A&O – CONSCIOUSNESS note – the “problems” (09/01/2017)

A&O note

problems of consciousness

“Australian philosopher David Chalmers (b. 1966) draws a distinction between the easy and hard problems of consciousness. The easy problems are those that are explained in psychology and other sciences, and here is a short list:

• The difference between being awake and asleep

• Having control of one’s behavior

• Being able to focus one’s attention

• Being able to discriminate, categorize and react to stimuli from one’s surroundings


These problems are “easy” in the sense that they can be addressed using the usual methods of scientific inquiry. For example, the difference between being awake and asleep can be studied by comparing brain scans of people in both states. So too with focusing one’s attention. The hard problem of consciousness, though, is explaining how it is that we have conscious mental experiences to begin with. We experience colors like blue when we look at the sky, experience musical sounds coming from instruments, experience the fragrance of a rose. There is a light of consciousness that turns on within our minds when we have these experiences; philosophers sometimes call these instances of conscious experience qualia.”

 From: From Great Issues in Philosophy, by James Fieser, University of Tennessee—Martin; updated 5/1/2016. http://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/120/3-mind.htm

Setting the stage for scholarship:   excerpt from David J Chalmers (1995)’ “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness” (J. Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-219):

“The ambiguity of the term “consciousness” is often exploited by both philosophers and scientists writing on the subject. It is common to see a paper on consciousness begin with an invocation of the mystery of consciousness, noting the strange intangibility and ineffability of subjectivity, and worrying that so far we have no theory of the phenomenon. Here, the topic is clearly the hard problem – the problem of experience. In the second half of the paper, the tone becomes more optimistic, and the author’s own theory of consciousness is outlined. Upon examination, this theory turns out to be a theory of one of the more straightforward phenomena – of reportability, of introspective access, or whatever. At the close, the author declares that consciousness has turned out to be tractable after all, but the reader is left feeling like the victim of a bait-and-switch. The hard problem remains untouched.

Functional explanation

Why are the easy problems easy, and why is the hard problem hard? The easy problems are easy precisely because they concern the explanation of cognitive abilities and functions. To explain a cognitive function, we need only specify a mechanism that can perform the function. The methods of cognitive science are well-suited for this sort of explanation, and so are well-suited to the easy problems of consciousness. By contrast, the hard problem is hard precisely because it is not a problem about the performance of functions. The problem persists even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained. (Here “function” is not used in the narrow teleological sense of something that a system is designed to do, but in the broader sense of any causal role in the production of behavior that a system might perform.)

Another perspective “The REAL PROBLEM,” has been venured by Anil K Seth, a professor of cognitive and computational  neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science.  He seems to feel that “scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be” 

He writes:  

What is the best way to understand consciousness? In philosophy, centuries-old debates continue to rage over whether the Universe is divided, following René Descartes, into ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’. But the rise of modern neuroscience has seen a more pragmatic approach gain ground: an approach that is guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers. Its key is to recognise that explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis [GNB1] – to start building explanatory bridges from the subjective and phenomenal to the objective and measurable.

In my work at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton, I collaborate with cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, brain imagers, virtual reality wizards and mathematicians – and philosophers too – trying to do just this. And together with other laboratories, we are gaining exciting new insights into consciousness – insights that are making real differences in medicine, and that in turn raise new intellectual and ethical challenges. In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive. In this story, we are conscious ‘beast-machines’, and I hope to show you why.

Let’s begin with David Chalmers’s influential distinction, inherited from Descartes, between the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’. The ‘easy problem’ is to understand how the brain (and body) gives rise to perception, cognition, learning and behaviour. The ‘hard’ problem is to understand why and how any of this should be associated with consciousness at all: why aren’t we just robots, or philosophical zombies, without any inner universe? It’s tempting to think that solving the easy problem (whatever this might mean) would get us nowhere in solving the hard problem, leaving the brain basis of consciousness a total mystery.

But there is an alternative, which I like to call the real problem: how to account for the various properties of consciousness in terms of biological mechanisms; without pretending it doesn’t exist (easy problem) and without worrying too much about explaining its existence in the first place (hard problem). (People familiar with neurophenomenology will see some similarities with this way of putting things – but there are differences too, as we will see.)

There are some historical parallels for this approach, for example in the study of life. Once, biochemists doubted that biological mechanisms could ever explain the property of being alive. Today, although our understanding remains incomplete, this initial sense of mystery has largely dissolved. Biologists have simply gotten on with the business of explaining the various properties of living systems in terms of underlying mechanisms: metabolism, homeostasis, reproduction and so on. An important lesson here is that life is not ‘one thing’ – rather, it has many potentially separable aspects.

In the same way, tackling the real problem of consciousness depends on distinguishing different aspects of consciousness, and mapping their phenomenological properties (subjective first-person descriptions of what conscious experiences are like) onto underlying biological mechanisms (objective third-person descriptions). A good starting point is to distinguish between conscious level, conscious content, and conscious self. Conscious level has to do with being conscious at all – the difference between being in a dreamless sleep (or under general anaesthesia) and being vividly awake and aware. Conscious contents are what populate your conscious experiences when you are conscious – the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, thoughts and beliefs that make up your inner universe. And among these conscious contents is the specific experience of being you. This is conscious self, and is probably the aspect of consciousness that we cling to most tightly.”

Read On

The hard problem will haunt us even after looking at the A&O notes on Consciousness, and some of its states relevant to ART, and then the DEEP notes on consciousness, with a few ideas about Development, Ecology, Evolution, and Physiology, including a possible “locus” (hub of a system?)  in the brain.


[GNB1]Disagree:  ADAPTIVE FUNCTION can guide search for material causes – what things or processes can lead to a specific function