Hard Problem of Consciousness

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Max Leyf, interviewed by Tim Nadelle:

* In your book you refer to “the hard problem of consciousness”. I have 3 questions: a. What is the problem?

ML: It's possible to establish correlations between physical and physiological states on one hand, and qualitative conscious experiences on the other, but not to explain how one causes the other. The first has sometimes been referred to as “the easy problem” not because it involves no effort on the part of scientists, but because it merely consists in performing measurements and making observations. By contrast, “the hard problem” refers to overcoming the qualitative heterogeneity between brain states and conscious phenomena which is self-evident to anyone who understands the meanings of these terms. Brain states are just what they are and are not about anything. Conscious states, by contrast, are intentional by their very nature and essence.

* b. Why is it so hard to resolve?

There is no obvious means by which unconscious, unintentional matter could give rise to consciousness and intentionality. The lack of a forthcoming explanation is not just an accident but a function of our very definition of “matter,” which we presume to be primordially inert and unconscious. If you stipulate inert matter as a fundamental substance while postulating secondary qualities, intentionality, and consciousness as somehow emergent or derivative from the fundamental substance, you will be tasked to explain how the latter could ever have come forth from the former, which you will never be able to do because of the categorical qualitative heterogeneity. It should really be called “the impossible problem” for the same reason that we are not really waiting around to discover how to generate a sphere from lines in a plane, or a bicycle with three wheels. To assemble a mind out of mindless elements is a kind of oxymoron.

* c. Why is it so important?

The idea that there must be an answer to this question is one of the linchpins of the contemporary scientific paradigm. The notion that there is no answer— that “you can’t get there from here”—is scarcely considered. If the difficulty were confronted head on, it is unlikely that the materialism paradigm would survive intact.  It’s quite funny in a way, and I have even heard this scenario referred to as “promissory materialism.” In other words, the moment of crisis for the materialist paradigm can always be delayed; the debt ceiling can always be raised. It allows materialists to avoid having to stand and face the music, as it were, because the solution, though never forthcoming, can be infinitely deferred."