The famous hard question

Elusiveself in a critical look at Raymond Tallis’ ideas (here) gives this quote of Tallis’ straw man: “Consciousness is, at the basic level, appearances or appearings-to, but neither nerve impulses nor the material world have appearances.”


There have been many other similar statements about the hard problem and how it is that by definition consciousness cannot have a scientific explanation.


By this logic nothing can have a scientific explanation. Suppose we try something else, say a bicycle. I can give a drawing of a bicycle and accompany it with a wordy explanation of how and why it works the way it does. It can include the physics with some equations, even the history of how it came to be. This is, I could say, an explanation, an understanding and a model of a bicycle, therefore there is no mystery left about what a bicycle is. Would you say, “but this is not an explanation of a bicycle because I cannot get on it and ride down the street.”


But some would say that my bicycle story missed the point. Consciousness is not like riding. Consciousness is not physical and therefore cannot have a physical explanation. But this is a semantic thing, an arbitrary definition, a word play. Why is consciousness not physical? Because someone says so. What is the proof? None that I can think of. I could say that riding is not physical. What is my proof? It is about as non-physical as consciousness so if consciousness is non-physical so is riding.


Anyone that wants to talk about magic non-physical mind stuff, has nothing useful or valid to tell science. Mind is not a place, not an object, not a container – it is an activity, it is what brains do. And someday science will explain the brain’s activity. The hard question is a lot harder for dualist philosophers than it will be for scientists.

2 thoughts on “The famous hard question

  1. <p>> But this is a semantic thing, an arbitrary definition, a word play. </p>
    <p>Actually YOU are being semantic, and more precisely, you are making a category error by putting on the same footing something that is an object of our representation (a bicycle) and the very fact that we represent things (consiousness). Unlike bicycles, consciousness cannot receive a scientific explanation because consciousness is the prerequisite of any explanation of anything (explanations are mental entities), which is not the case of ‘anything’.</p>
    <p>> Would you say, “but this is not an explanation of a bicycle because I cannot get on it and ride down the street.”</p>
    <p>You are also making a straw-man argument. No one really expect that one can ride the explanation of a bicycle, yet one could deduce from the description of a bicycle that it is possible to ride it (at least in principle). Now can we deduce from the description of nerves that there is some kind of phenomenal viewpoint on the world that emerges? No, again, because “phenomenal viewpoints” are not objects that can be described, but the very fact that a description of something exists. Therefore they are not scientific, but metaphysical entities.</p>
    <p>> The hard question is a lot harder for dualist philosophers than it will be for scientists.</p>

    <p>Again you are making a category error by putting on the same footing philosophy and science. Some scientists are dualists, other materialists and other anti-realists or instrumentalists. That has nothing to do with scientific knowledge. The hard problem is not only hard, but actually unsolvable ‘for scientists’ since it is not a scientific question at all.</p>

    -Consciousness is not “the fact that we represent things” or the “prerequisite of any explanation of anything”. Consciousness is the awareness of our thoughts, perceptions and actions. Not the thought but the awareness of the thought, not the action but the awareness of the action etc. It is a model of the world that includes a model of ourselves. We must produce the representation or the explanation before we can be consciously aware of it. You seem to be saying the consciousness is required for mental entities. Why?

    -The whole scientific project in studying consciousness is exactly to provide a description of brain activities that result in phenomena. Why can’t phenomena be described? This ‘metaphysical entities’ idea only makes any sense at all if you have a dualist world with a source of non-physical non-material nature.

    -Yes, I put philosophy and science on the same footing and for instance history. They are all great communal efforts of scholarship. I think you will find that almost all scientists only work in areas that they personally can treat as physical. They may have other ideas about other areas. So those that actually do experiments on consciousness and follow the evidence in their theories, do not include magical mind-stuff in their thinking. (Neither do many philosophers)

    Science will either explain consciousness or it won’t. Just let it try without saying that it shouldn’t try.

  2. Sorry but… What exactly are you talking about ??? Mental entities that are not conscious ? Thoughts we are not aware of ? I think your concepts are ill-defined.
    Why would we have to invoke or explain such entities if not because they are the content of our conscousness? Besides many philosophers, including Dennett, have stressed that talking about ‘awareness of thoughts’ leads to an infinite regress.
    Or give me an example of an explanation or a description of something that is unconscious…

    Very few people are dualist nowadays, you are fighting a straw man. I am not trying to refrain the scientific endeavour, I am not saying that science is better or worse than philosophy, I am just saying that science is about formalising the relational structure of empirical data, providing mathematical models for the structure of reality, but not about giving sense to this structure or deciding whether or not it is ‘phenomenal’ or not. You will find scientists with various interpretations of their objects in biology or physics for example.

    That is precisely the point of Chalmers when he introduced the ‘hard problem’: you can do anything to a physical description of reality, it is still conceivable that such description exists without any ‘awareness’ inside and you would still get the same empirical data from the outside. Science is great but it is not about telling us if something is aware or not and there is nothing to do about it. And saying that is not being a dualist: only giving too much credit to a physical descrption as ‘what there is’ leads to dualism (since obviously then something else is missing…).

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