Making the “Hard Problem” of consciousness disappear

I read this article in Time yesterday, and it really bothers me, because the writer makes the same old fallacious arguments in favor of consciousness as a construct of the brain. This was a big let down because the article starts off by making a fantastic point:

To make scientific headway in a topic as tangled as consciousness, it helps to clear away some red herrings. Consciousness surely does not depend on language. Babies, many animals and patients robbed of speech by brain damage are not insensate robots; they have reactions like ours that indicate that someone’s home. Nor can consciousness be equated with self-awareness. At times we have all lost ourselves in music, exercise or sensual pleasure, but that is different from being knocked out cold.

Yes! When I read that paragraph I though, “Wow, finally someone gets it. Maybe this is going to be good.”

The article then explains what the Hard Problem of consciousness is and offers the least controversial solution:

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it “the astonishing hypothesis”–the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain.Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

Strange…this is not news. This is what scientists have thought for a long time, and this article brings up the same old tropes as always. I think the point of this article is to remind us that our lives are meaningless, we have no soul, and that when we die it’s all over.

One of the arguments the article give is this: since brain activity is entangled with actual emotions and thoughts, the brain must be creating emotions and thoughts. Here’s an example from the article:

Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

This proves nothing. Why do scientists assume that blood flow in the brain is creating thoughts, when they could just as easily assume that thoughts cause the blood flow in the brain? Here’s a better example that I just made up: If I see you smiling, I know you’re happy. Therefore, the mental state of happiness must be created by your mouth! Sheesh, I can practically read your mind.

Another argument the article makes is: since consciousness is affected by physical events, the brain must be creating emotions and thoughts. Here’s an example from the article:

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party.

Isn’t this exactly what we would expect if we believed in a “soul” or “ghost in the machine”? If we believed that the brain interprets visual information to present an image for the “soul” to look at, then of course you could effect that image by manipulating the brain with electric impulses. Here’s an analogy I like: If I start zapping your computer with electricity, you might see some weird images on your screen. Therefore, you must be a creation of your computer! As dumb as that sounds, it’s pretty much what the article says.

Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see.

All it takes to affect how I think and feel is to see a naked girl. Yes, our consciousness reacts to physical reality — that’s always been known. Hell, it’s the very nature of experience. The fact that our consciousness reacts to brain activity is no different. It actually makes a lot of sense if you believe in a metaphysical consciousness: the brain rewards your “soul” with pleasure when you do things that keep it alive — like eating — an punishes your “soul” with pain when you do something that might hurt it — like punching yourself in the face.

What’s really funny about the “Hard Problem” of consciousness is that it simply disappears when you don’t believe the brain creates consciousness. If something like a soul exists, all of the above phenomena still make sense, and there’s no need to explain how joy, sorrow, or love arises out of a hunk of meat.

Another way — actually, the only other way — to solve the “Hard Problem” is to theorize that all matter-energy is conscious in some way. Many people don’t like that idea, but if you look at a rock through a microscope, you’ll find lots of tiny, whirring particles and bustling energy transactions of heat and vibration. Rocks are more “alive” than they appear to the naked eye.

Disclaimer: I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in some authoritative god, but I do entertain the belief in a metaphysical reality if it makes sense.


6 Responses to “Making the “Hard Problem” of consciousness disappear”

  1. Dan Says:

    Great post!

    As I mentioned in my last comment on your brain post, most common science seems to work backwards. We create definitions and then look for a part of the body that suits our definition, instead of studying the body and then deciding what’s what. I think if we followed this logic instead of the backwards reductionist ideas, science would be very different.

  2. Piers Says:

    I just came across this site the other day, and I wanted to say good work.

    It’s funny, but your post back in the autumn about consciousness either being a separate thing from the brain or else an inherent part of all matter is exactly the conclusion I’d reached, in my amateurish way, over the years (not that I’d seen it expressed anywhere, not really, not that I’m aware of). Like you, I have had a very strong intuition from way back that it didn’t make sense to imagine consciousness stopping. I was struck by how similar your thoughts on the issue are. I completely agree with you. Possibly not in every detail, but in your essential argument.

    I remember having that issue well before puberty – I think at about the age of 7 – lying in bed struggling with the thought of dying and consciousness flicking off. At around the age of 20 I concluded that consciousness was just about the key problem in understanding reality, and if you could understood that you’d probably have understood one of the core secrets of existence. And in the years since then I’ve come across all sorts of people claiming things like ‘Consciousness Explained’ (that was Daniel Dennett, wasn’t it), which start by exciting me or sometimes alarming but almost always are nothing of the sort (Daniel Dennett’s book ignores consciousness… it’s apparently been wittily called Consciousness Explained Away or Consciousness Ignored).

    What astonishes me is that more people aren’t intrigued by the issue. Because basically we’re in a situation when the vast majority of people seem to assume that science has explained most things, and has certainly achieved a pretty satisfactory framework for understanding what we are and how came to be (including evolution). But the fact that there’s no explanation for consciousness in science, not a real explanation, means that there’s a vast hole in the middle of this apparent satisfactory framework. The hole is so big it’s a sort of in-principle refutation of any idea that science has a decent explanation for what we are and how we came to be. Because if science doesn’t have a clue what consciousness is, it sure as hell doesn’t know how it came about.

    In fact, you get in all sorts of logical tangles if you try and imagine consciousness evolving, because then you have to differentiate between zombies (non-conscious but otherwise identical) and conscious beings, and you have to suppose that consciousness makes a difference to behaviour, and that means you have to suppose that consciousness is causal, independently of brain processes, and that is a metaphysical nightmare for standard scientific materialists (because it implies some kind of soul thing that has a mind of its own and directs the brain – and it might even survive death, at least in theory – shock horror!). And if you can’t let consciousness be causal, then it can’t effect behaviour (it’s just a so-called epiphenomenon), and if it doesn’t effect behaviour it can’t be selected for. So if we are conscious and evolutionary theory has no explanation for the origin of consciousness, evolutionary theory must be at the very least radically incomplete. And possibly fundamentally flawed.

    It’s a seriously important intellectual issue but largely ignored. Amazing! I remember having a long and fruitless conversation with a very intelligent older relative of mine. He is an atheist materialist. I was simply trying to get him to understand the concept of consciousness – as opposed to, say, brain activity, or the contents of thoughts, etc. He couldn’t get it. He couldn’t see what I was talking about, and hence he didn’t see there was any issue. It was like banging my head against a brick wall. He’s one of those people who probably doesn’t really think he’s conscious and to whom the idea that our thoughts are just brain processes makes complete sense. In fact, that’s what he basically seemed to say.

    Anyway, I ramble. On this topic, I totally agree. I read Pinker’s article this afternoon and just wanted to foam at the mouth. And I loved his book The Language Instinct (when I read it at least a decade ago). I think he’s wrong that people find it astonishing that consciousness arises in the brain. I think most people seem to accept that without really thinking about it, or about how it perhaps contradicts other beliefs they may have.

    Pinker was also factually wrong when he wrote:

    ‘Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain.’

    You may not be interested in those issues, but there’s plenty of intriguing (to say the least) evidence from mediums, and as for NDEs – the argument that a brain starved of oxygen could produce vivid and entirely coherent experiences is very hard to maintain and is contradicted by the abundant evidence. Especially when there are many, many accounts of accurate perceptions at a time when there is no brain activity at all. The argument that it’s the dying brain producing strange images is just a refuge for people who can’t handle reality, that’s all.

    Anyway, I love this consciousness topic. It lies at the heart of what we are. Thanks for the blog.

  3. Making the “Hard Problem” of consciousness disappear | Outlaw News Says:

    […] The Search For Magic / February 7, 2007 […]

  4. maxaside Says:

    Basically what is being said is that consciousness exists on some level outside the brain. this implies that at some point in human history we shall evolve, with enough advances and knowledge ofcourse, to a state where the human body will be deemed as a choice not a necessity.

  5. Mark Says:

    “Yes, our consciousness reacts to physical reality — that’s always been known. Hell, it’s the very nature of experience. The fact that our consciousness reacts to brain activity is no different. It actually makes a lot of sense if you believe in a metaphysical consciousness: the brain rewards your “soul” with pleasure when you do things that keep it alive — like eating — an punishes your “soul” with pain when you do something that might hurt it — like punching yourself in the face.”

    That doesn’t make sense in terms of how and why there is such a link between the soul and the brain and the physical world. Also, if you substitute “self” for “soul”, where “self” is the aggregate of body and brain (and all their related functions, assuming this includes consciousness), then your explanation of punishment and reward applies equally to metaphysical and non-metaphysical consciousness.

    So the belief in a soul (or something like it) doesn’t make the Hard Problem disappear. It simply changes its form. It becomes the problem of how the soul creates consciousness, how the soul interacts with the body and brain, and where the soul comes from, where it goes, and where it exists in between. It becomes an even *harder* problem because this one centres around something which has no tangible attributes.

    There’s no need to explain “how joy, sorrow, or love arises out of a hunk of meat.” But there is a desire, which then becomes a desire to explain the same things in relation to a soul instead of a “hunk of meat.”

    One final thing to note, inspired not just by this post but by a few scattered remarks you’ve made. An understanding of the way our mind and body works doesn’t reduce the beauty of their existence. Just as the minute details of a masterful painting don’t make the painting itself any less appealing, so the details of our physical form and it’s properties don’t diminish the value of the whole. The same applies to science in general. Feynman said it well, I think…

    ‘”I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. […] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.’

    (incidentally I do agree with you that that article doesn’t make a compelling case for the neurological basis of consciousness. It’s far too simplistic in some cases, dismissive in others. And the author clearly doesn’t understand the distinction between correlation and causation)

  6. bwinwnbwi Says:

    I agree. Consciousness is an inherent aspect of the physical universe. My comment below offer’s a way to better understand this idea.

    I take exception to the total reduction of consciousness to physical causality; that said, there is a place for physical causality in consciousness. Here are my four questions (and answers) which, hopefully, make this assertion more clear (thanks for the opportunity to post):

    Q. What kind of automaton, e.g. the brain, a computer, a cell, and so forth, could generate consciousness?

    A. The kind of automation that could generate consciousness would be a structure that evolves both in time (in terms of complexity) and outside of time (in terms of logical implication) and ends up in the experience of the “implicative affirmative of the not-me-self” — or the loop of self-reference that continually implies “I”.

    Q. What is the what, how, and why of consciousness?

    A. Purely physical explanations work for the what and the how of consciousness because the why of consciousness is embedded in the physical event of consciousness. But, it is in this physical event where you find also the “function of consciousness.”

    Q. What is the function of consciousness?

    A. As stated above, consciousness is an adaptation (many) in our evolutionary past. These adaptations, at the structural level of (b~b~bb), culminate in freewill, i.e. the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self. Free will is the defining characteristic of what makes humans human. Free will also allows for improvement of other skills, e.g. motivation, better flexibility (like learning), social coordination, and better cognition.

    Q. Where does the brain come in? How are your subjective experiences explainable by neurons and synapses?

    A. The short answer to the above question is that the physical processes used to explain our experienced environment are not independent of consciousness on any level. However, in the same respect, consciousness can’t exist independent of physical process either. (This is the source of the problem at the quantum level of experience–but that’s a story for another occasion).

    The language used below is probably not familiar. It is helpful, though, when one begins to see experience in terms of an evolving structured duality (think two-sided coin here)–the structure of universe/consciousness.

    Because synchronic structure rises on the back of negation, the liberation process is not limited to biological evolution. At the next synchronic level (the level substituting for the psychological/mind concept), a more evolved species of life is the result. On this higher structural level, when at one pole (the empirical side) continuity occurs in discontinuity and, at the other pole (the freedom side) discontinuity occurs in continuity, the experience of “mind” is produced. Diachronically speaking, the content embedded in this structure is the human experience of self-consciousness occurring in a physical event. Discovered in this structure is the potential to produce a great deal of content, but, the actualization of this potential takes place along the liberation path in the form of the objectification of self-nature and culture, (the reciprocal movement occurring between mind and event). Structure, at this level (the physical event of a thinking person), becomes the story of civilization (both in its “ups” and “downs”). Think of the physical event of a thinking person, first as unexposed film and second, via the illumination of the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self, as the film development into human history, the history of human freedom, i.e., the liberation of the human struggle to survive, overcome poverty, ignorance, injustice,–to overcome all the physical and psychological afflictions that subvert the actualization of human potential.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment!

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