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Facing up to the hard question of consciousness

Most of these piece discusses the "hard question of consciousness"

All the comprehension, appreciation, delight, revulsion, recognition, amusement, etc. that human beings experience must be somehow composed by the activities of billions of neurons that are myopic in the extreme, cloistered in their networks of interacting brethren, oblivious to the larger perspective they are helping to create. But how? That is the hard question.

Before that, Dennett distinguishes this from the "hard problem of consciousness," which he quickly dismisses as a "misdirection." What I am most interested in is his second point in the process, which he describes as an uncontested discovery of neuroscience.

I have been arguing for decades that Chalmers was mis-focusing our attention, exaggerating an artefact of inquiry that I identified in 1991: the failure to ask, and answer, what I called the hard question: ‘And then what happens?’ The question, more specifically, is: once some item or content ‘enters consciousness’, what does this cause or enable or modify? For several reasons, researchers have typically either postponed addressing this question or failed to recognize— and assert—that their research on the ‘easy problems’ can be seen as addressing and resolving aspects of the hard question, thereby indirectly dismantling the hard problem piece by piece, without need of any revolution in science. The causes of the misdirection can be uncovered by reminding ourselves of a few largely uncontentious but easily neglected discoveries of neuroscience:(i) There is no double transduction...(ii) So, there is no place in the system for qualia, if they are conceived of as intrinsic properties instantiated by (as contrasted with represented by) some activities in the nervous system.I have discovered that it is useful to pause at this point and invite readers to consider whether or not they actually agree with these two basic points, because their implications are highly destructive of commonplace presumptions. In particular, the widespread conviction that qualia, thus conceived, must obviously exist if we are to make sense of our introspective access to them, is an illusion, not an optical illusion or auditory illusion, but a theorist’s illusion, an artefact of bad theory, not observation. Richard Power nicely captures the source of this illusion.

We know that our perceptions or imaginings of trees, faces, etc. are distinct from the objects themselves. They are internal representations, representations in our minds.We understand the concept of representation from external representations, such as pictures, or verbal descriptions. For these representations we can have direct experience of both a representer (e.g. portrait painting) and a representee (e.g. the person painted). Call these the medium and the content. Thus for the Mona Lisa, the medium is a painting that hangs in the Louvre; the content is an Italian woman who modelled for the artist centuries ago. Medium and content may have attributes in common, if the representation is iconic (as they say in Semiotics). Oval partly-brown patches in the painting resemble the oval brown eyes of the Italian lady. But usually medium and content are of different stuff: oil on canvas, in the case of the Mona Lisa, as against human flesh. And in many cases the representation is symbolic, so that medium and content share no features.This is the conceptual scheme that we bring to internal representations, because it is the only one we have. But there is a huge difference. For external representations we can experience both medium and content, oil on canvas as well as people, trees, or whatever. But for internal representations, we do not experience the medium AT ALL. Only the content, along with some contextual features such as the time when the percept or imagining occurred. The idea of a spiritual consciousness arises from the illusion that we DO experience the medium of our internal representations, and that it is iconic.. . .In short, we conceptualise the medium of our internal representations by abstracting some features from the content, and attributing them to some kind of spiritual or ghostly substance. That is the best we can do, because actually we cannot experience the medium at all and have to look for analogies in the external world. The idea that the medium is some state of the brain seems intuitively absurd, so powerful is the illusion that we are dealing with an iconic representation in a medium of spirit.Personal correspondence, 3 May 2017

I argue that at worst, the second point claims that qualia doesn't exist and at best, it is an argument for panpsychism.

First, on it's face, the assertion of the second point could not solve or eliminate the hard problem of consciousness because it it discusses a way to conceive of qualia rather than a mechanism for its existence. Regardless of what qualia is on some deeper level, it's existence as an experience is itself the hard problem of consciousness. Regardless of how that experience connects to anything else.

Second, it is certainly not an uncontested discovery of neuroscience that "there is no place in the system for qualia, if they are conceived of as intrinsic properties instantiated by (as contrasted with represented by) some activities in the nervous system." Is this simply a claim that the hard problem can never be solved? Or that emergentism is conclusively false? And what would it mean for qualia to be represented by the nervous system?

Richard Power's letter doesn't offer much clarity, except that it clearly is not denying the existence of qualia in the absolute sense. It seems to simply claim that nothing needs to exist between the brain functions (the medium) and the content (qualia). While that is certainly a possibility, without an actual description of the mechanism for which qualia (content / experience) exists on the brain (material / medium) the hard problem remains.

If this mechanism is purposely left out because it isn't necessary, two possibilities are left.

First, the content of qualia is physically contained inside the brain. This would have to include manifested experiences. If I imagine a picture of a dinosaur, you could take a very powerful microscope and find a picture of a dinosaur on my brain. If I imagine the sound of dinosaur, you could take a very powerful microphone and record it. No translation device could be used because the content as experienced would have to be directly on the medium. The complication here is how do feelings (pleasure, pain) exist directly on a physical medium?

Second, no mechanism is required because* consciousness in some form exists as a part of all matter. I find this to be the more reasonable of the two conclusions. I consider this a real possibility, however, I'm not sure that Dennett does...

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