Thursday, October 18, 2012

[PHI 3800] It's so hard

Some have argued that attempts to explain consciousness are bound to fail (the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness). Why?

The basic argument, I take it, goes something like this:
  1. conscious experience = subjective "feel" (i.e., "what it's like")
  2. subjective "feel" ≠ physical processes
  3. (Therefore) conscious experience   physical processes
But why think that subjective "feels" are not physical processes? In other words, why think that the second premise is true? Why subjective "feels" cannot--in principle--be explained in terms of physical processes, brain states, and the like? 


  1. I believe that the second premise is true and I will try and explain why with an example. Throughout my undergraduate work I heard from many animal rights activists that animals have feelings in the same way that people have. A dog feels sadness when its owner dies and this is displayed by the dog as crying and being less energetic, in the same way a person would feel if they lost a loved one. However, this does not mean that the dog knows that it is feeling sadness, and it certainly doesn't mean that the dog is intentionally feeling it. It could be that this "sadness" is an instinctual reaction the dog is having, and we as humans, through our own consciousness, are projecting the feeling of sadness onto the dog. That being said, humans are different. We can choose to feel this way or that, and we can alter our feelings based on our own personal choices. Heavy metal music makes me feel happy, but it doesn't have the same effect on my parents. I choose to feel happy when I listen to it and I recognize that I am happy. This is subjective. Nobody could conclusively explain why I feel the way I do about anything. They can only venture guesses. Going back to the dog, one could argue that the dog is responding based on instinct due to the fact that it is not self-conscious. It is unaware of its own consciousness. If I can purposely change my feelings and my emotional states on a whim (unlike the dog), how can a physical process explain that? A physical process can explain why the heart stops working or why someone develops a rash, but it cannot explain subjective, constantly changing emotional states that people have control over. So then, if we cannot offer a concrete reason for how one decides how they feel, it seems quite impossible to explain how our consciousness operates, even if we can be sure of its existence.

    1. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that people can choose how to feel. Why does that show that subjective feels cannot be explained in physical terms?


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