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The Hard Problem of consciousness and its easy answer

And the answer is: the zombie is simply any person with whom you do not empathise.

The UK newspaper The Guardian recently published what I guess is quite a good account of the state of the art in consciousness studies, which asks Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? Philosopher David Chalmers gave a conference speech in 1994.

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

These hypothetical brilliant robots, or zombies, are sufficiently “aware”, or whatever you want to call it, that they can do everything that you or I can do, but they lack an “inner life”, it’s all “dark inside”. What does that mean? It means very simply, quite precisely, that Chalmers chooses not to empathise with them. That’s all. People in the future are going to be very puzzled by the fact that so many of “the world’s greatest minds”, as this article calls them, fail to see that.

As to the question in the last sentence, how the brain generates a sense of self, the answer is very far from simple, but it’s not an ineffable mystery. Like many mysteries, it just requires some hard work to get your head around. You might like to start with my dissertation (it got some quite nice (and some not so nice) comments).

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February 28, 2015   Posted in: consciousness, philosophy

One Response

  1. Another easy answer - - March 3, 2015

    […] is a follow-up to this recent post, and it refers to the same Guardian […]

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