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The ‘Hard’ Problem of Consciousness

Episode 2: The ‘Hard’ Problem of Consciousness

Have you ever wondered what consciousness is and why scientists and philosophers have such a hard time explaining it? In this episode, we’ll try to see why consciousness is elusive and how we can understand it.
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To many thinkers over the ages there has seemed to be an unbridgeable gulf between the material world and our consciousness of it. You can hold physical things in your hand or weigh them. They can do you harm. Thoughts, feelings, sensations and imagined things don’t seem to have weight or to be the same kind of thing at all. We say: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” What is the relationship between physical things like stones and mental things like words? Science attempts to explain the physical world in physical terms. It runs into trouble trying to explain the mental world, which does not consist of physical things.

Physical things interact with other physical things like a succession of dominos knocking each other over. One thing causes another to happen. But what causes thoughts and feelings? Science says that electrical and chemical processes in the nerves of the brain give rise to them. But if physical events can only cause other physical events, how can they cause mental events? That’s the mystery we hope to unravel here.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘mental’? In this context, it means whatever you can consciously experience. Not the things in the world you have an experience of, but the experience itself. In many cases, that’s an elusive distinction. When you look at something, you are seeing the thing, not seeing your experience of it. But when you picture a red apple in your mind’s eye, or remember having seen one, the real apple is not there. What seems to be there in your consciousness is not a physical thing. Science would like to explain its presence in your mind in terms of physical events in your brain. But that is exactly what is so challenging.


Scientific explanation is a kind of story. The story may or may not be true, which is what science tries to find out. But, either way, the story is an account told by one person to another. Even when you tell the story only to yourself, it is told from a different point of view than having the experience the story is about. Scientific explanation is always a story about experience, but it is not the experience itself. Science describes the material world from an impersonal point of view, but conscious experience is always personal. The difference between these two points of view is the source of the gulf between the physical and the mental. The scientific story is about events in the physical world. But the story itself is not part of the physical world. It consists of words and their meanings, which are not physical things but mental things. We might be able to explain consciousness better if we can understand how words and meanings relate to the physical things they are about.

As described by an onlooker who tells the story, physical events and processes are matters of cause and effect. But the story itself is a different sort of thing. The words in the story don’t cause each other. Of course, there are physical vocal cords involved in speech, and marks on physical paper involved in printed words. But the meanings of the words are not determined by the physical things they represent. Meanings are assigned by people—deliberately, if not consciously.

Of course, there are neurological events going on in the physical brain, which correspond to those meanings, just as there are electrical operations going on in a physical computer. In the computer, there is physical wiring and in the brain there are neurological connections. You can understand the wiring in an electrical circuit in terms of flowing electrons; but you can also understand it in terms of the reasoning behind it, what it is designed to do. The term ‘neuro-logical’ has two components. There are neural events, such as the chemical discharges of nerve cells, propagated along axons. These can be viewed as events in the physical world that happen through causal processes taking place in space and time. However, these processes are also logical events, which take place in logical order rather than sequence in time. They are not something that just happens but something the brain does as part of the body’s survival strategy, its reasons.

In other words, neurological events are intended as well as caused. An intention is not a material thing like a stone or an electron. While the organism is a material object, it is also an agent with purposes. Its actions, whether external or internal, can be viewed as moves in a sort of game, with reasons behind them. Neurological events, like computer operations, can also be viewed as instructions, in the way that a computer program is. Just as there is a programming language, the brain has its own language of internal communication.


We want to close the gulf between the physical and the mental. There exists a parallel gulf between words and the mental images and feelings they evoke. Just as we want to know how brain processes give rise to sensations, thoughts, and feelings, we can ask how words give rise to thoughts and mental imagery. Though there does not seem to be a “hard problem of language,” there is no more scientific ground for understanding how words give rise to meanings than for understanding how brain activity gives rise to consciousness. In fact, they are examples of the very same mystery: how an agent’s intention gives rise to its conscious experience.

At least we are familiar with language, which does not seem like such a mystery. We can gain some insight into consciousness by turning the whole question on its head. We can now say: consciousness arises from neural processes like the way that meaning arises from words. Words do not cause you to have thoughts or images. The word tree means nothing to someone who does not speak English, nor the word arbre to someone who does not speak French. Rather, words evoke a thought or image because you have already assigned them meanings. You agree to have the word evoke the image. You give the word its meaning by asserting it to be so. In the same way that you create meaning in spoken or written language, your brain creates the meanings of its internal language, the language of the senses. What emerges in your consciousness is the story it tells about the world outside the skull.

If you have enjoyed this podcast, please tune in for other episodes, or check out my website: www.stanceofunknowing.com.
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