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From everything Ive ever seen about the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, the issue is that materialists and physicalists presume a different question and answer that one instead.

I feel like the two parties are talking across each other.

What I would like to know is whether this is what philosophers think too. Q1: Do dualists or other monists (consciousness, ideal) reply to phenomenal descriptions of consciousness by saying, “Youre not actually answering the hard problem.” ?

The second less rigorous question is about the disjoint itself. Q2: Am I capturing what it is they are said to be missing? Alternatively, the second question might even be, “Would philosophers agree with, and even make, the distinctions I make?” about the hard problem.

An angle of the second question is whether this is ultimately an ontological question, almost exclusively. Do my comments below capture the way in which respondents would push back?

(Please don’t downvote this just because you can divine what I believe. These very distinctions are exactly what’s not known by armchair philosophers.)


Hard Problem:

How do you explain that first-person, subjective consciousness as a raw, fundamental ontology is here? That qualia exist with their very own raw being, separate from the physical measurables.

The hard problem is not simply that “We are super complex so how can matter be doing a human?” Thats the easy problem.

Dennett and others then proceed with ever more complex (and possibly ever more accurate) physical models/descriptions of biological functioning, mechanisms of the processing of perception, etc.

Dennet has most recently been saying we are like a trillion little robots who “accomplish” consciousness:

Elsewhere he says “gives rise to”.

However, no philosophical dualist (nor monist idealist) is arguing that it cannot be “accomplished” by the trillion robots. They want to know what you mean by “accomplished by”. Are they 1: just different names for same thing (the trillions of robots and the subjective experience) or are they 2. in cause-and-effect relation (as normally implied by “accomplished”) within a single ontological category, or does 3. this causation somehow cross ontological categories?

If 1 or 2, then it directly defies our personal data to claim they are the same ontology. If 3, then how does it cross? (If in your world, the color red is less real than cone and rods cells, then I can’t imagine that.)

Q3: Would addressing those numbered questions answer the problem? Is that the kind of thing people say? I imagine many readers of this question will want to argue that it doesnt miss the hard problem. That’s perfectly ok, but I am really asking what the philosophers who counter, who think it misses, would say. And if it matches some of the above or what?

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    Part of the hard problem is that there is no agreement on what the hard problem is. And all explanations supposed to clarify that must make presuppositions that already prejudge the approach, there is no neutral ground. You can read a sampling of philosophers' opinions on IEP, but you will not find much new there. All options 1-3 are in circulation, discussions hit the same dead ends. And philosophers especially are not very deterred by "directly defying personal data". That data (or rather what it's taken to mean) has been much discredited in recent centuries.
    – Conifold
    Aug 30 at 22:43
  • @Conifold Thanks for the link. And the answer. a. I would say that discrediting the reliability of conscious reality is 0% of the way to discrediting its reality. In every way I can think of to assess “how real”, the sensations in my head are more real than the electrical impulses measured, the mri of the muscles, the models of pain transmission, and the matter making my skull. But I recognize that is fully one side and is an opinion. b, In retrospect, I am not at all surprised to hear defining the problem is much of it. I was even tryin
    – Al Brown
    Aug 30 at 22:57
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    The 'hard problem' of consciousness boils down to a single question: What does it mean to 'experience'? Empiricists have always had difficulty with this philosophical question because everything in empiricism is supposed to rest on sensory experience; they tend to fall into a recursive quandary about it. Some of the (more sophomoric) hard-liners write the problem off by fiat: asserting that sensory experience is mechanistic (by virtue of being 'sensory'), and that this 'mechanisticness' percolates up to the rest of consciousness. Turtles all the way down, if you follow me... Aug 31 at 0:43
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    @AlBrown, I like the approach because at least it acknowledges that something needs to be changed in physics to allow for the relationship between matter and consciousness. I agree with Penrose's reasoning that the brain is somehow exploiting physics we have not figured out yet that allows for the matter-consciousness connection. I don't like the "consciousness is high level feature of matter" approaches. As far as the actual scientific merits (how closely it fits evidence etc.) I don't know. Aug 31 at 3:06
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    Conifold writes: "Part of the hard problem is that there is no agreement on what the hard problem is." Although I have noticed that there is a great deal of confusion over what the hard problem is, that does not seem to be the case at all among the philosophical cognoscenti. The hard problem is to explain why consciousness should exist, based on the physical laws of the universe. Is that really a controversial definition? I don't think so. Sep 20 at 23:49
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The problem of subjective experience is best divided into two very different questions. First, whether subjective experience exists; and second, if it does, how to explain it in terms of something else and then what.

Many people who seem to be what I call "hardcore materialists" simply deny that subjective experience exists. One way they do that is by asking for a definition of subjective experience. Given that the problem is to explain subjective experience, there is no definition. The only way to identify it is in the same way as you would identify the Moon in the sky by pointing your finger at it, but in the case of subjective experience, it doesn't seem possible to do that. Instead, it is for each of us to privately identify our own subjective experience, and people who cannot or are unwilling to do that can be safely ignored.

The second way to deny that subjective experience exists is to claim that it is illusionary. But illusionary to what? Thus, although it is an absurd argument, many people use it. It is difficult to decide whether these people are particularly obtuse or somehow do not have subjective experience, however surprising that would be.

So, people who one way or the other claim that subjective experience does not exist are best ignored. This leaves only the hard problem of finding a plausible explanation for the existence and characteristics of subjective experience. Personally, I am happy to leave this problem unresolved because I have no good reason to believe that the humain brain should be able to solve it. There is another problem in this category, and this is the problem of explaining the existence and characteristics of reality, reality as a whole, as such. Like for subjective experience, there is no possible explanation. The brain is the result of natural selection and there is no reason to expect it can solve metaphysical problem. We have the brain that we have because it can solve the myriad problems we can face as a living organism in our natural environment. Metaphysical questions may be funny but they are a waste of time.

We should also no confuse the problem of explaining subjective experience and the problem of explaining the information contents of the human mind. Every human being intuitively understands that what happens in his or her mind is intimately connected to what happens in the material world. Hit first your finger hard with a hammer before daring to object to that. So we all know or understand that the contents of our own mind is most plausibly entirely explainable in terms of the physical world. This will be a difficult problem to solve, but not quite as hard as the hard problem of consciousness. The real question, therefore, is to explain the quality of subjective experience, hence the word "qualia" used to help people understand the what the question is about. There is no more reason that we should be able to answer this question than we should be able to explain reality in terms of something else.

Still, I understand that philosophers are not going to stop pretending they have something meaningful to say on the subject. Most metaphysical questions were already known and discussed by philosophers in antiquity, certainly in Ancient Greece, and we are still shaking the same empty box just in case something suddenly dropped out.

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  • Thanks. Thats all good. Esp liked the dismissal of people who deny it exists and the point your finger at the moon. It’s more obvious and real than matter. If by real I mean it is. Not “is correct” or “is accurate”. So illusory isnt an answer. “Illusory to what” as you say.
    – Al Brown
    Sep 1 at 5:39
  • “..we are still shaking the same empty box just in case something suddenly dropped out.“ Lol. Love that. But Im not so pessimistic. For one thing I dont know enough to know how true that is. Easy for a novice or beginner to think experts are full of baloney. But I know for sure in some other fields that experts absolutely are, so it’s not impossible. Secondly, I do know things are more rigorously defined and stated. That said Ive also seen some big-time repeat. For now my opinion of the field is positive. Not that anyone cares. Theyre way to sure of atheism though, as most in academia
    – Al Brown
    Sep 1 at 7:28
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    @AlBrown "Thanks" You're welcome. 2. "Theyre way to sure of atheism though, as most in academia" What is the connection that the question of the existence and characteristics of subjective experience has with theism? Sep 1 at 11:46
  • No connection. I ended up expressing extremely general opinions and even summarized by saying I have an overall positive view of the current field of philosophy. Except for that large caveat.
    – Al Brown
    Sep 1 at 12:11
  • Well I also dont mean to now make a positive statement that theres no connection. Havent thought about it. Just saying the idea of any connection was not my reason for bringing it up here. My reason was that I had digressed into overall opinions about current state of philosophy, and so wanted to add the only thing I feel quite certain is quite lame about said state: their level of certainty in their atheism.
    – Al Brown
    Sep 1 at 12:17

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