Dr Mark Moore MD
Tallahassee's Anesthesiologist


The Fundamental Problems of Brute Consciousness

For the average person, there is no telling exactly what kind of response one would get when posing the question, “What is consciousness?” The answers could vary from being awake and aware, or thinking, or experiencing, or just being human, or some combination of all of these. Yet, not surprisingly, in philosophy consciousness is a much more problematic issue and cannot be defined away with such synonymous simplicity. The way a philosopher chooses to answer this question, however, could rest on the shoulders of several –isms. Whether or not one is partial to realism, anti-realism, reductionism, non-reductionism, physicalism, dualism, behaviorism, etc., can weigh greatly in the position a philosopher or any informed and meticulous thinker may take. Thus, a coherent position on what consciousness is, if anything is a key question and problem in the philosophy of mind.

Why is consciousness so complicated? Part of the problem stems from the fact that consciousness seems to be very tightly connected with subjectivity as opposed to objectivity. It would be nice if one could pull consciousness out of hat and say, “look! See? There it is. That is consciousness.” Unfortunately, this is not possible (at the time of this writing). Attempts at positing an accurate description of consciousness, however, have not been left undone. One such attempt was carried out by David J. Chalmers in his work Facing up to the problem of consciousness.

In this essay, Chalmers’ views will be discussed in detail. First, the problem of consciousness as delineated by Chalmers will be explained along with his distinctions of the easy and hard problems. Second, two senses of consciousness that Chalmers invokes will be detailed and clarified along with some mention of their functional explanations. Throughout, some objections and opposing views will be presented and discussed in the appropriate context and Chalmers rebuttals will be considered. Finally, it will be shown that, although Chalmers makes some interesting points, his view ultimately fails to provide a real solution to the problem of consciousness.

So what exactly does Chalmers suggest is the problem of consciousness? Generally speaking, the problem is that there does not seem to be sufficient explanation for physical processes giving rise to what is commonly considered an “inner” life of subjective experience. For Chalmers, there are two aspects to the problem, which he thinks get confused to often. First, there are the easy problems, which are essentially those that can be solved empirically by standard methods in cognitive science, such as cognitive abilities and functions. They are not easy in the sense they have already been solved or presently could be, but easy in that the potential for an empirical solution exists. He claims these can be explained in terms of computational or neural mechanisms. For example, the easy problems would be matters such as, reactions to environmental stimuli, or the reportability of mental states. Thus, the easy problems are not really the problem of consciousness. So, what is?
The hard problems of consciousness come from first person experience or qualia (raw feels). Essentially, the heart of hard problems lies in the subjectivity of thoughts, perceptions, and states of being. To use a common example, consider trying to imagine what it is actually like to be a bat. The state of being that organism implies a certain mental state that is unique to the experience of being the organism itself. Thus, experience has relevance on consciousness, but Chalmers goes one step further and labels experience as consciousness. Thus the hard problems of consciousness can be summed up as the states of subjective experience.

Chalmers suggest that the confusion of the problem of consciousness stems from confusing easy matters with hard ones, especially in relation to awareness and consciousness. People often think of these terms as being synonyms. Yet, Chalmers points out that awareness can be understood by psychophysical explanations using common methods in cognitive science, whereas experience cannot. He bases this view on the assumption that the functional explanation for awareness merely specifies a mechanism that can perform a certain function, which is necessarily the function of being aware. Thus, awareness can be defined functionally in terms of its computation features of inputs and outputs. Yet, the function of experience can even be denied in the case of zombies for example, where all other aspects are similar but the individual has no phenomenological experience what so ever, thus serving no function. Thus, in Chalmers view the explanation of function is sufficient to explain awareness, but it does not suffice for the explanation of experience. Thus, the two senses of consciousness are that of awareness in the functional psychophysical sense and that of experience in a phenomenological sense of experience. This also happens to be Chalmers’ argument against physical descriptions of consciousness. He claims the attempts are merely getting at some form of easy problem rather than the core issue.

What does Chalmers suggest as an alternative? Here is were Chalmers –isms are apparent. He takes a dualistic (dualism) and non-reductive (non-reductivism) approach and suggests that consciousness really is something extra, or other than, physical but that it arises from a certain physical organization and structural coherence. He views consciousness or conscious experience as a fundamental property that arises from physical properties but is not itself physical. In addition, he affirms that this constitutes a significant explanatory gap that hinders progress in the philosophy of mind.

Chalmers posits several principles to further his idea of what a coherent theory of consciousness should contain. The first two are constraints. First is structural coherence, he suggests there must be strong correlation between whatever turns out to be the structure of awareness and the structure of conscious experience. Specifically, whenever consciousness is obtained then awareness also obtains. Second is the principle of organizational invariance, which basically states that like systems with the same fine-grained functional organization will have qualitatively identical experiences. Thirdly, he posits adherence to a double aspect theory of information. Specifically, he holds the view that “information always obtains when there are information states embedded in information space.”

So, what are some alternatives to Chalmers’ view of consciousness and what might he say about them. First there are some attempts to explain consciousness that really just explain some easy problem or something else completely. For example describing awareness in terms of functional explications involving reactions to external stimuli. Yet, the question remains how and why this is an explanation of experience? Next, There is the attempt to deny the phenomenon of experience and claim that is merely a confusion of the issue. This attempt suggests that apart from the functional explanations involved in easy problem solutions there is no other thing in need of explanation. Chalmers would argue that this attempt tries to solve the problem by merely ducking the question. Thirdly, there is the attempt to fully explain subjective conscious experience in functional terms. In this case, he would suggest that the bridge offered between the explanatory gap ends up being some magical principle or some unclear relationship that is taken for granted. Again, a fourth view would be to actually try and explain the separate structure of experience where facts about structures may correspond to processing that shed light on consciousness in the hard sense. Chalmers would argue that this tells us nothing of “why there should be experience in the first place.” Finally, there is a fifth strategy, which is to isolate the substrate of experience. For example, consider the 40Hz hypothesis in trying to isolate the neural correlates of consciousness. This example merely explains some physical occurrences but the question may still be asked, “ how does this bring about experience and why should conscious experience exist.”

Chalmers’ arguments against the counterviews are at best weak. It seems like all of his arguments could be used in the same manner against his own posited view. For example, the idea that the issues really just explain something else could be said about his view. It might be said that his explanation of consciousness as fundamental really just describes the physical processes in a non-physical way, but is mistaken. Next, his rebuttal that denying the phenomenon is merely an attempt to duck the question can also be said about his appeal to the fundamental nature of experience. If it is basic and fundamental it needs no further explanation in the same sense, as the color yellow need not be explained. Yet this does not explain anything. Furthermore, for the third view, his claim that functional gap bridges end up being magical might be said about his principles of structure coherence and organizational invariance. These principles are suppose to somehow bridge the explanatory gap between physicality and consciousness but it is unclear and nebulous how they are suppose to do this, since it presupposes that experience is something other than these functional states and that it is fundamentally a result of awareness. Fourthly, Chalmers’ argument about explaining the structure of experience as not revealing the “why” of experience existing in the first place can also be said about is dualistic view. It is still a reasonable and open question of why experience is fundamental. The analogy to color or DNA or some such “fundamental thing” does not save him from this criticism. Lastly, there is his argument that isolating the substrate of experience merely explains which processes give rise to experience but does not reveal the why and how of consciousness. His view does not answer why nor how without reverting to the fundamentality of experience, and again, it seems like he is ducking the question.

In conclusion, it is clear why there are so many views and confusions about this thing we call consciousness. And, it is clear that philosophical dispositions are inherent in the views one chooses to adopt. Furthermore, the counter views to Chalmers’ all seem to have some merit, yet, he is so quick to dispose of them with his rebuttals. Considering, however, that his rebuttals, such as ducking the question, open question arguments, the appeal to magic, etc., could also be said about his own view, it is clear that his view ultimately fails to provide a real solution to the problem of consciousness.

Ray S. Magill - 12/07/05

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