About that so-called “hard problem” of consciousness

When on the path to recovery from traditional metaphysical modes of thought (e.g. the traditional monotheisms), we are sometimes tempted to interpret scientific puzzles as in principle uncloseable gaps. Those gaps then serve as a foot in the door for recovering certain metaphysical notions. But the empiricist mindset involves staying open-minded about such puzzles (rather than positing a god of the gaps, for instance).

There are certain puzzles which do appear to be unsolveable. Why is there something rather than nothing? What preceded the Big Bang? I know of no humanist / atheist / skeptic / freethinker who pretends to know the answers to these questions. At most, we are tempted to suggest there is something wrong with the question (and attempting to undermine the presuppositions of a question is very different from pretending to have an answer to it). I myself confess to being drawn to this approach. Our explanations eventually reach a terminus, and I see no reason to seek a terminus beyond the terminus, so to speak. There just is something–namely, at the very least, the universe we inhabit. To ask why is to demand an account that could never be provided, because it would require “stepping back” (somehow) from everything we know and are to evaluatethat with some ‘objective’ criterion that is itself somehow beyond scrutiny. It boggles the mind. Let us say, at the very least, that if we can’t even in principle speak intelligibly about something, we should probably shut up about it (to paraphrase Wittgenstein).

The “gap” I’m interested in here is the so-called “problem” of consciousness. There’s been a dramatic rise in interest in what’s called the “hard problem” of consciousness in philosophy within the past few decades, in large part due to the work of people like David Chalmers and Frank Jackson. Their suggestion, as I understand it, is that it is logically conceivable that there be beings in all respects identical to human beings (with respect to biological and neurological function in particular) who are nevertheless devoid of consciousness (“zombies” in the philosophical sense). Consciousness, on this view, is the “what it is like” of being a sentient organism. “I am conscious” is roughly equivalent to “there’s something it is like to be me”.

So the suggestion some philosophers have explored is whether or not consciousness (thusly understood) “fits” with a naturalistic and materialistic picture of the world. Some have argued that it does not. David Chalmers, for example, though he is a naturalist and an empiricist, thinks we need to revive some kind of “property dualism” and view consciousness as a kind of counterpart to matter, that pervades the universe, and that manifests itself most strongly in organisms like human beings. Though Chalmers is a naturalist, non-naturalists have jumped on the “hard problem of consciousness” bandwagon and supposed that, because consciousness can’t be “explained”, this means human beings (or at least sentient beings) are special. The door then opens to metaphysical speculation, and rejiggered conceptions of immortal souls aren’t far behind. I watched a recent debate between evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams on the question of human origins, and Williams made it quite clear that he thinks consciousness is awful special. … … Who knows where that leads him.

But if we acknowledge that explanation comes to an end somewhere. That we must content ourselves with certain ‘brute facts’. Then our understanding of all phenomena is grounded in fundamental posits that themselves remain “unexplained”–they are taken for granted. Why do electrons and protons interact the way they do? They just do. Why do neutrons not carry a charge? They just don’t. Perhaps an account of the behavior and properties of atomic particles can be provided. But then that new account will take for granted certain other “givens” (quarks?) of what exists in the universe and how it behaves.

So also with consciousness. Our nervous systems perform a variety of different functions and consciousness seems to emerge as a kind of informational synchronization between different parts of the brain. I see something, I can make a verbal report about it. When we sleep, when we have dissociative identity disorder, when we’re put in a sensory deprivation tank, when we’re on drugs… consciousness unravels. No doubt there’s a more complex story to be told about how exactly consciousness works, but it’s an empirical problem–a scientific problem (not a philosophical problem)–to provide us with the details. Simple observation of the ways in which consciousness emerges (in child development, over the course of evolution, when we come out of a deep sleep) and how it disintegrates (in all the ways it can) tells us pretty much all we need to know, all we can know about what consciousness is. There is no further problem of consciousness. To keep asking “but why?” isn’t profound. It’s infantile.

That last claim is a bit strong. But consider, what would satisfy these would-be students of consciousness? What does it even mean to “explain” consciousness? If you’re expecting to be able to inhabit the first-person perspective of another person on the basis of their third-person reports, aren’t you expecting a bit much? The deficiency is not in their reports. It’s in your imaginative capabilities.

So let’s stop pretending that science cannot “explain consciousness”. It’s working on what there is to explain (for example, how the brain synchronizes information processed via different input channels). And, with respect to the “hard problem”… well, there’s nothing to explain.