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The Hard Problem

No problem

I read a recent essay by Daniel C Dennett about the 'hard problem' at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6074080/pdf/rstb20170342.pdf

The hard problem was announced by David Chalmers in an essay written in 1995. Wikipedia offers this quote:
"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. In the same paper, he also wrote: 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."

Basically Chalmers is claiming that no matter how much we know about how the brain functions we won't have made progress in understanding how we can experience anything. He's playing with the metaphor we got from Descartes who confronted the fact that people are physical creatures and he didn't think that cognition could possibly be physical. He imagined being able to perceive all the mechanisms of a brain directly and asserted that you would never find a mind in there that could think.

Mentality is fundamentally different from physicality he asserted.
He asserted.
Seems he spoke too soon but Chalmers got the message.
Dennett goes pah!!!
The so-called hard problem of consciousness is a chimera, a distraction from the hard question of consciousness, which is once some content reaches consciousness, then what happens?.

Now, I rarely disagree with Dennett but I think that the hard problem is more like a mirage than a chimera. :-) It's a mirage that emerges when you take ideas like qualia seriously.
The idea of qualia is like this. When you look at something red that stimulates a mind to produce a quale of red that it perceives. And no matter how hard you look at a brain from the outside you will never see the qualia that the brain is experiencing. But that's an artifact of the idea of a non physical mind experiencing reality.
Once you lose that idea the hard problem goes poof.

And Dennett puts the matter well. Once a brain detects something, say something red; then what happens? What do we do next and why?

I take seriously that there is no mental plane to existence. And so I take seriously that all I do or experience is a consequence of physical reality; ie neurons and hormones and all that. Dennett points to an interesting fact. Just as by looking at how the mechanism is working we don't get the experience, by having the experience we have no perception of the mechanism that enables it.

Max Velmans proposed a solution to this.
It's a matter of perspective; an interior perspective and an exterior one. But Dennett showed clearly too why the hard question (as opposed to the hard problem that went poof) is a very hard question. It pushes the limits of what science can do. Science investigates by restricting the degrees of freedom in a situation and then watching what happens if one variable is changed. When investigating cognition scientists do things like present lights around a dial and ask the subject to press a button when they make a decision as their brain is being scanned. They look for the brain activity that is associated in time with the decision. That's possible to do and interesting correlations are made. But say, instead of a decision like that you asked the subject to describe something interesting in their lives and scanned their brains. There would be lots of activity but no way of making correlations.

So, I'm not sure if Dennett's hard questions will ever be answered, but they lead to questions that can be answered maybe. The hard problem is just giving up at best and throwing in with dualists at worst.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.