Archives for January 2014
CUNY philosopher Massimo Pigliucci posted a 5-minute video a few months ago explaining how the “hard problem” of consciousness does not exist. The hard problem of consciousness is the question of how our own private experience, our inner movie, that is, e.g. the redness of a rose or what it feels like to be angry, which can never be directly experienced by anyone else, can ever be explained by science. Neuronal activity looks nothing like the color red: so how can the color red come from it? Or, as Pigliucci might put it, how can it be explained by brain activity?
Pigliucci says this is a category mistake: explanation is simply not something that applies to private experience. Once we’ve explained the evolutionary biological origin of consciousness (the “why” question), and then the cognitive neuroscientific mechanisms of consciousness (the “how” question), there simply remains nothing left to which the word “explanation” attaches.
Pigliucci disclaims kinship with extreme consciousness deniers like Daniel Dennett, who believe that our sense that we experience anything at all is an illusion, a trick of words. Pigliucci admits we do have experience (nice of him!), but that it simply isn’t the kind of thing that admits of an explanation, and that to expect it is to abuse the word “explanation.”
This all obscures the real issue. Suppose that neuroscientists could tell exactly what happens in the brain when you say the word “blue” — what stimuli trigger it (clear skies or swimming pools, for example), and what happens in the neurons when you say the word. They might know all this, and they might even have an evolutionary explanation for why these things are so (because it aided survival or reproduction back in the day), but they cannot know from this that the color that you experience when you say the word “blue” is the same as anyone else’s experience when they say the same word. That knowledge is locked away, concealed by a word. The meaning of the word is connected to a private, inaccessible experience.
And yet all the neuroscience and evolutionary biology rely on subjective reports made in — words. The words are merely fronts; what is behind them each person only knows for themselves.
So the actual private experience connected to words is a fact about the world that is locked away from science — permanently — as a matter of principle. Whether one calls that mysterious, inaccessible fact a matter capable of “explanation” or not is beside the point. Indeed, to admit that the word “explanation” is not applicable to such experience is merely to concede the point, which is that this information will never be known through scientific methods that assume that the world is made out of dead, inert matter. So what then is this inexplicable stuff of private experience?
That’s the hard problem.