Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Real Problem of Consciousness

Why do physical processes give rise to conscious experience in the first place? This is referred to as the hard problem of consciousness, a name given by philosopher David Chalmers, and it seems widely regarded as one of the greatest unsolved problems in modern science. I think this is a mistake, however, and in this short post I would like to show why, and to present what should be considered the real problem of consciousness.

The hard problem of consciousness should not be considered an important problem to solve for the reason that it is not a hard problem, but an insolvable problem. All we can do in our study of the physical basis of consciousness is to correlate physical states with mental states, and no matter how complete a description of the relationship between physical and mental states we could provide, we will always be able to ask the question: “Why should that physical state, mechanism or process be conscious or give rise to consciousness at all?” No theory of conscious experience, including theories that suggest that a soul, quantum mechanics or consciousness at the fundamental level of the universe explains consciousness, could ever solve this hard problem, since they are all equally unable to answer why there should be any conscious experience in the first place – again, the question, "why should that given mechanism, be it a soul, computation or neuronal firings, be conscious in the first place?", can always be posed no matter what mechanism we have correlated to mental states, and no matter how precisely.

At best, what we can do is to formulate fundamental laws that state how physical states relate to mental states – psychophysical laws, or maybe “psychocomputational” laws – and such laws will still not provide an answer to why there is a relationship in the first place. In fact, nothing will, since the “why-in-the-first-place” simply begs an infinite regress. We will always have primitive, unexplained fundamental facts at the bottom of any explanation we make, as it is impossible to know an infinite regress of facts, and therefore it is simply logically impossible to ultimately answer why anything, including any relationship, exists in the first place – we can only explain how certain phenomena arise based on primitive, unexplained facts we have observed. So the hard problem of consciousness is asking for nothing less than the logically impossible. No answer could possibly ever satisfy the question, as we can keep on asking it no matter what answer we provide. Such an in principle unanswerable problem is a pseudo-problem.

It should be clear, then, that the crucial question is how physical and conscious states are related, not why. This is the real problem of consciousness, the in principle answerable problem, and also the relevant problem to study and solve, since all that is valuable ultimately relates to the specific character of conscious experience. In short, it is the problem we can and should try to solve.