Two great non-problems of philosophy

There are two questions in modern philosophy, which I believe are largely created by a failure to compensate for the nature of human perception.

beach ball and shadow image

The (non) hard problem of consciousness

I’ve never been that excited by David Chalmer’s question. Philosophers like Daniel Dennet who treat this a non-problem, believe the question will eventually be resolved by more research into the brain itself. I have only read summaries of the hard problem of consciousness, and sadly little of Chalmer’s work. But I believe by asking this basic question about subjective experience; ‘how does seeing the color blue create the sensation of blue?’ David Chalmers is really asking (in a metaphysical not neurological sense) where do sensations of the external world finally end up?

As you’re reading a philosophy blog you may remember some key moments in your childhood that marked the development of your adult capacity for abstraction, such as becoming aware of your own mortality, or questioning the existence of a deity. Likewise you may remember a moment (mine was around the age of 7) when your emerging self awareness brings about a sudden and disturbing realisation; “If I’m looking at the world, who or what is inside my head witnessing that image?!”. For a moment you wonder if your view of the world is being watched by another someone (is that the real me?) sitting in a mental movie theatre.

The follow on question here would inevitably be, ‘If there is a witness in my head, is there then another witness in their head?’ and so on, and so on. This would create a never ending chain of subjects and objects, so we quickly abandon this line of enquiry, as it is clearly a distortion of our mental capacity to abstract our world by separating subjects from objects. But maybe, just maybe, even the very first level level of subject/object perception that occurs inside my head – me the subject separate from the external world the object – is not a complete picture of consciousness. Rather it is only a point of view we adopt, and a product of the way our hunter gatherer brains operate.

Our hunter-gatherer brains evolved with the ability to switch from being in a flow state – when doing something that requires our fullest attention and a reaction to the moment, like escaping from a wild animal – to the analytic mode of experiencing the world as subjects and objects, which allows us to reflect, analyse and plan – working out how next time we’re going to catch and eat that wild animal! Neither of these is an absolutely true or complete representation of our existence. They are only modes we have inherited. They are equally valid points of view.

So for me David Chalmers is getting stuck looking for the real me in the movie theatre who sits there receiving all that sensory information, and creating a hard problem that need not exist.

The combination (non) problem

The second problem shares a similar root cause to the first. A standard objection to panpsychism, the combination problem questions how several small units of awareness could ever be combined to form one larger unit of awareness like human consciousness. I haven’t addressed this argument in previous posts or my video, as it seemed a basic misunderstanding of panpyschism itself. But there are many variations of panpsychism, and even some advocates of panpsychism regard this as a significant barrier.

Grab some sunscreen. We’re off to the beach for an analogy… Let’s say you have a bag full of volleyballs. It doesn’t matter whether they are inside the bag or outside, or how you order them, or even if you were to painstakingly glue them all together, your separate volleyballs will remain volleyballs, and not morph into one larger ball. To achieve that you must take them to a recycling facility, extract the plastics and re-manufacture the raw materials into the shape of a nice shiny new beach ball. If consciousness were like volleyballs, the combination problem would certainly exist.

But if we look up from the beach to the ocean, is a wave a fixed thing with boundaries and limits? Does anyone believe a large wave is composed of many smaller waves? Whilst waves large and small have similar properties, they are only unique arrangements of matter and energy at a specific point in time. The idea that each human or animal consciousness is a separate distinct entity is the result of our hunter gatherer brains imposing order on all the un-ordered stuff around us. We use our ability to order, categorise and separate when we examine mind, just as we do matter.

If base awareness truly infuses the base nature of the universe along with matter and energy, then there is no indivisible smallest unit of sentience, any more than there is a smallest unit of matter or energy. In fact it’s arguable that any panpsychism which recognizes distinct and separate smallest units of consciousness is not really panpsychism at all – it’s a type of dualism because the properties of mind are then fundamentally different from those of matter, which has no smallest indivisible unit and can be combined easily.

Perhaps the combination problem is by-product of religious panpsychism, where the soul, mind and consciousness are sometimes interchangeable? As stated in other posts, I have never personally believed in a mortal soul or re-incarnation. There is nothing that is essentially me making it’s way from life to life. So I have no difficulty in viewing my physical body and my consciousness as equally temporary and transient forms, which lose their identity with the death of my physical body. The human consciousness serves the human body, and vice versa. Just as my body is not fixed, absolute or unchanging throughout my life, neither is my consciousness.

The subjective experience of the individual consciousness is a necessary illusion created through evolution by the hunter-gatherer brain, rather than representing the true essence of what sentience and consciousness are. Our brains are dominated by two complimentary modes of perception; separation perception (everything is separate) and unification perception (everything is whole). But in the 21st century we’re so used to identifying primarily with the first, we often forget that the second is an equally valid point of view.

Video release

After some months of work, I’ve boiled down the content of three previous blog posts on the measurement problem and consciousness into a 28 minute video.

(or on YouTube

The video and blog posts came about because modern science still treats the existence of consciousness in a world made only of atoms and energy as unexplained, even mysterious. Some 25 years after first hearing about the measurement problem, I’ve still not come across a credible account of these things using a scientific or materialist panpsychism. Possibly the word itself is the root of the problem – it just sounds as if Ouija boards must be involved! Advocates of philosophies like panpsychism do sometimes promote unproven ideas, like telepathy or astrology, which may undermine otherwise valid arguments for the scientific community.

However if you properly examine our concept of consciousness in the light of recent scientific research, Continue reading…

The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

japanese style wave patternHow real is your existence? Is your world constantly re-inventing itself around you? Or is human life no more mysterious than an actor playing a part on a lifeless stage set? Science is well equipped to account for all the matter and energy around us, from the the Big Bang onwards. Yet the most important tool in understanding our world, consciousness itself, is so subjective and potentially unscientific we struggle to account for it. As a consequence science lacks an account of how conscious beings, humans and other animals, can be composed of nothing more than the atoms that compose the unconscious inanimate world that surround us. It follows on from David Chalmer’s idea of the hard problem of consciousness, and I am calling it the “consciousness gap”.

In common with most scientists, I believe our consciousness is a direct product of matter and energy and cannot exist without them. As an atheist I agree our existence and behaviours can be largely explained by evolution, mathematical biology, chaos theory etc, all without reference to supernatural forces or an intelligent creator. Physicalism, materialism and naturalism give us the best explanation of our world to date and largely do so without mythologising human existence.

Yet science cannot bridge that consciousness gap in a way that is useful to our hunter-gatherer brains without some account of how living consciousness comes into being. Continue reading…

The Human Animal – a breed apart?

chick with blackboard

For the majority of western history the only consciousness worth examining was human. Arguably we lacked the tools to examine how other animals experienced the world. However western science also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage – a religious tradition which taught that God has taken us and only us, over that threshold of animal consciousness into the realm of moral beings, because only we had souls.

Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has emphasised differences between humans and other animals rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal consciousness show much of what has been regarded as solely human characteristics, such as the potential for language, ability for abstract thought, the capacity for emotions, jealousy and cruelty even, can be found in other species to some extent. Here I want to consider some of that evidence with some observations on how this might be interpreted.

Is there a danger here of anthropomorphizing? Continue reading…

Free will, Determinism and Frogger


Is free will an illusion? Some recent Neurological experiments have hit the headlines with that conclusion. The studies reveal that the conscious mind is sometimes slow to recognize a course of action the subconscious has already set in motion. Absence of free will is a possible explanation. Certainly most people don’t realise how much they invent reality to suit the events. Memory is highly subjective, and most of us occasionally use reason to justify decisions which are primarily motivated by our emotions.

Understandably scientists feel religion has got it wrong and science has got it right (generally true). Do some scientists further have a desire to liberate us from the burden of free will, apparently the remnant of an outdated belief system? Personally I am undecided. But to me there are significant doubts in the assumptions behind these experiments which mean going from ‘it is possible free will is an illusion’ to ‘this proves free will is an illusion’ or even ‘probably an illusion’ is quite a stretch.

Is Captain Kirk a robot?

The studies involve simple motor tasks – for example the subject presses a button Continue reading…

The electron has a tendency

thomas_youngIn the third and final episode of the excellent BBC series ‘Atom – The Illusion of Reality’ Dr Jim Al-Khalili asks the apparently unanswerable question: We are made of the same atoms as the rest of the material world, so why do we have consciousness when the vast majority of stuff around us does not? (I’ve paraphrased for brevity).

Similarly hard to explain, the measurement problem is the Achilles heel of physics as the more closely we study the building blocks of the Universe the harder it becomes to remain the independent observer of a material world and avoid determining the outcome of our experiments. The most stark example of this is the double slit experiment. The measurement problem remains because there is no entirely satisfactory explanation for what happens in the quantum version of this experiment.

I’m going to suggest there is a simple possible atheist’s interpretation. Philosophically based certainly, but with a practical value. A possible answer both to the measurement problem and the great unanswerable question of consciousness above. Continue reading…