Explaining Consciousness: the “hard” and “easy” problem

Why explaining what consciousness is can’t simply be explained with science

I used to think of consciousness as a state of being awake — as soon as I wake up in the morning, I become aware of my surroundings, drag myself to the kitchen to start my silly little day with a silly little cup of coffee. Stuck in this flesh prison, I go on with my day and when it’s time for me to sleep, I go on my silly little phone to watch some silly little Tik Toks or YouTube videos to doze off, losing consciousness…yeah, consciousness just sounds like turning a light switch on.

Or so I thought.

When I was dreaming last week about living in a dark academia-themed mansion, I was very much aware that it was all a dream; I was conscious during my sleep.

What about those people in vegetative state? They can go through sleep-wake cycle, open and close their eyes regularly, but not aware of themselves and their environment. I don’t think they’d be considered as “conscious”, and I’m sure you can think of more examples of why simply being awake doesn’t equate to being conscious.

Although there has been numerous attempts by philosophers and scientists on defining what a conscious mind is, consciousness still remains as an unsolved mystery — just shows how much we don’t know about ourselves. In response to consciousness, strong reductionism seems to hold that consciousness exists, but that it can be reduced to functional, non-intrinsic properties.

This, to me, seems too simple to explain our complex, conscious mind; according to Thomas Nagel, a mental state is conscious if there is “something it’s like” to have that mental state. If you feel like yourself, you are aware that you are conscious. Our consciousness can’t only be explained by studying the functional mechanisms of our brain, which is why objective science is bound to be limited in explaining what consciousness is.

Anatomy of a human brain (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To explain what consciousness is, we must first acknowledge the two challenges to explaining our conscious mind, one of which being the “Hard Problem”. From the outside, our brain is a complex organ made up of neurons; our visual input sends a signal in the optic nerve which then sends neural firings in our brain. Our state of being awake and asleep can be explained through our brain’s mechanism.

The “Easy problem” explains the function, dynamics, and structure of consciousness through the usual methods of science that explains our brain in an objective view. We also see colors and shapes, hear, touch, taste, and smell from our first person point of view. These conscious experience happening in our daily lives are all subjective.

We can explain the functions of our brain and tell a complete story of the objective mechanisms of our brain, but why are these mechanisms associated with our subjective experiences? Coined by David Chalmers, the Hard problem is the question of how these processes give rise to our subjective experiences of the mind and the world:

What makes the hard problem hard and almost unique is that it goes beyond problems about the performance of functions. To see this, note that even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience — perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report — there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?The Problem of Consciousness

The “explanatory gap” is that even if we know all the physical facts about some system, we won’t be able to fully understand why it’s conscious or what makes it a conscious being.

Nagel’s explanation of why there’s an explanatory gap is that there’s a contrast between objective and subjective facts.

A fact is objective if it’s accessible from any point of view, while subjective fact is only accessible from a certain kind of viewpoint. Physical sciences — chemistry, biology, physics, and so on — display objective understanding while examples of subjectivity can be shown in taste, color, sound, touch, etc.

If science is all about ignoring the subjectivity and using objective facts only, as mentioned by it cannot explain what consciousness is. According to Nagel, there may not be such translation from certain aspects of other creatures’ experiences to aspects of an individual’s own experience. This is where his example of “what is it like to be a bat” comes up to explain his argument: that objective theory of the world excludes secondary qualities of things, inevitably leaving out subjective perspective.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of any kind of winged creatures so I was a little confused on why he chose bats for his thought experiment. I would’ve chosen Pomeranians or Red Pandas because they’re cute but what can I say, I’m just a college student with a very shallow understanding of philosophy.

All jokes aside, Nagel had a very scholarly, scientific reason behind singling bats out. Assuming that bats have experience just as much as how mice, pigeons, or whales have experience, Nagel chose bats because they are mammals that are not too far down the phylogenic tree, but also because bats have a special quality that makes them as what they are. They perceive the external world primarily by detecting reflections of their rapid, high-frequency shrieks. This allows bats to “make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision”. [1]

Their own form of perception is clearly not what we possess, making it impossible for us to imagine what it’s like for us to be a bat. Valid point. But the real question isn’t on what it’s like for us to behave like a bat behaves; it’s on what it’s like for a bat to be a bat.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

We, as humans, would be limited by our own minds to think about this very concept, even after we know the objective mechanism (such as sonar detection mechanism) of a bat. A bat’s subjective character of the experience is not accessible to us, just like how the “subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth” is not accessible. [2]

Therefore, “what it’s like to be a bat” can’t merely be explained from a bat’s physical traits. Nagel’s bat echolocation example refutes the reductionist theory on consciousness and puts a constraint on what it’s like to have the concept of a mental state.

Philosophy and science are cooperating on solving this problem of consciousness; the usual methods of science involves explaining the functional, structural, and dynamical properties of consciousness but the question still remains on why these properties of our conscious mind is conscious. The Hard problem poses a significant challenge in the field of science, perhaps marking a limit of what science can explain about our consciousness. With the absence of such translation from objective facts to subjective experience, it’s impossible to explain consciousness solely on objective science.

[1] Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50. doi:10.2307/2183914.

[2] Nagel, 440.

Aspiring layman in pursuit of eudaimonia. Writes about history, culture, politics, surface-level philosophy, and quarter-life crisis.

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