H is for the Hard Problem (of Consciousness)

2000px-red_flag-svg A number of years ago, during my undergraduate degree, I was out hiking with a friend of mine who studied chemistry. We were walking along a path that ran in a valley between two steep hills in the Pentlands – just outside Edinburgh. My friend, in admittedly ‘Chemist-y’ way, asked a question that I was not at the time able to answer – and that has lingered with me for a long time since.

His question was this; “Why bother with psychology? – Why study anything but neuroscience if you are a determinist and believe that, all human thought and action can be attributed to a physical process in the brain?”.  His reasoning was good, and clear, and to me, as a deterministic scientist – made total sense. I am not and was not a transcendentalist or a dualist, I do not believe in a soul and I believe that our mind, our thoughts, our experience of the outside world and even our identity are all, in the end – neural processes. You may disagree with me on this and it is perfectly valid to do so- but I will be talking from my personal opinion.

But there is a good answer to this question that relates to today’s topic. To answer it I would first like to explain what I mean when I talk about consciousness.

Defining consciousness can be tricky, as it spans a number of concepts. We are conscious when we are awake, we are conscious of something when our attention is on it or we are aware of it. Generally we can say that consciousness refers to experience. – To experiencing the quality of something – to know what something is ‘like’. This is what philosophers might refer to as ‘qualia’.  Some examples of consciousness; the experience of looking at the colour red, of hearing a musical note, of feeling wind or rain on your face or being tired and driving a car. All these things (and, literally ANY other experience)- to be conscious is to experience things in ourselves.

There is no question as to whether these things can be scientifically explained – they certainly can. We understand, for example, the processes of the eye and how specific information denoting the red wavelength is processed and taken into the brain where, again it is processed into meaning and cognition through various visual pathways. We understand movement, and how goal oriented behaviour allows us to drive and move our body etc etc. So back to the question – when we can explain all of these things physiologically, why study anything else?

Well, there is something else – there is the experience itself. An experience that may be expressed through cells firing but is not in fact cells firing. This last sentence may be a little confusing so I will try to explain it with an example. Going back to the colour red, suppose you had never seen this colour before and, in fact, it was an alien colour – from another planet. The aliens in question work a little bit differently to us, in fact – they don’t have eyes and sense colour in a different way – lets say through some robotic sensor that picks up and interprets photons of light, registering it numerically as would a computer. The aliens are very generous and upon discovering humans, and seeing how much we like art and looking at stuff, – they send you (a human (presumably)) an email to inform you of the colour red.

The aliens are very sophisticated so they can send you a lot of information about the colour – pages and pages of data on various wavelengths, numerical details of the objects that are red they even go to great lengths to describe their own experiences of the colour. Receiving the email you read through it understanding the notion of the colour, understanding exactly how your eyes will process it, where it lies in the spectrum next to orange and purple, and get very excited reading about it. Attached to the bottom of the email is a picture and opening the attachment you finally experience red. Your experience which, in the email was described in so much detail – is actually happening. Before opening the attachment, you understand everything of red and could even try to imagine what it is like but this was very different from the quality of what red feels like, for you,  to experience.

Showing the email to your friend the next day they have their own ENTIRELY DIFFERENT subjective experience!

This exemplifies the hard and the easy problem of consciousness. – The easy problem is explaining how mechanistically experience works – the hard problem refers not to the mechanism but to the how and why of the resultant subjective experience.

As David Chalmers (Consciousness superstar) puts it,

‘Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.’

The usual methods of explanations used in cognitive science fall short – they can explain the mechanisms and the functions but do not generally touch on the how or why of experience. For example, neural oscillations have been linked to awareness and cognitive models of data processing and information accessibility in the brain – but it can be argued that these methods are still only describing function and not addressing the hard problem.

So how can we respond to this? Why can we not use our usual methods of analysis which seem to work for everything else in existence?

Chalmers proposes that we cannot approach consciousness with the intent of describing something physical – he posits that consciousness, like mass or time, constitutes a fundamental universal property and needs to be analysed on its own terms. Whereas many scientists and philosophers (Daniel Dennet and probably my Chemistry studying friend) would argue that there is no hard problem – that conscious experience is illusory and that through explaining and fully understanding the easy problems, what we now consider as hard will eventually become explainable in physical terms.


In response to my friend I would now argue that, even explaining each and every experience in physical form leaves something to be studied. It is this subjective qualia that can be its own topic for discussion, something which is explored non-scientifically in the arts. Of course psychology studies more than just experience and physiology. It includes social, cultural, individual, etc etc , but these two sides offer a basis to us – and a philosophical starting point physiology and phenomenology.


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