Bits and Pieces – Consciousness and “Wittgenstein/Ryle-Style” (Dis)solutions

By Daniel A. Kaufman


The philosophical problem of consciousness is a problem concerning subjectivity.

To be conscious is to be conscious of something: a color; a smell; a feeling or emotion; etc.  This is why it is alternatively described as “conscious experience,” “self-consciousness,” etc.

Consciousness, therefore, is a kind of point of view. Specifically, it is a first-person point of view.

Linguistically, ‘conscious’ is a two-placed expression: “x is conscious of y.”  It may sometimes be used in a way such that it appears to be a one-place expression – i.e. “Is he conscious?” – but the second place is implicit. If he is conscious, he is conscious of something.

All points of view imply people whose points of view they are.  Consciousness implies a person whose first-person point of view it is.

(Token) physicalists in the philosophy of mind maintain that our mental states are identical with electro-chemical states of our brains. This means that our states of consciousness are identical with electro-chemical states of the brain.

Let’s suppose that such an identification can be made.  My seeing red at this moment consists of electro-chemical processes, X, Y, and Z. The problem of consciousness remains, as one still has  to account for the experience’s subjective qualities; how it seems. And this requires that we account for the person to whom it seems.

In the case of conscious mental states, then, the person remains as an ontological dangler, even after a successful physicalist reduction.

It would seem that consciousness requires a picture of the mind that is essentially homuncular.

Without this two positioned-picture – the experience that seems a certain way and the person to whom it seems that way – we must maintain that seemingness is in matter and energy themselves. The trouble is that this is incomprehensible.  It’s not that we don’t know how to do it; we can’t imagine what even would count as doing it.

This “hard problem of consciousness” has led philosophers in a number of bizarre, fruitless directions.  Some have concluded that there must be an actual invisible little person inside one’s head.  These are the “Mind/Body Dualists.”

Others have concluded that consciousness is simply intrinsic to matter; that everything from muons to mountains to marsupials to middle school teachers are conscious.  These are the “panpsychists.”

Yet another group, following Daniel Dennett have suggested that there is no such thing as consciousness; that consciousness is a “user illusion,” analogous to a folder icon on a computer’s desktop.

None of these moves help in any way.

Regarding Dualism, no account is given of how there can be little, invisible, non-material people inside people’s heads nor how they can have a point of view of anything.  And the problem simply resurfaces, when we inquire how we should understand the consciousness of the little, invisible, non-material person, without landing us with infinitely nested homunculi.

Regarding panpsychism, to suggest that something need not even have a brain in order to be conscious contradicts all the scientific understanding of the phenomenon that we’ve accumulated thus far. But regardless, if one part of the “hard problem” is to explain how seemingness could be an intrinsic quality of matter, then simply stipulating that it is obviously is of no help.

Regarding consciousness-as-user-illusion, it raises the obvious question of how we can talk of suffering under an illusion, without a person who so suffers which, if not answered, renders this move as unhelpful than the others.

Science aims to provide a third-person and entirely quantitative view of its objects. This means that in principle, it is not equipped to provide us with the understanding we seek regarding consciousness, which is inherently a first-person, qualitative phenomenon.

In phenomenology, philosophers study conscious experience from the first-person perspective.  It is an important endeavor, but, it does not address the problem that we are interested in here, which is how quality and subjectivity are to be understood within a naturalistically conceived world.

Like the free-will problem, which is intractable in similar ways, I believe that the only solution to the problem of consciousness will come via a Wittgenstein/Ryle-style dissolution. How does one know when one has reached such a point with respect to a philosophical problem? A number of indicators (not criteria) I have employed include: (a) the problem points towards skeptical conclusions; (b) the problem involves infinite regresses; (c) the problem leads otherwise very smart people to absurd conclusions that defy both science and common sense and seems only to point in such directions; (d) the problem has stubbornly eluded a solution for a very, very (very) long time; and (e) the problem hints towards category errors, confusions of language, and conflations of the Scientific and Manifest images.

I tried to sketch such an approach in my essay on free-will. (1) Whatever such an approach might look like with respect to the current subject will obviously be very different, though it will be similar in form.




47 responses to “Bits and Pieces – Consciousness and “Wittgenstein/Ryle-Style” (Dis)solutions”

  1. Consider investigating Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. It takes on the problem you have illuminated using a quadratic “map of reality” that (seamlessly) combines first-person, second-person, and third-person perspectives into a view of reality that is integrated, thus his views are known as Integral Theory. For me, Wilber’s map is the most satisfying and practical solution to the problem of consciousness.


  2. “The hard problem” arises from starting with objective reality, and wanting to explain subjective reality based on what we know of objective reality.

    I see that as backward. We would do better to start with subjective reality, and then attempt to account for objective reality.

  3. That’s essentially the Idealist position, a la Berkeley.

  4. Or the Empiricist tradition a la Ayer.

  5. I’m no idealist.

    I don’t start by assuming subjective reality. I start by assuming a biological organism attempting to make sense of its world. And that leads to the question of how the organism constructs subjective reality.

  6. Carol Bensick

    Whew! Bracing.

  7. I didn’t read Dennett’s book on consciousness. I don’t like his prose style, it’s a bit like being forced to eat huge amounts of stale bread “because it’s good for you”.

    But I have a friend who went through a Dennett period, and I remember asking him: “Suppose Dennett is right. Then tell me, why did he write the book?”

    After all, Dennett gives the impression that he knows certain things. I suppose – but correct me if I’m wrong – he consciously knows these things. Writing such a thick book about things you know but are not aware of, would be quite a remarkable performance. But on the other hand, can he consciously know things? Consciousness is an illusion. I suppose – but correct me again if I’m wrong – his knowledge risks to be an illusion too. Why write thick books about an illusion?

    I never got a satisfying answer. Well, I got a few answers but they were strangely reliant on Dennett and his audience having, you know, like, consciousness.

  8. soren98

    just a nitpick, but i don’t think consciouness implies a person. animals can be conscious too.

    for the problem of consciousness, i prefer merleau-ponty’s explanation. the first person world is rich. to get to the impersonal third person, one discards many of the phenomena of everyday life. when trying to explain the first person from the third person one may be surprised where all of these first person phenomena came from. in reality, he just forgot he was the one who abandoned it in the first place. after writing this it dawned on me that this is just a more intuitive explanation of how a category error occured.

  9. Jerry Van Polen

    I don’t know if this is helpful to others, but I’ve taken to telling myself: “Consciousness is selective attention.” Selective attention being something that can be seen in non-human animals all the time, as well.

    This perhaps in the manner of either avoiding or renaming hard problems. Perhaps it is a nod to a possible category error.

  10. That doesn’t address the question with which this piece is concerned.

  11. That does not address the question with which this piece is concerned.

  12. Jerry Van Polen

    Per such simplification, I’ve taken to telling myself: “Consciousness is selective attention.” A cat can be focused on a bird. A human can be focused on a potential understanding. To increase skill, sometimes we assign selective attention to what we need to give selective attention to.

  13. Jerry Van Polen
  14. What is the naturalistic account of the “we”?

  15. Peter Smith

    Consciousness is selective attention

    Selective attention is a conscious act, or consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for selective attention. You have assumed what you are trying to explain and thus it is circular.

  16. Dan

    “To be conscious is to be conscious of something: a color; a smell; a feeling or emotion; etc.  This is why it is alternatively described as “conscious experience”…”

    Could we not just say that we experience things? And that “self-consciousness” involves a particular kind of experiencing which is unique to humans?

    “All points of view imply people whose points of view they are. Consciousness implies a person whose first-person point of view it is.”

    I think it is important when dealing with a question like conscious awareness (or whatever we want to call it) to recognize our biological nature and thus our kinship with other animals (non-persons) who nonetheless share many of our biological and behavioral traits. Certain forms of awareness are uniquely human; others are not.

    “Linguistically, ‘conscious’ is a two-placed expression: “x is conscious of y.”  It may sometimes be used in a way such that it appears to be a one-place expression – i.e. “Is he conscious?” – but the second place is implicit. If he is conscious, he is conscious *of* something.”

    Compare “is conscious” with “is waiting”. If you are waiting you must be waiting for someone or something. It doesn’t make sense to ask “Is he waiting?” without a sense that he is waiting for *something specific*. But it *does* make sense to ask “Is he conscious?” or “Are mice conscious?” without implicitly specifying the thing or things which he, or they, are conscious of.

    In the first case (“Is he conscious?”), the focus is on the distinction between being knocked-out or in a coma and being alert and having a normally functioning body/brain. (You would not *normally* ask the question “Is he conscious?” to distinguish normal sleeping from being awake.) In the second case you are asking whether mice experience something analogous to what we experience as we interact with the world.

    I am talking here about how the word “conscious” is actually used and am claiming that the word is polysemous: its meaning changes with context. So you could see the expression “is conscious” as sometimes operating (like “sleeps”) as a one-place predicate; and sometimes (e.g. “is conscious of”) as taking two arguments (like the verb “eats”).

    Moreover , “conscious” as a one-place predicate may mean subtly different things in different contexts. The usual context relates to distinguishing between normal functioning and being knocked out, anesthetized or in a coma. As such, its use does not require one to adopt a metaphysical position. (No more so than does asking whether someone is awake or asleep.)

    If you ask whether mice or mosquitoes are conscious, however, you are venturing into more philosophical (though not necessarily metaphysical) territory.

    I realize that I have not addressed your main claims directly; these are merely my initial thoughts on the first part of your piece.

  17. davidlduffy

    “how we can talk of suffering under an illusion”: An illusion can fool a non-conscious animal or even a computer program. Even of you don’t think consciousness is how we conceive of it, you can still wield the concepts of knowledge and error about oneself.

    In the case of conscious perceptual experience, “..change blindness and inattentional blindness demonstrate that much of the available visual information goes unnoticed. Direct estimates of the capacity of visual attention and working memory reveal that surprisingly few items can be processed and maintained at once…Introspectively, consciousness seems rich in content..[but] from the third-person perspective of the behavioral scientist…consciousness is rather miserable…” [Cohen, Dennett & Kanwisher 2016].

    As to homunculi – we feel we actually have some handle on other humans in the third person, so we do see them as a solution to the “problems of subjectivity”. Consider the motor and sensory homunculi representing our inputs and action outputs, along with the semantic maps of the external world tiling the cortex also in a spatially organised fashion,

    Personally, I think a lot of this are non-problems.If you believe there an evolutionary continuity between us and other animals, then a plausible hypothesis is that there is a continuity in the basic perceptual experiences. What else woulld they look like?

  18. This post is so abbreviated and concise it reminds me of mathematics. And speaking of infinite regress and mathematics, we can all be thankful that Archimedes, Leipzig and Newton did not give up in the face of seemingly infinite regress, and created Calculus instead. (What does this have to do with consciousness? Not much, except that the truest description of physical reality known today does not concern matter and particles, but differential equations, and as such are living embodiments of Eleatic paradoxes.)

  19. That’s true of all the Bits and Pieces posts. They represent things I haven’t entirely thought through yet.

  20. There are some real problems with trying to nail down consciousness, leaving me despondent about our ability to logically solve such existential problems. I fully expect that the control system of the Boeing 737 Max will be fixed soon, but getting to the bottom of problems like race, love, beauty, culture, consciousness, etc has not happened, despite a few million years of trying.

    I blame language. We all ‘know’ what consciousness is, but what none of us know is whether it is the same or different for others – my investigations into the matter strongly suggest it is different for everyone, probably widely so. Nevertheless we use the same words to describe very different realities, which means that these words are inaccurate and imprecise.

    Therefore we should not expect that the pure act of talking is going to solve anything. Yes, consciousness is “inherently a first-person, qualitative phenomenon” – that is a straightforward ontological fact. The problem is that we are epistemically blind about it. Our only recourse is to collect empirical data about the world in which we live. This has been done with great success and more is coming. So far it is pretty obvious that all living creatures ‘interact’ with each other and their niche environment. I have no problem saying they are conscious. Trees communicate via chemicals. Some bacteria in a biofilm can communicate via electrical signals, very much like neurons. My Westie has a tiny brain but is the product of selection for the ability to interact in a highly sophisticated way with humans. My wife and I think he is the most ‘intelligent’ dog we have ever had. Some philosophers and scientists still would not call this consciousness, but the burden is on them.

    The problem with panpsychism is also mainly in the word. The idea that a rock would have a psyche is as dumb as a rock, but the idea that there is information processing going on is worth some further thought. The molecules in the rock obviously’ recognize’ each other and also ‘respect’ the forces of gravity, they are ‘intelligent’, neutrinos not so much. Certainly, quarks, muons, electrons and protons interact in ways that defy ‘ordinary’ logic, hence the need for mysterious theories in order to explain their behavior.

    So, yes, language is extremely useful for informing others of what is going on, especially in the ordinary physical world, but it largely fails when subtlety, precision and accuracy is required. That is when a fully integrated, skilled and knowledgeable person is required. One should be “maximally eclectic” as a famous philosopher once advised me.

  21. I have always had — and still have — a problem of characterizing something as “information,” in the absence of an interpretation. I know it’s common in science, but I think it is a mistake.

  22. This doesn’t address the question that the piece takes up at all.

  23. My piece takes full account of our biology, hence the rejection of panpsychism.

  24. It’s true that Leibniz and Newton created calculus by ignoring the problems created by infinitesimal quantities.
    (Archimedes is different. Some of his proofs are perfectly rigorous. In a certain sense, he was the better mathematician, in my opinion).

    But Newton, Leibniz, Laplace, Lagrange etc. were guided by experimental science. Many scientific observations confirmed that their theories and techniques were essentially correct, although important mathematical aspects were badly understood.

    I think the situation is very different for the philosophical problem of consciousness.
    To use a few of Dan’s indicators:

    (a) the problem of the infinitesimals did not (only) point towards skeptical conclusions. It’s hard to stay skeptical when you can explain Kepler’s law or can calculate the trajectories of planets with infinitesimals;
    (c) the problem didn’t seem only to suggest absurd conclusions. Maybe one can find some absurdities in the works of Newton, Laplace, Lagrange etc. but their work certainly did not only point in such direction;
    (d) the problem was solved, although it took roughly two centuries;
    (e) mathematically and physically speaking, the problem wasn’t handled rigorously, but I don’t think it can be said it was plagued by the category errors etc. Dan is talking about.

    When “infinitely nested homunculi” can produce a similar list, I’ll consider them.

  25. I agree, the thought of information exchange between physical entities does require a certain amount of mental manipulation and distillation. But there is no other way to describe these phenomena – yet another example of the limitations of language.

    Probably a better example of ‘information’ exchange is phototransduction. When a ‘red’ photon ‘hits’ the appropriate ‘red’ opsin protein in a retinal cone cell, it is ‘recognized’ for what it is and is absorbed, causing a conformational change in the protein and electrons become activated (transduction). I presume the information on the photon allowing for its recognition by the opsin resides in its wavelength. The decision making of the opsin is very ‘simple’: if a red photon contacts a red opsin, information is exchanged, introducing a cascade of molecular events that ultimately results in a signal traveling up a nerve fiber that is recognized by a neuron to come from a red cone from a particular point on the retina. Hence an image can be constructed out of non-specific action potentials.

    So, at a person to person level information exchange occurs in very defined ways, language being the main medium. Very similar events are occurring at the cellular, molecular, atomic and subatomic levels, etc. Our language has evolved dealing with the macroscopic world, and so we have to use some imagination dealing with the microscopic one. A similar problem arises when we try to visualize the submicroscopic world. There is no way that cartoon like figures actually represent what microtubules and flagellae etc really look like.

    Disclaimer: it has been decades since I have looked at the physiology of vision, so nothing here is guaranteed.

  26. Peter Smith

    Consciousness(and the resulting products of thought) is a hard problem(not the ‘hard’ problem) because it is essentially the only phenomenon that seems to be fundamentally resistant to scientific methodology. All other problems have been, or are in principle, explainable through scientific method. We can ordinarily observe a phenomenon of interest and measure it, if necessary, by developing sufficiently advanced equipment. Once it is observable and measurable we can model the process, constructing explanatory hypotheses and test them.

    But not so with consciouness. We cannot directly observe or measure the materials of consciousness, thoughts and experiences. Knowledge about consciousness is only available 1) through introspection, which is not science, or 2) through third party reports of their experience, which in the same way is not science. To put it plainly, we cannot put a probe in the brain and read out thoughts or experiences.

    For as long as thoughts themselves cannot be directly measured and observed we are at an impasse. Science cannot go further and can only conjecture, which places it in the domain of philosophy. We can certainly examine the operation of the brain. We can observe/measure its electrical and chemical operations, which are the sources of the thoughts. But we have no conceivable way of translating these electrical/chemical operations into thoughts. This is the brain-mind barrier. If a researcher could place a probe in my brain and tell me that I am remembering my holiday in Spain, exclaiming, wow, that was awesome sex, and continue to describe, in vivid detail, my future plans for a holiday on the Adriatic coast, then I would say he had solved the brain-mind paradox.

    Today that is unimaginable. No one knows, even in principle, how that might be done. And that is because we simply don’t know what thoughts are and therefore cannot observe/measure them. Experiencing them is not the same thing as knowing what they are. The Mysterians say the problem is intractable. Dennett waves his hand at the problem and 500 pages later concludes it is an illusion. One can only conclude that Dennett is deluded or dumfounded.

    I think that Dave Chalmers has the most interesting approach. He speculates that consciousness is the outcome of a fundamental law of nature that has still not been discovered and once we know that law of nature consciousness will be readily explainable. If he is right it means that consciousness is in some way embedded in the Universe, that is if there is a law of nature that describes its operation.

    He says “Consciousness fits uneasily into our conception of the natural world. On the most common conception of nature, the natural world is the physical world. But on the most common conception of consciousness, it is not easy to see how it could be part of the physical world. So it seems that to find a place for consciousness within the natural order, we must either revise our conception of consciousness, or revise our conception of nature … The other three (D through F) involve broadly nonreductive views, on which consciousness involves something irreducible in nature, and requires expansion or reconception of a physical ontology. …. But as things stand, I think that we have good reason to suppose that consciousness has a fundamental place in nature.Consciousness and its Place in Nature (

    That is not as strange as it sounds. After all consciousness has naturally arisen in the Universe and it must have arisen as the outcome of the operation of laws of nature. The question then becomes, which of the following two cases apply?

    1) Consciousness is described by one or more laws of nature, making consciousness an inherent part of the Universe. (by the way, this is not panpsychism)
    2) Consciousness is the chance, random outcome of the interplay of many laws of nature and our thinking about it is a lucky accident. Plain, ordinary particles have mingled in such a way that they have acquired, seemingly out of nowhere, a brand new property called consciousness. This allows us to think that consciousness is not an inherent, inevitable part of the Universe.

    How do we choose between these two cases? Science is silent on that matter since chance driven generation of consciousness has never been demonstrated and moreover it seems extraordinarily unlikely. Not even one of Shakespeare’s sonnets have been typed by a random horde of monkeys.

    We know there are still are a great number of laws of nature to be discovered and it is possible that a law of nature describing the operation of consciousness is lurking among these yet to be discovered laws of nature. The as yet invisibility of that law of nature does not point to its non-existence. Unproven but not impossible.

    Supporters of the second case(random interplay of particles/laws of nature) point to the large role that chance plays in the evolution of the Universe. This is a chance driven Universe, they say and we are a fortunate but unlikely outcome of a chance driven process. Otherwise the Universe is silent and random.

    Supporters of the first case point out that these chance driven outcomes are supported on a large and intricate foundation of the laws of nature which make the process possible. Chance is merely the surface froth on the deeper, deterministic operation of laws of nature which are extraordinarily rational. Whatever seems chance driven is in reality driven by deeper laws of nature and we must turn to these deeper laws of nature if we want a proper explanation.

    The choice between these two cases is determined more by ideological predilictions than by facts of the matter. There are no facts of the matter. The theory of evolution is silent on the matter. Evolutionary theory is a chance driven process resting on a deep foundation of the fundamental laws of nature which determine the process but do not dictate individual outcomes.

    As for me, I am a supporter of Dave Chalmers, on purely probabilistic grounds, though I find his protopanpsychist leanings unpalatable. I think that the laws of nature indicate that the underpinnings of the Universe are thoroughly rational and therefore a rational explanation is rather more likely than a chance driven explanation.

  27. I am not quite sure what problem you are talking about there, that took roughly two centuries. Sorry for being unclear earlier. Personally I see the infinitesimals genealogy of ideas beginning with the Eleatic school, Zenon and Parmenides. The manifest view of Time that they were denying, a subjective “now” continuously flowing along, is not really explained by modern physics either, but the ongoing attempts to explain it has certainly contributed to the use of differential equations in the most successful formulations of physics so far.

  28. Mark, I would think that you would approve of a Wittgenstein/Ryle style dissolution of the problem of consciousness, precisely because it eliminates any need for a substantive metaphysics. If you notice, in the piece, I take the fact that consciousness entails hommunculism as a reason for thinking a Wittgenstein/Ryle style dissolution is indicated.

  29. davidlduffy

    Dear Dan, you try to dismiss one horn of your trilemma – the eliminativist/illusionist position – with one sentence. I don’t think Dennett has any problems with the personhood of everyone, and personally I can easily diagnose when other people are acting under the influence of illusions and delusions. Dumb animals have a point of view and a self, and respond to general anaesthetics in the same way we do.

    As for information, physicists differentiate between energy ratchets and information ratchets using objective criteria. It is straightforward to see this extending up to Friston’s models in eg

    Although this work provides a formulation of every thing, its main contribution is to examine the implications of Markov blankets for self-organisation to nonequilibrium steady-state. In brief, we recover an information geometry and accompanying free energy principle that allows one to interpret the internal states of something as representing or making inferences about its external states. The ensuing Bayesian mechanics is compatible with quantum, statistical and classical mechanics and may offer a formal description of lifelike particles.

  30. Yes I am sympathetic to this general approach. I read The Concept of Mind in my first year at university and I was really impressed. It challenged some of my assumptions but also tapped into some (no doubt widely shared) intuitions.

  31. Peter Smith

    the most important thing you say is in your final paragraph. You say(my formatting)

    I believe that the only solution to the problem of consciousness will come via a Wittgenstein/Ryle-style dissolution. How does one know when one has reached such a point with respect to a philosophical problem?

    A number of indicators (not criteria) I have employed include:
    (a) the problem points towards skeptical conclusions;
    (b) the problem involves infinite regresses;
    (c) the problem leads otherwise very smart people to absurd conclusions that defy both science and common sense and seems only to point in such directions;
    (d) the problem has stubbornly eluded a solution for a very, very (very) long time; and
    (e) the problem hints towards category errors, confusions of language, and conflations of the Scientific and Manifest images.

    I agree with your indicators, but what does the following mean?
    I believe that the only solution to the problem of consciousness will come via a Wittgenstein/Ryle-style dissolution.

    1) “I believe that the only solution” – you seem to believe a solution can be found. Why?
    2) “Wittgenstein/Ryle-style dissolution” – what is a Wittgenstein/Ryle-style dissolution?

    My sceptical mind suspects that this is an attempt to define the problem out of existence(dissolution?), just as Dennett did with his claims that it is an illusion. Is this not just a figurative throwing up of hands in despair, an abandonment of understanding?

    Please help me out here. I need more clarity from the man who ordinarily expresses himself with great clarity.

  32. The idea is that these indicators suggest that the problem is not a real problem, but rather, one that arises because of confusions resulting from our uses of language and/or the framing we are employing. The original version of this, I would argue, can be found in Hume’s dissolution of skepticism.

  33. Peter Smith

    The idea is that these indicators suggest that the problem is not a real problem

    What is real here is that neuroscience has defined a problem quite specifically but cannot provide a solution. I suggest this means there is a real problem.

    I am deeply suspicious of attempts to relegate problems to the domain of non-problems just because the going gets tough.That is too convenient. We need very clear and specific reasoning, as well as evidence, before we can make this move. And I don’t see that. Sure, your categories indicate this is a very difficult problem that is a long way from solution. But that is all we can conclude and your categories don’t demonstrate that the problem is insoluble. You are going the extra mile to conclude this means a non-problem. I think this is an awfully premature conclusion that fails to take into account that neuroscience is in its infancy.

  34. attempts to relegate problems to the domain of non-problems just because the going gets tough.

    = = =

    I don’t think it does this at all.

    = = =

    I think this is an awfully premature conclusion that fails to take into account that neuroscience is in its infancy.

    = = = =

    The problem is that neuroscience is irrelevant to this problem, whatever it may find. The issue is conceptual, not a matter of scientific discovery, as I tried to explain in the piece.

  35. Peter Smith

    The issue is conceptual, not a matter of scientific discovery,

    You are ruling some matters as being outside of or beyond the scope or domain of science. I find that quite extraordinary. Science is by far the most powerful, productive and prolific way of understanding our world. Nothing else comes even remotely close to it. Our understanding of the world has advanced by many, many orders of magnitude through the application of scientific method.

    Consider for a moment that our Universe began in an instant from the Big Bang. Moments after the Big Bang there was only a formless, primordial, hot soup of fundamental particles. Guided by the laws of nature this hot primordial soup of particles coalesced into stars, black holes, galaxies, planets, providing a platform for the evolution of primitive life forms, advanced life forms and finally cognitively aware life forms.

    From the very beginning this process operated inexorably, without exception, according to the laws of nature. Nothing was exempt from the laws of nature. Given all this, we can only conclude that consciousness is the natural outgrowth of the laws of nature. Consciousness is not exempt from or separate from the dictates of the laws of nature.

    Now at its heart science is the uncovering of or discovery and formulation of laws of nature, following a careful, precise methodology Once we have acquired sufficient knowledge of the relevant laws of nature we can use this knowledge to model, describe and understand phenomena of interest. It succeeds very well at this but it is a work in progress with much, much more to be done. As it happens some laws of nature resist discovery because they are masked by great difficulties.

    Difficulty does not mean impossibility. Given that the entire Universe evolved strictly in accordance with the laws of nature, from beginning until now, there is no conceptual, in principle reason, why certain laws of nature are not discoverable or certain phenomena are not capable of being described or understood through the application of laws of nature. And nothing, absolutely nothing is exempt from the scope of the laws of nature.

    Difficulty may delay this process of scientific discovery until the state of the art has sufficiently advanced. It may even be delayed by thousands of years but ultimately all problems will yield to scientific progress.

    But we can imagine three possible reasons why certain phenomena may not be capable of being modelled, described and understood through this process.

    1) Anasognosia. There could be limits to our cognition which may ultimately limit scientific progress. We are not there yet. While our minds are very capable we cannot know that they are capable enough.

    2) Complexity. The description or modelling of some processes may be so complex that they exceed available computing power. However computing power is advancing rapidly so we cannot yet rule out some processes from examination, modelling, description and being understood on the grounds of intractable complexity.

    3) Social consensus. Society may not be willing to spend the resources necessary for the solution of certain problems.

    We will only know that we have hit the limits of anasognosia and complexity when the problem resists stubborn, determined and repeated investigation over a very long period of time. We are a very long way from that point. We may reach that point earlier if social consensus fails, limiting the resources we spend on science.

  36. Peter Smith

    Of course I am playing the Devil’s Advocate. There is one very powerful reason why certain problems can be outside the scope of science and that is free will. Free will releases the mind from the strictures of the deterministic application of the laws of nature. Once the mind is free from the strictures of the laws of nature it is outside the reach of science. It is that simple and that is what I believe. This is why we have the clear separation between the manifest and scientific images.

    Think of the mind as being a bird in a cage. Within the cage it can fly freely but its flight is limited by the bars, floor and roof of the cage. Flight within the cage is free will. The cage represents the restraints imposed by the deterministic laws of nature. Science can describe the cage but it cannot describe the free willing movement within the cage.

  37. I gave the reasons in the piece for thinking the problem is conceptual in the piece. Until i see something that contradicts them. I’lll continue to think so.

  38. Peter Smith

    I gave the reasons in the piece for thinking the problem is conceptual in the piece.

    Your reasons (a) through (e) show only that the problem is very difficult. You are making an unwarranted move by concluding that difficulty means it is conceptual in nature.

  39. I disagree. Specifically, the point I made regarding what is left over after a complete physicalistic reduction remains unaddressed. Similarly the point regarding scientific enquiry’s inherently 3rd person perspective.

  40. You are making an unwarranted move by concluding that difficulty means it is conceptual in nature.

    I’ll agree with Dan. It is conceptual.

  41. Peter Smith

    Science has simply not progressed far enough. Give it more time, more resources and better instrumentation and better answers will emerge.

  42. This begs the question. I’ve already stipulated a completed science and explained why the problem seems to remain. Not every problem is a “we need more time/money/resources” problem.

  43. Just two cents worth:

    First, we should remember that the “consciousness” we wish to understand is the particularly human consciousness. Do we really care for the consciousness of a cat or a slug, or the common bacterium? Let alone the possible ‘consciousness’ of a hunk of rock.

    Why can’t “consciousness” simply be a term of art for the present, self-aware summary of the individual’s experiences and reflective responses? Why must it be some kind of thing or special phenomenon? Who can point to it?

    ‘I am conscious of my sore knee.” I can point to the knee, how would I point to the consciousness?

    “After a cup of coffee, I am finally conscious/’ – how is this different from, ‘I am finally awake’?

    Both Buddhism and German Idealism, in different ways, understand ‘consciousness’ as originating in desire and ultimately forming the umbrella under which we understand our behaviors as localized in the individual. The Idealists reified this, the Buddhists deconstructed it. Ultimately the resolution is practice. Our consciousness of what we do has real consequences. Discussion of “consciousness” seems only meaningful as it leads to such resolution.

  44. A belated thought regarding the necessity of an interpretation before an interaction can be said to be based on information.

    This requirement appears to arise out of a very narrow definition of consciousness: All information is consciously identified during the process of evaluation of an event or phenomenon. There are no other inputs. Humans are conscious but it becomes problematical whether other animals are.

    But that apparently is not the way our minds work. Intensive study of humans indicate that all inputs are not consciously recognized and that decisions are affected by factors that we are not explicitly aware of. There are even suggestions that we make decisions, sometimes quite complicated ones, before we are cognitively aware of such decisions.

    More importantly, there is no clear, empirical dividing line between conscious and unconscious living creatures as we go down the hierarchy of complexity: primates, mammals, vertebrates, etc. Since worms or insects or protozoans similarly respond to their environments, they also must be conscious and, therefore, must be processing information.

    Information processing is then a feature of at least all animals. Thinking in concepts is not a sine qua non of consciousness.

  45. I don’t see how something can even *count* as information in the absence of an interpretation. And every explanation I’ve heard is little more than metaphors piled up on each other.

  46. Our consciousness of what we do has real consequences.

    I like that expression “consciousness of what we do”. I see it as getting to the core of consciousness.

    The view embraced by the Chalmers “hard problem” emphasizes perceptual experience. The deeper problem, is the common view that perception is something that happens to us. We need to understand that perception is something that we do. We are not passive perceivers. The causal theory of perception is absurd.

  47. Ugo Corda

    I think the so called “hard problem of consciousness” is perceived as hard because our physicalist view of reality is historically connected to a mechanistic view, the “particles as billiard balls” metaphor inherited from the times of Newton and Laplace. Billiard balls do not aggregate to form conscious entities, so how could elementary particles do that. But elementary particles DO aggregate in ways that give rise to consciousness (while at the same time following the regularities described by the laws of quantum mechanics): it is right there in front of our eyes. And the most that science will be able to do (eventually, assuming it is not too hard for our minds) is finding a third-person, quantitative model of certain configurations of matter which will establish physicalist correlates for the first-person view of consciousness (which by itself would be an incredibly valuable achievement). What else do we expect from science?

    So what else is there? How is it possible that particular aggregations of particles can give rise to consciousness? Well, I think that kind of question is similar to asking why there are particles out there as described in the Standard Model, which behave the way they do. (And the multiverse answer is not a real answer, because we could then ask why there is such a “thing” like the multiverse behaving the way it does).

    It’s one of those questions with no answer: all we can say is that there are indeed particles out there which behave, to the best of our current models, according to what is described in the Standard Model, and in addition to that also aggregate in ways that give rise to consciousness (ways not described by any current scientific model) without in any manner contradicting the laws of physics we are familiar with. (And that is not the same thing, by the way, as saying that each particle carries its own fragment of consciousness, which sounds to me rather nonsensical).