The Journal of Consciousness Studies has an issue out on the meta-problem of consciousness. (Unfortunately, it’s paywalled, so you’ll need a subscription, or access to a school network that has one.)
As a reminder, there’s the hard problem of consciousness, coined by David Chalmers in 1995, which is the question of why or how we have conscious experience, or as described by others, how conscious experience “arises” from physical systems.
Then there’s the meta-problem, also more recently coined by Chalmers, on why we think there is a hard problem. The meta-problem is an issue long identified by people in the illusionist camp, those who see phenomenal consciousness as an illusion, a mistaken concept.
The JCS issue has papers from a number of illusionists, which include the usual suspects, like Daniel Dennett and Keith Frankish discussing the virtues of the illusionist outlook. It also has an entry by Michael Graziano discussing his attention-schema theory of consciousness. Graziano gave a description of the meta-problem in his book Consciousness and the Social Brain back in 2013, although he didn’t call it that. (Graziano has a new book out, which appears to be an updated look at his theory, which I might have to read at some point.)
Picking through the entries, two in particular caught my attention. One by Hakwan Lau and Matthias Michel (whose work I’ve highlighted a lot lately), look at the meta-problem from a socio-historical perspective. The main gist is that on some subjects, such as consciousness, we psych ourselves out, collectively convincing ourselves that it is unsolvable.
This has the perverse effect of making scientists reluctant to work on it, and attracting senior scientists, often from other fields, at the end of their career interested in making a revolutionary breakthrough, which often leads to outlandish ideas. This in turn sets up a feedback loop leading to a breakdown of peer review, credibility, and funding.
The solution Lau and Michel contend, is to work on incremental gains, attempt to build up empirical evidence. Gradually this will diminish many of the mysteries and give the idea that the problems are not as insoluble as they might appear.
Of course, many will never accept the theories produced by such an approach, but as Lau and Michel point out, this is often true in science, where Isaac Newton’s contemporaries were uneasy about the action-at-a-distance implied in Newtonian gravity, or Einstein’s reluctance to accept the results of quantum mechanics, but the old guard was eventually replaced by a newer generation of scientists who didn’t find the new theories objectionable.
I think there’s a lot to this view. But I also think the incremental approach been happening in psychology and neuroscience for a long time. I’ve read plenty of neuroscience material that were studies of aspects of consciousness, but that studiously avoided the word “consciousness”, focusing instead on specific capabilities and the neural wiring underpinning it. Much of this material is what personally convinced me that the consciousness problem is overstated.
The other paper that caught my eye has a similar theme. Justin Sytsma and Eyuphan Ozdemir challenge Chalmers’ contention that perception of the hard problem is widespread among the lay public, that it’s part of our folk psychology. (There’s a free preprint available.)
They provide evidence showing that people are only slightly less likely to attribute phenomenal experiences like seeing red to a robot as opposed to a human. The data do show that they’re less likely to attribute pain to the robot, but not as much as might be implied by a widespread feeling that phenomenal consciousness is uniquely human or biological.
In other words, according to the authors, most of the lay public don’t appear to hold a concept of the philosophical version of phenomenal consciousness, and so most of them don’t have the intuitive concern about the hard problem.
If true, I can’t say I find it particularly surprising. Keith Frankish recently asked on Twitter if people recalled thinking about consciousness as a child. I didn’t respond, mostly because I wasn’t sure what I remember thinking about consciousness as a child. I certainly wouldn’t have used the word “consciousness”, but I was trying to think if I might have pondered it in some pre-terminological fashion.
But the truth is, prior to about ten years ago, I didn’t really give consciousness much thought. The word “conscious” to me meant little more than being awake. (Even back in my younger days, when I was a dualist.) I suspect for a lot of people, that’s about the limit of what they consider about it. Most of them have no problem conceiving of a robot as conscious.
What do you think? Did you ponder consciousness as a child? Or before you were interested in philosophy? In other words, before you read it was a problem, did you actually perceive the problem?