In the positivist tradition, it is common to “dissolve” certain ideas as being meaningless, and not worth further consideration. The statements corresponding to those elements of our mental experience, that are neither identifiable with verifiable facts, nor are derivable using logic, are considered nonsense. Within this framework, we can classify the content of our thoughts into meaningful and meaningless aspects. To which of these categories do the statements about 'qualia' fit? Is there no hard problem of consciousness, from a positivist perspective?

Consider the statement, “I am conscious of the blue sky, now". This does not appear to be a meaningless sentence. How does one verify it? Someone could be put in an MRI machine while having that experience, and be shown the corresponding brain region activations. Does this count as a verification? If so, it is of a different kind than the usual, because ordinarily verification involves direct apperception of the object the experience is based on or about.

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    Ironically, the arguments positivists used to argue that certain ideas are meaningless apply to their arguments themselves (they are neither empirical nor analytic), making them meaningless by their own standards. As a result, positivist framework has been largely abandoned since 1950-s, see SEP. To dissolve the "explanatory gap" with consciousness, if it is possible, one would need some new ideas.
    – Conifold
    Apr 29, 2019 at 4:56
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    It's interesting you pick the colour of the sky as an example. For a long time there was conjecture that the Ancient Greeks couldn't perceive the colour blue. This stems from Homer's description of the sky as 'bronze'. At first you imagine that Homer was employing poetic licence, but it turns out, that the question of whether the Greeks really believed the sky was bronze coloured, has been the subject of a vast amount of scholarly work.
    – Richard
    Apr 29, 2019 at 13:51
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    There is a recent article offering a new concept that can answer the hard problem of consciousness. If you're interested in knowing what it is, you can check it out here.
    – user287279
    May 2, 2019 at 4:04
  • Perhaps the positivist position has been dissolved along with the hard problem of consciousness? From a panpsychist view, there is no hard problem. Consciousness is fundamental and universal.
    – Meanach
    Jan 31 at 9:40
  • There might actually be three questions here. 1. Do logical positivists think qualia are not real (or statements about them are not meaningful)? 2. Are they correct, or is there any other way to deny the hard problem of consciousness? 3. What is the nature of the logical positivist’s concept of “verification”? Feb 3 at 7:09

3 Answers 3


What if consciousness is not about qualia at all?

Simply having an experience (of blue skies, etc.) does not make one conscious of having that experience. A cat has (and learns from) experience. A p-Zombie has experience, even a machine learning AI learns from its experience (except in case of AI we call it "training"). And yet, neither of them is conscious -- specifically, they are not conscious of themselves experiencing the world beyond themselves.

They aren't because they are unable to perceive the world as an separate entity that is distinct from themselves. And that's why they cannot be conscious of the latter experiencing the former.

Summing it up: we cannot be conscious of blue sky without being necessarily conscious of ourselves perceiving the sky as blue.

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    So it should actually be called "The Hard Problem of Self-consciousness". Boy, I feel that way a lot!
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 31 at 11:46
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    Indeed. The Russian word for consciousness literally means self-knowledge. Actually, the English word too! “Con-“ means self and “-scious” is probably a relative of “science”. Jan 31 at 18:09
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    I understand that debating semantics is rarely helpful. Still, I wanted to point out that when we start considering cats (ants? rocks?) as conscious, we might have a problem with the definition of the word :) Jan 31 at 19:44
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    I looked it up, and I'd like to correct my comment to @ScottRowe: con- means "together" or "complete". In case of "conscious" it might, again, mean the awareness of different entities -- as in self vs others or self vs the world outside. Its other (older?) meaning -- "awareness of wrongdoing" -- also implies that you are not the Universe and that other people, in particular, are not just an extension of yourself. Feb 1 at 3:12
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    Analytic philosophy starts with definitions. Empiricism starts with a general phenomena, and studies it. Definitions are arrived at much later, after the phenomena is well understood. If your going in definition breaks when one ascribed consciousness to the internal mental phenomena we very reasonably ascribe to cats, then your definition was wrong. That is how science works.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 1 at 15:05

Logical Positivists tried to pretend that they did not have internal experiences, and that all observations don't involve first person experience. They also tried to pretend that we have direct experience of our world, rather than inferred indirect realism.

Under our actual methods of empiricism, we have first person experiences, postulate a reason for them, and if the reason is coherent and useful, we build a model, and test it. If a model holds up well under test, then it is considered "real". Consciousness, both for ourselves, and for others, is a massively useful model, and holds up well under testing. Therefore, under empiricism, consciousness is hardly "dissolved".

Logical Positivism is widely considered to be among the most thoroughly disproven philosophic schools in history.

  • I think that the problem we have with models is that often they don't have defined boundaries, we think they cover everything. We also think they can extend infinitely and predict all cases. We wind up with the idea of something for all time, ever present and all powerful... This is starting to feel weirdly familiar... Anyway, we seem to lose sight of the depressing truth that we made up the whole blessed thing in our skulls! Sorry to shout. I thought I was saying something important there for a moment.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 1 at 11:27
  • Any chance you can expand on the section "Science does not operate off verification, but falsification Neither science nor logic can justify themselves, hence the effort to limit knowledge to those two is doomed to failure LP relies upon a suite of metaphysical assumptions, hence the LP effort to banish metaphysics from philosophy is self-contradictory Logic is pluralist, not unitary nor unquestionable", explaining each one a bit more please? Feb 1 at 20:51
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    @JuliusH. I have expanded each point.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 1 at 21:36
  • Thanks. Would you also mind expanding on “Logical Positivists tried to pretend that they did not have internal experiences, and that all observations don't involve first person experience. They also tried to pretend that we have direct experience of our world, rather than inferred indirect realism.”? Thanks Feb 3 at 22:06
  • @JuliusH. Logical positivism started to flower at the same time as psychological and philosophical behaviorism. It wasn't until the advent of cognitive psychology that the philosophical lens became refocused on our private lives, at least in these domains. The LP movement also tried to make observation objective by denying observations are constructed and theory laden.
    – J D
    Feb 4 at 18:23

David Chalmers, who coined the term "hard problem of consciousness", wrote an interesting book called "Constructing the World", which he describes in the introduction as a "Carnapian book". Carnap is a logical positivist. In other words, it seems like logical positivism and acknowledgment of qualia are not necessarily at odds with each other. In fact, Chalmers uses a kind of system of formal logic to derive truths about and describe reality, including consciousness as part of a complete description of reality.

I'd like to respond to this question in full later.

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    The Vienna Circe was split between phenomenologists and materialists. Carnap was the leading phenomenologist. Most converts to LP, were materialists, so phenomenalism became a lesser feature of LP. The OP question references "dissolving" philosophic problems, which was actually a later and closely related movement, Ordinary Language Philosophy which was even more of a materialist movement. Carnap the phenomenologist accepting qualia is very different from Ryle the OLP declaring all mind features (including qualia) to be logical confusion to be dissolved by better linguistics.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 1 at 19:53
  • Gotcha, good to know. Feb 1 at 20:45
  • I'll add some notes here which I can use to augment the answer soon: iep.utm.edu/ord-lang en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_Ryle Feb 1 at 20:50

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