Monthly Archives: May 2014

Brief Rant: Some concerns about the “easy” problem of consciousness

I consider myself relatively indifferent or neutral towards David Chalmers, who is one of the most influential philosophers of mind out there. I must admit that I’m not very well versed with his works, though I did read a couple of his papers. However, I do know about his well known distinction between the “easy” and “hard” problem of consciousness. According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness has to do with questions about cognitive processes that are related to consciousness such as attention, deliberate control of behavior, capacity to discriminate perceptual stimuli, reportability, and others. The hard problem of consciousness, on the other hand, relates to the explanatory gap. Chalmers thinks that it is conceivable that we can have a neural processes unaccompanied by conscious experience, but in fact they are accompanied by it. The problem is how physical processes like our neural substrates can exhaustively constitute consciousness if we can conceive them without it.

At first, I kind of accept that there is some kind of hard problem to consider, but now I’m less sure. For one, I watched a blog video by Jonathan Phillips and Charles R. Gallistel about the workings of memory. Both agreed that while we learn a lot about the brain, we still struggle with understanding how the neural substrates operate such that they realize a lot of the mental processes we’re familiar with. Mental processes such as mental imagery, attention, ad such are pretty hard to understand when it comes to seeing how our brain actually implements them. Phillips made this very vivid with his example of the Macintosh scenario in which Martians from outer space would buy a Macintosh and attempt to understand its nature. They know how to use a Macintosh (i.e. word processor, YouTube, music, etc.) and figure out its inner mechanism (i.e. logic gates, microchips, CPU, etc.), but still remain puzzled about how a Macintosh is capable of a lot of these outputs on the screen. Before I watched the interview, I had a meeting with my supervisor Paul Pietroski. We briefly talked about the distinction between an easy and hard problem of consciousness, but he pointed out how the distinction doesn’t seem to hold. Pietroski is puzzled by what makes Chalmers think that cognitive processes are “easy” problems given that we still don’t understand how these processes work despite years of research.

I think my point is that its unclear why understanding cognitive processes would be an “easy” problem of consciousness. It appears that Chalmers really underestimates how hard it is to understand cognitive processes. However, Chalmers might respond that in principle we can conceive how neurons can form neural circuits which in turn implements cognitive processes, but we can also conceive this picture without consciousness entering into the picture. The issue is how does consciousness enter into the picture.

I find this possible reply somewhat convincing, but there is a part of me that remains doubtful. For one, couldn’t one say the same thing with cognitive processes that cognitive scientists are still struggling to understand? After all, we still haven’t found out about the overall neural implementation of language acquisition (see Pinker’s Language Instinct) despite several decades of research. We still haven’t found that Universal Grammar (if there is any) that Chomsky proposes. From what I gather from the blog interview with Gallistel, we have a rough idea about what parts of the brain are pertinent to memory, but we don’t know exactly how memories are neurally  implemented. Maybe we don’t understand how consciousness fits into our brain for similar reasons, especially given that consciousness is a very fuzzy concept. I think my concern is that it seems that the distinction between an easy and hard problem of consciousness isn’t as clear cut as I once thought.