Will Solving The ‘Hard Problem’ of Consciousness Unweave the Rainbow?


[Inkbrushes by Adam Chamness: 1,2]

Some say in fifty years or so we’ll have enough neuro-scientific evidence to completely describe the functioning of the brain. The question is, will this mountain of evidence be enough to explain the emergence of human consciousness? Consciousness. This familiar yet indescribable experience we all have, an awareness, something we can’t physically point to nor experience from another’s viewpoint.

Being a hypothetical question about some future state of our knowledge, it has mainly been of academic interest to philosophers. But I actually think it’s relevant to all of us because it accesses two fundamental questions about what it means to be human. First, on a practical level, is consciousness amenable to explanation? Second, on a mystical level, if consciousness can be explained, will its essence be lost?

Consciousness: ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems
An influential approach to consciousness splits the question into the ‘easy problems of consciousness’ and the ‘hard problems of consciousness’ (Chalmers, 1995). The so-called ‘easy problems’ are things like finding out how memory or attention actually work, the nuts and bolts of these functions. And even though these are the easy problems, scientists are still having considerable difficulty with them.

But, argue people like Chalmers, once we’ve described all these functions, we still won’t fully understand consciousness. This is because we won’t have addressed the so-called ‘hard problem’. This is the feeling of what it is actually like to be you. That ineffable you-ness that no one else can share. Your experience.

Chalmers doesn’t represent the most extreme example of this position, there are those who argue we can never truly understand consciousness. At least Chalmers acknowledges there are possibilities, although new conceptual techniques need developing.

There is no ‘hard problem’
On the other side of the fence are those who argue the distinction between the ‘hard problem’ and the ‘easy problem’ is at best ill-advised and, at worst, plain dangerous. Just because we can’t conceive of how consciousness can emerge from the description of the easy problems like attention and memory etc., doesn’t mean it never will (Churchland, 1996). Just because we can set up complex philosophical arguments about what might be true in a thought experiment, doesn’t mean it explains what is true here and now.

Philosophers of mind like Dennett argue that consciousness emerges from the physical processes of the brain (Dennett, 1996). Effectively he is saying there is no ‘hard problem’ to explain, some even argue he is saying there is no such thing as consciousness, rather he is redefining consciousness as ‘reportability’ (Chalmers, 1997).

Unweaving the rainbow
So there’s a glance at two views on the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. But being a student of psychology, in addition to the actual arguments themselves, I’m naturally drawn to the motivations people might have for which they choose.

While there’s a lot of complex discussion in this area, I think it partly comes down to whether you’re relaxed about the idea that science might one day be able to explain the essence of human experience. For many people, I think this is an extremely uncomfortable thought. What Keats, talking of Newton’s findings, refers to as a fear of ‘unweaving the rainbow’ – the fear that explaining something might somehow reduce the magic of it – is very real.

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Published: 22 April 2007

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