Posted by: Brad | April 16, 2008

Consciousness a Problem

The inner universe of our minds is ironically one of the hardest of phenomena to study. We all should know the basics. Senses, emotions, memories, ideas – all are the raw materials of consciousness. But where does the brain come in? How are your subjective experiences explainable by neurons and synapses? (Or are they explainable?) Generally, in neuroscience and psychology, these questions are phrased as two different problems of consciousness.

The first part is the “easy problem.” It is basically a question of cognition, or how we process information. Our attention span, language skills, learning abilities, memory capacity, perception qualities, and problem solving abilities have been well-documented and explain a great deal of mental activity. After that there is the second part, or the “hard problem,” and it is in a totally different league. Why is there any experience at all if we are only physical machines and bodies of cells? More generally, what kind of automaton (e.g. the brain, a computer, a cell, and so forth) could generate consciousness? This is a harder scientific question than the easy problem for one simple reason: it could even be metaphysical.

Language skills


Problem Solving

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts the questions of consciousness into three categories: descriptive, explanatory, and functional. Essentially this asks What? How? and Why? Describing consciousness is the easy problem, explaining it is the hard problem, and the question of its function is something not normally addressed with the first two. The question of its function comes down to how it is an adaptation in our evolutionary past. There are some ideas that say it is for free will, motivation, better flexibility (like learning), social coordination, and better cognition (like accessing cumulative information we gather). I’ll say a little more about the first two in the rest of this article.

There are some simple features of consciousness that everyone is familiar with. I would mark qualia, phenomenology, subjectivity, and flow as the major ones that are most self-evident. Qualia are the raw feelings of sensory perception that you have. How the world sounds, looks, feels, tastes, and smells to us. Isaac Newton wrote “to determine by what modes or actions light produceth in our minds the phantasm of colour is not so easie.” Behind the experience of qualia is phenomenology. Phenomenology refers to the organization that is intrinsic in consciousness. The “phenomena” are our thoughts and ideas we use to model the world. (SEP says “… the phenomenal structure of experience is richly intentional and involves not only sensory ideas and qualities but complex representations of time, space, cause, body, self, world and the organized structure of lived reality …”) Subjectivity is something of a casual term that we all know of. Subjective experience is dependent on point of view, and perhaps to some degree, it is uncommunicable to other people. For example, what is it like to be a cat? How would you know for sure? Finally, the dynamic flow of mental life is the storyline played out in your head. William James called it the “stream of consciousness.”

What is it like to be a cat?

What is it like to be a cat?

There is an explanatory gap present in trying to account for how consciousness exists. In a physical, material universe, it is hard to make sense of how consciousness arises and emerges from it. In spite of this there are numerous attempts to respond to this problem. Some are pretty common such as dualism (from Rene Descartes), where the soul is independent of the physical universe, or a closely related concept, idealism (from George Berkeley), where some contents of consciousness are uninvolved with matter. Other explanations seem odd or just plain absurd, like direct realism (from Thomas Reid), which says that the contents of consciousness are the world itself, or panpsychism (from Gottfried Leibniz), the notion that all matter is conscious. Emergence theory and epiphenomenalism posit that consciousness is the result of the brain’s immense complexity, and is therefore a physical construct. (For example, Hofstadter wrote a book I am a Strange Loop, saying consciousness is analogous to a sort of feed-back loop due to its self-reference, the “I.”) A strange combo of this idea that and quantum physics is supported by Roger Penrose and some other scientists, called OOR. Their theory says a special quantum computation goes on in the mind allowing it to supersede some of the capabilities of rigid programming that regular computers have. (He argues his case in his book Emperor’s New Mind.)

The Cartesian Theater, representing Descartes’
view of the soul in relation to the world

Another very impressive question is whether or not consciousness is actually something that makes choices. It is conceivable that our consciousness is merely a byproduct of our deterministic brain so that consciousness is only an endpoint and does not have any control over the brain’s processing. Perhaps you’re just along for the ride!

Some people (like Colin McGinn) say the hard problem is insoluble. Others (like Daniel Dennett) say it is an illusion; there is no hard problem. Still more (like David Chalmers) disagree with that, saying purely physical explanations are lacking. Take a look at the philosophical zombie, the Chinese room, the color expert Mary, and the Turing test for an idea of controversial issues with physicalism. A philosophical zombie is a theoretical human being that functions just as we do, exhibiting all of the ordinary behavior, but is not conscious. This begs the question, “What distinguishes conscious from non-conscious beings?” The Turing test is a situation played out between computers and humans where both a program and a real subject communicate with real interviewers, and if the interviewers cannot agree if the program is human, it is declared sentient. This raises the issue of whether or not it is even feasible to discern between conscious and non-conscious beings. (In AI research, this Turing test has been carried out in real life and is a part of an annual competition to see who can code the “most” human program.) The Chinese room is where a man sitting in a closed room, using instruction books, “translates” Chinese to English (or back), but does not truly “understand” Chinese. What makes up true comprehension? Lastly, the color expert Mary is a hypothetical scientist who learns all of the academic information about the color red possible, but then experiences seeing it for the first time afterwards. (Many people debate what her experience would be like.) What is the difference between qualia and information about qualia? These thought experiments flesh out some of the ambiguities we have in understanding consciousness, which prove problematic in reliably answering the hard problem.

An xkcd-twisted version of the Turing test

And so the debate on the hard problem still persists, and one still wonders how and even if the problem can be solved. Can it even be properly understood? Is it in the realm of metaphysics or science? How can we tell? Is there anything obvious being overlooked? Surely, the hard problem of consciousness ranks right up there with solving the millennium problems and interpreting/understanding quantum theory. It is easily one of the hardest problems of the universe, yet it is what you live every day.




  1. interesting post.. keep posting..

  2. […] Consciousness a Problem […]

  3. Great post! Here’s my answers to four of the above questions (thanks for the opportunity to post):

    Q. What kind of automaton, e.g. the brain, a computer, a cell, and so forth, could generate consciousness?

    A. The kind of automation that could generate consciousness would be a structure that evolves both in time (in terms of complexity) and outside of time (in terms of logical implication) and ends up in the experience of the “implicative affirmative of the not-me-self” — or the loop of self-reference that continually implies “I”.

    Q. What is the what, how, and why of consciousness?

    A. Purely physical explanations work for the what and the how of consciousness because the why of consciousness is embedded in the physical event of consciousness. But, it is also in this physical event where you find also the “function of consciousness.”

    Q. What is the function of consciousness?

    A. As stated above, consciousness is an adaptation (many) in our evolutionary past. These adaptations, at the structural level of (b~b~bb), culminate in freewill, i.e. the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self. Free will is the defining characteristic of what makes humans human. Free will also allows for improvement of other skills, e.g. motivation, better flexibility (like learning), social coordination, and better cognition.

    Q. Where does the brain come in? How are your subjective experiences explainable by neurons and synapses?

    A. The short answer to the above question is that the physical processes used to explain our experienced environment are not independent of consciousness on any level. However, in the same respect, consciousness can’t exist independent of physical process either. (This is the source of the problem at the quantum level of experience–but that’s a story for another occasion).

    The language used below is probably not familiar. It is helpful, though, when one begins to see experience in terms of an evolving structured duality (think two-sided coin here)–the structure of universe/consciousness.

    Because synchronic structure rises on the back of negation, the liberation process is not limited to biological evolution. At the next synchronic level (the level substituting for the psychological/mind concept), a more evolved species of life is the result. On this higher structural level, when at one pole (the empirical side) continuity occurs in discontinuity and, at the other pole (the freedom side) discontinuity occurs in continuity, the experience of “mind” is produced. Diachronically speaking, the content embedded in this structure is the human experience of self-consciousness occurring in a physical event. Discovered in this structure is the potential to produce a great deal of content, but, the actualization of this potential takes place along the liberation path in the form of the objectification of self-nature and culture, (the reciprocal movement occurring between mind and event). Structure, at this level (the physical event of a thinking person), becomes the story of civilization (both in its “ups” and “downs”). Think of the physical event of a thinking person, first as unexposed film and second, via the illumination of the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self, as the film development into human history, the history of human freedom, i.e., the liberation of the human struggle to survive, overcome poverty, ignorance, injustice,–to overcome all the physical and psychological afflictions that subvert the actualization of human potential.

    Thanks for the opportunity to post!

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