The Problems of Consciousness

Some Unsatisfying Answers

The problems of consciousness are difficult. We know of no really satisfying solutions to them. Many solutions have been proposed; all are unsatisfactory for one reason or another.

Some writers confound the objective and subjective problems of consciousness, assuming that once science has a good enough understanding of the physical processes in our brains, there will be no unsolved problems about consciousness left. Expand this; talk about emergent views, epiphenomenal views, language-translations views.

This is unsatisfactory. It is not impossible that some physical account of how our brains work will also provide solutions to the problems of consciousness, but it is by no means clear at our current state of knowledge how that could happen. Anyone claiming that an adequate objective account of consciousness will solve the subjective problems must also suggest some way that that could occur. The current evidence is against it; no physical facts that we have now seem to bear on the questions at all.

Which is to say that simply asserting or implying that physical theories can solve the problems of consciousness begs the very important question of how that could be true. Some writers make the opposite statement, claiming that we have no good reason to think that physical theories cannot solve the problems of consciousness, and that our intuitions in the area are simply wrong. For instance Dennett:

"That 'the subjective point of view' can somehow be captured in the third person resources of the structure of this functional network strikes them as inconceivable. Not to me it isn't. When people declare to me that they cannot conceive of consciousness as simply the activity of such a functional network, I tell them to try harder."

But this is unsatisfying to at least some of us; being told that an intuition will simply go away if we think hard enough is no substitute for being given an argument that in fact causes the intuition to go away. To steal an example from Hofstadter [I think it was; citation?]: if someone asks "Why doesn't the Earth fall down?" it's quite true that the question is ill-defined, but the right reply is to teach them some basic physics and cosmology, not simply to say "your question is ill-defined, so go away".

Some writers who acknowledge, and even strongly endorse, the unique difficulty of the problems of consciousness have also proposed unsatisfactory answers. For instance, Jaron Lanier's theory of the "qualia dial" proposes that subjective consciousness corresponds to (or perhaps results from) a particular cutting-up of the world into objects and concepts; a particular organization of the "qualia" of the world into coherent parts. But it is not clear how this answers any of the significant problems of consciousness (except perhaps "How are we conscious of the physical world?"), and it raises quite a few new ones. Why, for instance, should it feel like anything to correspond to a certain dividing-up of the world? Are there a vast array of other consciousnesses in the universe, corresponding to other dividings-up, other settings of the "dial"? If not, why not; what is special about this particular setting? And so on.

Add more as they come up.

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David Chess accepts all the blame, but Steve White gets some of the credit. If you're lost, see the site map. This page last updated July 20th, 2000.