Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings
– John Keats
David Chalmers, in Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness (1995) begins by differentiating between two types of consciousness problem: the ‘easy’ problems, and the ‘hard’ problem. The easy problems in this instance refer to those which can be investigated and explained on functional, neurophysiological bases. For example, if we want to explain a specific process such as the focus of attention, we can (relatively) easily formulate a detailed description of how this is achieved: an appropriate cognitive or neurophysiological model can clearly do the explanatory work (Chalmers, 1995). The ‘hard’ problem however is subjective experience: we cannot explain what it is like to experience something, or indeed to be something (Chalmers, 1995). In Nagel’s famous example, it is beyond our imagination of what it is like to be a bat (Nagel, 1974). Although we might have a thorough account of its functions and mechanisms, of its behaviour and environment, the very essence of what it is like to be a bat is not something we can imagine. Even understanding what the sensation of having echolocation, for example, is impossible, and this is what Chalmers calls the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The qualia of echolocation are much like our sensation of ‘red’. It is ineffable, and accessible only to us. A well-known thought experiment has arisen to illustrate this differentiation, often known as ‘Mary the Neuroscientist’ (Jackson, 1982). Here Mary is a scientist forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room, in which she learns everything there is to know about the perception of colour: the wavelength combinations, how the eye and brain respond to colour etc. She has solved the easy problems through functional reasoning and investigation. However, at no point is she exposed to the colours themselves. Upon leaving the lab, it is asserted that Mary will learn new information about colour simply by perceiving it directly. It is this ineffable information within the subjective experience which signals the hard problem of subjective experience.
It is my view that consciousness does NOT pose a particularly hard problem, but is rather an illusory synthesis of all of its constituent easy parts; and the sensation of consciousness is created post hoc, leading to a fallible consciousness, prone to change blindness and the illusion of free will of both thought and action – all of which will be expanded upon later. By first of all illustrating how imperfect the consciousness is, we can then begin to understand the possibility of the task of explaining it. For the time being however, it is undoubtedly problematic to some extent, since we do not know the process by which these constituent parts synthesise (if at all), in terms of creating subjective experience. However, this is not beyond the scope of human imagination. Nevertheless, there is – to our minds at least – a synthesis, and there is some experience of subjectivity and conscious experience, and as such Chalmers’ views must be considered with reference to other like-minded thinkers. Read the rest of this entry »