Is the existence of qualia generally considered an unresolved problem by philosophers? Is there a consensus on its nature or whether it can be studied at all?

  • 3
    I am not sure what kind of answer you are looking for. All philosophical problems are unresolved. This one is particularly controversial since it touches on the materialism/dualism divide current in the philosophy of mind. One does not need consensus to study a philosophical issue, for many of them the top approaches are mutually exclusive. – Conifold Feb 26 at 0:38
  • 1
    @Conifold I'd consider that an answer :). But mainly, I read many pseudo explanations and am interested whether philosophers see them as such too – Probably Feb 26 at 6:45
  • 1
    No it's not resolved, that's why its called 'The Big Problem' in science, and philosophy.proper. many people have answers.. nobody agrees. – Richard Feb 26 at 11:36
  • 1
    @Conifold - I wish to argue., I see no justification for the statement that all philosophical problems are unresolved and would see it as highly unrigorous. I know of no unresolved problems. It would be accurate to say that not all philosophers agree that they have all been resolved, but we cannot prove they have not been resolved unless we can falsify all the proposed resolutions, and the one proposed by Lao Tsu is demonstrably unfalsifiable, It is therefore impossible to show that there are any unresolved philosophical problems. . . – PeterJ Feb 26 at 13:51
  • @PeterJ That you admit philosophers consider them unresolved and disagree kind of makes the point. The test for acceptance of a thesis is not that it can not be refuted, in any context. – Conifold Feb 26 at 16:55

Purely philosophically, consciousness is stuck between two schools of thought (generally, since each idea also have different sub-theories).

See more on the wikipedia article on consciousness, especially the mind-body problem.

One is the materialist/realist idea, where consciousness is a product of cause and effect by random events dating back to the beginning of the universe with the big bang.

The other is the theist/deist/idealist idea, where consciousness is something beyond the physical, and has the power to influence our brain. Each school of thought presupposes something beyond the idea itself. Materialism presupposes that there is just matter and energy across time, and nothing beyond that. The converse presupposes that there exists some metaphysical higher plane outside of the purely physical, and that our mind/consciousness is either completely or partly residing within this higher plane, interacting with the physical plane.

The train of experiments that had it's outspringing in the original double-slit experiment seems to suggest that the mind is not only responsible for influencing the brain, but that it is quite literally responsible for manifesting it and the world around us. The mind might actually be more real than matter. In a way. InspiringPhilosophy on youtube has a video about this, where he goes through and explains the studies, with clips from interviews with experts.

I am not sure if the issue is resolved or not though. I think we are getting close.

  • 1
    Even in the Copenhagen interpretation, it is not being conscious that causes an observer to collapse a wavefunction when they make an observation. Mind can only be considered 'more real' from this in the sense of Wheeler's 'It From Bit' doctrine, that information is the fundamental monistic 'substance' and matter and other physics are emergent. I feel you distort the physics. – CriglCragl Feb 27 at 23:39
  • This is a difference in interpretation of the evidence. I (and by extension, IP) am not distorting anything. We just have a different presupposition. You say information, I say conscious mind. Actually, I say information FROM a conscious mind, you say ONLY information. We are taking the philosophical/metaphysical next step in connecting what (information) with where that what comes from (a conscious mind). Like IP says in the video, the train goes back to a conscious observer, so you can't scientifically prove that it is the information without us as conscious observers that collapses the fnc. – Lexipaichnidi Mar 6 at 8:54
  • I didn't realise that this was seriously proposed en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann–Wigner_interpretation although as Sean Carol was saying recently it was never proposed in proper scientific terms, and this contributed to the bad reputation in academia of working onbfoundations of quantum mechanics youtu.be/AglOFx6eySE – CriglCragl Mar 7 at 20:44
  • I'm not surprised. I've already seen how academia can lock onto one or two ideas and locking everything else out as unscientific. Quantum physics, even though it is quite popular, it's still so early our understanding of it, so I will provide answers I find convincing. – Lexipaichnidi Mar 8 at 0:12
  • 'Unscientific' means not susceptible to evaluation by evidence. If you prefer woo, fair enough, that's on you. – CriglCragl Mar 9 at 2:24

Consciousness is not a problem in philosophy. It is only a problem in university philosophy, where it is not studied. The study of consciousness is called Mysticism or Yoga. Academics just talk about it and argue about their speculative theories.

Nobody in the perennial tradition talks about the 'problem of consciousness'. Rather, they talk about the problem of ignorance.

An answer to your question would require giving a bit more detail since the problem has many aspects and may be formulated in various ways. Chalmers' 'hard' problem, for instance, is easy to solve, but other related problems are more tricky.

  • The hard problem of consciousness is easy to solve? Could you elaborate on that, please? – Probably Feb 26 at 13:43
  • 1
    @Probably - It rather depends on how the problem is formulated. In its original form it was the problem of explaining how physical systems give rise to consciousness, The easy solution is to say they don't. – PeterJ Feb 26 at 13:56
  • 1
    'Consciousness is not a problem in philosophy' and 'it is only a problem in university philosophy' ... These two statements imply that University Philosophy is not philosophy. I am afraid many here would disagree with that. And 'where it is not studied' implies that there are no western philosophies and books that investigate consciousness, which is wrong. – SmootQ Mar 7 at 10:33
  • 1
    @SmootQ - Ah. I was referring to a study of mysticism, which you wildly misdescribe. When you say 'philosophy' you're presumably referring to the sub-set of it studied in our universities since there is no 'problem of consciousness' in the perennial tradition, for which consciousness is the entire topic of study. I tend to become a little agitated when these facts are ignored. . . – PeterJ Mar 7 at 17:30
  • 1
    @SmootQ - Oh yes, I understand your comment now. It's difficult to know what to recommend as people vary. Krishna' Prem's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita is wonderful. So is Alan Watts 'This Is It' and Radhkrishnan's 'Philosophy of the Upanishads'. But there is an endless literature and you're spoilt for choice This view of consciosuness is 'non-dualism' and a 'neutral metaphysical position' and google will produce the goods. Good luck, If nothing else it's a fascinating area of study. . . – PeterJ Mar 8 at 11:07

“Issues of concern in the philosophy of consciousness include whether the concept is fundamentally coherent; whether consciousness can ever be explained mechanistically; whether non-human consciousness exists and if so how it can be recognized; how consciousness relates to language; whether consciousness can be understood in a way that does not require a dualistic distinction between mental and physical states or properties; and whether it may ever be possible for computing machines like computers or robots to be conscious, a topic studied in the field of artificial intelligence.” (Wikipedia Contributers)

"Philosophical opinions about the Hard Problem are so diverse and strongly felt by their supporters, that even attempting a possible scientific approach to solving the Hard Problem may sometimes feel like stepping on a philosophical “third rail”. This is because philosophers vary passionately in their views between the claim that no Hard Problem remains once it is explained how the brain generates experience, as in the writings of Daniel Dennett, to the claim that it cannot in principle be solved by the scientific method, as in the writings of David Chalmers." (Grossberg, S)

Depending on what philosophy you ascribe to it may or may not be considered a resolvable problem. For dualism something supernatural would have to influence brain function. However, there isn’t any empirical evidence to support this case. Meaning if you ascribe to a dualistic philosophy than you may not consider it a resolvable problem. But, if you ascribe to empirical philosophy than you might consider it to be solvable if studied using the scientific method.

"Is the existence of qualia generally considered an unresolved problem by philosophers?"

"Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once suggested that qualia was 'an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us'".

"Much of the debate over their importance hinges on the definition of the term, and various philosophers emphasize or deny the existence of certain features of qualia. Consequently, the nature and existence of various definitions of qualia remains controversial due to qualia not being a pragmatically verifiable matter." (Wikipedia Contributors)

Science has invested quite a bit of effort into understanding the brain and how it functions. There is evidence to suggest that our brains function as very dynamic, intricate, and coordinating systems of neurons that give rise to particular types of perceptions through computation.

"Neural signals combine, dissolve, reconfigure, and recombine over time, allowing perception, emotion, and cognition to happen." (Demerzi, A., et al.)

The trouble for neuroscience is figuring out how the information gets integrated to create one cohesive experience. There was a theory for this proposed by Kristof Koch and his team that the claustrum, located in the insular cortex, may be responsible for this integration. However, recent studies suggest that while it's necessary for conciousness it may just act to orchestrate and direct brain signals but not integrate them. (Frohlich, J.)

"There are several theoretical models of consciousness. The Integrated Information Theory (IIT) has been proposed by Giulio Tononi. It postulates that one can be conscious of multiple things and that they are highly integrated. For example, one can be conscious of uncountable scenes from all the movies one has seen. Experiences are highly integrated. Whereas family photos in a laptop are usually unlinked, they are very much integrated in the brain with memories. A number of neuronal circuits are involved in the integration of all the conscious experiences. This can be further estimated mathematically. Another model has been proposed by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Stanislas Dehaene. Whenever we become conscious about something it can be retained in the working memory. It can then be processed in the global neuronal workspace (GNW), a number of long neurons interconnecting various hubs in the brain. In this way the impression from any sense organ such as a familiar face or voice, a taste or a smell can be associated with old memories and integrated. This can be tested by a special technique called ‘masking’. A face is shown briefly followed by a mask. It is registered in the primary visual cortex but the subject does not seem to be aware of it. If it is shown for a little longer, hubs in the whole brain are activiated, particularly the GNW. This activation is associated with the presence of event-related potentials which have been demonstrated in 5-, 12- and 15-month-old infants. Thus conscious perception is already present in infancy." (Langercrantz H.)

References and further reading:

Demertzi, A., et al. (2019). “Human Consciousness Is Supported by Dynamic Complex Patterns of Brain Signal Coordination.” Science Advances, American Association for the Advancement of Science, advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/2/eaat7603.full. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/2/eaat7603

Frohlich, J. (2017). "What the Heck is a Claustrum." Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/consciousness-self-organization-and-neuroscience/201702/what-the-heck-is-claustrum?amp

Grossberg, S. (2017). Towards solving the hard problem of consciousness: The varieties of brain resonances and the conscious experiences that they support. Neural Networks, 87, 38-95. doi:10.1016/j.neunet.2016.11.003. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0893608016301800

Havlík, M. (2017). Missing piece of the puzzle in the science of consciousness: Resting state and endogenous correlates of consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 49, 70-85. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2017.01.006. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810017300338?via%3Dihub

Lagercrantz, H. (2014). The emergence of consciousness: Science and ethics. Seminars in Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, 19(5), 300-305. doi:10.1016/j.siny.2014.08.003. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1744165X14000547

Paller, K. A., & Suzuki, S. (2014). The source of consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(8), 387-389. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2014.05.012. https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(14)00133-8?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS1364661314001338%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

Pierson, L. M., & Trout, M. (2017). What is consciousness for? New Ideas in Psychology, 47, 62-71. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2017.05.004. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0732118X15300039

Van Gulick, Robert, "Consciousness", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/consciousness/

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 27). Consciousness. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Consciousness&oldid=885332111

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, March 5). Qualia. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Qualia&oldid=886256386

  • The last thing isn't accurate. There are theories based on the double slit experiment and later experiments building on it that suggest something beyond the natural or purely physical is at work. It isn't a piece of direct evidence on this specific issue, but the implications support this case. And those implications are based on empirical evidence. – Lexipaichnidi Feb 27 at 11:33
  • “Despite the "observer" in this experiment being an electronic detector—possibly due to the assumption that the word "observer" implies a person—its results have led to the popular belief that a conscious mind can directly affect reality. The need for the "observer" to be conscious has been rejected by mainstream science as a misconception rooted in a poor understanding of the quantum wave function ψ and the quantum measurement process, apparently being the generation of information at its most basic level that produces the effect.”(Wikipedia) – Alexander Gegg Feb 27 at 14:23
  • Please refer to these links for further information I couldn't fit all the sourcing and explanation in one comment sadly: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)#cite_note-5 pnas.org/content/114/25/6480#sec-11 medium.com/predict/… – Alexander Gegg Feb 27 at 14:33

See https://qualiaresearchinstitute.org. It has very interesting things about this topic. But from just researching, it is trying to be resolved, but is still unresolved. Otherwise, I think science will help more with question than just pure philosophy.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.