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.