Does anyone know of any particularly interesting arguments or rebuttals against the hard problem of consciousness?

I'm looking for arguments that are either neurological, cognitive, or philosophical in nature. I'm familiar with Daniel Dennett's work.

  • One cannot argue against or rebut a problem, only an argument, or a side of the issue raised by that problem. Are you looking for directions seeking a solution, reasons for taking a specific stance on the problem, or arguments suggesting this problem is unsolvable or meaningless?
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 5:00
  • I'm looking for anything that challenges or expands upon the problem. Everyone has written some pretty good answers so far.
    – risto
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 22:26
  • 1
    I like Scott Aaronson's definition of the "Pretty Hard Problem of Consciousness", which I think is the one actually worth thinking about: scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1799 Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 19:45

5 Answers 5


Chalmers has a really nice overview of the critiques of the hard problem of consciousness here. Which one seems "particularly interesting" depends, I think, on how sympathetic you are to Chalmers' conception of the hard problem; it doesn't seem that he finds any of them terribly interesting (though the Dennett/Churchland approach least of all).

Personally, I don't deny that the hard problem is hard, but I offer the following counter to postulates of impossibility: how do we know that qualia are not just a particular emergent phenomenon of computational systems of a certain structure? If it were an emergent phenomenon, presumably there would be preconditions, and then every way we use to detect qualia in us would match up with the presence of those preconditions; and if we created artificial systems that met those preconditions and could communicate in a way that would let us assess whether it acted as though it had qualia, we would be forced to conclude that this was very strong evidence that this was an emergent phenomenon.

Of course there is always the problem of other minds, and you can always insert Descartes' demon to confuse things, but aside from these approaches of sheer stubbornness (which, so wielded, can obliterate any knowledge), there seems no barrier to the project.

So, okay, it's maybe fiendishly hard to do in practice, but in principle it is just like the understanding of other sorts of emergent phenomena, if it does in fact have a physical basis. So it's not metaphysically hard, just experimentally hard

(This is somewhere between the views of the Type A and Type B materialists as defined in Chalmers' summary.)

  • The problem with "qualia" is that they come without a Turing test, and by Turing's original test computers already can "think". When it comes to animals the bar is set even lower. Elephants are "self-aware" because when thy see a stain on their foreheads in a mirror they try to rub it off. By this standard we can build self-aware computers today. And even if more complicated behaviors are required, like "love" or "remorse", is there really any doubt that machines will do that eventually, or act like it anyway. Introspection only applies to self, so "qualia" are set up to be meaningless.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 0:09
  • I don't understand your argument; non-materialist do not necessarily deny the human brain is a precondition for human consciousness.
    – nir
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 10:06
  • @nir - My point is that if human consciousness is emergent, we can study it in the normal ways; we're not forced into philosophically "hard" ways. So the hard problem of consciousness is a difference of degrees, not kind (as far as we can tell, anyway).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 12:32

As Rex Kerr mentions Chalmers tends be where one should go to explore this question.

Qualia - actual experiential datum is where at least one of the core difficulties within the hard problem; it isn't I think essential; after all one can close ones eyes and one is still here.

Qualia is the difference between the colour red that you can see (ie experience) and the wavelength of the colour red, that we theoretically know it to be. Another way of explaining this is the difference between a photograph of Schrodingers cat and his actual cat - two very different things.

Metaphyics here is actually very important; but is not usually seen to be. For example, within the philosophical system called Naturalism; then consciousness must be an emergent property; since there is no other place for it to come from - there is no other; we say emergent because there is no actual theory of it as such, and because its 'expected' to come from the study of large complex systems.

If consciousness or qualia is not an emergent property, then this is important because it breaks the philosophical theory of Naturalism; something else will have to take its place.

Its interesting to point out here, that Democritus, one of the founders of Naturalism, in the form usually called Milesian Materialism, did think that experience (its usually called psyche or, in translation, as soul) was natural, and not only that it was composed of atoms.

Its also useful to point out that the distinction between qualia and consciousness is not that easy to separate; one would have to take all qualia into account, ie from natality; when the psyche is 'born'; it's natural to assume that qualia is essential to consciousness - to deprive a baby from actual experience, ie put it in a sensory deprivation tank would severely harm her, if not kill her.

In this context, the theory of consciousness from a Buddhist perspective is important (I'm not terribly au fait with it); and this is that consciousness has no svabhava, that is not self-existent; it is a stream - one might say a stream of consciousness.

  • I think qualia might still be central to the issue, because even if you use sensory deprivation tank, you're still getting some sensory input (such as gravity). You also have the sensory input from your imagination, like colors, which correspond with your waking colors, but might be perceived very differently by other people.
    – risto
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 19:53
  • @risto: yes,true; I'm using the sensory deprivation tank as a real world approximation to a thought experiment. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 13:28

From a certain point of view, fairly well backed by experimental data, we do not experience anything in real time, we only experience the memory of things. In that sense, there is no consciousness, other than a collection of related memories to which attention is being afforded by the personality, and the record of that attention occurring.

Sensations like deja vu corroborate that our ongoing experience is actually a slightly delayed memory, and not a real-time process. In deja vu a deduction or other consequence from an experience is processed faster than the other data entailed in the experience itself is stored in memory. This leads us to feel like we knew what we have just learned previously in far too complete a level of detail, and therefore we must have had the exact same experience previously. If we had a real mental test for real experience vs memory, this we would be able to separate the two copies of the current experience, and stop the sensation. Since we don't, the sensation persists despite our logical insistence upon the arrow of time.

It also seems convincing that if I constituted an exact copy of the set of memories added to my experience since yesterday, and somehow translated them for your memory and inserted them, you would feel as though you experienced my yesterday. But memory already recorded changes over time: we can have thought our childhood bedroom was blue, only to return to that house later and find it was slightly green. Someone with confabulation due to rolling amnesia continually creates the impression for themselves that they have experienced many years of artificial history, and there does not seem to be a real way in which to tell them that they haven't. How is real accumulated memory significantly different? So how do we presume that we have in fact experienced the stream of consciousness that we remember: That it has not been added later, like voice-over in a film, either after a split second, or after a lifetime?

Between these two ideas, the notion of personal consciousness vanishes. The continuity of consciousness is dubious or subjective. Really, there is only attention focused on a given set of memories. Qualia may exist, but they can do so only as categories in our classification of the contents of memory.

Basically, if you are not a physicalist, given the observed nature of very-short-term memory you cannot know that time exists independent of shared memory. If you are one, you already presume memory is a chemical process and that it is sufficiently robust to support the associative structure necessary to hold vocabulary.

This renders the 'hard' problem less hard. If qualia are labels, and experiences are memory-impressions, there is no real conflict between the perspectives that allow for mental components in experience and those that insist that experience is entirely physical. We do not consider associative conventions like vocabulary to be truly physical, even if we are physicalists. Nor do we find it a spooky evasion of common sense to admit that memories and classifications of our experiences are real.


I'll second the reference to Chalmers. It's very easy to mistake the "hard" problem with the "less hard" problem of consciousness:

  • Less-Hard Problem: What modulates and supports our conscious experiences. If consciousness is indeed an emergent phenomenon, what are is requirements, what does it supervene on? Indeed, supervenience is the fundamental issue here.
  • Hard Problem: Why do physical systems have an internal experience? Why does experience even exist? Chalmer's "Zombie" arguments get at this very difficult issue.

The hard problem is more than a dilemma, since it is wholly unaddressable using our scientific and philosophical apparatus. In particular, the hard problem defies functional explanation: even if we know what consciousness does and how it emerges, we are still left with the unanswered phenomenal question of why this state has an experience associated with it...why isn't it "dark" inside like a rock sitting on the ground?

I haven't heard of any real counterarguments to this problem. Most end up turning it into the easier problem in their attempt to bring some philosophical language to bear on it. In fact, Chalmers and others note that one cannot even come up with what such an answer would look like, since all our explanations appeal to some form of supervenience. Yet supervenience is not the question with qualia, but the fact that they exist at all.

The best thing I've heard is something akin to property dualism, whereby we don't explain consciousness but note that supervenience and functional aspects of the world require some sort of substrate for their existence. To be conscious (or, per Chalmers' extension: proto-conscious) is simply to exist. Or, to modfiy Decartes' phrase:

I have qualia, therefore I am

  • I guess my answer doesn't count as a counterargument? I don't argue for any supervenience any more than air pressure supervenes on the positions of large ensembles of air molecules. That is: why couldn't it simply be a property of certain sorts of recurrent, model-forming computational architectures?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 12:37
  • @RexKerr I think we are saying the same things here. I thought your argument was good, as it doesn't attempt to functionalize qualia. What I wanted to point out is that functional emergence (e.g., pressure from air molecules) is different from the qualitative sort of emergence postulated with qualia. We can envision the system operating just fine without ever knowing about the internal states/qualia. What remains to be explained by anyone is why these recurrent, model-forming structures have an "inner life" so to speak.
    – user4634
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 13:10

Marvin Minksy explains away Qualia in this beautiful interview in closer to truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNWVvZi3HX8

So it seems very mysterious and non-physical if you don't know how it works, like when Hodini or Penn and Teller make an elephant disappear then you say this is not physical it's impossible. When you know how the magic trick works then the sense of wonder goes away, although you might still remember how it puzzled you once.

The interview literally involves a lot of hand waving.

But I don't believe there can be a rebuttal of the hard problem; rather, different people may have different kinds of inner experience; that is, materialists and non-materialist may be both right in describing their own kind of inner experience (while not daring to believe someone else could be having a different kind).

  • He explains the "how" not the "why"
    – Weezy
    Commented Jan 31, 2020 at 14:59

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