The easy and the impossible

“The Hard Problem [of consciousness] is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, “That’s green” (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn’t reducible to anything else…Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. Speculating about zombies and inverted colors is a waste of time, they say, because nothing could ever settle the issue one way or another. Anything you could do to understand consciousness–like finding out what wavelengths make people see green or how similar they say it is to blue, or what emotions they associate with it–boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain. Most people react to this argument with incredulity because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience…And then there is the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius–a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness–comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.”

Thus saith Steven Pinker describing the general outlines of the current scientific debates about consciousness. Personally, I’m not even quite sure what it would mean to understand rationally something like color in a way that really captures the subjective impression of it.  It seems to me that the so-called “Hard Problem” is at root a search for an objective, rational explanation for subjective conscious phenomena. But plenty of “objective correlaries” to subjective conscious experiences have already been found. Color, for instance, has been measured as a certain wavelength of light that penetrates the eye in a certain way and gets processed in the brain a certain way. Of course that doesn’t capture the essential subjective experience of “greenness” or “redness” or whatever, but the whole point of subjective experiences is that they’re subjective and impressionistic. I get the feeling that those who expect an objective description that fully encapsulates the subjective element are looking for a synthesis between two realms that are by definition mutually exclusive. Scientific analysis can only elucidate phenomena insofar as they are objective and shared. It’s not inconceivable that the issue might submit to a higher rationality, but I find it more likely to be doomed not only to failure but to incoherency, because any attempt to explain subjective phenomena scientifically seems to me already lodged within the realm of the objective, and thus to some extent incommunicable with the very different subjective mode of perception. I think this is similar to Dennett’s point of view, though he seems more inclined to dismiss the subjective entirely than to explain the root of the disjunction.

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