Why the hard problem is hard

by Neil Rickert

In short, the hard problem is hard because it is bogus.

The “hard problem” here refers, of course, to what David Chalmers has referred to as “the hard problem of consciousness.”  There was a recent post about this at the Rationally Speaking blog.

Lopresto starts by talking about location problems, and the “problem” of locating consciousness in the physical world:

My project here is to ask whether it’s possible to locate consciousness in the physical world. That is, can we locate phenomenal properties in the physical world? My thesis is that given our conception of the physical world, it is in fact extremely difficult to locate phenomenal properties within it.

Talk of “phenomenal properties” already sounds dubious to me.  For sure, philosophers have long used the word “phenomena” to refer to sensory experience.  But what is it that is supposed to make sensory experience a kind of property?

Lopresto attempts to explain that, with:

Phenomenal properties (or simply experiences) are defined by what it’s like to have those properties (an expression made famous by Thomas Nagel is his seminal 1974 paper “What is it like to be a bat?”). There is something it’s like to experience the redness of red, to have a visual experience of a yellow lemon, to feel pain, and to hear the music of Beethoven. This is the phenomenon — the felt quality of experience — that I’m trying to distil.

It seems that many people are beguiled by those words “what is it like to be”.

Instead of asking “What is it like to be a bat?”, I ask myself what might seem a simpler question, namely “What is it like to be me?”  But I find that there is no answer I can give to that question, for it is a bogus question.  The question is worded in such a way that it seems to call for a description.  But I am unable to come up with any description of what it is like to be me.

We describe what we perceive.  We liken things that we perceive, and likening them is something akin to describing what is different between them.

The trouble with “what it is like to be” questions, is that we do not perceive our being.  I experience my perceiving, but I do not perceive my experiencing.  The “what is it like” question is simply inappropriate to ask of experiencing or of being.  It is a bogus question.  By demanding an answer to a bogus question, we create an unnecessary aura of mystery around consciousness.

In his recent book “Mind and Cosmos”, Thomas Nagel puts the alleged problem this way:

The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything. (page 35)

But what are these missing truths that Nagel alludes to?  For myself, I doubt that there are such truths.  And that is why the “what is it like to be” questions seem so bogus.

There isn’t any problem locating consciousness in the physical world.  We can find it all around us.  The problem that does exist, is one of fitting consciousness in the philosopher’s world.  But that’s a problem for philosophy, not for science.


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