The Hard Problem


The Economist had an interesting series of articles recently on great unsolved mysteries of science including the nature of time, what is dark matter, and the one that interested me most, consciousness: What is it? Where is it? How do we study it? (

The article covered a lot of ground, perhaps too much for such a brief essay.

“I think, therefore I am.”  True, false or misconceived?

Are dogs conscious? Chimpanzees? Rocks?

What is sleep? What is unconsciousness?

These are all good questions, and I could supply a dozen more, but the article, reflecting the scientific consensus at the moment, assumes that consciousness arises from the brain, so the preponderance of the article is about neuroscience, with a smattering of comparative psychology (humans with animals).

And in the neuroscience domain, again keeping with consensus, the main question is, from where in the brain does consciousness arise?

The neuroscience approach fails to consider seriously the original question, what is consciousness? This, the article mistakenly dubs “the hard problem.” But that is not the hard problem, as commonly understood by researchers in consciousness. Everyone knows what consciousness is, because everyone has it. It is simply mental experience, such as the characteristic experiences of colors and tastes.

As philosopher Galen Strawson wrote in a letter to the editor a week after the article, consciousness is “… seeing crimson, smelling smoke, tasting mustard and so on. It is precisely this detailed knowledge of what consciousness is that gives rise to the real problem, which is to explain its existence, given that we appear to be wholly physical beings. How can neural processes be or give rise to consciousness? How is it that they are accompanied by consciousness?”

The hard problem is not what consciousness is, but to explain it. And Strawson is entirely correct to imply that the answer cannot be that it arises out of the brain. That is simply impossible. Why?

Because the brain is a physical thing, three pounds of protein, fat, and water. It is very complex, to be sure, but it is not magic. It is physical, can be measured and studied by science, and obeys the scientific laws of the universe as we know them.

Experience, on the other hand, is not physical. Thoughts weigh nothing and take up no space. Colors have no specific gravity. Sounds have no boiling point. Memory and imagination extend across time and space far beyond the dimensions of the skull.

There is no process, not even a wild speculation, for how a physical system like a brain could generate the nonphysical phenomena of experience. To do so it would have to violate many laws of physics, the laws of thermodynamics, for example. The hard problem is that experience is incommensurate with science in its present form.

In what direction might a solution to this conundrum lie? Strawson and I have had conversations and correspondence on this, as we have met briefly at various conferences on the topic of consciousness. We differ sharply in our gestures toward a solution.

Strawson believes that we have failed to fully understand the nature of matter itself. Presently, we believe that E=MC**2, and we have the standard model of particles, but none of that allows any room for experience. Perhaps we will find, Strawson has suggested, that matter has other properties, yet undiscovered, such as the property of being conscious. This view is sometimes called panpsychism, or pan-experientialism. Everything is conscious because matter itself has the property of being conscious (not all of it in the same way of course, but that’s a mere parameter adjustment).

I think not. That idea seems to me like stuffing the rabbit into the hat before the show.

Instead, I think it’s more reasonable to start with what we know for certain about consciousness. It exists, I have it, and so do most other adults. Facts, there. Not scientific facts measurable by physics, but undeniable facts nevertheless (it is self-refuting to deny them).

Starting with conscious experience as the given, is there a pathway to deriving the physical world, the body and the brain (without any supernaturalism)? I think there is, and I’ve explained how that might look and how it could be investigated.

(For anybody who cares: The Three-In-One Mind: A Mental Architecture, www.; The Purpose of the Body,; Scientific Introspection: A Method for Investigating the Mind,

I will admit however, that my approach has zero chance of ever being widely accepted because it contradicts some of the most fundamental assumptions of the scientific method, such as that the universe is entirely physical, and that empiricism itself ultimately rests on biological sensory transducers. These are patently false assumptions, but they are pre-theoretic beliefs, or myths, not open to discussion.

Strawson’s approach, on the other hand, has the seeming advantage of leaving the scientific epistemology alone and projecting consciousness “out there,” into the world. All you need is something like Einstein’s cosmological constant to insert consciousness into the scientific equation.

I think that’s a very misleading approach, but compared to my own, it just might be better. Scientists and philosophers are extremely good at making data fit the explanation, and with enough linguistic games, who knows, Strawson’s approach might eventually play out. I won’t be around to see it happen.



The Hard Problem — 2 Comments

  1. Bill,
    What think you of the EPR experiments back in the 30’s (I think) demonstrating particle non-locality? and the subsequent Bell’s theorem,which (paraphrased) says, “All parts of the universe are connected in an intimate and immediate way?? Seems to me that: “Rather than assuming that consciousness somehow arises from the material world we need to consider . . . that consciousness is a . . . fundamental component of reality. (thus) space, time, matter, consciousness. . . when we do everything changes, and everything remains the same. Peter Russell, 2001 (Steve’s brother, I suspect). This would 1. Provide an informed reframe – we would change, not reality 2. Bring “science” in alignment with whole bunch of religious/mystic thinkers and writer from now all the way back 3. Probably explain a whole lot of things, and overhaul biomed/medical research and a bunch of other relevant “sciences”. It would also explain non locality. And make a bunch of people scramble to rewrite all their text books.

  2. Hi, Tom.

    Thanks for your comment.

    I’m totally on board with the idea that consciousness exists as fundamental aspect of reality. That simply must be true, since 1. I am conscious, and 2. I exist.

    The scientific method, which at present is the gold standard of critical thinking, is, alas, unable to adress anything nonphysical, so it will not lead us to a productive solution unless it changes. And to tell the truth, I am conflicted about the idea of changing it. It is our main bulwark against the muck of superstition and ignorance. I don’t want to go backwards.

    As for non-locality, or entanglement, I think that is a red herring based on a false analogy. Premise: non-locality is mysterious. Premise: Consciousness is mysterious. Therefore: consciousness must be a kind of non-locality.

    There is an implicit epistemological angle for working that analogy (the wave-form collapse), but I don’t see a way forward.

    FYI, Stuart Hameroff, at U of A, along with Roger Penrose, have been vocal proponents of the relevance of a quantum approach to consciousness.

    You might be interested in the forthcoming Tucson Conference on Consciousness:


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