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27.1 The hard problem

Chalmers (1995) has divided the problems of understanding consciousness into two kinds. There are ‘easy problems’ about sensations, discrimination of patterns, information processing, and deliberate control of behavior. These are associated with the notion of consciousness. Chalmers thinks there is no real issue about whether these phenomena can be explained scientifically, for example by computational or neural mechanisms. These easy problems are to be contrasted with the ‘hard problem’ concerning the nature of experience, of qualia (the appearance that sensations present to our mind). The actual awareness that is part of consciousness appears to be a kind of ‘inner glow’ that accompanies and illuminates sensations and experiences but in a way that is mysterious to computational scientists and neurologists. What is missing, when we just discuss the mechanisms, is ‘what it is like’ to actually be the organism in question and to experience these qualia as our own.

The work of Chalmers initiated a minor industry that speculates about such questions as whether organisms can function without any accompanying consciousness. Can be ‘zombies’ that live as we do except without consciousness? If you say no to zombies, what reasons can you give? Are they impossible logically, or psychologically, or neurologically, or linguistically? Some philosophers (including Chalmers) have tried to formulate a ‘property dualism’, whereby consciousness is a property of natural objects alongside other physical properties of mass, charge, etc., but yet does not affect the causal closure of physics, which most of them want to preserve.

Consciousness or awareness does not seem to have a causal role in psychology that is independent of the causal mechanisms that underpin whatever may be the basis for thinking and feeling. Whether these causal mechanisms are in the brain or in some other substance to be determined, consciousness itself does not appear to have causal roles in our mental life. We are sure it is there, but what does it do?

One philosophy that gives a definite answer is that of Aquinas. He asserts that consciousness is a property of the immaterial intellect and is moreover an essential property of the intellectual mind. He does not allow for a mechanistic explanation of the operation of consciousness because the mind is to him a simple substance, not composed of any parts, and so has consciousness (and intellection, will, etc.) by its very essence. A simple substance mind with such essential properties would indeed solve the hard problem. However, it would solve it at the cost of not allowing science to investigate the detailed processes of thinking and feeling or of perception of truth or loving what is good. These are the processes that we actually investigated in Part IV, on the basis that the mind was not simple but was composed of parts in some mental spaces, in several discrete degrees. Therefore, we do not accept the Thomist view of mind as a simple substance. We instead seek a more scientific understanding of all the detailed processes that go on in our minds. It is not impossible to have simple minds, but they do not fit within the theistic science that is now being developed.


Previous: 27. Consciousness Up: 27. Consciousness Next: 27.2 Awareness

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