The Dreaded “Hard Problem”

I’ve been posting thoughts about “qualia,” the qualities of sensory experience. Qualia figure prominently in one of the most baffling enigmas even discussed, and the history of this issue is wonderfully described by Oliver Burkeman. I’ll quote some of his essay, but I urge you to read the whole thing:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/21/-sp-why-cant-worlds-greatest-minds-solve-mystery-consciousness

“One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness…. the young Australian academic was about to [discuss] a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

“The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona … knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. ‘Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,’ recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. … ‘But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.’ With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. … ‘But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.’

“The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all ‘easy problems’, … given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, … why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? …’

“What jolted Chalmers’s audience from their torpor was how he had framed the question. ‘At the coffee break, … everyone was like: “Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem! That’s why we’re here!”’

Here’s one way of considering this issue. Suppose in the distant future neuroscience has discovered precisely which brain structures and processes are correlated with specific conscious experiences. They can even read people’s minds: Experimental subject C79 reports that she is recalling a teenage love affair. But a brain scanning machine had already printed out a report, just before C79 spoke: “subject is remembering a high school sweetheart.” Isn’t it clear that we now understand the neural basis of consciousness? Aren’t the neural structures and activities that the scanner detected simply identical to the memory-experience that C79 reported?

Not necessarily. We need to know why this configuration of neural structures and activities constitutes consciousness. “Even if every behavioral and cognitive function related to consciousness were explained,” writes Chalmers, “there would still remain a further mystery: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience? It is this additional question that makes the hard problem hard.”*

Next: the menace of philosophical zombies.

Roger Christan Schriner

*Cited by Uriah Kriegel, Subjective Consciousness: A Self-Representational Theory, p. 271, emphasis added.

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Colored numbers, tasteable shapes

I’ve been posting thoughts about qualia, the qualities of sensuous experience. One way to reflect upon qualia is by considering synesthesia, a remarkable syndrome in which a perception that typically occurs through one sensory system (such as hearing) can also be represented in another (such as sight). For instance, some people both hear and “see” sounds. They experience the same auditory inputs with two different types of qualia. “Some synesthetes hear what they see, others see what they hear. One of them felt tastes with his hands. The taste of mint, for instance, felt to his hands as smooth, cool columns of glass. Every taste had its systematically associated feel, and he found this quite useful as an aid to creative cooking.”*

Synthesthetes sometimes see strange colors that they only perceive in association with numbers. How I wish I could see those atypical colors!

Let’s play with the concept of synesthesia by using a thought experiment. Thought experiments are imaginary and often bizarre scenarios that are intended to shed light on philosophical problems. Sometimes these scenarios invoke the concept of God as a metaphorical way of erasing practical difficulties which are irrelevant to the basic idea behind the experiment.

Suppose an all-powerful being altered our bodies so that we started detecting pain as tastes. Instead of feeling a stabbing sensation, a person who stepped on a tack might notice a terribly bitter taste in the bottom of her foot. This taste would represent the damage done by the tack. If something like this is possible, then perhaps when we notice the distinction between tactile and taste sensations, we are noticing something which goes beyond detecting the features of bodily states – something about the mental states that represent these body-states. This would support the internalist claim that we experience states of our own minds rather than just states of the outside world.

To all my readers, may your holiday season be memorable and fulfilling.

Roger Christan Schriner

* Davies, T. N. et al. (2002) “Visual Worlds: Construction or Reconstruction?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 9, No. 5-6, p. 75.