Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Todd L. Duncan - Untangling the Hard Problem of Consciousness

Nice article from The Global Spiral (Metanexus Institute). His main argument seems to be that we have confused our model of reality with reality itself - in order to comprehend subjective experience and its place in reality, we will need new models of what reality is.

Untangling the Hard Problem of Consciousness

A feeling of alienation is a common reaction to modern scientific descriptions of the cosmos. As journalist Bryan Appleyard (1992) expresses it, “On the maps provided by science, we find everything except ourselves.” At the core of this reaction is the discrepancy between the inner world of our awareness and the outer world of our objective scientific description of reality. This disconnect between two dominant aspects of our experience is a significant hurdle on the path toward what Weislogel (2007) calls a “whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person.” Thus a key step along the path toward wholeness is to find a comfortable home for our inner world of subjective experience within the framework of a scientific map of physical reality.

Ancient History, 11x14x.25", mixed media image mounted on white foam core,
floats on black matboard, © 2009 B. Ragalyi. www.ragalyiart.com

This challenge is often referred to as the “hard problem” of consciousness: How can it be that subjective experience arises from physical processes in the brain? (The topic has a long history, but see, e.g., Chalmers 1995, 2002a, b.) Why is it that certain physical brain states are accompanied by the experience that there is “something it is like” to be in those states? (Nagel, 1974) After all, subjective experience seems extraneous to the physical description, and most physical states (rocks, ice, pencils, cell phones, etc.) are apparently not accompanied by such experiences.

My aim here is to describe a way to untangle the difficulty by clarifying the origin of the problem. Using the framework suggested by Harrison (2003), I argue that the hard problem is a byproduct of the models we create to describe different aspects of the universe we experience. The aspects we label with the category “physical processes” or “physical reality”—including physical brain processes—constitute a model that captures some aspects of the deeper underlying reality very well, but ignores other aspects of reality. Similarly, those aspects we label as “subjective experience” or “consciousness” also provide only an incomplete description of the underlying reality. In a vague sense we are certainly aware that each category is only an incomplete model, but in an immediate sense it’s easy to forget this basic fact and find ourselves tangled in confusion as a result.

When we view the hard problem from this perspective, our earlier phrasing is revealed as misleading. Subjective experience does not arise (in a derivative sense) from physical processes in the brain. In fact it would make no sense if experience did arise from physical processes, because physical processes constitute a model of reality that specifically focuses on the functional aspects and filters out and excludes the aspects of reality that constitute conscious experience. Rather, subjective experience arises as part of the deeper substrate of reality that also produces the aspects we model and describe as “physical” processes in the brain. The incompatibility of our constructed categories need not imply an incompatibility in the underlying reality these categories were invented to partially describe. The rest of this paper is devoted to clarifying and solidifying this essential point.

Read the rest of the article.

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