The Hard Problem of Consciousness: the baby and the bathwater

Engaging with the various literature and discussions pertaining to theories of consciousness, it seems to me that there is a sense in which proponents and opponents of physicalism appear to be talking past each other. It appears to me that this issue stems from a mischaracterisation of the philosophy of physicalism. It would appear that there is a tendency to conflate the philosophical position of physicalism with that of sciencism*. While I’m inclined to think that this issue originated with proponents of physicalism and their disposition towards physical science, it is one that is undoubtedly perpetuated in the philosophical literature. This conflation of the two positions, I would argue, leads some philosophers to incorrectly dismiss physicalism while dismissing sciencism. The physicalist baby gets thrown out with the sciencist bathwater, so to speak.  

To clarify the two distinct but related philosophical positions: 

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical…. Physicalism is sometimes known as ‘materialism’. Indeed, on one strand to contemporary usage, the terms ‘physicalism’ and ‘materialism’ are interchangeable. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 

Sciencism is the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry (The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy); that science and only science describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective (Hilary Putnam). 

 

Essentially, physicalism says that everything that exists is physical or material, while sciencism says that everything that exists can be captured in the language and equations of the physical sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, etc.). While the two are very intimately related – proponents of one almost invariably tend to be proponents of the other – there is a key distinction, namely, physicalism can be true even if sciencism is not. 

 

*I use the term sciencism here instead of the more conventional “scientism” so that distinction can be made between sciencists and scientists.  

 

Conflation 

While the conflation of these two distinct philosophical positions may have its origins in the distant past, for the purposes of our discussion here we only need to consider it from its more recent history and its impact on the formulation of what’s known as the hard problem of consciousness. A more contemporary example of where these positions are conflated is in Frank Jackson’s 1982 article, Epiphenomenal Qualia for the periodical The Philosophical Quarterly. 

Jackson says that physicalism is not the noncontroversial thesis that the actual world is largely physical, but that it is entirely physical. This is in keeping with our definition above. He goes on to say that physicalists must hold that complete physical knowledge is complete knowledge simpliciter. This appears to be a reasonable proposition until we consider what Jackson means by “complete physical knowledge”. It is here that we see the inadvertent bait and switch. I say inadvertent because I don’t attribute the origins of this misstep to Jackson himself or other philosophers, rather to physicalists themselves. 

 

Earlier in the paper Jackson says, the physical sciences have provided a great deal of information about the world we live in and about ourselves. He uses the label ‘physical information’ for this kind of information, and also for information that automatically comes along with it. He goes onto imply that the thesis of Physicalism [is] that all (correct) information is [the aforementioned] physical information.  

Jeffrey Kaplan offers a concise analysis of this: 

Frank Jackson’s famous ‘Mary’s Room’ Thought Experiment 

Jackson effectively defines physcialism in terms of the theoretical information produced by the scientific method. This is to conflate physicalism with sciencism since a great many people who attest to experiencing the physical world have no knowledge of the scientific information. We can know about the physicality of the bed when we stub our toe against it. 

 

In the same paper Jackson outlined the now infamous “Knowledge Argument [for qualia]”, in which he attempted to demonstrate that “physicalism” is false. The thought experiment involves Mary, a brilliant scientist who, for whatever reason, is forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and learns every single scientific piece of information that can ever be known about vision, except that she never actually gets to see the colours themselves. Then, one day, so the thought experiment goes, Mary gets to leave her black and white room and she sees a bright red tomato for the first time. The question is, does Mary learn anything new when she sees the red tomato for the first time. I don’t think anyone disagrees that she would indeed learning something new. She would finally know what red actually looks like on the basis of her experience. Jackson took, and indeed philosophers such as David Chalmers and Philip Goff subsequently take the fact that she learns something new as evidence that physicalism is false (or incomplete). But does this argument succeed in demonstrating that physicalism is false? I don’t think it does. 

Let’s consider what knowledge Mary actually has prior to leaving the room. As specified, she is in possession of all the possible scientific knowledge, pertaining to vision. In the article, Jackson equates this position to physicalism and suggests that because Mary learns something new when she leaves the room, physicalism is demonstrated to be either false or incomplete. However, we know from our definitions above, that sciencism, not physicalism, is the position that the entirety of physical knowledge is equivalent to all [possible] scientific information. So, when Mary learns something new by leaving the room and seeing the red tomato for the first time it is sciencism which is invalidated, not physicalism. Physicalism simply says that everything that combined to result in Mary having the phenomenal experience of the red tomato was physical or made of matter. That is, the tomato is physical, the light reflecting off the tomato and hitting Mary’s retina is physical, and the components of Mary’s visual system are physical. That the redness of the experience cannot, specifically, be accounted for in the language or equations of physical science doesn’t invalidate physicalism. As said, it invalidates sciencism. 

 

Churchland’s Refutation 

In a recent video, professor Patricia Churchland outlined an argument as to why the first premise of the Knowledge Argument begs the question against the physicalist. As part of her explanation, she essentially invokes first-person experience to justify why Mary does not know ALL the physical information pertaining to colour vision. She states that there are different pathways to knowledge, some of them involving sensory systems which are not language mediated – so studying theoretical information does not constitute all the physical information. The implication of Churchland’s argument is, however, that all the apparatus and stimuli involved in Mary’s acquisition of the new information is physical. Does this demonstrate that physicalism is true? No, it just negates the claim that the Mary thought experiment necessarily demonstrates that physicalism is false. 

 

Interestingly, in the video, we can actually see Churchland commit the same error in reasoning that opponents of physicalism make, namely a conflation of sciencism with physicalism. This demonstrates that it’s not only opponents of physicalism who make this error.  

 

In the video, she outlines the premises of Frank Jackson’s Mary argument as follows: 

  1. Mary knows all the physical information there is to know about the brain, including all about colour vision. 
  1. Mary is in a black and white room, never exposed to colour. 

 

Note however, at 2:55 She goes on to characterise the first premise as “Mary knows everything there is to know about the physical properties of seeing green”. 

What is Frank Jackson’s Mary Argument? Patricia Churchland for the Royal Institute of Philosophy 

The conflation here is between knowing everything there is to know about the physical properties of seeing green and knowing all the physical information there is to know about the brain. It’s a subtle difference which can be open to interpretation, where the physicalist might say that knowing all the physical information there is to know about the brain includes the experiential information, as outlined by Churchland. 

In Frank Jackson’s thought experiment, Mary is in possession of the theoretical information about the brain, however Churchland mistakenly interprets this to mean that she has all the information the physicalist would include in a complete knowledge. Churchland’s interpretation that the Mary thought experiment begs the question against the physicalist hinges on the conflation of sciencism with physicalism. Churchland doesn’t quite identify the reason why because she too mistakenly conflates the two positions. Although the explanation she gives is a scientific one, in terms of brain processes, it demonstrates that a complete physicalist knowledge relies on first-person, sensory experience. Opponents of physicalism might be quick to point out that the scientific explanation she offers doesn’t necessarily resolve what is referred to as the hard problem of consciousness. 

 

The Hard Problem of Consciousness 

Anyone familiar with discussions on theories of consciousness will have heard of “the hard problem of consciousness”. For those that may not be familiar with it, or only peripherally so, the hard problem of consciousness was coigned by Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, in a 1995 article entitled, Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. It concisely expresses what he and other philosophers see as a fundamental incompatibility between consciousness and physicalism. But what exactly is the hard problem? 

Chalmers suggests the really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. He says it is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.  It follows that no mere account of the physical process will tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory. Here, Chalmers is articulating what he sees as the systematic reasons why the usual methods of cognitive science and neuroscience fail to account for conscious experience. As it is framed here, the hard problem is one between sciencism and consciousness. However, he goes on to question why physical processing should give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems, he says, objectively unreasonable that physical processing should give rise to consciousness. Here, the hard problem is framed as an issue for physicalism by suggesting that it is unreasonable that physical processes should give rise to consciousness, not just that our scientific methods have difficulty explaining it. This conflation of sciencism with physicalism is more evident in Chalmers’s abridged article for Scientific American in which he references Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument to illustrate his point. We have considered above how the conclusion some draw from the Mary thought experiment is a result of conflating physicalism with sciencism. 

At this point, it might be worth noting that there appear to be two strands to “the hard problem”, as Chalmers has outlined it. The primary strand is the possible inability of scientific reductionism to fully account for consciousness while the secondary strand would be the “objective unreasonableness” that physical processes should give rise consciousness. The issue is not so much the former, since I’m not aware of any neuroscientists who claim to have a completed theory of consciousness. The issue is the conclusion drawn with respect to physicalism/materialism, explicitly in the case of Jackson’s Epiphenomenal Qualia paper, but more indirectly in the case of Chalmers’s articles. This equivocation is echoed in the writings and discussions of other contemporary philosophers.  

In Galileo’s Error, professor Philip Goff expresses the hard problem more succinctly as the theoretical obligation to explain how subjective qualities could be accounted for in terms of objective quantities. Goff acknowledges that the aim of the knowledge argument is to demonstrate that the knowledge of consciousness provided by the physical sciences is necessarily incomplete, that it will always leave something out. All of this is an expression of the potential issue of accounting for consciousness in the language of the physical sciences. This, in itself, is not the issue. The issue is the subsequent conclusion being drawn with regard to physicalism.  

Goff also says, “most materialists want to assert the full-blown reality of subjective, quality-rich consciousness, while at the same time holding that reality is purely physical. But, it is demonstrably contradictory to hold both that the world can be exhaustively characterized in objective/quantitative terms and that it contains the subjective qualities of experience”. Notice how the position of the physicalist (“reality is purely physical”) is conflated with that of the sciencist (“the world can be exhaustively characterized in objective/quantitative terms”).  

Again, it is worth emphasising here that this is not a dishonest move on the part of the philosophers since physicalists are themselves guilty of the same error. Indeed, I suspect this conflation owes its origins to the insistence of most physicalists on the primacy of science. I also suspect that this conflation is the primary source of disagreement between physicalists and opponents of that paradigm. It is quite evident in this discussion between physicist Sean Carroll and Goff, on the Carroll’s Mindscape podcast. Goff outlines his definition of “materialism” as the position that “the fundamental nature of reality can be captured with a purely quantitative vocabulary, involving just mathematical and causal terms”. Carroll offers some objections to this saying that it seems to be a “slight sliding of what you’re really aiming at”. 

 

Mindscape 71 | Philip Goff on Consciousness Everywhere 

 

To be fair to Goff, at 24:35 Carroll articulates “materialism” as the position (post-Galileo) that “we are made of these things, we can describe them mathematically”. Without clarification this might lend itself to misinterpretation that the mathematical description is a complete description of the “things” we are made of. This just highlights how both sides seem to equivocate between the two positions and how this might be a key source of disagreement. 

 

Category Error 

While delineating the conflation of sciencism and physicalism doesn’t necessarily resolve the hard problem of consciousness, it does highlight the fact that physicalism is, perhaps, being mistakenly discarded as a result. The hard problem is painted, almost exclusively, as a problem for science and materialism. In the Scientific American article, Chalmers states that he is not necessarily denying that consciousness arises from the brain. He doesn’t definitively say that even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioural functions in the vicinity of experience there will still remain a further unanswered question, he says there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? For Chalmers, it seems “objectively unreasonable” that physical processes should be accompanied by experience. However, for the physicalist it would seem entirely reasonable that conscious experience should be entirely caused by physical processes, IF all that exists is the stuff of materialism. For the physicalist and the sciencist alike, having explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioural functions in the vicinity of experience, to then ask “but where is the experience” might amount to nothing more than a category mistake, in the vein of those outlined by Gilbert Ryle. Like the person seeing all the faculty buildings and personnel asking “but where is the university”? Just as a presupposition about the ontological nature of “the university” would lead someone to question how the relevant infrastructure could give rise to a university, so a presupposition about the ontological nature of consciousness might lead someone to question how all the cognitive functions associated with experience give rise to experience. 

 

The Extra Ingredient 

If we grant, however, that the hard problem will not turn out to be a mere category error, then we might agree with Chalmers and Goff when they suggest that something will always be missing from the scientific explanation, that an extra ingredient is needed, to account for conscious experience. For both Chalmers and Goff that extra ingredient is a fundamental one, namely fundamental consciousness – although they may have different ideas about what that would entail. At this juncture the physicalist might ask whether this extra ingredient is physical or non-physical i.e. is consciousness fundamentally physical or non-physical. The answer to this question would place the given theory squarely within one of the existing categories of theories [of consciousness], namely: 

  1. Materialism 
  1. Substance-Dualism 
  1. Idealism 

 

If the extra ingredient is non-physical then the resultant theory would, by necessity, have to either be a dual-substance theory or a theory of idealism. Idealism, of the sort espoused by Bernardo Kastrup, holds that non-physical consciousness is fundamental and matter is derived from consciousness. While Panpsychist theories are sometimes painted as a middle ground between materialism and idealism, they can, however, be categorised as a subset of either materialism or idealism, depending on how they are formulated. Some formulations of Panpsychism hold that consciousness is just the intrinsic nature of matter, which would make it a subset of materialism, as long as consciousness is not non-physical – otherwise it would be a form of substance dualism. While other formulations might hold that consciousness is fundamental and matter is explained in terms of fundamental consciousness – which would be subset of idealism. Philip Goff expresses the latter in his interview with Joe Rogan: 

Philosopher Philip Goff on Galileo Excluding Consciousness From Science 

Some panpsychists might object that this aspect of matter cannot be captured in the language of science but this would, again, be to confuse sciencism with physicalism. 

 

In what sense do these theories which make consciousness fundamental actually explain conscious experience? As Goff states, by definition, fundamental principles of nature cannot be explained—if they could be explained they wouldn’t be fundamental—they can only be described. This seems to offer an advantage to theories which treat consciousness as fundamental and favour those over materialist paradigms which suggest that consciousness is the result of physical processes. However, I suspect, this is based on a common misconception about the role of first-person experience in the scientific method and in the materialist paradigm, again, not just among philosophers but among materialists themselves. 

The common misconception is that the scientific method somehow circumvents the role of first-person experience in knowledge acquisition and in any sense in which it is leveraged. Again, this is not necessarily the fault of Chalmers or other opponents of materialism, as it is a common misconception on both sides of the debate. As I mentioned in The God Conclusion, while the scientific method doesn’t circumvent the necessity of personal experience for the acquisition of knowledge, it does help to correct for individual biases. What it does is build consensus based on a larger collection of individual experiences. The scientific method is, to oversimplify it, the process of asking “do you see what I see?”, while outlining the steps anyone can take to check if they get the same results. In this sense, the scientific method does treat experience as fundamental and the role it plays is describing the content of that experience, in the manner Goff suggests. We saw a clear and obvious example of this in Patricia Churchland’s video where she invokes Mary’s personal experience as part of the materialist paradigm and then offers a description of the process which occurs. While many might argue against it, it is undeniable that the scientific method takes conscious experience as fundamental, since it is precisely conscious experience that it attempts to describe. It doesn’t, however, make any assumptions as to the nature of consciousness. In this sense, there might be an unfair demand being put on the physicalist to explain how physical processes give rise to consciousness. Neither the fundamentalist nor the emergentist explains consciousness, they simply describe it, with each description being the natural end of their own starting position – both of which take experience as fundamental. 

 

The Elephant and the Blind Men 

Examining the different theories of consciousness, I can’t help but be reminded of the parable of the elephant and the blind men.  

 

 

In a sense, it is trivially true to say that each theory is just describing the same thing, because of course they are. But I wonder to what extent the differences are merely semantic, merely different labels applied to the same thing. To paraphrase the Buddhist parable, different fingers all pointing to the same moon. Perhaps the statement of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness can be amended to “the physical is mental and the mental is physical”. To illustrate, let’s reimagine Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument. 

 

Let’s change the details slightly and use an example I feel has a more tangible quality, that of taste.  In the article, Jackson himself referred to the taste of a lemon as an example of the qualia to which he was referring, so let’s go with that. We imagine Mary knows all the possible scientific information that can ever be known, in principle, about the taste of lemons. When she leaves the room and tastes a lemon for the first time, does she learn something new? Yes, she experiences the bitter taste of a lemon and acquires that knowledge. Now, let’s imagine that Mary has a twin, Tom, and while she was learning all the scientific information her twin was studying every piece of phenomenological information possible, every piece of prose and poetry ever written about lemons and how they taste. Detailed, first-person accounts from professional and amateur lemon tasters alike. When Mary’s twin leaves the room and tastes a lemon for the first time, will he learn something new? Of course he will, because no amount of conceptual information can ever be a substitute for experience. The information learned by Mary and Tom are just two different ways of conceptualising or describing the same thing. Neither is sufficient to capture all the facts of the experience. Indeed, the scientific description offers more detail. Nonetheless, both are just different fingers pointing to the same moon. 

What this tells us is that experience is beyond conceptualisation. As the Tao Te Ching tells us, the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. However, such is the nature of the mind that no sooner do we have an experience but the mind is busy trying to conceptualise it. This is likely the result of our conditioning from the inevitable need to use conceptual language if we are to communicate about our experience. The issues arise when we become attached to the concepts we use as being fundamental. If our first move is to identify the contents of our perception as “physical” then naturally everything in the world will be physical and consciousness must come from the physical. If our first move is to label the basic fact of experience and designate that as being fundamentally different from the “physical” then obviously conscious experience cannot possibly come from physical processes. However, if we recognise that both “physical” and “mental” are referring to the same thing, the distinction becomes unimportant.  

 

First-person empiricism 

In an article published in the Journal of Consciousness, entitled, Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness Chalmers calls for a hybrid approach to exploring the problem of consciousness, where Neuro/cognitive science will provide the third-person data and phenomenology will provide the first-person data. In The God Conclusion – AAtheism I advocate for a first-person spiritual empiricism which utilises the quintessential spiritual practice of meditation to investigate consciousness from the first-person perspective. Thankfully, the dharmic traditions of the Indian subcontintent already have a wealth of information and gudiance on this front. Perhaps investigation into the “psycho-physical laws” that Chalerms talks about might incorporate studies with the most experienced practitioners of meditation, such as those g-tummo meditators who are mysteriously able to dry wet sheets wrapped around their naked bodies (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612090/) and perhaps the reported abilities of Wim Hof (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034215/). 

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