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The “hard” problem of consciousness: a conceptual muddle?

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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Here is an interesting article covering some of the thoughts of Peter Hacker, Oxford philosopher and scholar of Wittgenstein. Hacker starts off by saying that it isn’t philosophy’s business to discover new exciting truths:

“Philosophy does not contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in after the manner of any of the natural sciences. You can ask any scientist to show you the achievements of science over the past millennium, and they have much to show: libraries full of well-established facts and well-confirmed theories. If you ask a philosopher to produce a handbook of well-established and unchallengeable philosophical truths, there’s nothing to show. I think that is because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality.”

And most of the ensuing article is devoted to the problem of understanding why philosophers end up so puzzled about the nature of consciousness. He shares some very provocative insights. First, I think he’s right to call recent neuro-experts on the carpet with their blithe disregard for the depth of the mystery about consciousness:

Dualists about the mind and brain – those who hold that there are thinking substances like souls in the world as well as all the ordinary physical stuff – say that the mind sees and thinks and wants and calculates. Contemporary neuroscience dismisses this as crude, but Hacker argues that it just ends up swapping the mind with the brain, saying that the brain sees and thinks and wants and calculates. He says, “Merely replacing Cartesian ethereal stuff with glutinous grey matter and leaving everything else the same will not solve any problems. On the current neuroscientist’s view, it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact, it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations.”

When it comes to his own way of unraveling the mystery, it has mostly to do with questioning our own confidence in knowing what we’re talking about when we talk about the subjective dimensions of experience, such as the one Nagel highlights in his article, “What is it like to be a bat?”:

“You can ask any human being having an experience ‘What was it like for you to have that experience?’ Most commonly the answer is: ‘Nothing in particular.’ What was it like to see the lamp post? What was it like to see your shoes?’ – ‘The experience was quite indifferent!’ Sometimes the answer would be, ‘It was wonderful, marvellous, joyful, jolly good or revolting, disgusting, awful’–and so on. If you want to generalise over that, engage as Nagel does in second-level quantification, the result is not ‘There is something which it is like to experience such and such’, but ‘There is something which it is to experience such and such, namely wonderful, awful, exciting, boring’. Why? Because the answer to ‘What was it like for you to do it?’ isn’t ‘It was like wonderful’ – unless we’re in California – but rather ‘It was wonderful’. So it is a plain confusion to think that for any given experience of a conscious creature, there is something that it is like for the creature to have that experience. Sometimes there is something that it is to experience this-or-that – most of the time there isn’t. That’s one pair of mistakes.”

“Another kind of mistake is a systematic confusion between the qualities of an experience and the qualities of the objects of an experience. The question ‘What was it like for you to love Daisey?’ can be given an answer by specifying the hedonic character of the experience of being in love with her. It may have been wonderful, or heart-breaking. The question ‘What is it like to see something red?’ has no such answer. Seeing a red button, for example, is neither wonderful nor heart-breaking, neither exciting nor boring – it simply lacks any hedonic quality. But philosophers in the so-called consciousness studies community are prone to try to characterise the experience by reference to the qualities of the objects of the experience – as if the ‘redness of red’ were a quality of the experience of seeing a red thing.” He growls: “The redness of the red! That’s not what it’s like for you to see red. That’s what you see! What’s it like to see red? For the most part, nothing at all. Maybe seeing that wonderful red sparkle of that fantastic flower was intoxicating. Well then, it was intoxicating to see it. What you saw was the colour. It was the experience that was intoxicating. People confuse the object of experience with the positive or negative hedonic quality of the experience.”

The whole article is well worth reading and thinking through.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Love the distinction he makes regarding understanding and knowledge. “Philosophical questions aren’t solved; they’re dissolved. There is knowledge here, in a sense, but it’s not the sort of knowledge most philosophers think they are pursuing.”

    I also agree with his ideas about the role of philosophy in regards to science. “There are far too many philosophers who take their task to be to sing the Hallelujah Chorus to the sciences. It seems to me we should be serious, and one hopes helpful, conceptual critics of the sciences.”

    In his Metaphysics, Aristotle puts it to us this way, “…we do not regard any of the senses as wisdom. They are indeed our most authoritative sources of knowledge about individual objects, but they do not tell us the why of anything–as for example, why fire is hot–but only that it is hot.”

    This was a fantastic article, a real step in the right direction, in my opinion!


  2. Sandi Atwood says:

    OOPS! Working from a different computer again and forgot to sign in with my info.


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