Hard Problem of Consciousness

We have touched on this in various places, and in particular in this discussion of zombies, but we are now in a position to give a more precise answer.

Bill Vallicella has a discussion of Thomas Nagel on this issue:

Nagel replies in the pages of NYRB (8 June 2017; HT: Dave Lull) to one Roy Black, a professor of bioengineering:

The mind-body problem that exercises both Daniel Dennett and me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject. That includes dark energy, the strong force, and the development of an organism from the egg, to cite Black’s examples. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

The problem might be condensed into an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Take a little time to savor this problem. Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance.  But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

Which proposition should we reject? Dennett, I take it, would reject (1). But that’s a lunatic solution as Professor Black seems to appreciate, though he puts the point more politely. When I call Dennett a sophist, as I have on several occasions, I am not abusing him; I am underscoring what is obvious, namely, that the smell of cooked onions, for example, is a genuine datum of experience, and that such phenomenological data trump scientistic theories.

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Black, and others of the scientistic stripe, accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).

In order to see the answer to this, we can construct a Parmenidean parallel to Vallicella’s aporetic triad:

1) Distinction is not an illusion.

2) Being has an essentially objective character of actually being that distinction does not share (considering that distinction consists in the fact of not being something.)

3) The only acceptable explanation of distinction is in terms of being alone (since there is nothing but being to explain things with.)

Parmenides rejects (1) here. What approach would Vallicella take? If he wishes to take a similarly analogous approach, he should accept (1) and (2), and deny (3). And this would be a pretty commonsense approach, and perhaps the one that most people implicitly adopt if they ever think about the problem.

At the same time, it is easy to see that (3) is approximately just as obviously true as (1); and it is for this reason that Parmenides sees rejecting (1) and accepting (2) and (3) as reasonable.

The correct answer, of course, is that the three are not inconsistent despite appearances. In fact, we have effectively answered this in recent posts. Distinction is not an illusion, but a way that we understand things, as such. And being a way of understanding, it is not (as such) a way of being mistaken, and thus it is not an illusion, and thus the first point is correct. Again, being a way of understanding, it is not a way of being as such, and thus the second point is correct. And yet distinction can be explained by being, since there is something (namely relationship) which explains why it is reasonable to think in terms of distinctions.

Vallicella’s triad mentions “purely physical processes” and “physical properties,” but the idea of “physical” here is a distraction, and is not really relevant to the problem. Consider the following from another post by Vallicella:

If I understand Galen Strawson’s view, it is the first.  Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material.   Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:

Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them.  As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are “based in” or “realized in” the brain (to stick to the human case).  But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists.  Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don’t have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is.  (“The Experiential and the Non-Experiential” in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)

Strawson and I agree on two important points.  One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.

I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so.  At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.

This strikes me as bluster.

An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality.  For qualia, esse = percipi.  If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means.  The notion strikes me as absurd.  We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective.  And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don’t know what that means either.

Here Vallicella uses the word “material,” which is presumably equivalent to “physical” in the above discussion. But it is easy to see here that being material is not the problem: being objective is the problem. Material things are objective, and Vallicella sees an irreducible opposition between being objective and being subjective. In a similar way, we can reformulate Vallicella’s original triad so that it does not refer to being physical:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely objective processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of objective properties alone.

It is easy to see that this formulation is the real source of the problem. And while Vallicella would probably deny (3) even in this formulation, it is easy to see why people would want to accept (3). “Real things are objective,” they will say. If you want to explain anything, you should explain it using real things, and therefore objective things.

The parallel with the Parmenidean problem is evident. We would want to explain distinction in terms of being, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Parmenides) is tempted to deny the existence of distinction. In the same way, we would want to explain subjective experience in terms of objective facts, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Dennett) is tempted to deny the existence of subjective experience.

Just as the problem is parallel, the correct solution will be almost entirely parallel to the solution to the problem of Parmenides.

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion. It is a way of perceiving the world, not a way of not perceiving the world, and definitely not a way of not perceiving at all.

2) Consciousness is subjective, that is, it is a way that an individual perceives the world, not a way that things are as such, and thus not an “objective fact” in the sense that “the way things are” is objective.

3) The “way things are”, namely the objective facts, are sufficient to explain why individuals perceive the world. Consider again this post, responding to a post by Robin Hanson. We could reformulate his criticism to express instead Parmenides’s criticism of common sense (changed parts in italics):

People often state things like this:

I am sure that there is not just being, because I’m aware that some things are not other things. I know that being just isn’t non-being. So even though there is being, there must be something more than that to reality. So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care about distinctions, not just being; we want to know what out there is distinct from which other things.

But consider a key question: Does this other distinction stuff interact with the parts of our world that actually exist strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of distinction like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that philosophers, possibly excepting Duns Scotus, have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite understandable with existing philosophy. Any interaction not so understandable would have be vastly more difficult to understand than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will understand such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of distinction, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra distinction stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that distinction stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if distinction stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that distinction stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

“Distinction stuff”, of course, does not exist, and neither does “feeling stuff.” But some things are distinct from others. Saying this is a way of understanding the world, and it is a reasonable way to understand the world because things exist relative to one another. And just as one thing is distinct from another, people have experiences. Those experiences are ways of knowing the world (broadly understood.) And just as reality is sufficient to explain distinction, so reality is sufficient to explain the fact that people have experiences.

How exactly does this answer the objection about interaction? In the case of distinction, the fact that “one thing is not another” is never the direct cause of anything, not even of the fact that “someone believes that one thing is not another.” So there would seem to be a “remarkable coincidence” here, or we would have to say that since the fact seems unrelated to the opinion, there is no reason to believe people are right when they make distinctions.

The answer in the case of distinction is that one thing is related to another, and this fact is the cause of someone believing that one thing is not another. There is no coincidence, and no reason to believe that people are mistaken when they make distinctions, despite the fact that distinction as such causes nothing.

In a similar way, “a human being is what it is,” and “a human being does what it does” (taken in an objective sense), cause human beings to say and believe that they have subjective experience (taking saying and believing to refer to objective facts.) But this is precisely where the zombie question arises: they say and believe that they have subjective experience, when we interpret say and believe in the objective sense. But do they actually say and believe anything, considering saying and believing as including the subjective factor? Namely, when a non-zombie says something, it subjectively understands the meaning of what it is saying, and when it consciously believes something, it has a subjective experience of doing that, but these things would not apply to a zombie.

But notice that we can raise a similar question about zombie distinctions. When someone says and believes that one thing is not another, objective reality is similarly the cause of them making the distinction. But is the one thing actually not the other? But there is no question at all here except of whether the person’s statement is true or false. And indeed, someone can say, e.g, “The person who came yesterday is not the person who came today,” and this can sometimes be false. In a similar way, asking whether an apparent person is a zombie or not is just asking whether their claim is true or false when they say they have a subjective experience. The difference is that if the (objective) claim is false, then there is no claim at all in the subjective sense of “subjectively claiming something.” It is a contradiction to subjectively make the false claim that you are subjectively claiming something, and thus, this cannot happen.

Someone may insist: you yourself, when you subjectively claim something, cannot be mistaken for the above reason. But you have no way to know whether someone else who apparently is making that claim, is actually making the claim subjectively or not. This is the reason there is a hard problem.

How do we investigate the case of distinction? If we want to determine whether the person who came yesterday is not the person who came today, we do that by looking at reality, despite the fact that distinction as such is not a part of reality as such. If the person who came yesterday is now, today, a mile away from the person who came today, this gives us plenty of reason to say that the one person is not the other. There is nothing strange, however, in the fact that there is no infallible method to prove conclusively, once and for all, that one thing is definitely not another thing. There is not therefore some special “hard problem of distinction.” This is just a result of the fact that our knowledge in general is not infallible.

In a similar way, if we want to investigate whether something has subjective experience or not, we can do that only by looking at reality: what is this thing, and what does it do? Then suppose it makes an apparent claim that it has subjective experience. Obviously, for the above reasons, this cannot be a subjective claim but false: so the question is whether it makes a subjective claim and is right, or rather makes no subjective claim at all. How would you answer this as an external observer?

In the case of distinction, the fact that someone claims that one thing is distinct from another is caused by reality, whether the claim is true or false. So whether it is true or false depends on the way that it is caused by reality. In a similar way, the thing which apparently and objectively claims to possess subjective experience, is caused to do so by objective facts. Again, as in the case of distinction, whether it is true or false will depend on the way that it is caused to do so by objective facts.

We can give some obvious examples:

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a human being and does what humans normally do.” In this case, the objective and subjective claim is true, and is caused in the right way by objective facts.

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a very simple computer given a very simple program to output ‘I have subjective experience’ on its screen.” In this case the external claim is false, and it is caused in the wrong way by objective facts, and there is no subjective claim at all.

But how do you know for sure, someone will object. Perhaps the computer really is conscious, and perhaps the apparent human is a zombie. But we could similarly ask how we can know for sure that the person who came yesterday isn’t the same person who came today, even though they appear distant from each other, because perhaps the person is bilocating?

It would be mostly wrong to describe this situation by saying “there really is no hard problem of consciousness,” as Robin Hanson appears to do when he says, “People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a ‘hard question’ regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel.” The implication seems to be that there is no hard question at all. But there is, and the fact that people engage in this discussion proves the existence of the question. Rather, we should say that the question is answerable, and that one it has been answered the remaining questions are “hard” only in the sense that it is hard to understand the world in general. The question is hard in exactly the way the question of Parmenides is hard: “How is it possible for one thing not to be another, when there is only being?” The question of consciousness is similar: “How is it possible for something to have subjective experience, when there are only objective things?” And the question can and should be answered in a similar fashion.

It would be virtually impossible to address every related issue in a simple blog post of this form, so I will simply mention some things that I have mainly set aside here:

1) The issue of formal causes, discussed more in my earlier treatment of this issue. This is relevant because “is this a zombie?” is in effect equivalent to asking whether the thing lacks a formal cause. This is worthy of a great deal of consideration and would go far beyond either this post or the earlier one.

2) The issue of “physical” and “material.” As I stated in this post, this is mainly a distraction. Most of the time, the real question is how the subjective is possible given that we believe that the world is objective. The only relevance of “matter” here is that it is obvious that a material thing is an objective thing. But of course, an immaterial thing would also have to be objective in order to be a thing at all. Aristotle and many philosophers of his school make the specific argument that the human mind does not have an organ, but such arguments are highly questionable, and in my view fundamentally flawed. My earlier posts suffice to call such a conclusion into question, but do not attempt to disprove it, and the the topic would be worthy of additional consideration.

3) Specific questions about “what, exactly, would actually be conscious?” Now neglecting such questions might seem to be a cop-out, since isn’t this what the whole problem was supposed to be in the first place? But in a sense we did answer it. Take an apparent claim of something to be conscious. The question would be this: “Given how it was caused by objective facts to make that claim, would it be a reasonable claim for a subjective claimer to make?” In other words, we cannot assume in advance that it is subjectively making a claim, but if it would be a reasonable claim, it will (in general) be a true one, and therefore also a subjective one, for the same reason that we (in general) make true claims when we reasonably claim that one thing is not another. We have not answered this question only in the same sense that we have not exhaustively explained which things are distinct from which other things, and how one would know. But the question, e.g., “when if ever would you consider an artificial intelligence to be conscious?” is in itself also worthy of direct discussion.

4) The issue of vagueness. This issue in particular will cause some people to object to my answer here. Thus Alexander Pruss brings this up in a discussion of whether a computer could be conscious:

Now, intelligence could plausibly be a vague property. But it is not plausible that consciousness is a vague property. So, there must be some precise transition point in reliability needed for computation to yield consciousness, so that a slight decrease in reliability—even when the actual functioning is unchanged (remember that the Ci are all functioning in the same way)—will remove consciousness.

I responded in the comments there:

The transition between being conscious and not being conscious that happens when you fall asleep seems pretty vague. I don’t see why you find it implausible that “being conscious” could be vague in much the same way “being red” or “being intelligent” might be vague. In fact the evidence from experience (falling asleep etc) seems to directly suggest that it is vague.

Pruss responds:

When I fall asleep, I may become conscious of less and less. But I can’t get myself to deny that either it is definitely true at any given time that I am at least a little conscious or it is definitely true that I am not at all conscious.

But we cannot trust Pruss’s intuitions about what can be vague or otherwise. Pruss claims in an earlier post that there is necessarily a sharp transition between someone’s not being old and someone’s being old. I discussed that post here. This is so obviously false that it gives us a reason in general not to trust Alexander Pruss on the issue of sharp transitions and vagueness. The source of this particular intuition may be the fact that you cannot subjectively make a claim, even vaguely, without some subjective experience, as well as his general impression that vagueness violates the principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. But in a similar way, you cannot be vaguely old without being somewhat old. This does not mean that there is a sharp transition from not being old to being old, and likewise it does not necessarily mean that there is a sharp transition from not having subjective experience to having it.

While I have discussed the issue of vagueness elsewhere on this blog, this will probably continue to be a reoccurring feature, if only because of those who cannot accept this feature of reality and insist, in effect, on “this or nothing.”

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2 thoughts on “Hard Problem of Consciousness

  1. You have lately been dealing with the errors associated with confusing different -modes-, such as modes of being, modes of experiencing, and modes of understanding. Is this list of modes exhaustive? Is such a complete list of modes possible? And what are the relationships between them? It seems that modes of being are “first”, modes of sensing and understanding being derived from the character of relations between things. Also, the senses as modes of experience have an interesting character of being somewhat related to one another, yet also distinct. Are there limits on the number of distinct sensual experiences an extended mind can have?

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  2. These are good questions, but I doubt I can do them justice, which is why I haven’t responded until now.

    There are two different ways of trying to make an “exhaustive” list of something, namely in general and in particular. So for example “even and odd” is an exhaustive list of integers greater than 1, in general terms. It is more difficult to give an exhaustive list in particular: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… In this way it is possible to give an exhaustive list in general but not in particular. Likewise, we can make an exhaustive list of such “modes” in general, but probably not in particular.

    “Way of being” and “way of being known,” may be exhaustive if “being known” is taken in a sufficiently general sense, as including both sense and understanding. If we look at the senses in particular, however, it seems likely that theoretically there are an indefinite number of ways an animal could sense the world (not that we actually sense it in an indefinite number of ways), because there are an indefinite number of ways that an animal could theoretically relate to the world.

    I agree that the modes of being are first, and the cause of modes of knowledge and experience.

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