The hard problem; why is it hard?

by Neil Rickert

In a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Barash asks what is The Hardest Problem in Science?  Barash is, of course, talking about what Chalmers has dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness.”  Or, in the words of Barash, it is the problem of “how the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth.”

So why is this problem so hard?  I think it is not merely hard — it is impossible.  It’s not that there is anything mystical or magical involved.  Rather, the problem is being framed in a way that makes it unsolvable.  In discussing the problem, Barash says:

After all, it’s the brain that does the thinking and experiencing, so how difficult could it be to ask that brain simply to look at itself and report back to my mind?

Well, no, it isn’t the brain that does the thinking and experiencing.  It is the person that thinks and experience.  For sure, the brain is used in that thinking and experiencing, but it involves the whole person, not just the brain.  That probably came across as a petty quibble about the use of words.  But I think it is more than that, and I see the difference as important.

The hard problem is usually being looked at as a design problem.  We think we know how to design a robot that behaves in ways somewhat similar to humans.  So how do we design in the ability for that agent to have subjective experience?  From that design perspective, people tend to think of the brain as the component that has to solve the “experience and thought” part.   But it is that “intelligent design” way of looking at things that leads us astray.  We are not the products of intelligent design.  We are the products of evolution.  And it is unlikely that there was ever a stage in our evolutionary history where our ancestors had the behavior but not the experience.

If we want to understand human cognition, we need to drop that design perspective, and start thinking about how behavior and experience might have evolved.

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