I am a materialist in the sense that I think that all phenomena arise due to material entities interacting according to laws of nature. I have seen no reason to think that anything supernatural or mystical is needed to be invoked to explain anything. I have sometimes been asked by people, usually the religious seeking to challenge my atheistic viewpoint that the material world is all there is and does not allow for any gods, as to how I can explain love. They seem to think that love is an immaterial quantity and that believing in its existence requires the same leap of faith as believing in a god. I reply that love is an emotion that is created by the workings of my brain that releases certain substances that cause me to have that feeling I point out that when I die, any love that I feel for anyone or anything will die with me. It does not survive the death of my brain.
But there are philosophers who, while generally spurning ideas of the supernatural, think that there is one area that defies material explanation and that is what they call the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. I first came across this issue a long time ago at a philosophy seminar at my university but to be honest, after many years of reflecting on it, I am still puzzled as to why it is seen as something that is outside the bounds of a materialist philosophy
So what is this ‘hard problem’? Journalist Dan Falk explains.
In his book Until the End of Time (2020), the physicist Brian Greene sums up the standard physicalist view of reality: ‘Particles and fields. Physical laws and initial conditions. To the depth of reality we have so far plumbed, there is no evidence for anything else.’ This physicalist approach has a heck of a track record. For some 400 years – roughly from the time of Galileo – scientists have had great success in figuring out how the Universe works by breaking up big, messy problems into smaller ones that could be tackled quantitatively through physics, with the help of mathematics. But there’s always been one pesky outlier: the mind. The problem of consciousness resists the traditional approach of science.
To be clear, science has made great strides in studying the brain, and no one doubts that brains enable consciousness. Scientists such as Francis Crick (who died in 2004) and Christof Koch made great strides in pinpointing the neural correlates of consciousness – roughly, the task of figuring out what sorts of brain activity are associated with what sorts of conscious experience. What this work leaves unanswered, however, is why conscious experience occurs at all.
There is no universally agreed-upon definition of consciousness. Awareness, including self-awareness, comes close; experience perhaps comes slightly closer. When we look at a red apple, certain neural circuits in our brains fire – but something more than that also seems to happen: we experience the redness of the apple. As philosophers often put the question: why is it like something to be a being-with-a-brain? Why is it like something to see a red apple, to hear music, to touch the bark of a tree, and so on? This is what David Chalmers called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – the puzzle of how non-conscious matter, responding only to the laws of physics, gives rise to conscious experience (in contrast to the ‘easy problems’ of figuring out which sorts of brain activity are associated with which specific mental states). The existence of minds is the most serious affront to physicalism.
I must admit that I don’t get why the “existence of minds is the most serious affront to physicalism”. I get that we may not as yet know the exact mechanisms by which various experiences and feeling arise in our minds. But that just means that it is a difficult and as yet unsolved problem. There have always been such problems in science and there always will be. Why is this one so special that we rule out a priori any possibility of a material explanation.
The example of the ‘philosopher’s zombie’ is invoked to explain the hard problem.
This is where the zombie – that is, the thought experiment known as the ‘philosopher’s zombie’ – comes in. The experiment features an imagined creature exactly like you or me, but with a crucial ingredient – consciousness – missing. Though versions of the argument go back many decades, its current version was stated most explicitly by Chalmers. In his book The Conscious Mind (1996), he invites the reader to consider his zombie twin, a creature who is ‘molecule for molecule identical to me’ but who ‘lacks conscious experience entirely’. Chalmers imagines the case where he’s ‘gazing out the window, experiencing some nice green sensations from seeing the trees outside, having pleasant taste experiences through munching on a chocolate bar, and feeling a dull aching sensation in my right shoulder.’ Then he imagines his zombie twin in the exact same environment. The zombie will look and even act the same as the real David Chalmers; indeed:
he will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places, and so on. It is just that none of this functioning will be accompanied by any real conscious experience. There will be no phenomenal feel. There is nothing it is like to be a zombie.
Imagining the zombie is step one in the thought experiment. In step two, Chalmers argues that if you can conceive of the zombie, then zombies are possible. And finally, step three: if zombies are possible, then physics, by itself, isn’t up to the job of explaining minds. This last step is worth examining more closely. Physicalists argue that bits of matter, moving about in accordance with the laws of physics, explain everything, including the workings of the brain and, with it, the mind. Proponents of the zombie argument counter that this isn’t enough: they argue that we can have all of those bits of matter in motion, and yet not have consciousness. In short, we could have a creature that looks like one of us, with a brain that’s doing exactly what our brains are doing – and still this creature would lack conscious experience. And therefore physics, by itself, isn’t enough to account for minds. And so physicalism must be false.
This argument seems circular to me. The thought experiment starts out by asserting that the zombie, while being identical in all material senses to me, does not have consciousness. It then asserts that the zombie, while functioning just like me, will not have any conscious experience. This is supposed to show that consciousness is not explainable in materialist terms. But Falk points out a big problem that also occurred to me.
As one begins to dissect the zombie argument, however, problems arise. To begin with, are zombies in fact logically possible? If the zombie is our exact physical duplicate, one might argue, then it will be conscious by necessity. To turn it around: it may be impossible for a being to have all the physical properties that a regular person has, and yet lack consciousness. Frankish draws a comparison with a television set. He asks if we can imagine a machine with all the electronic processes that occur in a (working) television set taking place, and yet with no picture appearing on the screen. Many of us would say no: if all of those things happen, the screen lights up as a matter of course; no extra ingredient is required.
That is how I too view the question. But clearly philosophers who study the hard problem of consciousness are seeing something different and see the existence of the philosopher’s zombie as plausible. Whenever I have heard philosophers discuss this question, I have the same reaction as when sophisticated theologians discuss things like the ontological argument for the existence of God. Both groups seem to depend on the argument that the ability to conceive of something gives that something’s existence a reality that then leads them to their desired conclusion. Both groups clearly feel that they are making a very powerful argument in favor of their stance but I just don’t get what it is that is so significant, since I cannot see how the ability to conceive of something reveals anything meaningful.
I am mindful of the danger of too quickly dismissing as nonsensical arguments that I don’t understand, especially if those arguments are meant to support conclusions that I disagree with. So I have tried hard to get to grips with this question and failed. I have the sense that I may be missing something but do not know what.
The essay goes into quite great detail on this issue but it did not solve for me my hard problem: Why philosophers consider the hard problem of consciousness to be inherently beyond a material explanation involving the brain.