‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’ – so what?

The problem of consciousness – its fundamental nature – is thought to be a hard problem; in fact, a really, really hard problem. Possibly the hardest of all!

Some philosophers (e.g., Colin McGinn, Zeno Vendler, David Chalmers) argue that a science of consciousness is impossible given the poverty of what is currently known and not known about consciousness.  Science is clearly overreaching itself, the philosophers wisely aver.

However – can it be told how hard consciousness is, as a problem, when not a lot of science is available on it? How is the difficulty or tractability of a problem judged?

The composition of stars was thought to be a really hard problem: you get burnt as soon as you try to obtain a sample. However, it turned out that this problem was readily solvable with the discovery of spectral analysis.

Explaining the perihelion of Mercury was also thought to be readily solvable; however, it required Einstein’s scientific revolution in physics to solve it. Thus, the initial estimate of the difficulty of this problem was quite wrong.

When not much is known about a problem, it is impossible to judge how difficult or tractable the problem is. Thus, personal convictions or feelings of certainty should be avoided, and replaced by scientifically informed judgements. This conclusion may lack glamour, but that is all that can be grinded out when ignorance is a premise. 

Is consciousness a problem amenable to scientific explanation? Well, as above, it is hard to tell, given what is currently known about consciousness at the level of the brain. 

What is the next step? Simple: do science. 

Just get on with it.

This does not imply that armchair theorising has nothing of value to contribute to the problem of consciousness. Quite the contrary. But, factually informed philosophizing can be sensitive to the empirical dimension of a problem, and that includes learning lessons from the history of science. This seems to me to make philosophy all the more wiser. Surely a good thing. 

Why turn your back on the relevant data?

The meaning of discovery in science

Science discovers basic identities. But, the identities it discovers just are the way things are. Why is a thing, the thing it is? It just is. As Bishop Butler put it: ‘Every thing is what it is, and not another thing’.

This sounds mysterious, but it is not.

Why is visible light actually electromagnetic radiation rather than something else entirely? Why is temperature mean molecular kinetic energy, rather than something else? Science does not offer explanations for basic identities. Rather, the discovery is that two descriptions refer to one and the same thing; or that two different measuring instruments measure in fact one and the same thing. There is no basic set of laws from which to derive that visible light is electromagnetic radiation or temperature is mean molecular kinetic energy.

Why is Venus Venus? Why is the Morning Star identical to the Evening Star? It just is.


How to lose faith in God

Moving, causing, surviving. That’s why animals have a central nervous system. And that’s how a religious person ought to lose faith in God: on the move.

Simulation (mimicry) is included under ‘moving’.

The best way for a religious person who already doubts his faith, but doesn’t know how to go on, is to enter into learning relationships with atheists. Such relationships, mediated by goodwill and the sincere desire to learn, allow the religious doubter to ‘try out’ atheism, to simulate it for its effects on self and others. Multiple simulations should be attempted.  Slow cure is all important. These experiences must be largely positive to induce attachment.

Sudden and dramatic loss of faith almost never happens, if ever, for the reward system in the brain needs to re-tune itself out of the current attractor-category (religion) and into the new attractor-category (atheism). This change takes time; sometimes years.

To lose faith in God, you need to do something. You do this by first copying others who are already masters of the game.

‘The human fetus cannot feel pain’

Fetal pain perception is often modelled on the same neural structures as in the adult.

However –

(1 The neural structures involved in pain processing in early development are unique and different from adults.

(2 Some of these structures and mechanisms are not maintained beyond specific developmental periods.

The immature pain system plays a signalling role during each stage of development, and fulfils this role using different neural resources available at specific developmental times.

Thus, the error here is reading the adult into the fetus.

‘How do I know that any person is conscious?’

‘How do I know that any person is conscious?’

‘ How do I know that I was conscious before the present moment?’

– radical skeptic

Since the radical skeptic excludes, in principle, any empirical controls to allay his doubt, he overplays his hand.

It is impossible to doubt everything, for that entails doubting the meaning of the very words used to express radical doubt (reductio ad absurdum).


Life’s ‘ratchet game’

How do we think about reality in a way that improves upon the old ways?

There is good news here: it is not entirely up to you to improve reality. Your children, and their children will do the job. So, sit back a little. Enjoy the ride!

Human beings have the unique capacity to play life’s ‘ratchet game’. Children learn the best society has to offer, and can improve upon it. And, your children’s children can start where your children left off. And so on.

My kids are already way ahead of me, since they started where I left off long, long ago, and also vastly ahead of cro-magnon humans. By contrast, chimpanzees start where their ancestors left off, and stay there. They don’t move from this place (chimps are still very cute, though).

Thus, humans can produce science and technology, and pass it on to their descendents. This gives human beings the chance to deploy science and AI tech to create increasingly accurate representations of ‘mind’, ‘DNA’, ‘autism’, ‘pain’, ‘happiness’, and so on. The ratchet game takes us beyond the familiar into exciting new territories.

(I wonder: Can academic philosophy play life’s ‘ratchet game’? It seems to me that philosophy is not terribly good at reaching out to other disciplines, and learning from them in the way that children naturally learn from parents.)

The nature of consciousness

‘The nature of consciousness is a conceptual problem’ – mainstream academic philosopher.

This seems mostly positioning to me: it characterizes philosophy as more fundamental than science and thereby sets the limits of science.

But, what is actually known about the target phenomena of consciousness (e.g., pain)?

#SciFund update: video complete!

My #SciFund video is finally complete!

Quite a mission to do (first time), but I am happy with the finished product.

Click on the image:









Here is a map showing the global distribution of participating scientists in Round 1 (2011) and Round 2 (May, 2012) of the #SciFund Challenge:

SciFunders Standing Tall and Talented