Throwing Down the Gauntlet on the Hard Problem of Consciousness (1): Introduction to “the Issue”

The philosopher Martin Heidegger famously defined the human being as the one whose “own being is an issue for it.” Heidegger’s definition, at once apodeictic and ambiguous, manages to capture the basic paradox of self-knowledge that is the crux of philosophy and the human condition itself. Aristotle famously defined sophia (σοφία) as the union of knowledge (επιστήμη) and intelligence (νους).* Sophia, in Latin translation, is sapientia. Thus, as Heidegger suggests, homo sapiens is the being whose “own being is an issue for it.” Since sapientia is sophia and sophia implies the participation of the object of knowledge by the subject’s intelligence, philosophy is not an accident. Rather, the human being is philosophical by nature. “All men, by nature, desire to know,” in Aristotle’s formulation.**

Over the millennia, this central “issue” of philosophy and the human condition has assumed many forms. One is reminded of the Sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus on the road to Thebes, the psalterian wonder of King David which he voices as a question to his God:

“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”***

Or the notorious injunction of the Oracle to Apollo:

Γνώθι Σεαυτόν

“Know thyself.”

Great individuals have never ceased to grapple with this issue and, irrespective of victory, their reward has been delivered as a bestowal of human knowledge. In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Whoever was beaten by the Angel,
(Which so often declines even to fight)
Goes away upright and rightened
Made greater by the hardest hand
Which kneaded him as though to sculpt him.
Winning is no temptation.
In this, his evolution: to be conquered
By beings of ever greater might.****

The Torah recounts that Adam gave names to all the creatures of the world. In wrestling with the angel, the human being wins a name for itself.***** Humanity shapes its evolution, therefore, by the manner in which it questions its own being—by the manner in which its “being is an issue for it.”

One arena in which human beings have squared off against this question in recent time is in the field of neuroscience. In a 1994 conference, philosopher David Chalmers formulated this “issue” in terms that have become something of an industry standard in the philosophy of mind. In his talk, titled “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Chalmers delineated two horns of the mind-body problem that philosophers have grappled withal since at least the time of René Descartes. Advances in technology over the last several decades allowed Chalmers to assert with confidence that researchers would succeed in exhaustively mapping the neural correlates of conscious states within a few centuries. As a result of these same advances, the intellectual community appeared to be entertaining the tacit consensus that science was, one by one, resolving the riddles that had stumped philosophers for millennia (like free will, for instance, which we will briefly address in part VII of this investigation). When Chalmers stipulated that these accomplishments were only answers to the “easy problem,” therefore, he was sure to draw attention. Chalmers went on to briefly describe the Herculean efforts of neuroscientists around the world to identify and map these neural correlates of consciousness. As immense an accomplishment as this would represent, however, it would still fail to resolve the ultimate “issue.” In Chalmers’ words, “The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience.” Specifically, the “hard problem” is how consciousness arises from unconscious brain processes. Chalmers delineated the problem in the following manner:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C?

Chalmers and other contemporary scientists and philosophers refer to such irreducible experiences as qualia. With this word, they mean to capture those aspects of experience that do not follow straightforwardly from “information-processing” in the brain and nervous system. Qualia comes from the Latin word qualis, which means “howness” or “of-what-kindness.” The English word “quality” stems from the same root, and thus “qualia” is a natural mint to tender this meaning in the exchange. Chalmers continues in his formulation of the hard problem:

How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

When he writes that “there is something it is like,” Chalmers alludes to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper “What is it Like to be a Bat?” in which the latter posed a similar question to that which Chalmer’s sets forth in the quote above. Some decades before, Nagel had pointed out that, even if it were possible to provide an exhaustive account of all of the objective features of a bat, including its neurology, physiological parameters, and brain states, etc… we would still have not accounted for that being’s subjective experience. Nagel asserted that even if the methods of conventional science can describe something in physical terms, they fail to account for “what it’s like” to be that something. This constitutes an “explanatory gap.” In Nagel’s estimation, the failure of science to account for subjectivity is a glaring omission in our account of the world, since “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience.” Many philosophers have criticised Nagel’s position and we will address some of these criticisms later in this exploration. First, however, we will attempt to more thoroughly understand the “hard problem” of consciousness. Innumerable pages of argument and analysis have been produced in an effort to address this problem in the terms in which it is presented. Rarely, however, has the problem been approached in a diachronic fashion. This exploration will be an attempt, therefore, to complement this relative dearth. Thus, in the 7 sections to follow, we will attempt to understand the nature of the hard problem through its origin as well as its semantic content. By approaching the topic in this manner, we hope to bring the same degree of intellectual rigour on the form of questioning itself as on an eventual solution, countless of which have been set forth and contested by thinkers of a caliber that far exceeds my own.

*ὥστ εἴη ἂν ἡ σοφία νοῦς καὶ ἐπιστήμη,” Nicomachean Ethics 1141a.

**“πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει,” Metaphysics 1a

*** Psalms 8:4

****My own translation of the final stanza of Rainer Maria Rilker’s “Der Schauende”:

Wen dieser Engel überwand,
welcher so oft auf Kampf verzichtet,
der geht gerecht und aufgerichtet
und groß aus jener harten Hand,
die sich, wie formend, an ihn schmiegte.
Die Siege laden ihn nicht ein.
Sein Wachstum ist: der Tiefbesiegte
von immer Größerem zu sein

*****Genesis 2:20, 32:32


6 Comments Add yours

  1. You have a great knack for bringing an admirable clarity to what otherwise seem difficult problems.


    1. Max Leyf says:

      ThAnk you for the kind words, Scott. I could say the same about your work, though I suspect it means more since I think you chose much more “difficult problems.”


  2. Ron Breland says:

    …nach und…? “Hegel’s night in which all cows are black? “More light,” sayeth Goethe.


    1. Max Leyf says:

      “Now I a fourfold vision see,

      And a fourfold vision is given to me;

      ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,

      And threefold in soft Beulah’s night,

      And twofold always.—May God us keep

      From single vision, and Newton’s sleep!“

      —William Blake the Inestimable


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