contradictory if they say their own views are material. All they have to show is that this claim doesn’t contradict their claim that ideologies are material.

  18. Michael Fugate

    What are nonmaterial things made up of?

    • Dunno, may’be they’re not made of other things being continuous instead of consisting of constituent parts, maybe they’re not things. Being non material it’s unlikely they’d share those attributes that define material things, I’d guess. One would think that if they weren’t radically different in character from material things they would be material things in stead of non-material.

      The argument against a non-material consciousness being able to interact with the physical body founders on that distinction. There isn’t any reason to believe that a non-material consciousness would be constrained by limitations familiar among material objects. That’s not such an outlandish idea when you consider how much of science and mathematics relies on an assumption of the reality of the first and second dimensions, neither of which are possibly material. Not to mention that numbers are not material entities, yet their relevance to physical reality is so habitually taken for granted that it is hardly ever considered.

      • Michael Fugate

        But you have no evidence, do you? Just making stuff up….

        • Evidence of what? Consciousness being immaterial? Well, there’s no evidence that it’s anything else.

          Everything we experience about the material universe is known through our conscious awareness.

          “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference. — inference either intuitive or deli-
          berate. Probably it would never have occurred to us (as a serious hypothesis) that the world could be based on anything else, had we not been under the impression that there was a rival stuff with a more comfortable kind of “concrete” reality — something too inert and stupid to be capable of forging an illusion. The rival turns out to be a schedule of pointer readings; and though a world of symbolic character can well be constructed from it, this is a mere shelving of the inquiry into the nature of the world of experience.”

          http://ia700404.us.archive.org/16/items/natureofphysical00eddi/natureofphysical00eddi.pdf

          Can you give any good scientific reason to ignore the fact that, if anything, the human description of the physical universe, through science, among other ways, is the subject of consciousness instead of its origin? That the materialist view is achieved only by ignoring what Eddington pointed out. I can see none and I can see no reason for someone coming to a personal conclusion founded in it. The necessity of scientific agnosticism is no bar to personally being persuaded on other bases.

          Bertrand Russell’s review of that book was profoundly gloomy. I wish I knew enough about his schedule to know how much of his philosophical-scientistic world knew was dissolving in the late 1920s and early 30s at the point he wrote it, but it soon became obvious that it had dissolved. I’ve come to see a lot of what he wrote after that to be resentment and cool anger over his crushed ambition.

      • Michael Fugate

        If you are going to propose a nonmaterial cause, then you need to develop a mechanism for how it works. This is science at its most basic – a hypothesis to test. Everything we know involves matter interacting with matter – why should this be different?

        • I refer Anthony (and you all) to Sean Carroll’s lovely argument about Physics and the Immortality of the Soul.

          • I refer you to where, after about 17 days of asking the question, I finally got Sean Carroll to answer the question, Is there a single object of which physics has a comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge? You can read my stratum for getting him to finally answer it @21 and his obviously, reluctantly given answer @25. It was “No”, for those who don’t care to look.

            http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/

            I do believe that his post was motivated by my question in another discussion thread that went on for quite a while.

            In a quick reading of the post Carroll says: “There’s no reason to be agnostic about ideas that are dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science.”

            When the idea is one that 1. falls outside of possibly being addressed by “modern science”, 2. is defined in terms which would exclude it being addressed by science as it is defined and within the allowable methods of science, 3. is proposed surpass the limits of the physical universe that is the one and only thing which science studies, then the only rational scientific response is agnosticism. Of course, even scientists are more than just scientists so a personal answer can be otherwise, atheism being one of those personal responses.

            I see the phrase “God of the gaps” – which was, by the way, first used by Henry Drummond, an evangelical preacher who warned other evangelicals against looking for God in gaps of knowledge – but it doesn’t seem to me it’s any more sensible to look there for confirmation of atheism there. It’s one of the things about what isn’t known that you don’t know how much of that there might be and how relevant it is to your previous considerations.

            My point was more fundamental to the assertion of physics and science to consciousness, that there is no reason, whatsoever, to think that consciousness is a physical entity and that all of the hard won and casual knowledge we have obtained about the physical universe could well be entirely irrelevant to it. Everything from the possibility of free thought to its possible interaction with a physical body. I’m a lot more satisfied with leaving those questions unanswered than I am with the illogical, allegedly scientific sciency assertions made about it. You might come up with something you can peddle to the choir or those with a predisposition to believe them but they won’t fill in the chasm and, I’ll predict, none of them will stand for long.

            • I’ve got to stop relying on spell check “..stratagem for getting him..” . Not to mention my own editing. I’d change a few of those prepositions, too.

            • Michael Fugate

              “My point was more fundamental to the assertion of physics and science to consciousness, that there is no reason, whatsoever, to think that consciousness is a physical entity and that all of the hard won and casual knowledge we have obtained about the physical universe could well be entirely irrelevant to it.”

              No reason? We have every reason to think this – it is how we have explained everything we know. Unless you are now claiming that science is a completely unreliable understanding of the universe, then you have to come up with an alternative and you haven’t.

              • There is no evidence, whatsoever, about consciousness being a physical entity. Neither that it is nor that it isn’t. Your reasons to maintain your materialist lore about it is based in your ideological preference, not in evidence. That fact isn’t dependent on anyone producing an alternative ideological stand to yours, it would be true if no alternatives had been developed at all. And plenty of people have developed those alternative theories, but none of them rises to the level of being science.

              • David Duffy

                “There is no evidence, whatsoever, about consciousness being a physical entity.”

                “Everything we experience about the material universe is known through our conscious awareness.”

                I find this use of “we” unclear. Do you mean your personal conscious experience as opposed to mine? Most of us are aware of unconscious knowledge, motivation, actions, whether extreme stuff like blindsight, semantic priming, automatism, and of the very tight relationship between brain processes and our thoughts – measurable via EEG, single neuron recordings, imaging, lesional studies. We are also aware of limits to our own and others’ cognition and perception that seem pretty mundane, such as on speed of processing, whether arithmetic or moral reasoning. Which is to say, starting with a physicalist null (or a “steam whistle” null) hypothesis seems an OK place to start, and wait for disconfirmation. So rather than agnosticism, provisional belief and scientific skepticism.

                Two papers (one updating Libet on volition using cortical electrode recordings, the other meta-analysing imaging studies of moral reasoning and theory of mind). These seemed to me to cover two characteristic properties most people might associate with consciousness.

                http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3032396/

                http://leonhardschilbach.de/Publications_files/Bzdok_2011.pdf

                These seemed to me two characteristic properties most people might associate with consciousness.

  19. dsks

    “What I am saying is that we cannot argue from the mere existence of inner (sub- or pre-conscious) mental activities and our inability to describe in public terms what we experience (yes, we do experience them) to the claim that these are sui generis processes with no physical foundation. ”

    Agreed. Dualism-of-the-gaps, God-of-the-gaps, it’s all the same weak stuff. How do dualists cope with general anesthesia, I wonder? Do they imagine that propofol forges some magical link between the physical constraints of our brain and this mystical higher subjective self in order to switch the lights out on the latter?

    • Let us not strawman dualism. Everyone accepts now, as Descartes did, that there is a link between the mind and the body. Presumably anesthetics interfere with or modulate that at the body end of the equation.

  20. “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?” (Chalmers)

    We can give Chalmers a trivial explanation to why & how *my* physical brain can experience a mind of its own: because my infant brain evidently developed consciousness sufficiently like Chalmers’ (living, adult, awake, undamaged, self-aware, and whatever else).

    I suppose the Hard question “arises” because we cannot extend that easy biological explanation –of minds most familiar to us– out to the jungle of increasingly alien examples.

    I don’t think that means our humans-grow-minds explanation is “no good”. Just that it looses explanatory power the broader we cast our net.

    It might be in vain that we humans seek deeper explanations for which entities are having experiences.

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