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The “Hard Problem of Consciousness” and it Significance
The “Hard Problem of Consciousness” and it Significance
A few weeks ago, I wrote about introspection, which the act of personally observing the workings of one's own mind. With this in mind, I'd like to invite you, the reader of this post, to try to observe your own consciousness. Is this impossible? Am I making a category error here? Well, it depends on what is meant by “consciousness”. On the one hand, consciousness is a state of being. If one is in a conscious state, they can observe things, such as things outside of the self like a desk or chair, or perhaps things going on in one's own mind. Yes, based on this understanding of “consciousness”, one cannot observe consciousness because it is not a thing. We can call this understanding of consciousness “conscious awareness” because it is only in this state of being that one can be aware of things. This is approximately the same concept as the state of being awake. When one is asleep, they are not conscious. There are other definitions of consciousness as well, though they are all similar to conscious awareness in the sense that they are all states that the brain can be in that relate to the degree to which one can interact with the outside world.
What is common to all such definitions, aside from one which I will get to in a moment, is that they can all be studied scientifically and where science has made significant progress in understanding. Conscious awareness can be studied scientifically and, though the brain is extremely complex, advancements in neurobiology and psychology have taken away a lot of the mysticism that surrounded this phenomenon. Modern science is working towards what might eventually be a detailed and reliable understanding of how conscious awareness works, partially through advanced brain scans, partially through computer simulations, and also with the help of several other methodologies.
The fact that conscious awareness appears to be understandable through modern science is what makes it “the easy problem of consciousness”. This contrasts with “the hard problem of consciousness”, as the philosopher David Chalmers calls it. Chalmers argues that there is another understanding of the word “consciousness” that actually cannot be studied scientifically, and he calls this “phenomenal consciousness”. This is where the introspection comes in. Phenomenal consciousness is not really a state of being, but it is instead something that can, in a way, be observed, but the only way to observe it is from a first person point of view. If it could be observed from a more neutral point of view, then it could be studied scientifically. But this is not the case. What is so “hard” about this is that it is hard to demonstrate to others that there is indeed a phenomenon that can be observed in the first person that is entirely distinct from conscious awareness. Remember, conscious awareness can be demonstrated to others and studied scientifically, so those who tend to only believe in scientific knowledge are resistant to accept that there is another form of consciousness. They don't see any evidence for this. Perhaps you, the reader, don't see evidence for this either.
Though it is impossible for me to demonstrate this phenomenon to you directly, there are ways of helping others to get their intuition working so that the others can come to realize this for themselves. First, think about what you see and what you hear. Is there an element of your experience of seeing and hearing that is distinct from the physical world? Think about the objects in front of you. Think about what must be going on in your brain now processing all of this. Now focus on your experience of sight. Is there something more there than what is going on in your brain? Though you certainly don't know everything that is going on in your brain, can you discern that the content of your experience is altogether distinct from the physical objects in front of you and your physical brain? The element of experience that is distinct from the physical world is called qualia. There are many thought experiments that make a good case that there is an element of one's experience that is distinct from the physical world, and I am not going to reprint them here. I do suggest that the reader do a web search for “Mary the color blind neurologist” “What is it like to be a bat?” and “Inverted spectrum”.
David Chalmers argues that there could be two separate people who are physically the same in every way, down to the molecular level, with the exception that only one of the two has actual conscious experience. Both are consciously aware in that both appear, from a scientific perspective, to be aware of their surroundings and to react appropriately, but only one has an actual experience of this. The other is what is known as a “philosophical zombie”, because this is very similar to the traditional concept of a zombie. Philosophical zombies are a logical possibility because of the existence of qualia. We can know that qualia exist through introspection. It may be impossible to scientifically study phenomenal consciousness scientifically, and this is why it is called “the hard problem of consciousness”, but a growing number of people are coming to realize that there is an element of their own experience that is beyond the physical world. Each person who is able to realize this should also realize that the significance of this finding is that science cannot tell us everything about reality and that somehow the physical world interacts with the nonphysical.
What is going on? What else can be known about the nonphysical? The key to finding answers to these questions comes through the process of introspection, followed by reasoning.