The Hard Problem of Consciousness:

Resolving the confusion in 700 words

Mike Holliday (January 2018)

This summary has been distilled down from my lengthy (27,000 words) article “The Possibility of Materialism”.

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Mike Holliday : 21 January 2018

David Chalmers’ argument that there can be no physical account of consciousness goes something like this: There are aspects of experiences that are characterised in qualitative, first-person terms, and these are distinguishable from physical or functional properties that are characterised in structural-dynamical, third-person terms. There are also epistemic gaps – relating to explanation, conceivability, and knowledge – between facts concerning the former properties and facts concerning the latter. It seems that these gaps must result from the different character of the two types of property; in particular, the orthogonal nature of our concepts of these two kinds of property means that those concepts cannot be linked so as to sustain a priori entailments between physical or functional facts on the one hand and phenomenal facts on the other. The absence of such entailments implies that the physical properties of the world cannot determine the phenomenal properties, and the latter must therefore be intrinsic properties. Hence, any claim of an identity between phenomenal and physical properties must be brute and unmotivated. Since phenomenal properties are neither determined by, nor identical to, physical properties, we may conclude that there can be no physical account of conscious experiences.

However, this line of thought involves two fundamental errors. The first is a failure to clearly separate two different distinctions: (i) the qualitative vs. structural-dynamical distinction, and (ii) the first-person vs. third-person distinction. We have good reason to think that there must be epistemic gaps between first-person facts and third-person facts, because the objective, third-person viewpoint derives from the possibility of inter-subject agreement, where that agreement might be obtained from any competent observer placed in the relevant situation. However, inter-subject agreement does not seem possible in respect of phenomenal facts: each experience is had by only a single person, and phenomenal facts are therefore not cognitively available to anyone other than the individual having the relevant experience. Therefore the criteria for asserting a phenomenal fact cannot possibly relate to physical facts, implying that there can be no a priori entailment of phenomenal facts by the physical facts. Hence the existence of those well-known epistemic gaps. But this reason for the existence of the gaps does not concern the qualitative character of phenomenal properties, and we therefore have no reason to conclude that those gaps exist because of the singular nature of such properties, for example that they are intrinsic properties. Instead, the gaps arise from the epistemic “privacy” of our inner lives – something which may well be explainable in biological terms (see, for example, the work of Evan Thompson).

The second error is a failure to properly investigate the applicability criteria for phenomenal concepts; instead, it is simply assumed that the criterion must be the instantiation of the relevant intrinsic phenomenal property. But it is possible, indeed plausible, that those criteria relate to facts concerning other aspects of our first-person, interior lives – mental activities such as attention, change identification, recognition, discrimination. For example, if I did not recognise the colour I am currently experiencing as that which I term “sky blue”, nor discriminate the colour’s relational properties with respect to other colours as being those which I expect “sky blue” to have (e.g. that it is not as deeply saturated as “navy blue”, and that it is quite light in the same way that “yellow” is), I would surely not say that my concept of “sky blue” applied to my current experience. But we are now in a position to claim an identity between mental activities (such as recognition or discrimination) characterised in first-person terms – which are able to serve as the applicability criteria for our phenomenal concepts, and thereby sustain a priori entailments – and those same activities characterised as functions using purely third-person terms, for example observable behaviour. And this type of identity is not brute or unmotivated.

The argument that there cannot be a physical or functional account of experience has now collapsed; there are epistemic gaps, but they arise because the sort of inter-subject agreement that is needed for objective facts is inconsistent with the “privacy” of our inner lives. The argument against materialism fails to appreciate this and therefore misattributes the cause of the epistemic gaps to the qualitative aspects of our experiences.