Does consciousness pose a particularly ‘hard’ problem?

by consciousnessthoughts

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.

This investigation aims to deal with the subjective experience problem of consciousness, but to do this will also look at the source and nature of consciousness. I believe that once we understand these aspects, we can answer the hard problem much more effectively. For the sake of ease, throughout this investigation I will use the nomenclature employed by Chalmers and refer to the easy problems as Awareness and the so-called hard problem as Consciousness. From previous literature, we have seen that awareness is clearly not a hard problem, and as such is not within this investigation’s remit. Therefore consciousness willonly refer to the “phenomena of experience” (Chalmers, 1995; pg. 201).

Is consciousness really such a hard problem then? For some, apparently the answer is yes. As McGinn puts it, “the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion” (McGinn, 1989; pg. 349). McGinn agrees that consciousness is a hard problem, though he resists the urge to turn to vitalism in order to explain consciousness. Unlike Descartes, he does believe that, although there is a mind-body distinction, consciousness must arise through some natural physical process, and we can assume that this happens within the brain. However, according to McGinn, this process (P) is beyond our incompetent mental hardware to comprehend, and this deficit is worsened by the fact that our object of study – consciousness – requires consciousness itself in order to be studied (McGinn, 1989). This is often known as New Mysterianism, and it is this view with which I would like to take issue.

Whereas New Mysterians believe consciousness to be intrinsically incomprehensible, like Searle I believe that “there is nothing that is inherently unintelligible in the universe” (Searle, interview 1996), and the deifying of consciousness as something beyond our comprehension is one of the “hastily erected roadblocks to progress” (Dennett, 2002; pg. 13) and acts only to stunt the growth of discovery. I would argue that perhaps our experience of consciousness does not stop us from unravelling its apparent mystery; rather that it fools us into believing that there is a mystery at all. As yet, we do not know the amalgamation process through which the illusion of consciousness is formed, and this is a confusion that spreads throughout the literature, but this is not a problem which is to be solved through the denial of an achievable solution. By the way, I am using ‘illusion’ here in the same way Blackmore uses it: “An illusion is not something that does not exist… Rather, it is something that it is not what it appears to be” (Blackmore, 2002; pg. 17). Churchland compares our understanding of consciousness to Aristotle’s understanding of non-Euclidean geometry. For him, it would be impossible to conceptualise such an idea when making the category errors he would have made, from his earlier scientific starting point (Churchland, interview 1996). However, this doesn’t mean that non-Euclidean geometry is beyond comprehension. It simply means that our category errors need to be corrected. What we require is some scientific breakthrough which can allow us to understand the process by which the “aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons [can] generate subjective awareness” (McGinn, 1989; pg. 349).

Daniel Dennett is one of the more outspoken philosophers on the subject, and he believes that many have elevated the phenomenon of consciousness to an excessive degree. The main error that people make is assuming that we have a consciousness which sits centrally in the brain, and collates all the sensory information together into some Cartesian Theatre, “within which is displayed information for perusal by the mind” (Dennett & Kinsbourne, 1992; pg. 186). From the Cartesian Theatre we have developed the notion of a ‘stream of consciousness’, formed from conceptual tributaries into one central narrative. Dennett argues that consciousness is not like this, and more closely resembles “a parallel stream of conflicting and continuously revised contents, no one narrative thread of which can be singled out as canonical” (Dennett & Kinsbourne, 1992; pg. 188). He considers this Cartesian Theatre idea as “hopelessly wrong”, but appealing enough intuitively to become one of those “familiar ideas [which] often linger on, not just outliving their usefulness but even confusing the scientists whose discoveries ought to have overthrown them” (Dennett & Kinsbourne, 1992; pg. 184). His demystification of consciousness begins with the examination of a few simple experiments, which show its fallibility and retroactive post-hoc nature.

The first of these experiments involves change blindness. According to Dennett, people often have the misconception that their conscious mind is constantly taking in a great deal of information beyond their attention, which can be accessed at will. However, just by a simple change blindness experiment, he shows that we are not as aware of our environment as we think. Contrary to popular opinion, we gain very little information from our peripheral view, and our visual perception of the world is made up, piece-by-piece, of the foveal fixation points in the centre of our attention (Dennett, 1991; Rolls, 2008). This leads to universally poor performance on change blindness tests, where participants are shown two images – identical save for a minor change – in quick succession, and are asked to tell the difference. Of course, this doesn’t answer our question as to the hard problem of conscious experience but, as aforementioned, once we begin to strip away the inflated view of our conscious minds we can begin to see a phenomenon not beyond our ability to explain.

The second of these deflating and demystifying experiments concerns our tendency to believe that we are in control of our seemingly conscious thoughts. This is the phenomenon known as masked priming, and it has shown that we are actually very malleable in this regard, and despite our feelings to the contrary, are actually in much less control than previously thought (Friederici, Steinhauer & Frisch, 1999). This is where a participant is flashed a ‘priming’ stimulus, which will be an image or a word, followed in quick succession by a ‘mask’ – such as a rectangle of colour for example, in order to distract the participant from the priming stimulus. The participant is then asked to complete a word stem, such as ‘fri___’, and results show that the prime with which the participant was presented affects their word choice. For example, if the prime was the word ‘cold’, participants are significantly more likely to end the word as ‘frigid’ than those primed with the word ‘scared’ (who in turn were more likely to spell out ‘frightened’). In all cases, and various tests of this phenomenon, the participant is convinced that the word choice is their own and was unaffected by other factors. Is this a trustworthy point of view when it comes to the fallibility of the conscious mind?

This is a phenomenon which undermines the idea of freedom of thought. One which challenges the assumption that we have free will over our actions is that of Libet et al. (1983), who found a discrepancy between neurological activity and the felt urge to act. Participants were asked to move their hand whenever they ‘felt the urge’ and to memorise at what time this urge was felt. Their findings showed that the onset of cerebral activity clearly preceded the reported time of conscious intention to act by several milliseconds. Although there are reported to be several methodological issues with this study (Dennett & Kinsbourne, 1992; Danquah, Farrell & O’Boyle, 2008), the findings are generally accepted. This illustrates that the cerebral initiation of a spontaneously voluntary act “can and usually does begin unconsciously” (Libet et. al, 1983; pg. 640), and that “people experience conscious will when they interpret their own thought as the cause of their action” (Wegner & Wheatley, 1999).

So what implications does this have for the conscious mind? One might argue that it no longer seems that consciousness controls behaviour, and that free will is simply an illusion. Some frontal lobe damage patients find themselves expressing utilisation behaviour, whereby they will pick up and use objects around them, such as buttoning up a coat (Lhermitte, 1983). Interestingly though, they will confabulate reasons for their actions, and seem entirely convinced that this is why they completed the action. To the onlooker, this is clearly some form of compensatory aid (Lhermitte, 1983). From this, one could go so far as to say that consciousness is epiphenomenal, simply a by-product by which an individual feels he is in control of his actions. But why would this be necessary? To answer this, we must look at the evolution of the human mind. The vast majority of an atom is made up of space. A common analogy for this is: if the nucleus of an atom is the size of the full-stop at the end of this sentence, then its outer electrons would be about 50 meters away, meaning that the vast majority of the atom is space. However, because this space is impenetrable due to electromagnetic forces, it was necessary to evolve the illusion of solidity. The same can be said of consciousness: merely an illusory way of making sense of the phenomena around us, in order to make survival and day-to-day activities simpler (Dennett, 1991).

To illustrate this illusion we must consider Chalmers’ zombie thought experiment, and Dennett’s critique thereof in Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (2005). Chalmers asserts the logical possibility that those around us are not experiencing consciousness, but merely exhibit behaviour which would suggest consciousness. There would be no way for us to gauge this, particularly as these zombies would assert that they experience consciousness as much as one who really did. Chalmers argues that were there to be two versions of himself: his ‘conscious’ self and a ‘zombie’ Chalmers, they would seem exactly the same. Furthermore, upon examining their speech we would gain no more clues as they would be equally convincing in their belief. However, Dennett takes issue with the fact that this must mean that there is some kind of underlying consciousness accessible only to the ‘real’ Chalmers, and it is through his concept of heterophenomenology that we can investigate further.

Heterophenomenology is the objective third-person approaching to explaining consciousness; Chalmers’ so-called ‘hard problem’. Using this approach, Dennett attempts to separate and dispose of some of the fallacious assumptions found in this zombie thought experiment. Dennett sees this ‘zombic hunch’ as a very alluring idea, and one against which he has to fight himself. However, he intends – as I do now – to dispel it and find within only a ‘folk psychology’ fallacy. He compares the demystification of this zombic hunch to the seemingly counter-intuitive pipettes of chemistry (“Why on earth doesn’t the Pepsi fall out of the bottom of that straw – it’s wide open!”). Once this hunch has been eradicated, we can get on with a more scientific, heterophenomenological approach to explaining consciousness. So we begin in a Cartesian manner, stripping away and ruling out any assumption which cannot be observed through reliable means. Returning to Chalmers, we must agree that there is no way by which we can distinguish between the two versions. However, where Chalmers goes one step further and believes that he must therefore have access to something which the zombie, by definition, does not, Dennett declares that there is fundamentally no difference between the two Chalmers’. They both exhibit behaviour and speech patterns which suggest consciousness, and are both as convinced of this experience. In fact, were Chalmers to undergo some form of ‘zombification’, he would carry on believing in his own conscious experience. Therefore we cannot trust the individual’s assertion. The aforementioned experiments into change blindness, masking and conscious free will clearly show us how out of touch with our own conscious experience we are. As for qualia, the creation of this illusion is something into which much more research must be done in order to discover what devices cause such sensations to be evoked within us.

For Chalmers, the hard problem is so problematic because the qualia of subjective experience are private and accessible only to the individual experiencing it, and is not something which can be relayed to others – hence our inability to distinguish between the two Chalmers versions. Indeed as Wittgenstein and Dennett, among others, would argue: it can’t even be relayed to oneself. The sensation of one moment (M – as Wittgenstein put it) cannot reliably be compared to a later sensation one might also wish to label M; partly causing Dennett to believe that “’qualia’ is a philosophers’ term which fosters nothing but confusion and refers in the end to no properties or features at all” (Dennett, 1988; pg. 4). So then where does the hard problem lie?

Chalmers’ insistence on there being such a thing as consciousness is a deeply attractive thought, but fundamentally the evidence suggests that consciousness is nothing but an epiphenomenal illusion, deeply flawed and ultimately powerless. It gives us the impression of control, reliability and perception, as seen through the eyes of one Cartesian theatre, but this is not even half of the real story. But surely there is still consciousness experience, however illusory? According to Dennett, “there is no reality of conscious experience independent of the effects of various vehicles of content on subsequent action” (Dennett, 1991). The processes synthesising these various vehicles of content is what we need to explain, but for Dennett these are merely “the little details” (Dennett, 1991).