• Kym
    86
    I've never felt I've really understood the 'Hard Problem' of consciousness. Although not a new problem, David Chalmers seems to be the contemporary go-to source. Here he is in 1995 with 'Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness':
    "It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does." [my italics in there]

    It seems to me all this distils down this to two short questions:
    • Why do we have consciousness?
    • How can we have consciousness?

    Why Consciousness?
    Consider that consciousness contains mental models of the world and its phenomena. Not a single, complete or accurate models certainly, but without doubt this still is a very adaptive feature. As humans have flourished via co-operative activity it’s not hard see the value of making abbreviated mental models we can transmit easily to others. Harvesting blackberries together we might discuss the ideal quality of that deep blue we know means a great pie will had at the end of the day. We'll probably share a good mental image of the topography of the area – discuss foraging directions, maybe even externalize this image with a little mud-map. That curious sensation of middle C is a usually rattlesnake around here, so best share that between our mental models as well. The day passes. When blissfully pondering all this I feel a twinge of anxiety as you catch me standing about savouring blackberries. You never do like me to leave you with all the work whilst I go about philosophizing - usually you punch me in the arm. Some internal realities are quickly updated to my mental model – with both your experienced emotions and mine - present, past and future. As the day progresses our similar but unique mental models constantly update as our external and internal conditions change and flow.

    How Consciousness?
    So, just in this, we have an everyday example of consciousness showing some pretty obvious functions at work. Familiar, but I doubt it’s a simple thing below the surface. In the pursuit of a piece of pie doubtless a great deal of complex brain activity went on. Had dragging about meters of cable through the brambles seemed more practical, I'm sure at least crude correlations of increased EEG brain activity could have been seen varying with demands of consciousness.

    I think the workings of the material world is sufficient to account for this phenomenon (Physicalism is it?). While it's obviously too crude to say 'the mind is the brain' - it seems reasonable to propose the mind is at least 'a function of the brain'.

    Patricia Smith Churchland derided mind-brain correlations such as Roger Penrose's theories, saying that "Pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum coherence in the microtubules." (Brain-wise: studies in neurophilosophy, 2002). I suspect this conflates ‘material substance’ with ‘material function’. We know very well of one way to model the world using tightly organised flows of energy through matter. We call this computing. Let me stress here that I’m not saying that the mechanics producing consciousness are just the same as for computing. But we at least know that very complex world-modelling occurs sans the pixie dust. Sure, it would be very nice to know exactly the minutest brain mechanisms involved. And I expect we will do, down the track, but even Darwin was not wrong until the discovery of genes.

    To my mind what's more perplexing is the how of subjectivity. How can a thing be conscious of itself? Is there a little man in our heads who monitors our sensations and feelings? If so, who is conscious of this monitoring - another little man? That’s an oldie but a goodie, and I can't quite remember the author of this reductio (I think it was a reply to Descartes’s ‘ghost in the machine’, does anyone else know?). In any case, Nagel sparked concerns like again these back in during the Hard Problem's revival from the 1970s.
    "If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account .." (OK, we've covered some of that ground but we’ll return to it)
    "... But when we examine their subjective character it seems that such a result is impossible. The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view." ("What is it like to be a bat?" 1974).

    Herein lies a questionable assumption: That consciousness consists of "a single point of view". In reality internal experience is often quite conflicted, and we are in least two minds about everything from a menu preference to ideas of jurisprudence. Despite what we say, we often aren't even fully aware of how we feel about things until our emotional responses to events interact over time with our thoughts about them. Personally I don't hold much faith in Freud, but one thing he got right is that a mental persona consists of far more than a "single point of view".

    Physiologically that really shouldn't surprise us. Almost our entire brain is bifurcated and duplicated, not to mention subdivided into a complex web of many smaller structures all in continual inter-communication. Often these are working on different aspects of the same task – ‘parallel processing’ if you like. We don't need call upon an infinite series of observers to account for the subjective experience when just such a hall of mirrors would suffice: The inner life of self-consciousness may consist of one brain region of the interrogating another for results, then this process reversing and repeating towards resolution. Of course, when asked for if we want that second slice of pie we have to quickly gloss over this process and present a single view. The ‘single point of view’ is a necessary fiction, but a fiction nevertheless (here I think, is an interesting intersection with theories of personal identity)

    Who is not familiar with subjective phenomena of an 'internal monologue'? Well, that's a question I'd love to see investigated. It might be very fruitful research to compare the reports of the internal monologue of people with very different brain anatomies, especially those with only one hemisphere (yes, surprisingly they can often function quite well) or those with a severed corpus callosum (that pencil-thin connective nerve bundle between the hemispheres).

    Say no to Philosophical Zombies:
    All this relates back to the 'why' question. If there was none of this inner modelling and updating then perhaps we wouldn't have or need any subjective experiences. We probably could get by as philosophical zombies - the kind of stimulus-response automata that B.F Skinner thought his lab rats were. (David Chalmers also came up with this image).

    But being in two minds about things, while unfashionably indecisive, is very adaptive indeed:

    First, playing out various consequences in a mental model hurts a whole lot less than relying on continual trial and error.

    Second, we can also play out our own conflicting motivational processes in the relative safety of our own skulls - checking and balancing these against one another before acting in the world.

    Third, we can model that vital element of human social reality – ‘other minds’. Thinking about how things effect other people's reactions is a vital faculty. Even better is to empathise with another. Doing this is almost to run their software on your own hardware. In the complexity of the human social world this seems far more adaptive than just running the basic zombie algorithm.

    I'm sure there are many aspects to the Hard Problem I've overlooked. This is my first post. It’s blueberry pie I seek, not the humble stuff.
  • Bitter Crank
    5.9k
    I don't know WHY we have consciousness, and I don't know HOW either. Probably nobody else does either, at this point. My guess is that consciousness has developed over time and that we are NOT the only creatures on earth who have consciousness. Probably Fido doesn't have as much consciousness as I do, and is almost certainly not conscious of his having consciousness, but he seems to interact with me as an at least somewhat conscious being.

    Is our having consciousness a hard problem? I don't think so, but then I'm not a serious philosopher--or a psychologist either. If we weren't conscious it wouldn't be a problem at all. All I know is that a lot of smart people have been chipping away at this question and haven't so far come up with much. It may be that we can't.

    There are more serious philosophers who will give you a run for your money. They'll be along shortly.
  • Kym
    86
    Hi there Crank. Well I'm doing what I can while I'm waiting for the big brains to gind they way towards 42. Where the Whys and Hows I've offered up are lacking I'd appreciate some pin-point critique, and so proceed in understanding from there if I can.

    As for animals, yeah I too would be very surprised if they were all devoid of any subjective experience. One unintentional implication of my parallel processing notion is it opens the possibility of machine consciousness. Care to accompany me up that garden path?
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    It seems to me all this distils down this to two short questions:
    • Why do we have consciousness?
    • How can we have consciousness?
    Kym

    I don't agree that this is what the thrust of Chalmer's questions are. Asking 'how' or 'why' is a different question to what Chalmers raises. I think this is the salient paragraph in his paper:

    The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

    Now, my argument in favour of Chalmer's position, is that experience is irreducibly first-person. In other words, it is not an object or a phenomenon, in the sense that things that we experience are objects or phenomena. So the question is not 'why do we have consciousness?' but 'what is consciousness?', which is really a question about the first-person nature of experience.
  • Kym
    86
    Hi Wayfarer,

    In short I've argued for "what is consciousness" as being merely the activity of multiple processors in constant communion to continually construct and update a model of the world.

    I agree that sounds pretty dry and uninteresting compared to the glory of the actual thing, which is a very good clue I might have missed something.
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    That’s Dennett’s ‘unconscious competence’ model. There is one fan here on the Forum (although in my opinion he doesn’t really understand what he’s saying :blush: )
  • Kym
    86
    Thanks @Wayfarer, I'll try and track that one down with its counter arguments.
  • StreetlightX
    2.5k
    Without commenting on the rest of your thread, Chalmers's 'hard problem' is quite specific: it asks why consciousness is experienced as so, where 'as so' refers to a certain qualitative aspect of 'feeling' (Nagel's 'what it is to be like'). Why is red experienced like that. So the two questions you say can be 'distilled' from the paragraph you quoted (why/how consciousness?) do not at all belong to the kind of problem that Chalmers is trying to capture. It's about why consciousness feels the way it does, its affective charge; It's a quality of consciousness and not consciousness per se that Chalmers is after an account of.
  • jkg20
    196
    Regarding the part of your intial argument about points of view, I think Nagel's issue is not that there is just one point of view that a person takes for every event they witness that a scientific, third-person perspective leaves it out, but that there isat least one such point of view that the scientific perspective leaves out. That a single person might have multiple points of view of a single external event doesn't undermine Nagel's position - the issue is that there are these things called "points of view" and they have (or seem to have) no place in a scientific description of reality. They disappear from the scientific account (according to Nagel anyway) but are nonetheless things that do exist.
  • StreetlightX
    2.5k
    I'm not sure you're talking about the same thing I am. I'm referring to Nagel's 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat' paper - which Chalmers cites - which isn't about 'points of view' regarding events.
  • jkg20
    196
    Reread "What it is like to be a bat" - Nagel expressly draws a connection between subjectivity "the what it is like of experience" and having a point of view.
  • jkg20
    196
    For instance
    Whatever may be the status of facts about what it is like to be a human
    being, or a bat, or a Martian, these appear to be facts that embody a particular point of view.
    — Nagel

    Churchland, of course, denies that there are any such facts.
  • StreetlightX
    2.5k
    Okay, sure, but I didn't offer an 'argument' about 'points of view' - I didn't even use the phrase, let alone discuss it - I simply cited Nagel as a reference that might help shed light on Chalmers' hard problem. So I still don't know what you're trying to say, nor it's relevance, if any at all, to my initial comment.
  • Kym
    86
    Hey good people. Any recommendations of online sources of easy access (read cheap) and comprehensive collections of philo articles? I've been out of the game since the late paleolithic.
  • Wayfarer
    6.2k
    Consider that consciousness contains mental models of the world and its phenomena.Kym

    What you then write is an abbreviation of what Thomas Nagel describes as ‘neo-Darwinian materialism’ - a model which proceeds to describe consciousness in basically adaptive terms, as one of the various means by which organisms have succeeded in passing on their protoplasm, as a way to....well....pass on their protoplasm. This was the substance of his book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False - which was greeted with universal scorn by its many critics on account of it being sceptical of typical evolutionary materialist accounts of consciousness.

    Here's a long media essay on 'the consciousness debate'. There's also a good profile of Dennett here.

    (I should tell you where I'm coming from in all this. I'm a staunch opponent of scientific materialism. I'm a new-age type, interested in 'consciousness' from the viewpoint of the perennial philosophies and finding a spiritual path. That has grown to take in some aspects of philosophical theology, but is nothing like ID or mainstream religion per se.)
  • snowleopard
    128
    You might want to check out Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist who attempts to make consciousness theory congruent with evolutionary theory, with his 'Conscious Realism' take, apparently with some equations to back it up. There are quite a few conference presentations and interviews available on youtube.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    4k
    It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.Kym

    This is the root of the problem. If you take away this premise, "that experience arises from a physical basis", there is no such problem. Why accept a premise which causes an irresolvable problem? Doesn't that tell you something about the premise?
  • Kym
    86
    Hey there @Metaphysician Undercover,

    That was actually me quoting Chalmers there. Sorry about the poor formatting of my post - I really need to learn how to drive this thing properly.

    But yes, I agree with him that experience arises from a physical basis. I'm not sure I agree this is actually the most widespread view. As for the last part, my post was an attempt to outline a plausible model for a physiology of conscoiusness.
  • Kym
    86
    Hi again Wayfarer,

    The wiki entry on Dennett describes him as one of the 'The Four Horsemen of Athiesm' along with Dawkins etc. - lol.

    Thanks for outlining the paradgim you're writing from. Me, I'm coming from the opposite direction with a strong respect for the scientific method (if not the reality). But unlike Dawkins I don't see spiritual experience as irrelavent. Rather I see there's an urgent challenge to integrate both epistemologies in a way that doesn't comprimise the truths each has uncovered. I'd throw art into the mix to as well.
    (that old parable about the blind men and the elephant)
  • jkg20
    196
    Indeed, if you think there are two realms - the physical and the mental, the subjective and the objective, the inner and the outer - you are likely to face problems connecting the two together. First, if they are genuinely two distinct realms, then there must be things that exist in the one that will not correspond with things that exist in the other. You will also have the substantial task of filling out whatever you suppose the notion of correspondence actually is. You could deny the premise and adopt some kind of monism, which is what idealists (on the one hand) and eliminative materialists (on the other) do. But monisms face their own issues insofar as they have to at least account for the appearance (albeit illusory as far as monism is concerned) of their being at least two distinct realms.
  • jkg20
    196
    Mea culpa - apologies. My first comment was in fact directed at Kym, not you:
    Herein lies a questionable assumption: That consciousness consists of "a single point of view". In reality internal experience is often quite conflicted, and we are in least two minds about everything from a menu preference to ideas of jurisprudence. Despite what we say, we often aren't even fully aware of how we feel about things until our emotional responses to events interact over time with our thoughts about them. Personally I don't hold much faith in Freud, but one thing he got right is that a mental persona consists of far more than a "single point of view". — Kym
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