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Philosopher: Consciousness is Not a Problem. Dualism Is!

Physicalist David Papineau says consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something”

Recently, we looked at the way popular science media have been growing more comfortable with panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is fundamental to nature, though the degree of consciousness varies. The renewed interest probably stems from dissatisfaction with physicalist efforts to account for consciousness. But the physicalists (everything is physical) are fighting back. One forthright spokesman is philosopher David Papineau (below right), Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, London.

In a recent piece for Institute for Art and Ideas, he declared that dualism is the problem, not consciousness. If we just shed the idea that there is any significant distinction between the mind and the brain, the notorious hard problem of consciousness would disappear:

I’ve never viewed the so-called “hard problem” as any problem at all. According to David Chalmers, who coined the term, the hard problem is supposed to be the problem of figuring out what our idea of consciousness refers to in the real world. The obvious answer is that it refers to brain processes that feel like something.

What’s so hard about that?

The only reason that many people feel there’s a problem is that they can’t stop thinking in dualist terms. They have a strong intuition that the brain is one thing, and that the conscious feelings are something extra, some kind of spooky force field that floats above the physical matter of the brain. And then of course they do have a problem, indeed a slew of problems…

If only we could stop ourselves seeing things through dualist spectacles, we’d no longer feel that there is anything puzzling about consciousness.

David Papineau, “Materialism must be defended” at IAI (March 12, 2020)

He goes on to say,

Conscious states are just ordinary physical states that happen to have been co-opted by reasoning systems. Consciousness doesn’t depend on some extra shining light, but only on the emergence of subjects, complex organisms that distinguish themselves from the rest of the world and use internal neural processes to guide their behaviour.

David Papineau, “Materialism must be defended” at (March 12, 2020)

Essentially, Papineau defines the hard problem out of existence by 1) proclaiming as a fact that “conscious states are just ordinary physical states that happen to have been co-opted by reasoning systems” and then 2) describing doubt of that proposition as arising from a partiality to “spooky” force fields rather than a lack of fit between physicalism and the evidence.

In his book, Thinking About Consciousness (2002), which elaborates a physicalist view, Papineau argues that consciousness “seems mysterious not because of any hidden essence, but only because we think about it in a special way.” In short, it’s all in our heads.

But wait, say others, the hard problem is not so easily dismissed. A thoughtful commenter at Reddit responds,

… Papineau has it backwards—the hard problem does not presuppose dualism, rather dualism is a proposed response to materialism’s inability thus far to account for the explanatory gap. What a lot of these materialist thinkers fail to understand is that the hard problem is hard because we cannot even begin to conceptualize a possible solution.

That’s what makes it different from most of the other unresolved issues in science. For example, we dont currently have a universally accepted unified theory of quantum gravity, but we can imagine what it would look like (tiny particles that can interact with gravity that we just havnt discovered yet). Meanwhile, we cannot even think of a materialist proposal that would explain a causal chain that starts with interacting particles and ends in qualitative experience.

Literally all it takes to solve the hard problem is a sound hypothesis, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to come up with one. You can’t just say “consciousness refers to brain processes that feel like something” and call it a day. We know that already, it’s a strawman argument. The real question is how are those brain processes able to feel like something?

Etherdeon, “Comment” at Reddit Philosophy

One might add, what does Papineau mean, above, by “reasoning systems”? Once we talk about “reason,” are we not are facing the difficulty all over again, in an altered form?

But now, what about dualism? Is the distinction between the mind and the brain a misconception or is it a fact?

Elsewhere, Papineau has written,

It is widely supposed that this impression of an explanatory gap arises because our pre-theoretical concepts of pain and other conscious states do not allow a priori derivations of mind-brain identities from the physical facts, in the way that concepts like water and heat arguably allow the corresponding derivations of the scientific identities. The implication is that there is something wrong with current physicalism. In order to be successful, physicalism needs to do something more. It needs to come up with some alternative way of conceiving conscious states, some way that will allow us to bridge the explanatory gap.

I have a quite different diagnosis. I think that the so-called ‘explanatory gap’ is simply a manifestation of an intuitive conviction that dualism is true. It’s not that mind-brain identities are hard to explain—they are simply hard to believe.

David Papineau, “Kripke’s Proof That We Are All Intuitive Dualists ” at SAS-Space

A key reason that the identity of the mind and the brain is hard to believe is the evidence against it. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor argues that, far from being a misconception, dualism is a fact: The mind is not the same type of entity as the brain. Sensing that fact helps us understand why people with split brains or only half a brain can have a normal mental life, and why people with massive, permanent brain damage can remain cognizant. So if dualism is an intuition, it is evidence-based. Whether or not we find it “spooky,” dualism is something we can observe.

Note: The terms naturalism and physicalism are sometimes used interchangeably, which can be confusing. Naturalism is the general view that nature is all there is; there is no supernatural world. Physicalism is the view that everything is physical, which is slightly different. A panpsychist (everything is conscious) can be a naturalist, for example, but if he thinks consciousness is really a feature of the universe like matter or energy, he is not a physicalist.

Further reading:

Yes, consciousness is real but that’s not the half of it. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci ends up skating deftly around the main problems.

Consciousness is two hard problems, not one. Psychology prof Gregg Henriques argues, consciousness “plays by a different set of rules than the language game of science.”


Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious” )? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems. A recent article at New Scientist treats panpsychism as a serious idea in science. That’s thanks to the growing popularity of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which offers the opportunity for mathematical modeling, along with the implication that inanimate matter and/or the universe may be conscious. If IIT continues to gain a sympathetic hearing, panpsychism could become, over time, a part of normal science.

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Philosopher: Consciousness is Not a Problem. Dualism Is!