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Category: Self

Does consciousness pose a particularly ‘hard’ problem?

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 »

Heaven and reason, or Thoughts of a Dying Atheist

Sometimes I wish heaven was real.

For all its flaws, The Invention of Lying did give us an incredibly moving scene. With his mother about to die and lamenting the eternity of nothingness that awaited her, Mark Bellison begins to realise that his (heretofore unheard of) ability to lie can be used for good. Instead of letting her die in such a sad state, he tells her that everything is going to be fine; she will go to a place where she will see all of her old friends, where everybody gets a mansion and there is no such thing as pain. Her dying thoughts are of absolute joy. What a gift.

For those who’ve seen it, you’ll probably agree that the film kind of goes off the rails a little bit here with too many contrivances and shoe-horned messages (which I endorse but not in such a forced way). Nonetheless it shows us a portal into the inherent problem of facing non-existence. Read the rest of this entry »

A coherent self?

In our lives, everything we ever read is something which has been thought over, which has been crafted, which has by and large gone through several versions before it meets our eye. When we speak to others, even the most mumbly confused of people, we get some semblance of thought, of some whole, some self. Even when we in turn write something down or speak to another person, somehow something happens where, as if from a galaxy of disparate sources, an actual idea forms. We don’t run these things through meticulously before we speak. At least I don’t. Tell me you don’t either. As the man said, how can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I have to say?

The effect that this has on our sense of self is quite profound. It makes us think that the self is real, that it is something within and amongst us and which is the essential whole, such as that speaking to you now. This is of course nonsense. A person is only a sum of their actions, and the self a crude collage of thoughts, responses and learned behaviours. It’s not something we like to hear, but it might just be the truest theory we have for now. Read the rest of this entry »