Tuesday November 13, 2007
I am now three quarters of the way through teaching my philosophy course on consciousness, and I’m pleased to report that – as both hoped and anticipated – confusion and perplexity have broken out.
The more I think about it, the more puzzling the question What is consciousness? becomes. Famously, David Chalmers made a distinction between the easy problems of consciousness (for example, the nuts and bolts of colour perception, or the binding problem) and the hard problem of consciousness, which is how subjective experience can arise at all. Here’s what Chalmers writes on the subject [link here]:
It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.
I wish I found it that straightforward. For me, the trouble begins before we even get to the hard problem. Let me try to explain as best I can. Consciousness is sometimes talked about as “what it is like” to be a particular thing. It is, we presume, like something to be me, or to be you, or a bat (even if I cannot know what it is like), although it isn’t like something, we are told, to be a park bench. But when I ask “what is it like to be me?” I’m flummoxed. I’m not even sure that the question makes sense. On the surface it seems a sensible enough question, but when I ask myself (as I have been doing) “What is it like to be me, just now?” I find that I really don’t have anything like a clear answer.
Sometimes, another tack is to talk about what the philosophers call qualia – the ineffable “thisness” of experience, the redness of red, the painfulness of pain, the chocolaty taste of hot chocolate – but qualia don’t seem to be doing the trick for me either. Qualia are often taken to be bleeding obvious – of course there is a kind of subjective thisness to the taste of chocolate – or, to put it more delicately, these curious qalia are said to be “clear and distinct”. But they don’t seem so. The more I poke and prod away at them, the less clear and the less distinct they become.
And this is the sticking point for me, I think. It is a question of what introspective attention lays bare. The more I play with questions about consciousness, the more I’m unsure of what the nature of this subjective experience is, and so the more I am unsure of whether there is, or is not, a hard problem in the sense that Chalmers means. Of course, I could be just being obtuse. Ask those who know me best: it’s been known to happen. But I don’t think it’s just a matter of me being obtuse, and despite my best efforts at trying to think through this stuff, at the moment perplexity is outweighing clarity.
So there you have it. Consciousness… what’s it all about? Don’t coming asking me for illumination. I can’t help you. Sure, I can probably witter away about it for hours on end about the subject. That’s precisely what I’ve been doing on this course, and it’s be good fun. But when it comes down to it, I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I have no idea what is going on. I’m utterly flummoxed.
In this sense, “consciousness” seems to me like those other grand labels such as “God” or “art”. People who bandy such terms about do so in the sincere conviction that what they are talking about is a Very Important Thing. They will do everything to defend the term, which can then become the seed for a hundred, hundred complex and mutually contested theories. But whether the Very Important Thing under discussion actually exists, in what sense it exists, and why its existence matters at all… well, these are rather different questions.
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