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Consciousness doesn't have a problem

Updated: May 14, 2020

Here are my thoughts on David Chalmers’ and Anil Seth’s representations of the easy, hard, and real problems of consciousness.

The easy problems of consciousness, as Chalmers writes here, are those “…whereby a phenomenon is explained in terms of computational or neural mechanisms.” In other words, correlating subjective experience (like a dream) with objective experience (like the display of a functional MRI) is not necessarily difficult, although perhaps “easy” isn’t the best word to describe it. Still, building such bridges is easier that solving what Chalmers calls the hard problem of consciousness, which asks why neural mechanisms should lead to having any subjective experience at all. He points out that we know of no reason why neural firings should be associated with experiences like seeing a bright sun, smelling warm apple pie, or falling in love.

Neuroscientist Anil Seth responds in this article to Chalmers categorization, saying that we should focus not on the easy or hard problems, but rather the real problem, which is “…how to account for the various properties of consciousness in terms of biological mechanisms…”. He suggests that “…a good starting point is to distinguish between conscious level, conscious content, and conscious self.”

I like Seth’s approach, which is to zoom in on the most fundamental categories of subjective experience and bridge them with objective biological mechanisms, thereby giving us finer insights into the bridge between the two. Insofar as it is still partaking in bridge-building, however, this is still solving an “easy” though important problem.

The power of the hard problem is not in leading us to endlessly ponder why we experience anything at all, but rather to ask questions such as

  • What is the bridge connecting subjective and objective experience made of?

  • Is the bridge an artifact of a cognitive gap whereby we inadvertently cleave subjective and objective experience?

  • Are there upstream nested levels of identity in which downstream subjective/objective dichotomies are integrated as a seamless experience?

Seth’s approach as well as Chalmers’ framing are important to help answer these questions, which may give us new insights into Niels Bohr’s thoughts on the framing of objective and subjective perspectives.

I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as "objective" and "subjective" are, a great liberation of thought. -Niels Bohr (1927)

In the meantime, it’s worth noting that consciousness itself doesn’t have a problem—easy, hard, real, or otherwise. It is only our interpretations, themselves illumined by consciousness, that confer such difficulties.

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