The hard problem of consciousness

by Neil Rickert

It has been a while since my last post.  And that’s because I have been struggling with a hard problem.

No, not the Chalmers hard problem.  I have my own hard problem.

The easy problem of consciousness:

The easy problem, for me, has been in understanding consciousness.  When I say “easy”, I do not mean trivially easy.  It has been difficult at times.

The hard problem of consciousness:

For me, the hard problem of consciousness has been attempting to communicate my understanding to others.  And, thus far, I have not found a successful way of doing that.

On truth

In a recent post at the the PeacefulScience forum, I wrote:

What it really boils down to, is that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth. There is only conventional truth. And different social groups will disagree over their social conventions.

Most people find this hard to swallow.  They probably see it as obviously wrong.  But they don’t point out where I went wrong, probably because they are unable to determine that.

That view about truth is an implication that arises from my study of human cognition.  And even if I don’t directly say that, as I start to discuss how human cognition works, people begin to see implications that they do not like.

The age of the earth

The particular forum discussion came from an assertion about the age of the earth.  Scientists, and probably most sensible people, take it that the earth is around 4.5 billion years old.  But YECs (Young Earth Creationists) hold that the earth is around 6,000 years old.

So who’s wrong and who’s right?

Both sides of this disagreement believe that they are right, and that their opponents are wrong.  And both sides claim to have evidence to support their position.

The scientists determine the age of the earth using their well established ways of determining age.  These ways are, in effect, measuring conventions.  They include radiometric dating, the dating of lake varves, the dating of tree ages by counting tree rings, dating by the succession of layers of sedimentary rock in geological strata, and dating by the succession of fossils.  They have calibrated all of these methods against one another, and shown that they give consistent dates.

YECs have their own conventions for determining historical dates.  Those conventions are based on Biblical genealogies, and on correlating historical events with those genealogies as best possible.

Both groups — scientists and YECs — determine the truth of statements about ancient events by testing them with their conventions.  This is why the expression “the conventional truth” seems a good fit.  But the two sets of conventions give very different results.  So there is no agreement on the truth of such statements.

Which set of conventions is true?  We might want to ask that to settle the disagreement.  But we really don’t have a way of determining the truth of conventions.  We generally adopt conventions on a pragmatic basis.  The pragmatism of science is what has led to the scientific conventions for dating.  But the YECs can also claim that their conventions are pragmatic.  For the YECs, the requirement of being consistent with their literalistic reading of the Bible is their primary basis for pragmatic evaluation.

We can, of course, sit back smugly knowing that we are right and that the YECs are wrong.  But, at the same time, the YECs can sit back smugly knowing that they are right and that we are wrong.

What about correspondence?

If you ask people their basis for determining truth, they will often point to the correspondence theory of truth.  But, in this case, it does not actually help.  For the scientists,  their dating conventions are the rules that establish a correspondence between our statements and the reality of past events.  And, for the YECs, their conventions are the rules that establish the correspondence that they wish to use.  So the correspondence theory cannot resolve this clash of conventions.

Taking things for granted

There is a lot about our world that we take for granted.  And, most of the time, what we take for granted works well for helping us understand our world.  But, as we start to look into human cognition and consciousness, we need to explain how it is that we are able to take these for granted.  People do not like explanations of what they already take for granted.  They don’t believe that an explanation is needed, since they already take it for granted.  And, if pointing out that what they take for granted depends, in part, on social conventions, then they are likely to see that as questioning what they take for granted.

This is why it is hard to explain consciousness.

7 Comments to “The hard problem of consciousness”

  1. Good post!

    My position on this issue of truth, or more appropriately how we determine what is and isn’t true (or is or isn’t likely true), always comes back to whether or not a theory or framework meant to interpret data and make “truth claims” about the world actually makes successful predictions or not. And for those using radiometric dating, to use your example above, they will make far many more successful predictions than a YEC will about the age of various material structures, what they expect to find in the strata and where within that strata they expect to find it (for example).

    This is indeed a pragmatic approach to “truth”, and even though one may say that the YEC’s approach has some kind of pragmatism built into their methods, it isn’t equivalent with that of the radiometric daters. The radiometric dater’s pragmatism involves more precision and repeatability and just generally many more successful predictions that cross over to a wide range of fields and bodies of facts with which one can put to practical use. The other factor involved with all of this is of course language, whereby the conventions of what is or isn’t considered factual or true, is limited and constrained by a community of agreement with (in most cases at least) arbitrary signifiers of this or that concept or meaning, thereby granting “analytic” truth (for example) simply based on how terms are defined and the grammar used in the truth claim. But within a community that has reasonable overlap over conceptual definitions, we can reasonably compare the actual application and usefulness of one person’s world view over another.

    This is why I always prefer to define knowledge in terms of recognized causal patterns which lead to successful predictions. To touch back on your mention of metaphysical truth, I think a person could reasonably try and define such a thing as “the set of causal patterns that successfully predict how any and all future events will transpire.” I don’t think metaphysical truth is all that useful of a concept, and so I don’t really subscribe to using it so this attempt at a definition is simply for a fun thought experiment. When people use such a term, they are often trying to describe a world “as it really is,” and even though I don’t subscribe to such a concept either, I can see what many people are getting at when they use such a term. They want to account for a hypothetical set of causal patterns that, if known (even if impossible to know), could allow one to predict anything that will ever happen in the universe at large. By making use of such a hypothetical term, we can see how it can logically follow by comparing one person’s body of knowledge (or claimed knowledge) to another’s and saying that one is “truer” than another — simply by noting which allows for more accurate and more encompassing predictions — and then hypothesizing that there’s a “truest” body of knowledge (in theory) which is all encompassing and which makes true predictions about any and all future events. And this is something that we can do without ever actually having access to a “world as it really is” whether or not such a world even exists. Anyway, it’s a fun thought experiment to think of a world “as it really is” or to think of “metaphysical truth” even if these things don’t exist or are inaccessible.



  2. Thanks Neil! Weird…I don’t why it flagged my comment as such. In any case, thanks for reading my response.


  3. Hi Neil. One problem I have with this is that the YECs and you both agree that it is the case that YECs believe the world is 6000 years old. That is, both of you share a truth concept that is pretty close to the everyday correspondence theory, one that also admits the everyday idea that there are such things as errors. Both parties can specify future events that might change their beliefs – it’s not that the Roman Catholics, for example, didn’t change their beliefs in these matters.


    • One problem I have with this is that the YECs and you both agree that it is the case that YECs believe the world is 6000 years old.

      I don’t actually agree with that. YECs say that they believe the world is 6000 old, but I’m never sure whether they actually believe that or are just pretending.

      But, okay, you could reword your point in terms of what YECs say they believe.

      My main objection to the correspondence theory is that it doesn’t actually say anything. It says that true sentences are true. But that’s about all it says.

      My main objection to the idea of metaphysical truth, is that it misdescribes our relation with the world. There’s a tendency to say that we are “searching for truth”.

      It would be better to say that we are attempting to make sense of our world. If, in the attempt, we discover something new, then we might invent new words and new meanings that we can use to describe what we discovered. And our description will then be true, because the way language works requires that it be true. But we didn’t discover truth. We invented a new way of describing things, and truth came along for a free ride with that invention.


      • Hi Neil. In the good old Galileo case, Bellarmine argues first that we don’t need to believe the Copernican model to be actually true to use it for prediction etc, but that if proofs were provided to him, he would have to change how he discussed scripture – having to change his knowledge from “this biblical sentence is true”, to “I don’t correctly understand this biblical sentence”.

        More generally, the deflationary views on truth are pretty well what you are saying, but from the scientific viewpoint, a theory can more true or less true wrt the world (the “true state of nature” t.s.n), so it retains a definite meaning even though you might express that goodness of fit using other terms.


        • More generally, the deflationary views on truth are pretty well what you are saying, …

          That’s not really the point that I was getting to.

          There’s a pervasive view that truth is external to us, and that we are passive observers of what is true.

          That’s what I was questioning. That view leaves cognitive systems with relatively little to do, and that’s part of what makes consciousness hard to explain.

          “You should drive on the right hand side of the road” — this is true in the USA and Canada, but it is false in England and Australia. Here truth is a matter of human convention.

          According to the Bible (Lev. 11:19) bats are birds. We have changed our classification conventions since that time, again changing what is to be taken as true.

          My point is that we are deeply engaged with the world. And part of that engagement is in setting social conventions that serve as criteria for truth. This kind of engagement with the world is part of what needs to be explained.


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