The hard problem of consciousness, a term coined by philosopher David Chalmers, asks how physical systems can produce phenomenal consciousness. Chalmers’ term, coined in the 1990s, applied to an older problem that’s been around for along time, the mind-body problem. More recently, Chalmers noted his intuition that the hard problem is widely and intuitively held by most people, at least people who are self reflective.
His intuition stands in contrast to observations from people like Keith Frankish and Peter Carruthers, who argue that they often have to work to convince their students that there is a hard problem. In their experience, it’s not something students intuitively feel until they’ve become grounded (indoctrinated?) in philosophical arguments.
There have been some studies in recent years that tried to test these intuitions. One asked people whether a robot could see red or feel pain. Philosophers surveyed said no, however non-philosophers thought the robot might see red, but were less likely to see it as feeling pain. Although there have been arguments that the formulation of the questions might have skewed the results.
A preprint is out about a new experimental philosophy study by Rodrigo Díaz, testing people’s intuitions about the hard problem. The study conducted a series of surveys designed to get at people’s intuitions, focusing in particular on pain.
In the initial survey, people read two stories. One was about science linking the feeling of pain to neural activity in a particular brain region. The other, a control case, about science linking water to H20. They were then asked how much they agreed with each of two statements about each story, an epistemic reduction statement and a metaphysical reduction statement.
The epistemic reduction stated that the properties of (pain / water) were fully explained in terms of the (neural activity / chemical composition). The metaphysical reduction stated that the (feeling of pain / substance water) just is (neural activity / chemical composition H20). The respondents rated how much they agreed or disagreed with each statement for each story on a number scale.
The results were the same for both pain and water on the epistemic reduction statement, and close on the metaphysical reduction statement, indicating the the respondents didn’t see consciousness as a particular problem.
However, someone could argue that the story, as an authoritative statement about what science had accomplished, could have been leading the respondents. So follow up surveys made the story less certain, and then eliminated it altogether, just asking new respondents cold about the reduction statements. The results stayed consistent.
A second group of surveys told a slightly different story, one that noted how controversial the connection between subjective mental states and objective brains states were. This led to a sharp decrease in the number agreeing (from 80% down to 47% on the epistemic reduction). When the reasons for the disagreements were analyzed, about half did seem related to concerns about consciousness, but the other half stemmed from concerns about how complete the science was.
I imagine people will be dissecting the results and methodology here, but the results seem to indicate that, unless prompted by a description of mystery, people don’t see a problem with the experience of pain being reduced to physical processes, and so, don’t seem to see consciousness as irreducible. After being prompted, more do seem to see it as an issue, but many others either don’t, or only do from concerns related to the science.
So most regular people don’t seem to see the hard problem of consciousness. Although the change in results with the prompt may indicate that at least some of them can pick it up easier than Frankish or Carruthers implied.
When pondering these results, it’s worth noting that the modern concept of consciousness only goes back to the 17th century. (The ancient Greek discussions about the soul are often now taken to be discussions of consciousness, but that’s us retconning our own concepts onto theirs.) And even the early modern references are more about the access aspects rather than the phenomenal ones, which don’t become prominent until the 20th century.
All of which is to say, maybe the philosophers have just psyched themselves out on this. The problem with phenomenal consciousness could just be a backlash to the death of dualism.
Or maybe I’m missing something?