Quickly Characterizing the Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness can be used in many senses, “The” problem of consciousness involves uniquely the sense of sentience, that is, being aware of things, experiencing reds, blues, greens, pains, pleasures and so on. The problem of consciousness refers to there being something it is like to be you. The problem can be stated in some ways “Why does it feel like something to be me?” “How come in a physical world that is structuraly describable just in terms of shape and motion, I have this different thing I call ‘experience’?” “How come in addition to my body, and the cognitions (computations) being performed in my brain, there is also me?”

Most people find it intuitively simple to grasp what I mean by experience, or awareness, but just to make sure we are on the same ground, think of that thing that christians think that will remain alive after your body dies. Forget now about the seemingly ghosty shape of that spirit, forget everything that in the movies made it look like a gas, a vapour etc… Think about the important thing, the one that you would like that remained preserved. If you value what I do, you have just singled out the concept of experience, or what we philosophers call phenomenal-consciousness. Just to make sure you got it right, is the thing you are thinking something that is there when you are sleeping (and not dreaming)? If it is, then go back to the beggining of the text and think of something else, if it is not, then get along for the ride.

So, the world around us is a physical world. Everything (Flowers, books, radiowaves, dromedaries, black wholes, planets, uncles, toothpaste etc…) is physical, composed of matter, rearranged in a particular fashion, but nevertheless, physical. Abstract concepts, like “future”, “nothing”, “whole” and “spiritual” are concepts that are represented in our heads. This means specifically that our brains are shaped in a fashion such that if someone says “Tell me about the future” that information is going to pass through our nervous system, and then arrive back as “The future is a concept about what is going to happen and …. “. So these concepts need not be ungrounded on physics, their existence as concepts is explained.

I’ll introduce some Fellows now who will talk to you (and I’ll call them something you will remember them for)

Type A Materialist (The Evil Scientist): Look, forget about your intuitions, there is nothing that it is like to be you, you are just confused man, once we explain all the functional properties of your brain, its over, the job is done, we can change profession!

Type D Dualist (Descartes): Come on! I am not just a bunch of particles you fool! I am clearly distinct from the particules that compose my brain, I am something else, I am another substance. OF course, neurology can explain a lot, but besides the physical causality going on my brain there is something else. Actually, some brain physical states cause some phenomenal-states, and those in turn cause back some phyisical states. The complete physical description of the world would not just be incomplete, it would also not be causally closed, there would be causes without consequences, and consequences without causes.

Type B Materialist ( The Cool Scientist): Look, cool down fellows. Of course that it looks as if there is a gap, something we don’t understand, that divides the phenomenal and the physical, but in fact, they are identical, we are just looking from different sides, so we are failing to see that it is just our current knowledge that makes it look like if they are different. One day, we will find out why they are indentical.

Type D Dualist (Descartes): You can’t be serious, how can I be the same as that (pointing to his body)? You have no grounds to assert that, you only want it to be that way….

Type B Materialist (The Cool Scientist): No, it is the same as heat and molecular motion. We knew both heat and molecular motion a long time ago, and now we know they are the same thing, we found out that heat actually is the shock of microscopic particles with one another. So the same will go for consciousness. We just have to identify the right aspects of it to find out.

Type A Materialist (The Evil Scientist): Fellas, we all know you are talking past each other. Okay, you guys do say that you are “Feeling something, and seeing blue” but all that needs explaining is your saying it. After all, there are people who talk about faeries, and no one wants to study faeriology. All that needs explaining is why you say this things. There is no further thing that requires study. You all feel like a bit religious to me…. (smiles sarcastically)

Type E Dualist (The Uncareful Young Boy): Look, here is the thing, there are all the physical stuff, etc… and the physical world is causally closed. But it causes thing outside of it, things which never cause anything back. One way causation. So the physical causes the phenomenal, but the phenomenal does not cause anything back, the physical universe has nothing coming from the phenomenal world.

Both Materialists togheter in choir: Ahá, now you made the stupid mistake. If you think the physical world is closed, how can you explain your saying that there is something blue in your experience? Didn’t you just say that the blue doesn’t cause anything, so it doesn’t cause your brain to move in such a way that you end up saying “I see trees are green, red roses too”? Touché

Type E Dualist (The Uncareful Young Boy): You think you are smart cause you are scientists, watch this! Think of Mary, who lived in a black and white room all her life, and she knows all the physical truths, she is a neuroscience expert. One day, she leaves the room and sees the blue sky. She learned something new didn’t she? So there are facts of the world that are not physical. Touchdown!

Type D Dualist (Descartes): Well, yeah, sort of. I think something similar, but you see, you have described something important, the new fact, but you still have not answered why Mary can tell me about it. So, if you accept that her seeing the blue causes her to say she did, you should join me, and we will be super! Perhaps we may even go to heaven, not sure though.

So far, I hope you changed your mind at least twice about who is wrong here. If you didn’t make up your mind, try now to think who you agree with more, or if you think they are all wrong, and there is some other position forgotten. We proceed to the dialogue in a second.


Now, done? Sure? ok. Lets proceed then:

Type B Materialist (The Cool Scientist): Look, she learned an old fact, in a new way, but that does not make it a new fact, it is just another way of representing it.

Type D Dualist (Descartes): You are not serious are you?

Type A Materialist (The Evil Scientist): Of course he is not, what he means, what he should mean is that there is nothing new, which is obvious for anyone who is not as spiritual and ridiculous as you are.

Type F Monist (The Wise Old Man): After carefull meditation, I have come up with a solution. What if the intrinsic properties of physical events are exactly the phenomenal properties? What if besides the structural, formal, dynamic nature that we have so far aprehended with our knowledge of physics, the intrinsic character of physical things is their phenomenal content?

Type D Dualist (Descartes): You are not accounting for something, I am more than the collection of all the intrinsic properties of the physical phenomena that compose me!

Type A Materialist (The Evil Scientist) for the good scientist: Are you sure that Descartes went to the logic classes? He has said nothing, he just claimed to be more than that, no argument!

Type D Dualist (Descartes): You have not let me speak. What I mean is that the set of phenomenal things that I feel are connected, they seem to have some homogeneities of their own, also, they seem to be structured in such and such way, with similar and dissimilar shapes, colors, sounds etc, they seem, in a word, to be structured, so it seems like you cannot say they are intrinsic, for they themselves have some relational properties.

Type E Dualist (The Uncareful Young Boy): Wow, that is smart man, I could never come up with that on my own! But it makes a lot of sense. If the phenomenal properties are caused by physics but are not themselves physical, as I say, this is still possible. So I remain with my idea of no causation from the phenomenal to the physical, and I incorporate your argument against The Wise Old Man.

This is more or less the actual state of the philosophical discussion on the topic of consciousness, it is a vexing intresting question, and pretty much the last one, of our time. We have solved the misteries of alchemy, which became chemestry, the misteries of life, which became biology and evolution, we have solved the mistery of computation and representation, which became computation (the science of how to build representation in a physical system) and psychology (the science of how to find out the process of representation in a given physical system, our brain). To some other vexing questions, like the origin of the universe, we have found a dead end. We know about the big bang, and its definition rules out knowledge about anything prior (for there was no time).

Which kind of thing is going to happen to the problem of consciousness? Are we going to find out? Has it a dead end, and we will know one that that we will never know? Is the problem simply wrongly put, and actually does not exist?

The problem of consciousness gets more and more importance with the discussion of animal rights and more importantly, about when, and if, computers will ever be conscious. I have addressed this discussion in the text “Is there anything special about conciousness? Concerns about our posthuman future”

Jared Diamond once said that he asks three questions for all thinkers he meets:

1 What is the most important problem in your area of expertise?

2 Are you working on it?


3 Why not?

It baffles the heck out of me to think about how can people ignore those issues which are the most important. As a philosopher, I think the problem of consciousness is the most important area of study there is, and it strikes me as absolutely amazing that not everyone is working on it or on related problems (Intelligence, to get us to grasp it, and defeat of ageing and disease, so we live long enough to see the answer)… For me, not working in one of these problems would be like playing soccer without taking the ball in consideration, and Diamond seems to be concerned in the same spirit.

This is a brief overview of the problem of consciousness, I hope you liked it, I hope someone solves it, and any other particular doubt on the topic can be thrown into my mailbox until 2009: diegocaleiro ~~^at {{gmail :]dot`{{com where I will try to make sure I do my best to indicate where to find the answer.

Just as a last thought. Think about zombies, people exactly like us, but that lack conscious experience, people who are “all black” on the inside, but outside, perfectly like us. Do you think that they are possible?

Who is who (Yes! There really are philosophers who defend the above exposed views):

Dennett, Wittgenstein, Quine, Francis Crick, Damasio, Dawkins and the Churchlands are Evil Scientists.

Ned Block, Stalnacker, Kripke, Robert Wright and Pinker are Good Scientists

Karl Popper, John Eccles, Descartes and most people who think about it for only 30 minutes are Descartes

Frank Jackson and people who think about it for between 30 minutes and 6 hours are The Young Uncareful Boy

Bertrand Russell in “The analysis of Matter” was The Wise Old Man

I must add after thinking about it for more than 6 hours, position changes unpredictably, so I am not accusing any position of being worst.

Further notes for philosophers so that philosophers don’t call me stupid:

1 Concepts are not in the head actually, see “The meaning of Meaning” by Putnam and “Beyond Belief” by Dennett. Their issues are way, way, WAAY too complicated for an introductoty text.

2 There are a lot of problems that arise since the dawn of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, which concern the a priori and a posteriori necessity. As far as my literary talents allow me, I have introduced them here, but I cannot put the issue at stake without assuming knowledge which I am not interested in assuming the reader has here.

3 Issues concerning reference and content of phenomenal belief I have taken as far as 1991. The problems discussed by Chalmers, Ned Block, Stalnaker etc… require conceptual sophistication unattainable by almost anyone, and are as far from the scope of this text as can be.

4 The question raised on the last paragraph can be divided into two questions. Are zombies metaphysically possible (can zombies happen in our world)? Are zombies conceptually possible (can we think of zombies in a counterfactual world, that do not contradict the laws of logic)?

5 Forget the Who is who section, it is more an indication of readings than anything serious (but try yourself to cluster philosophers before crucifying me!). For somethig serious, read Chalmers “Consciousness and its place in nature” easy to find in google.


4 comentários em “Quickly Characterizing the Problem of Consciousness”

  1. Great post! It seems to me, though, that the search for AI is another way of phrasing the zombie question. The above different perspectives on the issue of consciousness has been very illuminating for me, especially since I have taken a different approach to understanding the problem of consciousness. Here’s my answers to four questions which, I hope, suggests a sixth alternative to the consciousness problem (thanks for the opportunity to post):

    Q. What kind of automaton, e.g. the brain, a computer, a cell, and so forth, could generate consciousness?

    A. The kind of automation that could generate consciousness would be a structure that evolves both in time (in terms of complexity) and outside of time (in terms of logical implication) and ends up in the experience of the “implicative affirmative of the not-me-self” — or the loop of self-reference that continually implies “I”.

    Q. What is the what, how, and why of consciousness?

    A. Purely physical explanations work for the what and the how of consciousness because the why of consciousness is embedded in the physical event of consciousness. But, it is in this physical event where you find also the “function of consciousness.”

    Q. What is the function of consciousness?

    A. As stated above, consciousness is an adaptation (many) in our evolutionary past. These adaptations, at the structural level of (b~b~bb), culminate in freewill, i.e. the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self. Free will is the defining characteristic of what makes humans human. Free will also allows for improvement of other skills, e.g. motivation, better flexibility (like learning), social coordination, and better cognition.

    Q. Where does the brain come in? How are your subjective experiences explainable by neurons and synapses?

    A. The short answer to the above question is that the physical processes used to explain our experienced environment are not independent of consciousness on any level. However, in the same respect, consciousness can’t exist independent of physical process either. (This is the source of the problem at the quantum level of experience–but that’s a story for another occasion).

    The language used below is probably not familiar. It is helpful, though, when one begins to see experience in terms of an evolving structured duality (think two-sided coin here)–the structure of universe/consciousness.

    Because synchronic structure rises on the back of negation, the liberation process is not limited to biological evolution. At the next synchronic level (the level substituting for the psychological/mind concept), a more evolved species of life is the result. On this higher structural level, when at one pole (the empirical side) continuity occurs in discontinuity and, at the other pole (the freedom side) discontinuity occurs in continuity, the experience of “mind” is produced. Diachronically speaking, the content embedded in this structure is the human experience of self-consciousness occurring in a physical event. Discovered in this structure is the potential to produce a great deal of content, but, the actualization of this potential takes place along the liberation path in the form of the objectification of self-nature and culture, (the reciprocal movement occurring between mind and event). Structure, at this level (the physical event of a thinking person), becomes the story of civilization (both in its “ups” and “downs”). Think of the physical event of a thinking person, first as unexposed film and second, via the illumination of the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self, as the film development into human history, the history of human freedom, i.e., the liberation of the human struggle to survive, overcome poverty, ignorance, injustice,–to overcome all the physical and psychological afflictions that subvert the actualization of human potential.

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