Some fellow bloggers have dusted off an old paper by David Chalmers Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. Since there is almost always some obligatory homage paid to the Chalmers “hard problem” whenever contemporary discussions of consciousness arise, one of the posts is appropriately called Chalmers Again. The other post Chalmers’ theory of consciousness tries to glean the outline of an actual theory of consciousness from the paper. I am not sure Chalmers’s intent was to provide such a theory. Chalmers reveals his intent when he writes:
At the end of the day, the same criticism applies to any purely physical account of consciousness. For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question: Why should this process give rise to experience? Given any such process, it is conceptually coherent that it could be instantiated in the absence of experience. It follows that no mere account of the physical process will tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory.
Chalmers may think of himself as a materialist or physicalist but in that statement, he shows himself to be a closet idealist.
Is Chalmers Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness all it is cracked up to be?
Chalmers begins with his classic differentiation between the “easy” and the “hard” problems of consciousness.
The easy problems are per Chalmers explaining:
• the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
• the integration of information by a cognitive system;
• the reportability of mental states;
• the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
• the focus of attention;
• the deliberate control of behavior;
• the difference between wakefulness and sleep.
Of course, none of these problems are really easy. As a matter of fact, we are only beginning to understand how the brain and our neurological systems can do any of these things. Before recent decades we had almost no techniques to observe how the brain operates in real time and even the techniques we have now – functional MRIs, for example – are still relatively crude.
So these problems are not really “easy”. Let’s use a different word to describe them – “serious”. They are serious problems because they are problems we can research scientifically. We can make theories about them and test them. We can usefully gain knowledge and understanding about them. As it is with all science, we may never have a complete explanation but we can progress with them and understand more about them. This is actually what Chalmers means by the word “easy”.
Let’s contrast this with the Chalmers “hard” problem:
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.
Chalmers goes on to dress up his argument with some science and an attempt to suggest the outline of a solution with tantalizing hints of “extra ingredients”. But his heart really isn’t into it.
If a problem is not “easy”, it is “hard”. If it is not “serious”, it is “unserious”.
The Chalmers “hard” problem is an “unserious” problem.
The “hard” problem is by the way it is framed unsolvable. It is restatement of age-old argument about the ultimate nature of reality, whether everything is matter or mind. No scientific progress can ever be made on the “hard” problem because it is a philosophical problem. No matter how many brain pattern correlations we make we can never derive “experience” from them. We can never prove the ultimate reality to be mind, matter, some combination, or something else we will never have a clue about. If I had to make a choice, I would pick the last but anyone should feel free to make any choice they want and they can never be proven wrong.
That is what we can call a “unserious” problem.