As Promised, Many Years Ago…
Horror and Punishment

Voiding The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Glowing brain The philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers famously declared that there was one aspect of consciousness that was especially difficult to explain. In “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, he writes:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

One of the most famous responses to this is Daniel Dennett’s view that there is no ‘hard problem’, that it is effectively an illusion and will vanish as we understand the ‘easy problems’ of consciousness. I have previously suggested that Dennett’s philosophy of mind was “a bit thin”; I can now revise that position: on Chalmers’ formulation, Dennett’s is as close to a correct answer as is plausible. But both Chalmers and Dennett have gone astray in the same manner.

In a series of lectures in 1925, collected as Science and the Modern World, the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead draws out the history of what he calls – and what is still called – scientific materialism. Whitehead’s view is parallel to my own, and although he uses the phrase ‘cosmology’ where I would use ‘mythology’, we are remarkably aligned in our understanding that the materialist mythos is a remnant of an earlier era of scientific research. When the problems being researched were atoms, electricity, and magnetism, the materialist view helped deliver solutions. But after general relativity and quantum physics (both of which were hot topics while Whitehead was speaking), this imaginative system should have been retired. It was not. It persisted, and became ever-more dogmatic over the following century: Whitehead calls it “the orthodox creed of physical science”, and further suggests it has not helped solve any research problems since Lavoisier in the 18th century.

The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ looks very different if we take Whitehead’s concern’s into account, because materialism presents problems far before we get to anything as complex as human consciousness. He suggests that if we are to accept materialism’s view of isolated material positioned in space “there is no reason in the nature of things why portions of material should have any physical relations to each other.” This is a far greater problem than ‘the hard problem’! To understand it, it is important to appreciate that within the materialist mythos it is matter alone that is the ultimate ground of reality. This makes it seem as if all phenomena above the scale of the atom is explicable in terms of atomic behaviour – a view that should strictly be called reductionism, but which is implicit in materialism in its general form. By fixing our frame of reference on matter as fundamental, materialism creates the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (and many other problems besides!). If our metaphysics are different, our conclusions will be different.

Thus, Dennett deduces that there is no ‘hard problem’ out of faith in the materialistic paradigm to continue solving problems the way it did between the sixteenth and eighteenth century. I will void the ‘hard problem’ in the other obvious manner: by not buying into the materialistic mythos that unites Chalmers and Dennett. Chalmer’s “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” is only an inflated form of Whitehead’s objection ‘why do portions of matter have physical relations at all?’, and both spring solely from materialistic metaphysics. Ditch this mythos, and you ditch the hard problem entirely.

Without going too far into Whitehead’s metaphysics, and process philosophy in general, the key to his critique of materialism is the assumption that we have a complete picture of reality when we know what kind of matter is at what location. Whitehead’s counter is that the notion of simple location at the heart of this mythos is misguided (and even more so after general relativity is taken into account). Location alone is not sufficient to describe everything that happens within our universe; we have to take into account the relations between entities – and these relations should be tracked in every context where they (if you’ll excuse the pun) matter. Materialism has had to invent ideas such as ‘emergence’ to deal with this problem – which is actually only a problem within that specific mythos. For Whitehead, relation is what’s important: track the relations, and everything becomes more comfortably explicable.

Whitehead’s process mythos positions events as the constituting elements of reality, rather than stuff, and this leads to a fundamental concept of value (in a wider sense than this term is usually understood) that is at the heart of all events. Coming at the world from this angle, we should expect everything to have its own value experience – it’s own qualia, to use the term philosophers of mind have adopted to describe the quality of experiencing – because every process has it’s own distinctive quality. We don’t even need to constrain this to conscious entities, as long as we don’t mistake the values relevant to non-conscious entities for those of importance to creatures with minds. For instance, an electron is repulsed by another electron because electrical charge is a value relevant to electrons as entities. Notice that in this metaphysics – in stark contrast to the Kantian schism between objective and subjective – value is not some strange foreigner visiting our universe because of bizarrely inexplicable subjectivities – it is the heart of reality.

The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is thus not a problem that emerges from consciousness at all, it is a problem that depends upon the materialistic mythos that was so successful for the physical sciences in previous centuries. Only if you think the universe is fundamentally made up of bits of inanimate stuff are you surprised that there are clumps of matter that have unique experiences. If you think the universe is fundamentally made up of events, as Whitehead does, the hard problem vanishes as a philosophical artefact – exactly as Dennett suggests, but for precisely opposite reasons.

Chalmers’ problem was never about consciousness, but about the materialist paradigm he (and many other intelligent people) clung to for metaphysical orientation; his intuition that there was a ‘hard problem’ was justified – but it was the hard problem of materialism, the problem of how inanimate matter could possibly be fundamental in a universe so riven through with value. If you must remain within these metaphysics, then your only option is to do as Dennett does, to take it on faith that all mysteries will be solved within that mythos. If you instead defect to another view of reality, both these so-called ‘hard problems’ vanish as artefacts of a peculiar metaphysics that served the ‘men of science’ well in the past, but that will serve the people of the future rather less dutifully.


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"If you instead defect to another view of reality, both these so-called ‘hard problems’ vanish as artefacts of a peculiar metaphysics..."

That's a bold claim, and one that places some onus on you to back it up by supplying a credible candidate alternative "view of reality". Meanwhile, I suspect that if Chalmers or Dennett were to look in here, they'd have some pretty robust answers to your comments on them.

That said, I like the look of Whitehead's approach. However, I wonder if he'd have been so quick to say that "scientific materialism" had had its day if he'd lived to see the breakthroughs of molecular genetics and what he might then have made of contemporary cognitive science.

Hi petermx,
It is a bold claim, but it is not a reckless one. :) Although I am just getting to grips with Whitehead's process philosophy, it has a robust following, as well as having influence on other schools such as object-oriented philosophy. There is a sea change going on in this area, and I am a long way from being on the crest of the wave here... if anything, I am rather late to the party!

"Meanwhile, I suspect that if Chalmers or Dennett were to look in here, they'd have some pretty robust answers to your comments on them."

Possibly. I've been reading both Chalmers and Dennett for quite a while now. Chalmers does some good work in places but he ties himself up in knots all the time, and I don't know that he would have a clear rebuttal here. The quote from Chalmers makes it clear that his difficulty is connecting the physicalist-materialist basis for reality he holds to phenomena of consciousness. While he might certainly demand a stronger statement of the rival metaphysics, I'm not sure he'd have any clear rebuttal on this point.

Dennett, on the other hand, would be full of strong arguments to throw out, as he always is. But on this particular issue, his position has always been that the philosophers who have waded in on consciousness have largely tied themselves up in conceptual knots. On this, he and I are in agreement! Our only disagreement is that he thinks this problem will evaporate because of future research within the same metaphysics; I don't see that as a very viable position when there are other metaphysical choices that look to be more productive. It would not be easy for him to defend against me by simply saying 'keep the faith'. I don't think any argument of this kind is going to look very convincing.

Of course, neither will be dropping by, so I am speculating. But on the basis of the conversations they have had with others, I don't think they have a knock down argument against this kind of approach. Indeed, I wish Dennett *would* be more willing to interrogate different metaphysical views: he has consistently failed to fulfill his own potential by not bringing his critical thinking against his own postulates.

At best (I deduce on the basis of other conversations he has had), Dennett is likely to take a position that materialism has been so successful in the sciences that we would need good reasons to reject it. Which is not actually a very strong argument, unless you are (as Dennett is) already inclined to materialism. And I believe Whitehead's point that it hasn't really lead to any successes since Lavoisier isn't far from the truth.

The sole exception, as you allude to here, would be molecular genetics. I would be inclined to update Whitehead's comment to mark this as the last useful thing the materialist model provided. But I would also use this as a strong example of why the materialist model has misled us - as it has taken quite a while for the actual implications of molecular genetics to fall out, and those implications are quite far from what materialists tend to think. I suspect process philosophy would be a superior metaphysical angle from which to understand what we currently know in this area - indeed, the materialist modifications that have been offered to bridge the gap all lean towards a process perspective anyway (e.g. emergence).

As for cognitive science, having studied it, I don't have a particular high view of it or contemporary psychology, I'm afraid. The good work that is done is consistently weighed down by a terrible string of assumptions that limit the applicability of almost everything in the field. Again, this is another area where a switch to a different metaphysical viewpoint might be extremely beneficial. But I don't see anything like this happening any time soon - the practitioners of the sciences are awfully stubborn folks! :)

Ultimately, I support Whitehead here: the materialist viewpoint is more of a liability than an asset now; it consistently misleads, as it has done in the question of consciousness. It's time to take into account everything we learned in the twentieth century and use it to establish a stronger metaphysical stance for science in the twenty first.

Many thanks for sharing your views! I truly appreciate it.


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