David Chalmers is famous as the philosopher who coined the hard problem of consciousness, the idea that how and why consciousness is produced from a physical system, how phenomenal experience arises from such a system, is an intractably difficult issue. He contrasts the hard problem with what he calls “easy problems” such as discriminating between environmental stimuli, integrating information, and reporting on mental states.
Recently, Chalmers has been discussing another problem, the meta-problem of consciousness. In essence, it’s the problem of why so many people think there is a hard problem. I give him credit for addressing this, but it’s an issue that has been raised a lot over the years by people, mostly people in the illusionist camp, who have questioned whether the hard problem is really a problem. Crucially, Chalmers admits that the meta-problem, at least in principle, falls into his easy problem category.
This talk is about an hour and 10 minutes. I recommend sticking around for the Q&A. The quality of the questions from the Google staff make it pretty interesting.
One of the things I found interesting in the talk were the multiple references to the idea of consciousness being irreducible. I’ve pushed back against that idea multiple times on this blog. I find it strange that anyone familiar with neurological case studies can argue that consciousness can’t be present in lesser or greater quantities, or that aspects of it can’t be missing.
However, what I found interesting is the idea that panpsychism involves an irreducible notion of consciousness. When you push panpsychists on whether things like a single neuron, a protein, a molecule, an atom, or an electron are conscious, what you usually get back is an assertion that the consciousness in these things isn’t anything like the consciousness we’re familiar with. It’s a building block of sorts. Which seems to me like a reduction of our manifest image of consciousness to those these more primitive building blocks.
One prominent panpsychist recently equated quantum spin with those building blocks. This just brings me back to the observation that the more natualistic versions of panpsychism seem ontologically equivalent to the starkest forms of illusionism, with the differences between them simply coming down to preferred language.
Anyway, those of you who’ve known me for a while will know that my sympathies in this discussion are largely with the illusionists. I think their explanations about what is going on are the most productive.
Except for one big caveat. I don’t care for the word “illusion” in this context. I do have sympathy with the assertion that if phenomenal experience is an illusion, then the illusion is the experience. It seems more productive to describe experience as something that is constructed. We have introspective access to the final constructed show, but not to the backstage mechanisms. That lack of access makes the show look miraculous, when in reality it’s just us not seeing how the magician does its trick.
Chalmers main point in discussing the meta-problem seems to be an effort not to cede this discussion to the illusionists. He points out that there may be solutions to the meta-problem that leaves the hard problem intact.
Perhaps, but it seems to me that the most plausible solutions leave the hard problem more as a psychological one, a difficulty accepting that the data provide no support for substance dualism, for any ghost in the machine. To reconcile with that data, we have to override our intuitions, but that is often true in science.
Unless of course I’m missing something?