The Hard Problem of Consciousness:

Resolving the confusion in 500 words

Mike Holliday


This summary has been distilled down from my lengthy (27,000 words) article, “The Possibility of Materialism”, which critiques the work of David Chalmers.

Comments welcome: you can contact me at mike@holli.co.uk. My home page can be found here.

Mike Holliday : 5 January 2017

The argument that consciousness is a “mystery” often 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 which are characterised in structural-dynamical, third-person terms. There are also epistemic gaps between facts concerning the former properties and facts concerning the latter. The conclusion is then drawn that these epistemic gaps must result from the different nature of the two types of property – their orthogonal natures mean that our concepts of them cannot be linked so as to sustain a priori entailments. And without such entailments, physical properties cannot be said to determine the phenomenal properties. The latter must therefore be intrinsic properties, and our criteria for applying a phenomenal concept must simply be that the relevant intrinsic property is instantiated. Further, any claim of an identity between qualitative properties and structural-dynamical properties must be brute and unmotivated. Hence there can be no physical explanation of experiences.


However, this line of thought involves two fundamental errors. The first is a failure to distinguish between (i) qualitative vs. structural-dynamical considerations, and (ii) first vs. third-person considerations. We have good reason to think that there must be epistemic gaps between first-person 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 be met by physical facts – hence the epistemic gaps. But this reason for the epistemic gaps does not arise from the qualitative character of phenomenal properties, and therefore the existence of those gaps does not give us reason to conclude that phenomenal properties are indeed intrinsic properties. The gaps relate instead to the “privacy” of our inner lives (which may well be explainable in biological terms - see, e.g., Evan Thompson).


The second error is a failure to investigate the applicability criteria for phenomenal concepts – it is simply assumed that the criterion must be the instantiation of the relevant intrinsic 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 experiencing as that which I term “blue” I would surely not say that my concept of “blue” applied to it. But we can now claim an identity between those mental activities characterised in first-person terms, and the same activities characterised as functions in purely third-person terms, such as observable behaviour. Such an identity would not be brute or unmotivated. The argument that there cannot be a physical or functional account of experience has now collapsed.