Mod+ The Not-So-Hard Problem of Consciousness

#1
This is a blog post of mine. You can find it here where it may be easier to read. I'm interested in refinements to this kind of thinking. I'm not interested in materialist counter arguments to this. You can start a thread in the Pvs.S forum if you want to argue from that perspective.

Consciousness is called “The Hard Problem” which Prof. David Chalmers of the University of Arizona explains: (Chalmers is not a materialist. While this suffices for explaining the materialist position, it is taken somewhat out of context.)

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

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.
This is the mainstream view of the problem, which assumes that experience arises from a physical basis. It is an automatic, unquestioned assumption that guides scientific thinking. Yet this problem isn’t particularly difficult and I don’t think it takes a big brain scientist to sort it out, as long as you’re willing to question whether experience arises from physical processes. The reason that the problem is so hard is that it’s being viewed from the wrong direction. If you come at it from a different direction, it is not nearly so difficult.

Mainstream science starts with the body and works its way out. Study the body and brain more, the thinking goes, and the problem will eventually be solved. But this is not the only direction available; it is quite possible to start with consciousness and work towards the body.

The first part of solving the problem is to understand the difference between an object and its meaning. An object is not the meaning that we attach to it. This can be quite difficult to grasp, so I’ll take quite a bit effort to explain it.

We’ll use the example of a chair for the sake of simplicity, but this could be absolutely anything at all. A chair can be thought of as a pattern. It is not an object, it is an idea. As such, it is completely immaterial and has no basis in physical reality as we know it.

A chair can be a picture of a chair. It can be made of individual atoms or it can be made out of galaxies or wood. It’s still a chair. It does not matter whether we can sit in it as long as the representation looks like a chair to us. The materials that a chair is made out of do not have an inherent “chairness” to them. If you took the backrest off of a flat chair, you might have a small table instead.

If you grind a chair up into itty bitty pieces then it ceases to exist at all even though all of the materials that made the chair still exist. It is possible to have an object that some people regard as a chair, but others do not. It can be made from a very wide range of materials and in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes. It is possible to construct an object that looks like a chair from a certain angle, but if you move, it no longer looks like a chair any more. In that case, a chair can vanish completely from existence just by moving the observer.

No pattern recognition = no chair. The materials are all still there, but what’s absent is the idea that they form a chair. If, for some reason, the materials stop being recognized as a chair, then the chair ceases to exist because “chair” was only ever an idea.

A chair isn’t just meaning that we have attached to a pattern. A pattern is not a pattern until we attach meaning to it because a pattern is an idea, not a thing. And because it is an idea, we don’t discover patterns, we create (and destroy) them. To put this another way, there is no such thing as a pattern without consciousness.

So for the brain to arrange electrical fields into patterns that become consciousness, would require the brain to self create those patterns, which it cannot do unless it already understands how to create patterns. (because a pattern is an idea and is not made of anything) This creates a paradox whereby the brain requires consciousness in order to create consciousness.

The creation of patterns absolutely requires interpretation of those patterns which requires consciousness. Energy/mass cannot create patterns unless it knows what they mean. So either all matter is conscious, (which cannot be ruled out a priori) and acting on itself or we have a dualistic situation whereby consciousness is acting on mass/energy. Otherwise, the act of interpretation can never occur and therefore no form of consciousness at all can exist. Since consciousness does exist, we have to reject models where it arises from the patterns that only it can create.

In other words, the brain cannot possibly create consciousness.
 
#2
I agree with your conclusion: "the brain cannot possibly create consciousness".

But what, then, does create consciousness? And if consciousness has been created, what power does it have to do anything?
(You do not have to address this now, since the thread is mostly against the SoS pseudo-skeptics, but sometime, someone has to come up with a serious theory that has a possibility of not being stupid; indeed, of being true!)
 
#3
I agree with your conclusion: "the brain cannot possibly create consciousness".

But what, then, does create consciousness? And if consciousness has been created, what power does it have to do anything?
(You do not have to address this now, since the thread is mostly against the SoS pseudo-skeptics, but sometime, someone has to come up with a serious theory that has a possibility of not being stupid; indeed, of being true!)
I had this very same question posed on my blog. It's a good one. The only answer I can think of that makes sense is that awareness is fundamental to the universe. That is to say, we have no possibility of observing a universe without it. You can't even ask the question "what power does it have?" because you need awareness to even pose the question. There is no way to view it objectively.
 
#4
...In other words, the brain cannot possibly create consciousness.
At the moment, I'm most comfortable taking a position somewhere in-between both extreme positions, where my brain does not create my consciousness in isolation, yet without my brain this consciousness of mine would not exist. (Note that I stress the 'this' and 'mine' in '..this consciousness of mine', I make no assumptions about the existence (or not) of some other type of consciousness, I'm only talking about the only one I'm familiar with.)
I assume that both extreme positions are generally truthful, but different and incomplete perspectives of the same problem. I assume both positions coexist together, and are indeed necessary to experience this consciousness of mine.
 
#5
At the moment, I'm most comfortable taking a position somewhere in-between both extreme positions, where my brain does not create my consciousness in isolation, yet without my brain this consciousness of mine would not exist. (Note that I stress the 'this' and 'mine' in '..this consciousness of mine', I make no assumptions about the existence (or not) of some other type of consciousness, I'm only talking about the only one I'm familiar with.)
I assume that both extreme positions are generally truthful, but different and incomplete perspectives of the same problem. I assume both positions coexist together, and are indeed necessary to experience this consciousness of mine.
I've read your answer a couple of times and I'm still not clear on what you mean by "extreme positions" and how you can have different but incomplete perspectives of the same problem that coexist together.

Certainly there is a correlation between brain states and consciousness. No one disputes that. The problem, that I've made pretty clear above, is that everything we know about reality is in fact an interpretation of that reality which is a conscious act. Unless matter has the power to interpret, it can't be the source of consciousness.
 
#8
I had this very same question posed on my blog. It's a good one. The only answer I can think of that makes sense is that awareness is fundamental to the universe. That is to say, we have no possibility of observing a universe without it. You can't even ask the question "what power does it have?" because you need awareness to even pose the question. There is no way to view it objectively.
This answer is a beginning for a science of consciousness, but your "no possibility without" part of the answer is not really an adequate explanation that might be useful for understanding psychology, parapsychology, spiritual processes, etc. There are clearly an enormous number of detailed dynamical details that are waiting to be understood scientifically (as I am sure you acknowledge, Craig, in your other life).
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#9
A chair isn’t just meaning that we have attached to a pattern. A pattern is not a pattern until we attach meaning to it because a pattern is an idea, not a thing. And because it is an idea, we don’t discover patterns, we create (and destroy) them. To put this another way, there is no such thing as a pattern without consciousness.
I don't see how it can be this simple. If there were no patterns without consciousness, then I could not look at something about which I was not thinking and recognize what it was. There has to be information in the thing for me to classify the pattern consistently. This is the case regardless of assumptions about ontology.

When patterns are ideas, someone has to have every object/pattern in her/his consciousness in order to maintain consistency. Or, you have to expand the concept of idea so that ideas can be held by some sort of mind other than individual human consciousness.

So for the brain to arrange electrical fields into patterns that become consciousness, would require the brain to self create those patterns, which it cannot do unless it already understands how to create patterns. (because a pattern is an idea and is not made of anything) This creates a paradox whereby the brain requires consciousness in order to create consciousness.
If you are correct and patterns/things do not exist without conscious minds creating ideas about them, then the brain itself is the product of a conscious mind. Since the brain does not pre-exist consciousness, this paradox does not arise.

~~ Paul
 
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#12
Can't computers "recognise" patterns?
They can "recognize" patterns,
but they cannot recognize patterns.

Normal recognition is the conscious awareness of something.
"Recognition" is behaving as if aware of something, without any awareness or rationality or intentionality or qualia or actual desire to see.
 
#13
They can "recognize" patterns,
but they cannot recognize patterns.

Normal recognition is the conscious awareness of something.
"Recognition" is behaving as if aware of something, without any awareness or rationality or intentionality or qualia or actual desire to see.
Right.

It seems to me like that qualia aspect precedes the pattern-recognising aspect for people (and animals...hell, maybe plants, too, for all I know.) Like, babies experience things before they'd have a chance to notice any pattern. The first encounter with pain is still pain, and the first desire is still a desire, etc. It would seem, at least.

So, I think you can have experience, or qualia, without a pattern, and patterns can be "recognized" (by computers, and bacteria, etc) without consciousness.
 
#14
So, I think you can have experience, or qualia, without a pattern
Generally I agree, but I not sure what you mean here.
Experiences or qualia are always experiences or appearances of something: some pattern.
We never have 'pure experience' that does not point away from itself.
 
#15
Generally I agree, but I not sure what you mean here.
Experiences or qualia are always experiences or appearances of something: some pattern.
We never have 'pure experience' that does not point away from itself.
That's true as a general rule so general it's almost universal, but it would be totally possible for someone to see the color red just once, or experience physical pain only once, etc. Those types of things are part of a pattern in "consensus reality", but to any individual, the experience/perception could be a one-off.

I'd say the very first things you ever experience would be "pure experience".
 
#16
...it would be totally possible for someone to see the color red just once...
If you are interested in learning about this subject, you might consider what colour actually is? and how human perception of colour is believed to function? It's a totally fascinating subject and probably best started by exploring the work of Edwin Land.

You might then reconsider your statement from different positions to see if it still holds, perhaps considering it from the position of somebody who is colour-blind, and also from the position of somebody who is congenitally blind?
 
#17
Hi Craig, I enjoyed reading your blog, thanks for sharing. Let me first qualify what I’m about to say with the fact that I do believe that consciousness is a fundamental, not generated by physical matter. However, I think it’s still important to be critical of anything that claims to logically prove that consciousness exists.

The problem with your argument is that it is cyclic. I agree that the concept of a chair is not physical, it is purely in consciousness. A chair is what my consciousness labels a certain arrangement of atoms. You cannot then use the fact that my consciousness labels something to prove that my consciousness exists. That’s like saying consciousness exists, because, well, it exists. As someone else pointed out, there is a qualia that exists behind the pattern recognition that your argument doesn’t directly address.

I will go further and say that there is no logical argument that can prove that consciousness exists. The only way to prove that consciousness exists would be if it were an objective phenomenon and could be externally measured, or defined in terms of something else, but obviously then it wouldn’t be the type of consciousness we are trying to prove. If consciousness is fundamental then it is never going to be explainable in terms of something, and never going to be provable. All arguments about the nature of consciousness will always be cyclic, we can never get behind the problem.

Thoughts?
 
#18
Craig,

I think you are basically right, but I would not frame this as an opposition to David Chalmers (if that is what you were doing).

I mean the phrase "hard problem" might be more accurately phrased as "an aspect of the mind that seems to resist physical explanations - including computation"! Maybe Prof Chalmers thought of calling it something that, but then had second thoughts :) The usual phrase is unfortunate, because some people seem to like to argue that the rest of the problems must be 'easy', so assuming we can clear them out of the way, we have a zombie that behaves like a human but has no conscious awareness - without solving a 'hard' problem!!!!

My hunch is that many of the 'easy' problems are just as hard, not least because we solve them by using qualia! If you think about it, there are all sorts of qualia involved in doing or reading maths (at whatever level is best for you) - we don't normally tackle it in a robot-like way.

BTW, I know I keep saying this, but if you, or anyone else are at all interested in these issues, I would strongly advise you to read Roger Penrose's "Shadows of the Mind". I am currently re-reading it right now, and it contains a lot of insightful remarks about the nature of consciousness - as well as the Gödel theorem argument.

David
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#19
The problem with your argument is that it is cyclic. I agree that the concept of a chair is not physical, it is purely in consciousness. A chair is what my consciousness labels a certain arrangement of atoms. You cannot then use the fact that my consciousness labels something to prove that my consciousness exists. That’s like saying consciousness exists, because, well, it exists. As someone else pointed out, there is a qualia that exists behind the pattern recognition that your argument doesn’t directly address.
I don't get the impression that Craig is trying to prove that consciousness exists, but is instead assuming it exists. What he is trying to prove is that the brain, being a pattern-generated product of consciousness, cannot be the source of consciousness.

~~ Paul
 
#20
We've been over this before, but by 'exists' what I mean is something fundamental, not a process of physical matter. If you assume consciousness exists (by my definition of exists) then that is an assumption. you can't then go on to use that assumption to prove the assumption in the first place. If I say that a pattern is only in consciousness, then I have already assumed that consciousness exists.

If you make the assumption that consciousness exists then I propose that by this assumption you are also assuming that it is non-physical. I don't understand the assumption that consciousness exists but is something physical. Either we are biological computers and consciousness doesn't exist, or it does and we are something more. The theory that consciousness is a product of physical matter is a huge leap of faith, and has nothing to back it up. I can't even get my head around the idea. Why should we keep having to defend against it? It's not even an argument.

Can we not all just make the assumption that consciousness exists. If you want to try and prove it is generated by physical matter then good luck to you, but I don't think you will get very far. The thing I find frustrating, is that pretty much everyone assumes that consciousness exists, on both sides of the argument. And all arguments just go round in circles.

There is nothing wrong with making an assumption and then seeing where it takes you. One doesn't have to back up the validity of making that assumption, all one has to do is to see how well it fits reality.
 
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