Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 'hard' problem of consciousness revisited

To: Katie H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The 'hard' problem of consciousness revisited
Date: 22nd March 2008 12:18

Dear Katie,

Thank you for your email of 9 March, with the second version of your essay for the Associate Award, 'The nature of consciousness and the Explanatory Gap.'

There is good stuff in here, and this piece is a definite improvement on the first version. There is a better sense of getting to grips with the problem itself, rather than merely surveying what various philosophers have said.

However, I still found the essay difficult to read, not because of any real obscurity but because of its circuitous structure. Although you start off well, distinguishing between the main types of response to the claim of an epistemological or ontological gap, I soon lost sight of this framework. Points and arguments were unnecessarily repeated, and the main point of your argument did not emerge with sufficient clarity.

I also felt keenly the lack of acknowledgement of the basic arguments that have been put forward in this area: Descartes' original argument, in Meditation 6, for mind-body dualism (which implicitly invokes the 'evil demon' hypothesis of Meditation 1); Chalmers zombie argument (you allude to it but don't explain how the argument works); Wittgenstein's private language argument (which forms the basis for Dennett's confident repudiation of qualia); even Nagel's argument in 'What is it like to be a bat?' which you mention, but fail to convey in a manner which would impress a reader who had not read Nagel's essay. (What is so important about Nagel is the way he turns the original Cartesian argument for dualism upside down, focusing, not on 'myself' but on another subject -- a non-human -- and using this to stimulate our intuitions of a gap between the first- and third-person standpoints.)

All this looks like I am asking you to write more; but in fact the essay at around 4500 words is too long as it stands. (The normal length for Associate essays is 2000-2500 words, with an upper limit of around 3500.) First of all you need to cut out the waffle and repetition.

To show what I mean, here is an example which I marked as 'waffle':

'The body-mind theory has generated ample debate and caused significant polemics, intriguing philosophers, psychologists and artificial intelligence researchers in the past century. Each different theory tries to find a way to justify consciousness within the physical world, taking into account the reality of the first-person conscious experience.'

That would be fine in a magazine article, but you don't have the luxury of doing this in an essay addressed to philosophers whose only interest is what is your contribution to the debate.

And here is an example which I marked as 'repetition':

'Should we be tempted to give up, in front of a potential delusion of never being able to claim a complete theory of consciousness? What Chalmers calls "the hard problem of consciousness" is just the right description for this dilemma. Will consciousness ever be completely explained? Any negative answer, epistemological or ontological would implicitly assume the "explanatory gap" as its basic realm.'

I'm not against repetition in principle, where this aids a reader's grasp of the argument. But my general impression was that there was just too much of it, and it didn't aid understanding.

In other words: you have to get down quickly to the point. And once you have made the point, move on.

For me, the 'meat' of your essay is in your very interesting suggestion, following Strawson, that our current notion of the physical is too thin -- still modelled on mechanics as the paradigmatic 'physical' theory -- and it is because of this that an illusory sense of an unbridgeable gap between the mental and physical is generated. This point deserved to be better highlighted.

Nagel's argument, of course, appears to circumvent this because any physical theory, however far it moves away from the paradigm of mechanics, is still based on the 'third-person' standpoint. However, it is not quite so clear that this argument is decisive, given that we simply do not know (yet) what are the outer limits of physical theory.

Strawson's point about the 'physical' goes together with his argument, in his book 'Individuals' for the view that a person is a special category of particular which bears both mental and psychological properties. This response to dualism remains a significant alternative to physical monism (in its various forms) because in effect it recognizes the dualism of material bodies (which don't have psychological properties) and persons (which do).

I also thought that the analogy between consciousness as a property of physical matter, and the observable properties of water was significant. To cap this point, you could have explained how realizability is consistent with non-reducibility, and used examples of emergent properties from the various sciences.

All in all, there is more than enough material here for a very good Associate essay. However, it needs to be much better organized and the structure of the argument made much clearer. If it helps, imagine how you would explain these points to a student who had not encountered the mind-body problem before. What are the main arguments? What is really important, and what is less important in the various debates?

Although Associate students nominally have two shots at each of their four essay topics, I am prepared to look at a third version, at a later date. However, I think it best that you leave this topic for now and concentrate on your next essay. Good luck with that!

All the best,