Consciousness- An introduction (ch2)

What is it like to be ...? - Chapter 2

Being a...

Nagel states that consciousness is a subjectivity. He asked,  'what is it like to be a bat?'.When we say that an organism has consciousness, it means that it feels in a specific way to be that organism.

Block calls the question 'what is it like to be...?' an expression of phenomenality (or P consciousness). He distinguishes this from 'access consciousness' (A-consciousness). According to him access-consciousness is about the ability to reason and also to guide speech and actions. So this is a distinction in two kinds of consciousness. To study phenomenality means to listen to what people report about conscious experiences.

Subjectivity and qualia

Qualia are private qualities, the way someone experiences something. A quale is what something is like.The term is used to emphasize quality so as not to talk about physical characteristics or descriptions, but about the experience itself. Conscious experiences consist of qualia and the problem of consciousness can be reformulated in terms of how the qualia are related to the physical world or how objective brains produce subjective qualia.

While Dennett believes we have conscious experiences and judgments about our experiences, he does think that special, individual, inner, subjective feelings do not exist. He therefore states that we should not think in terms of qualia at all. According to him, conscious experiences do exist, but qualia does not.

How do we know if qualia really exist? This is difficult to determine because it concerns experiences and not measurable matters. We can, however, conduct thought experiments. Are qualia something other than the brain itself? Do qualia have added value? To answer these kinds of questions, we use a thought experiment of Mary.

Mary the color scientist

Mary lives in the distant future and has all the knowledge about color perception and the visual processes that are used for this. She knows exactly that certain wavelengths of light on the retina cause the experience of blue, red or other colors. However, Mary grew up all her life in a closed room where she could watch a black and white television. So she has never seen colors herself, while she knows a lot about colors. What happens if she can leaves the room one day?

Two different reactions are possible for this question:

  1. Some scientists state that Mary will be surprised. One of these scientists is Jackson. According to him, Mary will learn something new, namely what red is like. Chalmers also states that no amount of knowledge about the color red could explain how this color really is.

  2. Other scientists argue that Mary will not be surprised , because she already has all the knowledge about color. Dennett states that if Mary is released and sees a blue banana, she will know that this is not possible. After all, she knows everything about colors and so therefore also about what colors look like. She also knows that blue looks different than yellow.

In short: if you believe that Mary will be surprised when she is released, then you believe that consciousness, subjective experiences or qualia have added value in addition to factual knowledge about the world. If you think that they will not be surprised, then you believe that having all the knowledge about the world says everything and therefore says how it feels to experience something.

The philosopher's zombie

Another thought experiment is the zombie's experiment. A zombie is someone who looks exactly the same as you, but has no consciousness. The question is: is such a zombie possible?

There are two different reactions to this question:

  1. Yes, such a zombie is possible. This reaction is based on conscious inessentialism, the idea that consciousness is a kind of optional bonus. For example, Moody suggests that zombies are people who use things like thinking, imagining, dreaming, believing and understanding, but do not understand these terms as we do. They will therefore never devote themselves to concepts such as consciousness or dreams.

  2. No, such a zombie is not possible. An example of someone who could give such a reaction is Dennett, because of the concept of a zimbo. A zimbo is a complex zombie who can guide his own activities and has internal (but unconscious) situations. If you asked a zimbo about his dreams or feelings, he could answer thesequestions in a way that we could understand. That is why  it may seem to us as if he, like us, has a consciousness. The zimbo would think he has a consciousness, while he does not. Dennett stated that this is also the case with people. We would all be zombies. We think onlythat we have a consciousness.

The hard problem

As mentioned earlier, Chalmers stated that ambiguities about consciousness can be divided into easy and hard questions. So Chalmers' question relates to Nagel’s question about subjectivity: what is it like be a...? Scientists have reacted in different ways to Chalmers' idea that there is a hard question when we talk about consciousness. The responses can be divided into four categories:

  1. the hard  problem is insoluble

  2. the hard problem can be solved,

  3. it is essential to first solve the easy questions, and

  4. there is no hard problem at all.

The hard problem is insoluble

James stated that we can never know exactly what consciousness is. Nagel also stated that the issue is unsolvable. McGinn spoke about the 'yawning conceptual divide'. He meant that no matter how long you look at the brain (and into neurons and synapses), you will never be able to perceive consciousness. He stated that in this area we are 'cognitively closed'. This means that even if we want to know where consciousness comes from, we would never be able to find out, because ‘our intelligence is wrongly designed to understand consciousness’. Pinker agreed with this.

Try to solve it

Some people find that the difficult problem can be solved, but only if we use a new frame of reference to understand the universe. Chalmers states that we must use dualism for this. We should, according to him, look for both the physical aspect and the experiential aspect for every form of information. So we could only understand consciousness if we develop a new theory about how we look at information.

Clarke states that the mind can not be located. He starts from quantum physics. According to him, the mind is the key to the universe. The mind would take a place; even before space and time. Chalmers and Clarke both assume dualism and their ideas are close to panpsychism. We previously encountered the mental field of consciousness of Libet. According to him, the existence of this is necessary because the structure and functioning of nerve cells can never explain a conscious, subjective experience. The mathematician Penrose points out that consciousness is dependent on non-algorithmic processes.

Tackle the easy problems

Chalmers states that the easy problems are about the connection between attention, memory and consciousness. Crick and Koch designed a theory about how particles are interconnected in the brain to form a perceptual whole of an object. Chalmers, however, wonders to what extent integration of particles equals a conscious visual experience. Crick and Koch argue that the hard problem of qualia - how the redness of red could arise from the actions of the brain - can not be solved directly. Better we can try to find neural correlates of consciousness, hoping to shed more light on the qualia.

There is no problem at all

O'Hara and Scutt mention three reasons to ignore the hard problem

  1. We know how to deal with the easy problems and that is why we should focus on those problems.

  2. They think that solving the easy problems will change our ideas about the hard problem.

  3. Solving the hard problem is only necessary if we are able to recognize it, but for now the problem is not well enough understood.

Churchland goes even further and states that the problem is misunderstood. We would not be able to predict in advance which problems are hard and which problems are easy. How can we already know in advance that explaining subjectivity is more difficult than solving the easy problems? In addition, she wonders whether the hard problems are well defined enough to separate them from the easy problems. Dennett states that distinguishing between easy and hard problems is not smart in advance. There will always be unanswered questions. We now know, for example, how conception, birth and growth work, but we do not know how life itself works. You could also see that as a hard problem, but that only makes things more complicated. It is therefore better not to think in terms of easy and hard problems.


Resources:Blackmore; Susan. (2010). Consciousness, Second Edition An Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

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