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Most of us are physicalists now meaning that most agree that nature is all that is the case and that there are no super-natural phenomena. Given that this is so then consciousness (no matter how it feels otherwise subjectively) must be explainable in physical terms.

We don't have the exact mechanism to hand now but surely it is just a matter of time.

My question another couple of ways.

Why is it that some feel that consciousness is not amenable to physical explanations (in due time) when all else around us seems to be?

or

What is it about how consciousness makes itself known to us that prevents us from seeing it as a physical phenomenon like all others?

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    I don't have an answer, so I shall make a comment: the physicalist "viewpoint" plays a weird intertwin between the first person and the third person perspective; the third ("objective") person viewpoint tries to explain everything as if there was "nobody" there, but causes and effects; but the physicalist speaks from a first person ("subjective") viewpoint, "someone" regardless of cause or effect. So a good deal of the trouble is to integrate the "subjective" with the "objective" viewpoints; but as James often quipped: if you start from a dichotomy, you shall end in a dichotomy.
    – user25574
    Jun 26 at 0:29
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It seems to me that the problem behind the hard problem of consciousness, is that consciousness seems so singular a phenomenon.

Consider that once-mysterious phenomenon of the rainbow. For a long time, the rainbow was a phenomenon which seemed closely connected with rain, but not connected with other phenomena. Rainbows just were. Only with the advent of serious studies of optics — and in Europe, not until Newton's studies in optics — was it possible to connect the rainbow with any other physical phenomenon in a way that allowed it to be understood. Until then, it was an apparent isolate as a phenomenon: standing alone, mysterious.

Consciousness is another such isolate. We know it's there, but we don't know how or why, except that it's correlated with complex brain structure. We lack any independent examples of similar phenomena — like spectra shining from prisms — which would allow us to find clues as to where it comes from.

Of course, unlike rainbows, we have more control over consciousness by changing its conditions (e.g. consumption of intoxicants, of which alcohol is a simple example), but this merely modifies the expression of the already known example. What would be more helpful is a completely independent phenomenon with strikingly similar features. Then again, could we ever recognise such an independent example? If "consciousness" is a question of subjective experience, it is not clear what we can do for consciousness detection beyond the Turing Test, which isn't really testing for consciousness as for peer-hood...

I choose the rainbow advisedly — even after Newton, there were those who romanticised it, and considered it profane to analyse it in terms of mathematical laws: we can expect a similar (but much more strident!) reaction to any physical theory of consciousness, probably even among mathematical scientists. Indeed, the subconscious (!) biases which would give rise to such angry reactions may be playing a significant role in our difficulties in analysing and understanding consciousness as a physical phenomenon.

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  • How is consciousness singular? If it is connected to everything we see? It should be the opposite --- it is difficult to analyze precisely because it is connected to everything. It is always beyond hard to analyze whole as apposed to part.
    – Asphir Dom
    Jan 2 '15 at 19:32
  • @AsphirDom: It is singular in the sense of not having any obvious functional relationship. You could also say that light is connected to everything we see in a similarly literal sense, but this doesn't appear to have made it any easier to understand prior to the advances of Newton, Young, and especially Maxwell, who made possible the connection of light to physics in general. Jan 2 '15 at 19:58
  • "Do not all charms fly At the mere touch of cold philosophy? There was an awful rainbow once in heaven: We know her woof, her texture; she is given In the dull catalogue of common things. Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine— Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade." - Keats
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 26 at 5:41
  • @CriglCragl: Might he have felt differently, had he lived to hear of Maxwell's discoveries and atomic physics? Far from us thinking the rainbow part of a "dull catalogue", we know it as part of a connected whole, in which even the stones themselves bristle with pent-up restless energy --- and in the case of all light, an expression of the verve of the very fabric of being. The world can be understood either reluctantly or with a glad heart: anyone who has wished to visit a mountain instead of admiring it from afar should be capable of the latter. So might one well wish, with consciousness. Jun 26 at 17:18
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In answer to your question, I think the best I can suggest is to point out the biases at work in how you're asking it and then suggest a different way of looking at it that explains why there are some of us who see it as difficult.

Most of us are physicalists now meaning that most agree that nature is all that is the case and that there are no super-natural phenomena. [Consciousness] ... must be explainable in physical terms.

  1. Many people are indeed physicalists. But who cares what most people are? Would that effect whether we are correct in our views?
  2. Even if everything is physically explainable or must be physically explainable (an interesting and unempirical claim), that does not mean everything is explained. Or that explaining it is simple.

We don't have the exact mechanism to hand now but surely it is just a matter of time.

  1. This seems like faith of the strongest sort of in a not-yet-proven conclusion.

Why is it that some feel that consciousness is not amenable to physical explanations (in due time) when all else around us seems to be?

  1. This seems to be asking why people do or do not share your faith.

What is it about how consciousness makes itself known to us that prevents us from seeing it as a physical phenomenon like all others?

  1. I don't think anything prevents people from viewing it in this way, but isn't the relevant question whether or not this is in fact the case? People can view the earth as flat, but we wouldn't consider that healthy.

I see two main features in your question that I think matter to understanding your question and why you don't see consciousness as a hard problem -- but also as to why others might.

Namely, it seems that you start with a strong faith in physicalism and second that you seem to think a question is not hard if the answer is known.

Regarding the physicalism faith, I'm reminded of the late 19th century and Newtownian physics, the hard problem that came up was the black body radiation problem / ultraviolet catastrophe. At the time, at least as far as I grasp, many people believed they were on the cusp of understanding everything -- save for a pesky problem that blackbodies should produce infinite energy. But let's just put that issue away and work within physicalism.

The second issue still seems to remain. What you've asserted above is that 1) if physicalism is true, consciousness is in principle understandable using science. AND 2) if this is so, that there is no hard problem of consciousness. But I think this argument is dubious in its second premise. Or at least has some explaining to do in terms of a definition of hard problem. (See for instance: wicked problem or What makes a math problem "difficult"?).

For instance, gene expression is still a difficult problem even if we are pretty sure that what's going is related to methylation. That's not quite the same thing as being able to control cancer.

Bryan Frances has written extensively on this sort of question and has some humorous quips about consciousness on his website.

A third point is that consciousness is not for us a physical phenomenon like all others considering that our experience of consciousness is our experience of all other phenomena (if consciousness can even be called a phenomenon for us). So that makes it hard in a somewhat similar way to the difficulties in isolating non-reactive nitrogen from air -- but with the problem that it's not clear how we can extricate it from hundreds of other distracting things that are not themselves consciousness.

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  • Very good answer, very well reasoned. I was aware my sloppiness. I guess I should say: Does the hard problem of consciousness cease to be a hard problem for the physicalist? Or is Chalmers making the even stronger claim that even if one is a physicalist the problem of consciousness is still and will remain to be a hard problem?
    – igravious
    Dec 21 '14 at 20:15
  • @igravious I think it's either a hard problem or a misguided problem (and thus in a sense impossibly hard).
    – virmaior
    Dec 21 '14 at 20:27
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First, physicalism and naturalism are distinct positions (some naturalists accept strong emergence).

Second, physics explains phenomena, but consciousness is not obviously a phenomenon. Perhaps aspects of it are (the complex behaviour of human being), but for some philosophers consciousness is not itself a phenomenon, but that which allows knowledge of phenomena: the very fact that we are aware of phenomena. This make of consciousness a peculiar object of inquiry --if an object at all: isn't it the subject of any inquiry?

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  • What categorisation ought we use for 'consciousness' if it is not a noun? Is this similar to existence not being a property? Dec 23 '14 at 16:21
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    I did not phrase it as a grammatical point Dec 24 '14 at 10:38
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You wrote:

Most of us are physicalists now meaning that most agree that nature is all that is the case and that there are no super-natural phenomena. Given that this is so then consciousness (no matter how it feels otherwise subjectively) must be explainable in physical terms.

I believe consciousness is obviously a natural phenomena, but that nevertheless, it cannot be described physically.

Why is it that some feel that consciousness is not amenable to physical explanations (in due time) when all else around us seems to be?

I think this is a very interesting question which has not been discussed seriously by philosophers; it seems that philosophers on either side of the trench simply assume their "opponents" are either morons or crooks.

I believe there is another radical possibility, that different people may have different kinds of inner experience.

If you fail to see anything in your inner experience which may not be described physically (in principle), then that's fine with me; it is your head, not mine, and you are the only one who can give us a subjective report about your inner experience.

Nevertheless, I believe there is something in my inner experience which renders physicalism as sensible as the belief that nothing exists at all.

The above hypothesis is testable, since if it is true, then we should expect to find a correlation between genes and the philosophical position on the question of physicalism.

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  • "Nevertheless, I believe there is something in my inner experience which renders physicalism as sensible as the belief that nothing exists at all. The above hypothesis is testable, since if it is true, then we should expect to find a correlation between genes and the philosophical position on the question of physicalism." Why should that be? Naturalism <> genetic determinism; reality, whether mechanistic or with 'supernatural' elements, is richer and more complicated than that. Dec 23 '14 at 16:18
  • @NieldeBeaudrap, suppose the reason some people insist on physicalism while some other people insist on non-physicalism is due to some physical fact about their brain, would you not expect that physical fact to be encoded genetically?
    – nir
    Dec 23 '14 at 18:04
  • No --- not any more than I think that the reason I wrote these specific words is encoded genetically. I expect that idea formation and expression has a rather large environmental factor. Dec 23 '14 at 18:11
  • @NieldeBeaudrap, if the divide over physicalism is similar to that of taste in music or political opinion, etc, then you may be right; this is why I think the hypothesis is testable.
    – nir
    Dec 23 '14 at 20:56
  • It seems that now your test would only test the hypothesis that belief in "naturalist consciousness" is genetically determined, not whether it is justified. I'm not sure what the point of that would be. Dec 23 '14 at 21:11
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I think this questions carries the assumption that the consious should be viewed as a closed loop system, or that it is singular mechanism. Also I think it would be worthwhile to define the consious, given what we know about its mysterious relationship to the brain, the consious is the phenomena that is our awareness, which is seperate from the many other neural processes that go on outside our awareness. Many things go on within the brain that deliver very vital supplemental process to our consious, but we are not aware of them. An example would be emotions, the source is an external stimuli but is processed extensively within our brain before it becomes an emotion, it seems seperate of consious be cause we do not have complete control over it but is affects our perception and indirectly, our actions. Indirectly because there are reverberating results that cascade throughout our minds from the advent of an emotion that have affect on our choices, but the mechanism of which cannot be discerned by our consious selves. I would wager that the consious is such a tough concept to grapple with because the mechanism we are looking for is not singular. It is a harmony of many mechanisms that each operate predictably on their on but in sequence each individual contribution becomes harder to quantify in relation to the whole system.

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I second the last part of Niel de Beaudrap answer. There is a big sociological aspect in play, in which admitting that consciousness is not a hard problem means admitting (once again) that we are not that special in the universe.

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Let me start by saying that I am not a physicalist. However, I do not find the problem of consciousness "hard." I agree that consciousness is explainable in physical terms. My explanation is that consciousness is the result (output) of our brain's comparator "circuits" making a comparison between what our senses are currently sensing and what has been recorded in our memory. If the comparison generates a difference, then we must make a decision to act, or not, on it.

As to why some people think one way and others in other ways, it is really simple. Free will, different cultures, different levels of education, intelligence, knowledge, etc..

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  • So if Samsung make my smartphone camera software compare the sensor input with the data recorded in memory, should I expect it to be conscious?
    – nir
    Dec 24 '14 at 8:59
  • @nir: Creating (generating) a difference, is only part of the requirement. You have to feed that difference into a decision-making circuit with the feedback capability to modify the stored information. It is the "closing of the loop" that generates "consciousness." Obviously, my conjectures will not be proven until we are successful in developing the "positronic brain" that Commander DATA has.
    – Guill
    Dec 28 '14 at 23:34
  • I was under the impression that commander DATA is a fictional being; additionally your definition still sounds like a video camera with some noise reduction algorithm, diffing the video input with a previously stored image to generate a new combined noise reduced image which will replace the previous image. On the other hand you seem to believe that such a camera is not conscious so you seem to contradict yourself.
    – nir
    Dec 29 '14 at 8:08
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In a way, the brain is like a computer machine, and this machine runs a program that makes consciousness occur. However, with good reason, the program has evolved in such a manner that it in turn keeps you stupid along a certain line of function.

If your mind could figure out how it works, and do so on a conscious level, it has then caught up with the program that created your consciousness in the first place. Thus the distance between you and the program has diminished as you have approached it, thus the mind grows smaller and smaller as the gap between the two has diminished further in size.

This does not lead to a good outcome.

Thus along this particular line of intelligence, you will do poorly. Thus it seems hard, despite its simplicity.

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One major limitation is that a consciousness is "aware" of itself, and that causes major effects on how mathematical proofs work.

The awareness of self leads rapidly to Peano arithmetic. This is enough to invoke Godel's Incompletenss Theorem, meaning any First Order Logic axiomization of conciousness must be (pick at least one): incorrect, incomplete, unprovable, intractable (specifically cannot be written), or illogical.

There are other forms of logic besides First Order Logic, but FOL is the most agreed upon, so we're stuck with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. The only way out is with cleverly chosen words like "consciousness" that are left ill-defined. This allows the rest of the system to be axiomized properly.

Edit: If you are of the sort that believe in finite consciousness, then the hard part of consciousness is not creating one, but categorizing what it is in the first place. Also, if consciousness is finite, arguments about the soul get very touchy very quickly.

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    Would you care to elaborate on how self-awareness leads to Peano Arithmetic? I am aware of some Hofstadterish ideas in this direction, but if you grant that it's more of a conceit than a reality that we are aware of our awareness of our awareness of (ad infinitum) our consciousness, it becomes unclear how anything like Gödel's work could become pertinent. Dec 22 '14 at 6:46
  • 1
    @Neil de Baudrap: I believe it is fair to say the awareness of our awareness of consciousness is ad infinitum. If you believe consciousness to be a metaphysical thing worthy of groking things such as God or The Universe and Beyond, then you have to hold that it is at least as infinite inwards as the universe is outwards. If you hold consciousness to be an illusion (which your words suggest you do), then you have to admit that, linguistically, we use the word "consciousness" in philosophy to describe the ideal limit far more often than it is used for the imperfect implementation.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 22 '14 at 16:00
  • Any argument which suggests a finite consciousness opens a different argument, which I may need to add to my answer: if there are finite consciousnesses, rather than ideal ones, then it is possible, as the OP suggests, to eventually solve the hard consciousness problem. However, in that state, what is the hard consciousness problem in the first place? If it is not defined by a limit, then it must be a categorization. We, as philosophers and linguists, are free to make a word mean anything we want, but it will be hard to get everyone to agree "that's all she wrote" until the last moment.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 22 '14 at 16:05
  • I believe it would be fair to argue that if we could categorize conciousness from non-conciousness we would be able to finally assign values to famous competing lifestyles: the do-er and the thinker; the engineer and the artist. You can assign "better" and "worse" to them all you like, but getting people to agree is notoriously difficult. A definition of consciousness as a category would also have to define the "purpose" of consciousness, and these age old questions would become trivial.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 22 '14 at 16:18
  • Without commenting about whether there are any extant examples, do you think we ever 'grok' a concept such as God? If we could, do you not think we might be much better about reasoning at least in abstract domains such as mathematics and arithmetic? I think we can be pretty confident in saying that there are limits to the capacity of humans to reason. I also do not think that it is much more easy, in principle, to understand "finite" consciousnesses than "infinite" ones (noting also that we don't really have any measuring stick by which even to measure the finitude of consciousness). Dec 22 '14 at 23:14

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