In 1995, the great philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers published a paper that included what has come to be known as “the hard problem of consciousness.”
This is the problem of explaining how it is that we have subjective experiences — in other words, what it feels like to be aware and conscious.
by David Stone
Now, you might think that this problem would be easy to solve. After all, we’re conscious right now. In the moment.
Conscious animals all have their own umwelt. All we have to do is define our experience sensory experience, and presto! We’ve solved the problem.
We then know why we have a universe we picture in our minds.
But it’s not that simple.
The problem is that when we try to explain our experience, everything we say will be based on objective facts.
For example, we might say that when we see a beautiful sunset, we experience certain colors and shapes. But those are just objective facts about what we’re seeing; they don’t explain our subjective experience of seeing the sunset.
In Chalmers’ view, the hard problem of consciousness can’t be solved by science alone.
We need a new kind of investigation, which he calls “the science of consciousness.” This is a new field of study that is just beginning to explore the nature of consciousness.
In this blog post, I’m going to explain the hard problem of consciousness simply — or at least as simply as I can.
I’ll start by talking about what it means to be conscious, and then I’ll explain why consciousness is such a hard problem. Finally, I’ll briefly describe some of the approaches that scientists are taking to try to solve the problem.
What It Means To Be Conscious
Consciousness refers to our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. It’s what allows us to think, feel, and perceive the world around us.
When we’re conscious, we’re aware of our thoughts and feelings; when we’re not conscious, we’re not aware of them.
The important thing is that consciousness is not just a property of the brain; it’s also a property of the mind.
Our minds are what allows us to have thoughts, feelings, and perceptions in the first place. So when we talk about consciousness, we’re really talking about two things: the physical brain and the nonphysical mind.
The Nonphysical Mind
Now you might be thinking: Wait a minute — didn’t you just say that consciousness is a property of the brain? Isn’t the brain part of the physical world?
The answer is yes and no. The brain is made up of physical matter (atoms and molecules), but it also has certain properties that are not physical (such as thoughts and feelings).
These nonphysical properties are what we call mental properties.
So when Chalmers talks about consciousness being a property of the mind, he’s really talking about those nonphysical mental properties — specifically, our thoughts and feelings.
And this brings us to one of the key ideas in his paper: the distinction between two different kinds of properties — physical properties and mental properties.
Why Is Consciousness Such A Hard Problem?
So why is consciousness such a hard problem? The answer has two parts.
First, although consciousness depends on the brain (or more specifically, on certain physical processes in the brain), it’s not itself a physical property.
This means that traditional scientific methods – based on physical observation – won’t be enough to help us understand it; instead, we need a new kind of investigation — what Chalmers calls “the science of consciousness.”
Second, even if we could use traditional scientific methods to study consciousness, it would still be very difficult to do so because consciousness isn’t something that can be directly observed; instead, it can only be inferred from behavior.
This makes it problematic to know whether our theories about consciousness are true or false.
So, there’s a quick look, rendered as simply as we know how.