Notes on consciousness

by Neil Rickert

In this post I will comment on the direction of my ideas about consciousness. However, it will not provide the reductionist account that some people seem to want.

The hard problem

David Chalmers divided the question of consciousness into what he called “the easy problem” and what he called “the hard problem.” Personally, I think the easy problem is actually quite hard. But I’ll discuss that later in this post. And I am inclined to doubt that the hard problem actually makes sense.

For Chalmers, the easy problem is the problem of getting information about the world or about our immediate environment. The hard problem is that of explaining conscious experience.

Qualia

The hard problem is usually defined in terms of qualia. Here, “qualia” is a plural term that is said to refer to the qualities of our conscious experience. The corresponding singular term is “quale”.

I don’t much care for qualia talk. While I have a rough idea on what people want to discuss, it is always limited to a vague idea. There is nothing that I can pinpoint that I would call a “quale”. So I am not convinced that the qualia words actually refer.

I guess that makes me a qualiaphobe. That’s the term used to describe people who do not like qualia talk. It seems to me that qualia talk encourages us to see everything about conscious experience as objective, when it is really subjective.

Yes, I have conscious experience, as I assume others do. But I have only experience of my own conscious experience. I have not experienced that of anyone else. We can talk about our conscious experience because we share a language. But we do not share the experience itself. For all I know, the way that I experience red might be similar to the way that you experience blue. Our ability to talk about that experience is not sufficient for us to actually settle such questions.

If there were to be a reductionist account of qualia, it seems that would show that we do all have much the same experience even though there is no evidence for this. That’s one of the reasons that I am skeptical of the hard problem.

The easy problem

The easy problem is said to be the problem of getting information about the immediate environment. In our modern age of information technology, that may look easy. But appearances can be confusing.

I visit the supermarket, and pick up a bunch of bananas. I have no difficulty seeing that they are bananas. Clearly, I am getting the information about that. But when I take that to the checkout line, the computer scan has a lot more difficulty. It cannot tell that they are bananas. So it looks for a sticker with a UPC code, and if it finds one it then looks up that code in a database to decide that these are bananas. It should be clear that the scanner is not using the same information that we use.

For a computer, when we use the term “information” we are just talking about signals in the input. But those signals do not actually inform the computer. It just uses them in computations. For us, when we look at bananas, what our perceptual system picks up is full of meaning for us. The signals that we provide the computer may also be meaningful to us, but they are not meaningful to the computer. And that’s why the easy problem is not easy at all. To solve the easy problem, we need to solve the problem of meaning. And that’s hard.

My own view is that conscious experience is just the experience of the meaningful information we receive from the world. And, for us, the information is meaningful because we collect that information ourselves. We act in the world in ways that will give us meaning.

One Comment to “Notes on consciousness”

  1. I was unsure whether Qualia exist … until I saw them for sale.

    Liked by 1 person

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