Note on the easy and hard problems of consciousness


One of the crucial aspects of the philosophy is to follow through on a proposition long known, summed in the paradox of Hui Shih that a white horse is not a horse. What we have is the common problem of applying general terms to specific instances. In the model of knowledge this emerges as a crucial distinction, in that what we experience, what we live are unique and specific ‘instances of’. Ideas come to be through the process of grouping ‘instances of’ according to their properties.

The crucial hypothesis underlying this process is that ideas are the creation of species and did not predate the species, in this instance the species being humanity. Thus follows the idea the framework of human thought as it is today is the result of progressive unfolding and elaboration and creation, beginning at first with the simplest classifications, those being of such things the earliest people saw and to which they related. This would of its own postulate that the earliest paintings would be of animals or people, and would likely be quite stylistic and without full depth or perspective, since these are not intrinsic but would represent refinement of skill.

Ideas thus come to be, and they have a social and psychological reality equal to the physical reality of the white horse. Hence when we talk of a horse not being a white horse we do indeed refer to two quite different objects of equal reality and power to effect us. There is no paradox, nor any particularly difficult philosophical problem to be resolved, at least not within the theory of knowledge developed in the papers at this site.

What you can ask, has this got to do with the easy and hard problems of consciousness? Well everything, but first let’s briefly recap what these easy and hard problems are. First, the so-called easy problem: this is the solution to the ‘how’ problem of consciousness. That is the problem of mechanism, or the problem of the neural and psychological processes whereby consciousness comes to be at all. It is conceded that in time this will be solved. But once solved, what is it we will have?

The theory of knowledge developed here already has an answer to this question, since the question is about the nature of knowledge not about consciousness. Imagine we had a complete and accurate general theory of consciousness such that we could model with great accuracy the mechanisms whereby consciousness came to be. That we had applied all our faculties and criteria of judgment to the solution and were certain we ‘had it right’. What do we have? Precisely we will have a set of variables and or systems of variables, we will have the relationship between those variables and systems of such that we would know precisely the flow of a perturbation through the system. That is, if we changed one variable, we would know exactly how that change would then flow through the system as a whole. We may not know every underlying mechanism of every relationship, but we would have a full descriptive explanation of consciousness.

What precisely would this accurate theory tell us of my consciousness or yours right now? It can only tell us the variables to research and how those variables interact. So if I wanted to know or predict or otherwise understand the actual state of my consciousness I would have to gather the information about the relevant variables, put the data into the theory and calculate the result.

The hard problem of consciousness is what it is like to be conscious it is the experience of consciousness at this or that instant. But wait a minute, if we have a complete and accurate mechanistic model of consciousness, and if we then put in the relevant data, what ‘answer’ do we get? We can and must get the ‘answer’ of what it is like to be consciousness for that person at that moment. The theory is the horse the statement about my consciousness now is the white horse.

If we take a scientific theory, put in the data and calculate the result we have exactly the relationship between the general and instance of. In the case of consciousness the argument goes further, in that since it is the relationship between the general and instances of, then there are two types of instances of, first each example of the species is or has a unique consciousness. To predict otherwise proposes that all the values of all the variables in our model of consciousness are identical this simply stretches too far to be credible. Second, for each person, each unique instance, in this case each event is a unique example of their unique consciousness. There can be as a matter of principle no generalities of any scientific value relating the unique moments of consciousness of one person with those of another. Qualia exist, and are the ‘instances of’.

What do we know of these ‘instances of’, of qualia? Frankly a great deal, world literature, song, art and poetry are full of what it is like to be alive. And what it is like to be alive under such and such circumstances. The study of qualia is not and never can be science, because each example of consciousness and each moment for each example of consciousness are unique. But it gives rise to the beautiful, the soaring, the painful and the passionate that we call art, culture or literature. Beyond the control and understanding offered by science or technology lies all the best of us, expressed by those talented enough to grasp a moment, and put it in a way that relates and makes sense of our own moments.