The wrong question

Francis Crick and Christof Koch in Cerebral Cortex1998, Consciousness and Neuroscience, make the following observation about philosophers of consciousness.

“There is, at the moment, no agreed philosophical answer to the problem of consciousness, except that most living philosophers are not Cartesian dualist — they do not believe in an immaterial soul which is distinct from the body. We suspect that the majority of neuroscientists do not believe in dualism, the most notable exception being the late Sir John Eccles (1994).

We shall not describe here the various opinions of philosophers, except to say that while philosophers have, in the past, raised interesting questions and pointed to possible conceptual confusions, they have had a very poor record, historically, at arriving at valid scientific answers. For this reason, neuroscientists should listen to the questions philosophers raise but should not be intimidated by their discussions. In recent years the amount of discussion about consciousness has reached absurd proportions compared to the amount of relevant experimentation.”


They suggest that in two areas philosophers have raised important questions that have not been tackled by neuroscientist.

“The Problem of Qualia

What is it that puzzles philosophers? Broadly speaking, it is qualia –the blueness of blue, the painfulness of pain, and so on. This is also the layman’s major puzzle….

The Problem of Meaning

How do other parts of the brain know that the firing of a neuron (or of a set of similar neurons) produces the conscious percept of, say, a face? …Put in other words, how is meaning generated by the brain?…”


But are these reasonable questions? I suspect that Eliezer Yudowsky from Overcoming Bias with his Bayesian outlook would call these ‘wrong questions’.

“Where the mind cuts against reality’s grain, it generates wrong questions – questions that cannot possibly be answered on their own terms, but only dissolved by understanding the cognitive algorithm that generates the perception of a question.

One good cue that you’re dealing with a “wrong question” is when you cannot even imagine any concrete, specific state of how-the-world-is that would answer the question.  When it doesn’t even seem possible to answer the question.

Take the Standard Definitional Dispute, for example, about the tree falling in a deserted forest.  Is there any way-the-world-could-be – any state of affairs – that corresponds to the word “sound” really meaning only acoustic vibrations, or really meaning only auditory experiences?”

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