Hard[ly a] Problem

As I browse about the web, I constantly run into the infamous “hard” problem of consciousness of Chalmers in one form or another.

Sometimes the problem comes from an unexpected source – people who are materialists who actually think they have the answer to the problem. Usually the problem is thrown up by idealists or dualists who are trying to demonstrate that the materialist cannot account for his/her own consciousness, hence there is no reason to take materialism seriously.

Previously I described the “hard” problem as an “unserious” problem. Chalmers’ enumerated a number of challenging but useful areas of scientific investigation in neuroscience that he called “easy” problems. These he contrasted with the “hard” problem of explaining how experience arises from physical processes. The “easy” problems are problems amenable to scientific inquiry. The “hard” problem will never be amenable to scientific inquiry because it is asking to explain subjective experience from an objective perspective.  Let’s say we have perfected brain scans to the point that we can map absolutely every scan to subjective experience. Have we answered the “hard problem? I think not in Chalmers formulation because “there is also a subjective aspect”. You can’t explain subjectivity from the outside because it is inside the experience.

The “hard” problem, in a sense, is a gimmick, a trap for the materialist who is asked to explain subjectivity from the outside. The “hard” problem for the idealist is the really “hard” problem posed when Samuel Johnson kicked a rock and refuted Bishop Berkeley’s idealism by saying” “I refute it thus.”

Here I’d like to approach the “hard” problem is a slightly different way but one not incompatible with my previous views on the subject. Chalmers’ problem is actually of a class of problems which have no logical answer. They are meaningless problems. Let’s ask a question sometimes asked by clever children.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

We know there is no real answer to this question. We could appeal to God or something similar, but we know that just creates a new but logically equivalent question about why would there be a God rather than nothing. The only answer is a “turtles all the way down” answer.

Let’s take another question.

Why are the laws and properties of nature such that they are compatible with life and the world as we know it?

This you may recognize as the anthropic principle.  This is almost the same question as the previous one. If the laws were different, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Any answer – let’s try God again – leads us again into a infinite regress. If we propose X as the answer, then the question becomes: Why X?

Now let’s pose the “hard” problem.

Why am I aware?

This is not how the “hard” problem is usually presented. It is usually presented as the problem of explaining experience from physical processes. This is really the “hard” problem in its simplest form. An answer to “why am I aware” would be an answer to the “hard” problem. If I wasn’t aware, I couldn’t ask the question. If I couldn’t ask the question, I wouldn’t be aware. This is the same as “why is there something rather than nothing” question, except the “something” has been replaced with my awareness.

Idealism thinks they have solved the problem by declaring experience fundamental but that is just shifting the problem. It is like answering “why is there something rather than nothing” by declaring “something” fundamental.

The why still remains.

Because there is no answer.

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17 Responses to Hard[ly a] Problem

  1. Well said. The hard problem is a distraction. In truth, I’ve always felt like Chalmers himself solved it, to the extent it is solvable, in the paragraphs just prior to introducing the term “hard problem”, with the discussion of easy problems. By walling off consideration of those issues, and ruling out any attempt to break the “hard problem” into smaller addressable chunks, he made the issue intractable.

    Not that he originated it. Gilbert Ryle dealt with it as early as 1949, when he described it as a category-mistake, what happens when someone, after touring the lecture halls, dormitories, and offices of Oxford, asks: where is the university?

    The fact that we’re still talking about it 70 years later shows that this isn’t a logic problem, but similar to the other cases you noted, an emotion one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    At its core, the hard problem is manufactured by subject/object metaphysics. The hard problem is nothing more than an artifact of that useless, massively oppressive paradigm.


    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:


      I knew you would comment and was expected a little longer comment. 🙂

      But I’m not disagreeing.


    • Lee Roetcisoender says:

      Once SOM cleaves the world into two parts, thereby making an ontological distinction between mind and matter, there is no way to reconcile that ontological division under any circumstances. The SOM model is not sovereign therefore, we do not have to serve that rendition of reality. In conclusion: we have to learn how to use the word reality correctly.

      In contrast to SOM, reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM) makes no such ontological distinctions, only epistemic ones. RAM reduces to monism, a monistic architecture that posits only one thing. Under a strictly monistic architecture, one can now ask the quintessential question under writing the so-called “hard problem”. How does phenomenal experience arise from physical states? Corresponding to the monistic architecture or RAM, the answer is simple and straightforward: because physical states are themselves phenomenal states, phenomenal states that have phenomenal experiences. Under a strictly monistic architecture, there is no other conclusion that can be derived without reducing to absurdity.

      Under our current paradigm, consciousness is conflated with mind. Therefore, we also have to learn how to use the word consciousness correctly also. Since there is no ontological distinction between mind and matter, consciousness would reduce to phenomenal experience. Any other conclusion would reduce to absurdity. With a few key strokes on a keyboard, I’ve resolved the infamous “hard problem”, a problem that fundamentally does not and never did exist. One is now left with pragmatic panpsychism.

      Reconciling the “manufactured” mysteries that we have inherited directly from our culture is only achieved by rejecting the ludicrous SOM paradigm and replacing it with the pragmatic model of RAM.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. I also consider this is a wonderful assessment of the current situation. Nevertheless I’m just anally retentive enough to not want to leave the concluding sentence quite as absolute as stated. We materialists believe that an ontological answer exists for the “Why?” of subjective experience — various unknown causal dynamics should mandate such function. It’s simply not something that the human should ever grasp. I’ll admit however that concluding with “Because there is no epistemic answer”, does sacrifice the bite. So it goes.

    From here I’d like to mention one of my own projects. I believe that the scientific community will require effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, in order to better found the institution of science. Such principles should most benefit our soft mental and behavioral sciences, and certainly consciousness studies in general.

    I believe that my single principle of metaphysics would largely alleviate the presented “hard problem” issue. It reads:

    To the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to discover.

    Once this principle becomes established, two separate clubs should be instituted in academia, or “causalists” and “everythingists”. Thus all non-natural ideas would be banned from the causal club, or effectively “science”.

    Furthermore I foresee a great reckoning in store for the horde of modern cognitive scientists and such who’ve been led to presume that phenomenal experience must ultimately exist by means of processed information independent of substrate. It’s a supernatural idea in the sense that causal dynamics mandate that all function , including phenomenal experience, depend upon associated mechanisms for them to occur. Phenomenal experience may be strange to us, though the parameters of this club will mandate that it be presumed to function under the causal dynamics of everything else.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Ruis says:

    Clearly there is something rather than nothing because if there were nothing, that question couldn’t be asked. It can only be asked in universes containing something.

    As to “Why am I aware?” (and I agree with your posing this as a Alexanderian Gordian Knot type of solution/approach to the question of consciousness) I have to believe it has to do with the evolutionary benefits of having an imagination. To benefit from an imagination we need short term memory and the ability to keep a number of things “in mind” while we do the modeling that imaginations allow us to do and survive thereby (Is the wind rustling the grass or is that a predator sneaking up on me? These are two scenarios. Long term memories are also helpful but are not at the crux of the matter.) I believe this leads logically to some form of awareness of oneself as me, myself and I am a player on the stage of my consciousness. That predator may attack me or one of my family or …

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      We do need to distinguish between the metaphysical “hard” problem and the scientific, empirical questions relating to consciousness.

      You have done that.

      I put a lot of emphasis on learning and memory as you may gather from my previous post which is not a great deal different from your view for the empirical questions.

      BTW, I did read the book The User Illusion you recommended and would highly recommend it to others. Thanks for mentioning.


    • Clearly there is something rather than nothing because if there were nothing, that question couldn’t be asked. It can only be asked in universes containing something.

      What about this Steve. As something that exists in a universe that contains at least you, you can now ask, “If a causally separate universe from my own exists that does contain something, why does it exist?” So maybe it exists and maybe it doesn’t, while your own universe can only exist.

      It seems to me that there are two notable possibilities. Either this other universe would exist by means of causal dynamics, or the “magic” option in opposition. So by extension either your own universe exists by means of causal dynamics or magic. Maybe that’s at least something.


  5. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    “Thus all non-natural ideas would be banned from the causal club, or effectively “science”.

    You’re statement reduces to a absurdity Eric, because the scientific community is unable to account for causation; period!!! All we have are descriptions, and those descriptions are all the way down the ladder and yet, none of those descriptions account for the all elusive causation. Therefore, we have no predicate upon which to discriminate between what science is verses what science is not. So what next??

    What is un-natural about positing that value is an objective reality, and that “reality” comes first in hierarchy, a hierarchy that makes value sovereign? It’s not like none of us know what value is, and that none of us experience value directly. Isn’t that what your entire valance premise is built upon, good or bad, not right or wrong?

    Let me briefly explain what I am talking about. Pure experience is prior to the division into subject and object, and that experience is value. As an illustration* to the previous point:

    “Take a man sitting down on a hot stove. That low value experience of the damaging heat to one’s lower posterior is immanently experienced, stimulating a response of immediate action. It is only after the remediation of that low value experience is mitigated that the articulation of the experience is formed within the conscious interval; demonstrating once again that value stands alone at the center of power within consciousness. Value is not the outcome of experience as suggested by axiology, value becomes the very source of experience itself, and it is through the evidence of those empirical experiences that it can be established with a high degree of certainty that value is an objective reality.”


    * “The Immortal Principle: A Reference Point”; (2020), page 88.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lee,
      Causation is the dynamic which permits the possibility of “figuring things out”, so it doesn’t need to be explained. It’s a precondition. Thus to the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to discover. I’m saying that we need a causal club (or “science”), and a everything club (or “science-plus”). Anyone who wants to entertain supernatural ideas would need to do so under the more expansive classification.


      • James Cross says:

        You’re not going to rope me into causation discussion. LOL

        But feel free to continue on your own.

        I’m convinced I don’t know what causation exactly is. In the really Big Picture, I’m inclined to go with Julian Barbour and suggest everything causes everything.


      • Lee Roetcisoender says:

        “I’m saying that we need a causal club (or “science”)…”

        Your last two post comes across as somewhat incoherent, so it would help if in the future you dropped the word “causal or causation” entirely from your vocabulary, and substitute “when shit happens” in its place. That single move would help others and myself to understand what you are actually stating.

        Furthermore, what you are explicitly stating is that “you” are not the least bit interested in trying to figure out causation, the very dynamic which permits the possibility of figuring out the “other shit that happens”. I don’t know if you realize it or not Eric, but the very underlying principles upon which the discipline of science was founded is to eventually fill the epistemic gap in causation. Do you really believe that you can convince the institution of science to abandon that grounding tenet? No……… seriously??!!??

        Be polite and reciprocate a bit Eric, address the narrative of the man sitting on a hot stove and the role, if any, that value plays in “this type of shit happening”.



      • Lee Roetcisoender says:

        (Be polite and reciprocate a bit Eric, address the narrative of the man sitting on a hot stove and the role, if any, that value plays in “this type of shit happening”.)

        Please disregard this comment……. I think I’ve finally got it through my thick skull that you are not interested in causation. So, have a good one and take care.


        Liked by 1 person

        • No worries Lee. I have all sorts off friends with all sorts of beliefs, as do you. We just can’t speak with all of them as productively as we’d like regarding conflicting matters. I consider myself a subject of reality that perceives its existence through the medium of phenomenal experience, or the metaphysics of “subject/ object”, and the paradigm that you consider inherently flawed. Thus to me there will always be an epistemic limit to never overcome but only potentially narrow. (As much as I like myself, I am no “god”.)

          But rather than us stepping on each other’s toes, it may be best to discuss associated issues with people who have less contrary positions? For my part I see that Sabine Hossenfelder just interviewed a psychologist who thinks they’re making progress on its reproducibility crisis. I should be spending more of my free time supporting the work of people like Sabine!


  6. Pingback: Daniel Dennett on why phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness | SelfAwarePatterns

  7. anng says:

    I came across the delineation of “HARD” and “SOFT” for consciousness back in the 80s. I couldn’t see then, and still can’t, why a human-created word has to actually identify a something. Why can’t it be a complete muddle of processes? Intertangled emotions, actions, thoughts, etc
    The Oxford Learners Dictionary defines it as:-
    “the state of being able to use your senses and mental powers to understand what is happening”

    By that definition, my cats (kittens, really) have consciousness.
    I don’t think the researchers have defined their problem sufficiently well.


  8. anng says:

    “Why are the laws and properties of nature such that they are compatible with life and the world as we know it?”

    Because we couldn’t exist where they didn’t – I always thought the Anthropic Principle was stupid. Humans created the equations and calculated the numbers to use – from the Universe they exist in.


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