Stumped by Consciousness

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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#1 · Michael

14 November 2007

I think one of the mains problems is that ‘consciousness’ as a term isn’t really properly defined. I think that this is in part because we don’t really know what we are trying to define. We just have a vague sense that these is something more to ‘us’ than what we aren’t currently covering by science.

At the moment, for me consciousness is a concept that encompasses an integrated set of experiences. You can break it apart and it becomes nothing. It only exists as a form.

#2 · Peter

15 November 2007

I wonder who made it so complicated. Being conscious is being aware of the present experience. The more aware, the more consciousness there is. Through meditation you know you can become much more aware, raise your consciousness.

What is it like to be me, just now? First know ‘me’, focus on it and you have your answer. To find ‘me’ dive into your breath. Your essence is right there – see, hear, feel and taste the oneness. When you dwell in that place for a moment or two, you can answer that question. When your consciousness then switches to thoughts and body feelings then it is harder to answer that question because there is much more to explain.

Do you know your self, Self, me? Know that and things become very clear.

#3 · Michael

15 November 2007

> Peter

Meditation on oneness doesn’t answer the question, it bypasses and ignores the question. Questions are thought constructs and can only be answered by thought constructs.

#4 · pramila

18 November 2007

I am not sure whether it matters that much if we can or cannot identify ‘consciousness’just to satisfy a scientific [and rather limited but aso sometimes useful] definition [often involving experiments to kill frogs to see if soul traces exist – which says more about the soul- lessness of the scientists!]. It is not that interesting , the precious personal experience of the unique sense of what it is to be ‘me’ or the ‘ineffable delight of tasting chocolate’[I leave that to the novelists and playwrights]. What is of interest is examples of people[ historical, mythical or contemporary], who through changing their perception of common human experience[pain, suffering, joy etc.], are able to demonstrate ways of transcending the human condition while remaining still grounded in it. Perhaps the things that we dismiss as quirks of the brain chemistry – religious, mystical or peak experiences, or just inner calmness and peace – perhaps these are fore-tastes of what we as humans are capable of achieving. What we do with ‘consciousness’ – ie the bundle of perception, reflection. etc. is important – does our consciousness isolate or include or transcend, with relation to the experience of others? This is a more urgent and interesting question.

#5 · Peter

19 November 2007

> Michael
Experience of oneness perfectly answers the question but not in words. Do you want a real answer or more words? Words are limited even though you might think you could write forever. Philosophy leads to more questions. The only real answer is beyond words. (There! See what words have done – led me into statements that can be discussed endlessly…)

> pramila

Perhaps if you read Will’s next article, Real Magic, you may change your mind somewhat. To me a most interesting question is how can we enjoy the magic within the mundane and see the magic in each other, even those we disagree with? But perhaps that’s the same question but in different words…

#6 · pramila

22 November 2007

I like Peter’s observation – enjoy the magic in the mundane, and even in those we disagree with.
That is the sort of magic that Patanjali and other explorers of consciousness invite us to, in relating to the world ‘outside’ our ‘selves’.

#7 · Ccx

2 December 2007

I would pose a bit different question: Are we able to define what consciousness is? I think it’s ability of space (mind) to experience what appears in it. But you may wish to define what ‘experience’ is. And go after other definitions ad infinitum.
In order to communicate we pretend we have common base of experiences we can use as some axioms to build on.
In fact we have similar experiences, because we have similar karma, that forms what we experience.

On how we perceive I would recommend some reading on five skandhas, about who perceives 3rd Karmapa’s Wishes for attaining mahamudra (I think lama Ole’s commentaries are very good).

#8 · Will

6 December 2007

Presumably we have (or we can assume that we have) similar experience because we have similar biology. I’m not sure about what karma means in this context.
All the best,

#9 · ck

8 December 2007

Will, I’ve been behind on my blog reading and just noticed this post. Since you read my consciousness paper (and really, since I wrote it, which was even further back) I’ve been finding myself less and less sure of my position on “consciousness.”

I’m glad to see others sharing in that sense. I’ve also begun to think more about the role our body has to play in consciousness and how analytic philosophy seems to ignore our minds as embodied. How that fits into Buddhism and the claim that the Self is empty and the body impermanent, I’m not sure yet. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, for sure.

Anyway, thanks for this. I’d love to hear more thoughts on the topic as you have them.

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