The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness


I put “problem” in scare quotes for a reason because, while there is a valid problematic that we haven’t solved with regard to consciousness, the way the “Problem of Consciousness” is stated doesn’t even approach that problematic, instead it is stuck in a simplistic and naive misunderstanding of what a conceptual “thing” is, and only insofar as something is conceptualized as such a thing can it become an “object for science”.

There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?”

Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman

The problems with this set of question is enormous, but the most basic problem is that we don’t have any experience of being a “pinkish-beige lump” or even of being the body attached to it. That we have no such experience is testified to by the fact that the pinkish-beige lump being somehow crucial to what we do experience is a relatively recent idea. We have an experience firstly of being a person, a self. Thus, the first “thing” involved is not even consciousness, properly, but the self itself. Obviously the self is experienced as self-conscious, but “self-consciousness” only becomes a “thing” when grasped conceptually via a re-presentation, intuitively it is simply a descriptive of an aspect of the self.

We can write off the Daniel Dennett’s of the world, since they apparently don’t have any comprehension of what a thing is, nor how we determine that it is, particularly what a scientific “thing” is and how we might “come across it”. Dennett’s position does have the single advantage of being consistent. The experience of the self as ontologically constituted as a conscious being, and therefore an experience of both consciousness and being as “mine”, is a precondition of thinking (though not of the parlour trick of deduction) and since Dennett demonstrates no such ability, his writing could be precisely that of Chalmer’s imaginary zombie. However the achievement of consistency of Dennett’s argument is rather a pyrrhic achievement: a consistent argument that consciousness is illusory by a zombie, tomato plant, scarecrow or a simple idiot should be expected, since neither thinking nor any of its preconditions can be expected from such a being in any case. Since by repute Dennett is neither in fact a zombie nor a tomato plant, only two ontological possibilities as to the state of his being remain, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Dennett in fact does function quite well as a scarecrow in the field of thinking, warning naive physicalists away from a field in which they are completely unarmed.

Be that as it may, for those of us who do experience ourselves as conscious beings, prior to any conceptualizing or rationalizing, or positing a conceptual thing as a scientific object, what we might call “primary” or “intuitive” consciousness experiences the presentation of the real (and sometimes the unreal) and interprets that into what we know as ontologically constituted reality. This interpretation, like all interpretations, relies on a fund of acquired knowledge and beliefs to give our basic experience of reality a richness beyond, say, my dog’s experience of reality. Within that reality different types of things are grasped intuitively based on different modes of interpretation, biological modes, social modes, conceptual and scientific modes, artistic modes, political modes etc. In the simpler case of my dog, dogs don’t inherit such a rich fund of culturally acquired means of interpreting reality, yet he does grasp things that are not necessarily “bodies out there” as physicalism tries to reduce reality. For instance, he grasps the hierarchy of the pack, the boundaries of the den and various other things that are not physicalist “bodies out there”. He also grasps himself in a certain way, a way that we have difficulty understanding because while it is “like” the way we grasp ourselves, it is also substantially different, and since we don’t directly experience his experience of self, we can only imagine it analogously, with the aspects of the way we experience ourselves that have no obvious parallel removed. One of these aspects is what we might call “reflective” or “representational” consciousness, in which what is experienced primarily by intuitive consciousness is re-presented for examination, investigation, analysis, judgement, etc. Since this mode of consciousness is primary when one is involved in science there is a basic fallacy common to many scientists that this is consciousness in total, apparently forgetting the obvious reality that any re-presentation must have been initially presented in some manner and that presentation experienced, and that that experience of the initial presentation must itself have been a conscious experience.

In some sense the experience of being a self and thus the experience of being self-conscious that goes along with that is in a direct way entangled with another “thing”, the body, and most specifically with the body’s neurological system, the largest part of which is concentrated in the “pinkish-beige lump” noted above. Thus we have another “thing” to consider, the body, and certain aspects of that thing, notably the neurological system and its concentration in the brain, are going to be important in that consideration.

How do we grasp the body, or any part of it, as a thing? As a “body” in the generic sense of a “body out there now”, in the sense that any animal, even the lower ones, would come across it as real in at least somewhat the same way that we do, physicalism is relevant. We can bump into it, trip over it, walk around it, etc. Yet we experience the body as body in another way, in the sense of being touched, being tripped over, etc. We can call this the sense of being a body, or better, of being embodied. Yet this sense has some oddities to it, in that the body that we can observe, say, in a mirror, or from a camera playback, is largely imaginary to the embodied self. When I say imaginary, I don’t intend to imply that the person doesn’t believe the body doesn’t exist and is simply some sort of projection, what I’m trying to get at is that the way, as a self, I am embodied is that body responds to my imaginings so long as they coincide with a slight addition that is difficult to conceptualize. I can imagine getting up and going to the kitchen and it can remain purely imaginary, since in fact I’m still sitting on the sofa. However with a slight modification that imagining of going to the kitchen can be effected in reality, it can be actualized as a bodily act of the self. I do get up and go to the kitchen, and I can’t really say how I get my body to do that except that I imagine it and simultaneously will it, and it happens. From an experiential perspective though what I do as a self-conscious person is not very different between the two, whether I call the difference will, intention, etc., is such a slight difference it is difficult to describe what that specific and rather minimal difference in itself is. A further problem is that while we tend to distinguish “autonomous” neurological processes from conscious processes, there is no clear distinction, since an autonomous process like breathing can in fact be modified consciously, yet although I can to a degree control my breathing, it’s difficult again to say precisely how I do so, except that I imagine breathing differently (slower, faster, deeper, etc.) and simultaneously intend to actualize it, and it happens.

From the conceptual perspective we grasp the body as a concept-thing. As such we can then make it an object for science, or for art or medicine, or for lust for that matter. As a thing-concept, what we are grasping is a unity in a set of data. The body is, as an aggregation, not a simple aggregation but a unified one, the type of aggregation Aristotle gave the name entelechia. We distinguish such self-unified sets of data as systemic, as opposed to accidental or arbitrary collections of data. Yet the self, me as self-conscious, can also be grasped as a thing-concept, and in this reflective mode of consciousness can thus grasp itself as a thing. While as a “body out there” the body as a concept-thing and the embodied self as a concept-thing coincide, as concept-things they not only do not coincide, they have no data points in common, although if the two are examined simultaneously there are many data points that immediately and directly correlate.

It is this direct correlation between two conceptually completely distinct things that causes the appearance of the “Problem of Consciousness” as Chalmers states it. By now the degree of nonsense inherent in a view of reality such as that of Daniel Dennett should be obvious – as concept-things both the observed body of another or of oneself via a mirror or a camera playback and the direct experience of one’s own embodied self only exist for a self insofar as it is conscious, and conscious in a specific mode. The notion of there being a difficulty in positing another as similarly conscious only exists in that reflective, abstracted mode, in our usual intuitive mode, the way in which we “get along” in realty as it presents itself to our experience, there is no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between non-conscious, conscious and reflexively self-conscious beings.

The valid problematic that I mentioned at the beginning is precisely how we experience the real (and sometimes the unreal) as things in the first place, whether they are physical things, “bodies” in the generic sense, or things of other aspects of experience, such as political things, social things, conceptual things, intellectual things, scientific things etc, and how we do so in some sense through the body, and particularly through the neurological system. This can be stated as the problem of how reality is ontologically constituted in our experience of it. There’s no need to posit something “more” that somehow “floats above or beyond” the body to understand that as concept-things the embodied self and the body that embodies that self are distinct, yet as “bodies out there” they are the same. The difficulty is in understanding how the body simultaneously “produces” and is modified by the embodied self. As a descriptive of a particular kind of being, consciousness is no more mysterious than the descriptive “wet” applied to the planet on which we reside; the apparent issue is analogous to restricting the descriptives of said planet to “rocky” and then requiring that “wet” be some kind of mystical addition floating beyond the “rocky” planet. Of course, the water that we discern as the source of said wetness does in fact float above rock for the most part, but it also flows through it. The difference between something like water as the source of wetness and the embodied self as the source of the experience of consciousness is that the embodied self has no other bodily being than the body itself, since it is precisely the reflexive experience of being-bodily as that body.

If in a conceptual-scientific sense we want to model human beings as “cognitive machines” that isn’t in itself a problem (though actually treating another human being as such poses a whole host of social and political problems, and isn’t an appropriate philosophical perspective to work from), but in that case “cognitive” cannot be reduced to simply the abstract, reflective analysis of what is re-presented to the conceptual faculties, it has to encompass the ability to intepret a presentation of the real in multiple modes, and produce an ontologically constituted experience of that as reality. i.e. it has to account for the ability to grasp things as such, as that, what and how they are, in multiple radically different modes of experience that each have their own means of determining the real and distinguishing it from that which dissembles. The notion of the real itself, as well, must be complex enough to include the self-dissembling of that which dissembles.

That the brain, that “pinkish-beige lump”, is crucial in terms of producing that embodied self, as well as in translating its imaginings, provided the will or intentionality to actualize them accompanies them, into acts, is both obvious and deeply problematic, because the body and the embodied self, as the same, never encounter each other directly. It is precisely this lack of any possibility of a direct encounter that attests definitively to their identity as a generic “body out there”.

The “Problem” of consciousness, as it is usually stated, is due to a basic limitation of conceptual thinking, a limitation inherent in rationality itself as basically computational. While rational consciousness is adept at analysing and critiquing what is re-presented to it, and thus also describing and explaining those things, it is always dependent on a primary, intuitive ontological consciousness for both the “things” that are re-presented, and insight and understanding of those things as such. This primary consciousness has no apparent difficulty in recognizing the identity of the embodied self and the body in which it is embodied. Thus we have a different problematic, which is to understand what we experience in the way we experience it when we’re not in the conceptual mode. By definition this is not possible for science directly, since the scientific is a specialization of the rational-conceptual. However it is possible for scientists, provided they recognize that the scientific mode of consciousness is neither the only nor the primary mode, and recognize both the strengths and the limitations inherent in it, rather than continuing to hubristically claim that all of the experience of consciousness is contained in what is at root a simplification of experience. Primary intuitive consciousness is reflexively experiential, but it is not subjective, since the “subject” is itself no more than a posited negation for which the real is re-presented by intuitive consciousness. The rational-conceptual mode is reliant on this subjective re-presentation in order to have concept-things and thus also to have “objects” for rationalizing and analysing, thus the scientific itself is merely a posited mode of consciousness, and not the mode in which we understand the real as such.

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