Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thomson on the meta-hard problem

Neuroscientist and frequent Brain Hammer commenter, Eric Thomson, posting over at Brains, has written a terrific piece, The Meta-Hard Problem. I highly recommend that people check out both the post and the excellent discussion thread that sprouts forth.

My favorite chunk from the main post:

[Chalmers] sometimes suggests that his claim that experience is something over and above the biology isn't an assumption, but definitional of experience. Indeed, he often writes as if this loaded notion of experience is pretheoretic and obvious (i.e., the 'primary' intension). As he says in the Introduction to the book, "I cannot prove that there is a further [hard] problem, any more than I can prove that consciousness exists. We know about consciousness more directly than we know about anything else, so 'proof' is inappropriate.'

Speaking personally, such high-falutin' notions (about causal and functional underpinnings of experience) were never part of my pretheoretic notion of experience. I'll go with him as far as the claim that consciousness is synonymous with experience or awareness. That seems vacuous. However, adding the proviso that experience is something over and above neuronal or other mechanisms goes well beyond my pretheoretic notions, and probably beyond the intuitions of Fodor's Grandma. However, Chalmers has the stones to claim that those not working within this loaded conception of consciousness aren't 'taking consciousness seriously' (this is a chorus in his book, from the Introduction onward).

So while I admire his clear expression of an idiosyncratic view of consciousness, I personally find it too tendentious to be useful.

Despite these seemingly obvious problems with his approach, I observed with dismay as the phrase 'What about the hard problem?' spread like syphilis over the amateur philosophy of consciousness landscape. It became a kind of cognitive creativity sink, an easy knee-jerk response to any discussion of consciousness. Psychologists and neuroscientists are now required, by law, to address the 'hard problem' in the first or final chapter of their books on consciousness. It's a bit ridiculous.

By analogy, when I talk to Creationists about a cool biological phenomenon, they immediately seem compelled to explain its origin in terms of God's amazing designing powers. It is really quite strange, as they are perfectly intelligent people, capable of having good discussions of other things. However, when it comes to the topic of phenotypes, their creativity, their scientific curiosity, and (most importantly) their obsession with evidential details and brainstorming about possible mechanisms are all shut off.