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Neuroscientists: The Hard Problem of Consciousness Isn’t So Hard!

Damasio and Seth tell Nautilus that materialist explanations will eventually crack consciousness, as they have cracked everything else

Recently, thinkmag Nautilus brought together neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Anil Seth to argue that the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” is not so hard after all.

Antonio Damasio, author of Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (Penguin Random House, 2021), has argued that intelligence is everywhere in life forms and that even viruses have “some fraction of” intelligence.

Anil Seth is the author of Being You: A new science of consciousness (2021). He is convinced that the Hard Problem, so named by philosopher David Chalmers, is “magical thinking” and that “there is much to be done in a straightforward materialist understanding of how the brain relates to conscious experience.”

For the purposes of their discussion with Kristin French, consciousness is defined as “how qualitative experience arises from physical material.” Both neuroscientists make clear that they think material explanations of human consciousness can be made to work:

In Being You: A New Science of Consciousness, Seth lays out his theory of “controlled hallucination”—that our perceptual experiences of the world are inventions of the brain governed by a system of predictions—and makes the case that consciousness is intimately tied to the interior of the living body. In Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, Damasio sets out to demystify consciousness, which he argues evolved from primordial feelings such as pain and hunger, interactive processes that pair the physical with the mental and arise from a chemical orchestra deep in the viscera.

Kristin French, “What’s So Hard About Understanding Consciousness?” at Nautilus (February 2, 2022)

In the discussion, Damasio noted,

Damasio: The hard problem makes it look like consciousness is impossible to solve. It doesn’t give you any out. Every bit of evidence we have is that the mysteries of the universe have been gradually solved by science. I don’t see why consciousness should be any different. I think what engenders this possibility of us being conscious right now, of my knowing that I’m talking to you and seeing your faces on the screen and vice versa, is fundamentally linked to affect. It is a feeling, through and through, a feeling of the continuity of life in my organism. We also have reasons to believe that this core feeling is largely being produced below the level of the cerebral cortex. It is then made available to our cerebral cortex by certain subcortical structures, such as those in the thalamus and in the hippocampus. The essence of the consciousness process is actually simpler than what people want to make it. There’s no hard problem, really.

Kristin French, “What’s So Hard About Understanding Consciousness?” at Nautilus (February 2, 2022)

and Seth replied

I would go some of the way with you on that…

But I also don’t think it’s that simple, for two main reasons. First, the relevant data for consciousness are private and subjective. But this doesn’t mean a science of consciousness is impossible, it just means the data are harder to collect. Second, the hard problem has undeniable intuitive appeal: It is true that consciousness doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that can be explained in terms of physical processes. But the fact that something seems mysterious now doesn’t mean it will always seem mysterious, and my approach is to explain the properties of consciousness one-by-one, rather than treating it as one big scary mystery. This means dissolving rather than solving the hard problem. And here, a focus on affect and feeling is very helpful.

Kristin French, “What’s So Hard About Understanding Consciousness?” at Nautilus (February 2, 2022)

A reader might come away from this discussion with the following observations:

● We all know that we are conscious; it is the one thing of which we are most sure, as analytical philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out.

● It’s not strictly true that “Every bit of evidence we have is that the mysteries of the universe have been gradually solved by science” (Damasio). While science is making headway with many mysteries, others (origin of life, for example, or the origin of the Cambrian Explosion) remain opaque.

● While Damasio and Seth seem convinced that materialist “science” will explain consciousness, it’s not clear that they are anywhere close — though they have certainly learned some interesting things about the workings of the brain. That attitude is often called promissory materialism: “Just you wait and materialism will solve this problem.”

As the problem remains unsolved, we are entitled to conclude, provisionally, that consciousness is not a material phenomenon and that that is why materialism-based methods don’t work.

But don’t expect Damasio, Seth, or their successors to take that lying down. Too much is at stake philosophically.

It’s not that we can’t understand consciousness but we must understand it for what it is — immaterial. Trying to “understand” it on a material basis will only lead to many more of these dialogues sponsored by thinkmags.


You may also wish to read: Consciousness is destroying physicalism Materialism (physical stuff is all there is) is taking a well-deserved beating of late. There is no basis in mere physics for what every human being absolutely knows: Our own consciousness.


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Neuroscientists: The Hard Problem of Consciousness Isn’t So Hard!