The most recent in my series of posts on consciousness presents some examples of ambiguous stimuli. Predictably, an anonymous commenter chimed in about how such illusions will never shed light on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. So, for posterity, here is my response to the hard problem reflex that is evoked whenever the word ‘consciousness’ is uttered.
When I first heard Chalmers speak on the “hard” versus “easy” problems of consciousness (back in 1994 in Tuscon), I was quite impressed by his clarity in communicating what he took to be the crux of the problem of consciousness. For those unfamiliar with the ‘hard problem’ formulation of things, in his article Facing up to the problem of consciousness Chalmers puts it this way:
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.
Allow me to paint in broad strokes my problem with using such descriptions as a starting point for the study of consciousness.
As suggested in the second sentence of the quote above, Chalmers assumes that experience cannot be a matter of information processing. In his book, he goes much further. He explicitly assumes (in the Introduction) that experience also cannot be generated by neuronal activity or other garden-variety biological processes. Given that assumption, is it any surprise that he thinks experience is a really hard problem?
He sometimes suggests that his claim that experience is something over and above the biology isn’t an assumption, but definitional of experience. Indeed, he often writes as if this loaded notion of experience is pretheoretic and obvious (i.e., the ‘primary’ intension). As he says in the Introduction to the book, “I cannot prove that there is a further [hard] problem, any more than I can prove that consciousness exists. We know about consciousness more directly than we know about anything else, so “proof” is inappropriate.”
Speaking personally, such high-falutin’ notions (about causal and functional underpinnings of experience) were never part of my pretheoretic notion of experience. I’ll go with him as far as the claim that consciousness is synonymous with experience or awareness. That seems vacuous. However, adding the proviso that experience is something over and above neuronal or other mechanisms goes well beyond my pretheoretic notions, and probably beyond the intuitions of Fodor’s Grandma. However, Chalmers has the stones to claim that those not working within this loaded conception of consciousness aren’t ‘taking consciousness seriously’ (this is a chorus in his book, from the Introduction onward).
So while I admire his clear expression of an idiosyncratic view of consciousness, I personally find it too tendentious to be useful.
Despite these seemingly obvious problems with his approach, I observed with dismay as the phrase “What about the hard problem?” spread like syphilis over the amateur philosophy of consciousness landscape. It became a kind of cognitive creativity sink, an easy knee-jerk response to any discussion of consciousness. Psychologists and neuroscientists are now required, by law, to address the “hard problem” in the first or final chapter of their books on consciousness. It’s a bit ridiculous.
By analogy, when I talk to Creationists about a cool biological phenomenon, they immediately seem compelled to explain its origin in terms of God’s amazing designing powers. It is really quite strange, as they are perfectly intelligent people, capable of having good discussions of other things. However, when it comes to the topic of phenotypes, their creativity, their scientific curiosity, and (most importantly) their obsession with evidential details and brainstorming about possible mechanisms are all shut off.
I see a similar cognitive short-circuit in many people when it comes to consciousness, especially if they have acquired the hard problem reflex. No matter what is being discussed about consciousness, the reflex kicks in and everything just stops (compare to, “Wow, I can’t imagine how this happened, God is a great designer.”). They contribute nothing beyond a bumper sticker to the discussion, and aren’t interested in any more details. I might as well be whistling Dixie.
Note I don’t mean to come down too hard on Chalmers. Overall I admire his clarity and synoptic vision, I just disagree with a fundamental assumption of his work. He may be Patient Zero, but clearly it wouldn’t have spread if it didn’t resonate with people at some level.