Why is the Hard Problem so Hard?

D. Stoljar, Ignorance and Imagination: On the Epistemic Origin of the Problem of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press (due out in May 2006).

Why is it so hard to explain phenomenal consciousness in physical (i.e., naturalistic, scientific) terms? Why do many find it easy to imagine zombies and other putative physicalism-refuting scenarios?

Perhaps it’s because our knowledge of physics is not advanced enough–we just lack the right physical theory or the right physical concepts. This answer has always seemed to me a plausible part of the correct story on consciousness (at the present state of our knowledge). It is a natural response of those acquainted with the history of science. Just as vitalists could not imagine a physical explanation of life, or Newton could not imagine a physical explanation of gravity, etc., etc., we cannot imagine a physical explanation of consciousness. It doesn’t follow that there is no such explanation.

Eventually I realized that many philosophers have made similar observations. They seem to fall into two camps.

Camp 1 (e.g., the Churchlands): even though we currently lack a naturalistic explanation of consciousness, it is within reach; we just need to do the necessary science (plus, perhaps, the right amount of conceptual analysis/revision). I think this is too optimistic: we don’t even seem to have a clear idea of what would constitute a successful naturalistic explanation of consciousness.

Camp 2 (e.g., Colin McGinn): we will never explain consciousness naturalistically because our minds are incapable of acquiring the right concepts. This sounds too pessimistic: why rule out future conceptual breakthrough?

The current philosophical landscape contains no one filling an intermediate position between the above two camps. But the history of science and philosophy contains many conceptual breakthroughs; by (optimistic) historical induction, we should expect more in the future. Now it appears that Daniel Stoljar has developed this line of thinking into a whole forthcoming book. It sounds promising.


  1. Clark Goble

    I’m not sure there aren’t intermediate positions. I’m not sure they are necessarily ones that are good. But there is radical emergence and then positions like Penrose that tie consciousness to quantum mechanical reality.

    Now I find radical emergence terribly problematic since to me it just seems like a “god of the gaps” like solution. That is there isn’t a way to get from point a to point b and thus “a miracle occurs.” But while I think it runs afoul of Ockham it is popular in some circles, especially in the free will debate.

    The Penrose response is very problematic although I suppose one could cast it into the quasi-panpsychism approach of early pragmatists like Peirce only given a modern physics twist. But certainly no one is very convinced by Penrose.