6 Nov 2010

Solving the hard problem of consciousness

Posted by jofr

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imagin-ings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.” – Chapter 3, The Night Shadows of a “Tale of Two Cities” from Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)

Already Charles Dickens pointed out in his “Tale of Two Cities” that human beings are a mystery to each other. Like every house which encloses a secret, every person “encloses” a secret: the personal universe of phenomenal consciousness and subjective experience. The hard problem of consciousness and self-awareness, which philosophers find difficult to explain, is similar to the problem that ordinary people face if they try to explain themselves and their conscious experience. In his book “The Conscious Mind”, David Chalmers calls the problem of subjective experience the hard problem, contrary to the easy problems which can be solved by standard methods of cognitive science. How can we bridge the gap between objective, physical reality and subjective experience? The philosophers ask how physical processes give rise to subjective experience. During “that’s me?” moments of self-awareness, people ask how a physical entity (that objective thing in the environment) can be identified with themselves (their entire subjective world of thoughts, emotions and feelings). In his book “The mystery of consciousness”, John Searle gives the following formulation of the problem:

“How is it possible for physical, objective, quantitatively describable neuron firings to cause qualitative, private, subjective experiences?”

The problem of phenomenal consciousness is not new, it has been discussed nearly a 100 years ago, and there are still written books about it today. Even poets write about it, in the poem “The Great Lover” Rupert Brooke says

“These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such”

All these things are certainly hard to explain, because they have a strong physical component. If someone wants to know what it is is like to touch a fur, he can try it himself. The answer why subjective experience is different to each of us is perhaps more interesting. It lies in the environment and the individual relationships in the society of mind. Each of us has a slightly different network of friends. Similarly, the agents in the society of mind for each person have slighty different friends, which depend on the particular encounters a person has made during the course of life. These friendship relations are different for each person. A thought is always associated with other thoughts, which are often related to things we have experienced at the same time or place in the past. If we want to understand the behavior and personality of a person, we must take a look at the curriculum vitae and the individual history of the person, i.e. we must consider the specific contexts and the various environments which lead to specific brain structures by continuous adaptation.

The question how subjective experiences arise from objective brain processes alone is wrong, because brain processes are not objective. Brain processes and neural connections are always unique, personal and individual, they are slightly different for each person. There are no two persons who have exactly the same neural connections or brain processes. Everyone has a uniqe “society of mind”. Someone who lives in Europe will have a brain that’s wired up differently from somebody who lives in Asia or America. Each of us has different roots, has learnt different languages, has seen different places, has travelled along different paths, and has done different things. Because already Aristotle knew that we are what we repeatedly do, we are all a bit different, because we have all done things which are a little bit different and result in different memories. If all members of a species would be identical in genotype and phenotype, they would experience things in the same way. If our reactions would be hard-wired, then our behavior and our reactions would be similar, and we would feel in the same way, depending only on the physical constraints (for example that colors and tones correspond to different wavelenghts, an “A” has 440 Hz, the color blue has 480 nm, etc.). But we are not hard-wired. Someone in China may associate the color red with good fortune, luck or joy (or simply with his country and his home). Someone in America may associate the color red with Heinz Ketchup and evil communists. Our behavior is based on a long process of socialization, assimilation, and adaptation. Adaptation is the answer how physical items can turn into subjective objects. Each of us is adapted to a slightly different world (or different “slice” of the same world, as Nicholas Thompson called it in a recent FRIAM discussion).

This is in agreement with what Sociologists and Psychologists say. For the sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) the processes that cause subjective experience were clear, they were social, and they were associated with the own identity. Ego-identity is for Goffman “the subjective sense of his own situation and his own continuity and character that an individual comes to obtain as a result of his various social experience” (a quote from his book “Stigma”).

One of the latest book on the subject, “Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness” from Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey follows a similar line of thought. Phenomenal consciousness and personal, subjective experience is not something which only humans have. Every animal has a special subjective experience. Especially rich is the experience of course for intelligent and playful mammals like dolphins and the great apes. The subjective present of humans is particularly rich and deep, as Nicholas Humphrey argues in his book “Soul dust”. It is full of colors and flavors, but each people sees different colors and feels different flavours. For a cognitive animal, every mental representation of the current situation has a personal dimension, it is colored with particular emotions and linked to personal memories. The “colors” represent if the degree to which the events are perceived as pleasant and good or unpleasant and bad.

This solution to the hard question has already been found or anticipated by William James and his scholar Edwin Holt. William James argues his text “Does ’Consciousness’ Exist?” that subjectivity arises from the different contexts in which we experience things. The pure subjective experience of items in the present depends on the mixed experiences with these items in the past, which in turn depend on the various contexts in which the objects and items appeared. These different contexts shape the relations between the individual experiences for each person. He says about the problem:

“subjectivity and objectivity are [..] realized only when the experience is ‘taken,’ i. e., talked-of twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively, by a new retrospective experience, of which that whole past complication forms the fresh content. The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure’ experience.[…] The peculiarity of our experiences, that they not only are, but are known, which their ’conscious’ quality is invoked to explain, is better explained by their relations – these relations themselves being experiences – to one another.”

His scholar Edwin Holt goes one step further and shows us where these particular relations come from. For Edwin B. Holt, consciousness or mind is “a cross-section of the universe, selected by the nervous system”. Edwin B. Holt (1873-1946) was a professor of philosophy and psychology at Harvard and Princeton. Together with Ralph Perry he belonged to the New Realists, a group of William James’ students and associates.

The New Realists were Edwin B. Holt (Harvard University), Walter T. Marvin (Rutgers College), William Pepperell Montague (Columbia University), Ralph Barton Perry (Harvard), Walter B. Pitkin (Columbia) and Edward Gleason Spaulding (Princeton University). Together they wrote a book named “The new realism” nearly 100 years ago in 1912. In this book from Edwin B. Holt et al. (see cover picture, which shows a version published in 1925 found in the University Library of the Humboldt Universität in Berlin), Holt says about the cross-section:

“It must not be forgotten that while the object itself, if a physical thing, is far from simple, we are always perceiving it in a complicated setting of (spatial, temporal, and logical) relations, which is a still more complicated thing. But the conscious cross-section is always a group of the integral (neutral) components of the object and of its innumerable relations. [..] it is seldom possible to say just where the object itself terminates and its relations to other entities commences”

He defined a cross-section in general as a definable part of a larger collection or manifold. Each of us experiences a specific cross-section during the course of life. In his book “Concept of Consciousness”, Edwin B. Holt says about this cross-section (on page 171)

“The sum total of all the whales living in certain given waters is a cross-section of the sea that is significant for the whalers who are trying to locate and gather them in. The various shafts and levels of a mine are a cross-section of the mountain, and of import to the shareholders: and it is the business of the engineer so to direkt the workings that this cross-section shall coincide with taht other cross-section that is made by the vein of ore.”

“Once again, a navigator exploring his course at night with the help of a searchlight, illuminates a considerable expanse of wave and cloud, occasionally the bow and forward mast of his ship, and the hither side of other ships and of buoys, lighthouses, and other objects that lie above the horizon. Now the sum total of all surfaces thus illuminated in the course, say, of an entire night, is a cross-section of the region in question that has rather interesting characteristics”

Similarly, the mind selects all “elements or parts of the universe” which “matter”, which are interesting or arise emotions, which cause the system to make a specific response. The mind is made up of all experiences the person has made during the course or path of his life. The experiences which form the mind are path-dependent. Positive experiences with a subject reinforce other positive experiences in the future. If we like someone or something then we may get rewards in form of positive feelings from it, and the more good feelings we have in turn about something, the more we like it. A positive feedback loop arises, which amplifies slight differences into large variations. Each mind corresponds to a specific, individual slice of the same world. It is this cross-section which defines our subjective experience and makes our experiences individual.

If we really want to understand subjective experience, we must examine the past of a person. Maybe one could call it “mind archaeology” – digging through the layers which record the past of the individual. Of course this is not new at all, it would be very similar to psychoanalysis. Already Freud’s patients lay on the couch during psychoanalysis, and told him their stories and dreams.

The idea that the mind is composed of layers which recorded the past of the individual goes back to the 19th century. Julian Jaynes observed in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” that the metaphors used to understand consciousness changed over time, because they followed current trends in science. Today in the age of web 2.0 and social media, we tend to use social metaphors like the “society of mind” or the “social network of the mind”. In the 19th century, physical sciences like geology were very popular. Jaynes says in “The Origin of Consciousness”:

“The first half of the nineteenth century was the age of the great geological discoveries in which the record of the past was written in layers of the earth’s crust. And this led to the popularization of the idea of consciousness as the being in layers which recorded the past of the individual, there being deeper and deeper layers until the record could no longer be read”

Although all this explains the subjectivity of our experiences, or at least the origin of the subjectivity, it does not take away the perplexity and confusion during “That’s me” moments of self-awareness, when the internal first person point of view collides with the external third person point of view. The feeling of self-awareness will remain mysterious. In his book “The Problem of Consciousness” Colin McGinn says “there is something terminal about our perplexity”. During our development, the web of beliefs (or words) becomes so detailed and fine that we can recognize ourselves in it. Yet this insight will always be accompanied by confusion: if the brain could comprehend itself directly, wouldn’t it be like a fishing net which is somehow identified with one of the fishes it catches? Gilbert Ryle argues in “The concept of mind”:

“Should I, or should I not, put my knowing self down on my list of the sorts of things that I can have knowledge of? If I say ‘no’, it seems to reduce my knowing self to a theoretically infertile mystery, yet if I say ‘yes’, it seems to reduce the fishing-net to one of the fishes which it itself catches”

( The Flickr photo is from Flickr user bikehikedive )

Books mentioned:
* David Chalmer, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press, 1996
* John R. Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness, New York Review Books; 1997
* Edwin B. Holt et al., The new realism, The Macmillan Company 1925
* Edwin B. Holt, Concept of Consciousness, George Allen edition, 1914
* Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, University Of Chicago Press, 1949
* Julian Jayne, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976
* Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness, Blackwell, 1990
* Nicholas Humphrey, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Princeton University Press, 2011
* Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Prentice-Hall, 1963

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5 Responses to “Solving the hard problem of consciousness”

  1. There is an interesting article on the solution of the consciousness ‘hard problem’ just published. A direct link to it is here http://www.slenters.ch/poschalmers


    Cornel Slenters

  2. […] have argued earlier in the blog post about the hard problem of consciousness and its solution, that each of us has taken a slightly different route during his life and is adapted to a slightly […]

  3. […] his life simply by listening the corresponding story. We can understand subjective experience and solve the hard problem of consciousness by experiencing similar emotional patterns and feelings. There is indeed a whole industry which […]

  4. My two cents on the hard problem: I think the arguments given by people like Chalmers in favor of there being philosophical zombies are unconvincing and can be countered. The problem of consciousness is difficult, but my suspicion is that it can be solved and that the reason it hasn’t been has to do with people percieving there own perceptions as immaterial when they are not. I’ve added flesh to the bones of this position here:


    Have a great day!



  5. […] of view”. And as we have seen earlier, because subjective experience is path dependent we can solve the hard problem of consciousness by simply following the same path, showing for example what it is like to be an […]


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