Re: Conscious of the hard problem

David Blenkinsop (
Thu, 24 Jun 1999 14:58:31 -0600

Rob Harris Cen-IT wrote:

> [Timothy Bates wrote:]
> > This "hard problem" phrase is really just an ambit claim for high
> > intellectual ground, ie., "oh yes, but you biopsych's only study the
> > non-hard problem ..."
> >
> Crap. If the world's leading minds are that puerile, then we're all screwed.
> Chalmers made the distinction between the "hard" and "easy" problems to
> dispel the tendency for people to declare consciousness explained on the
> basis of psychological/traditional science analyses which never actually
> address directly the thing we're all interested in: the sensation of being,
> experience.
> He called the former "easy" because we can use the tools of contemporary
> science to explain them - not because any fool could do it. He labelled the
> analysis and explanation of conscious experience "hard" because contemporary
> science can't touch the concept . . .

I still tend to agree with Tim Bates, even though his characterization of the hard/non-hard distinction is doubtless oversimplified. The closest analogy to this "hard consciousness problem" that I can think of would be to consider the metaphysical problem of existence, or of why does anything exist at all. For the most part, I think that scientifically minded people would be justified in dismissing this old existential chestnut -- after all, the world *does* exist, so let's get on with it! In other words, what would be the point in taking a minor mystery of philosophy, and making it into a "hard" problem, as though there were something scientifically insightful about questioning existence, as such?

One thing that complicates this more-or-less practical dismissing of philosophy chestnuts is that some physicists *do* sometimes state that their goal is to explain the existence of the universe as economically as possible. This was especially apparent in Stephen Hawking's _A Brief History of Time_, where the idea was to try to explain the whole history of the universe as a simple equation (or, actually, a page full of equations) unfolding in a "boundary free" space. What I think Hawking really had to ignore on this was that there wasn't any real reason that his page full of equations wouldn't be existentially questioned as well, even if the equations could be shown to work out technically to produce the sort of universe that we see! Just let his boundless 4-space scheme work out as well as he could hope, and pretty soon some philosopher would be saying "well, the *hard* problem is, why this set of equations and not some other".

The question then, is not whether existential problems are intellectually puerile, the question is whether these problems are scientifically very interesting or informative. The fascination with "why does anything exist", will probably always be around, same as the fascination with "why are we conscious of anything", or "why do we feel anything". If you're a computationalist, like I think philosopher Daniel Dennett is, it would seem that all of these existential questions are at bottom much the same, in the sense that there's probably no point in questioning the reality of things that are known to be real. In the sense of someone questioning what's already been checked out in practical terms and thus known to be so, isn't it pretty uninformative to describe "why existence" as a "hard" problem? The world exists, we exist, our feelings exist, is there anything scientifically difficult about these most basic considerations?

In the current mailing list messages, it seems clear that a certain amount of existence questioning can make for some discussion, and I wouldn't want to trash the discussion just because I find "existential mystery making" to be more than a little suspect. At the same time, I find that the "existence of consciousness" mystery seems to be particularly misleading in some way, as the "mystery" has been presented throughout the current discussion. There is just no end, it seems, to the number of philosophical red herrings that can be dragged in on this! For instance, from what I've read of some of the rather convoluted "brain experiments" on the "Qualia" thread, it would appear that the importance of *causality* in the operation of any sentient and/or conscious machine is being questioned somehow, as though a brain or machine can't be conscious if you require causality in any way to do that. Has it occurred to anyone that causality has long been considered an essential principle of physics? Isn't it just purely a red herring to use any sense of mystery about this standard thing, this "causality", as a means of justifying the idea that there is any special, basic mysteriousness about conscious perceptions, feelings, etc?

Just to change the topic a bit, it is often said, and with some considerable justification, too, that you can't have practical, useful, Faster Than Light effects of any causal sort, because relativity implies that such effects would get you into time loops, or causal paradoxes, in other words. Now, in this discussion, if causality is, itself, so darned questionable, then why don't we just ignore causality and whip ourselves up an FTL drive from a bunch of tachyonic wave patterns, or FTL wave guide velocities, or something? No worries here, I mean who cares if the light always comes on *before* you flip the switch! Now I'm talking nonsense, you see, *of course* causality is for real -- just like computations, feelings, consciousness, "life, the universe and everything", is for real, real by definition, as it were.

David Blenkinsop <>