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The problem of consciousness

Many people find consciousness deeply puzzling. It is often described as one of the few remaining problems for science to address that is genuinely deep—perhaps even unsolvable.

Indeed, consciousness is thought to present a challenge to the prevailing scientific image of the universe as physical through-and-through. In part this puzzlement arises because people are (at least tacitly, on an unconscious level) innate dualists—they consider there to be a division between the mental and physical, the mind and body—resulting from a deep disconnect between the core principles of our intuitive, common-sense, or so-called “folk” psychology and the structure of our intuitive (pre-scientific) physics.

This is why people the world over have always been open to belief in ghosts and spirits, as well as the possibility of an afterlife. It is hard for them to see how the mind could be comprised of arrangements and interactions of physical matter. But this problem—the problem of how mental states in general can be physical—has arguably been solved by cognitive science through some combination of functionalism and the representational theory of mind. That is, the mind is comprised of physical states that perform distinctive functional roles—such as motivating actions in the case of desires, or guiding them in the case of beliefs—while carrying information about (and representing) objects and properties in the world outside of the thinker.

Even cognitive scientists continue to find consciousness mysterious, however. But this is not the consciousness of being awake versus asleep, nor the sort of consciousness involved in being conscious of (that is, perceiving) some event in one’s environment. Neither of these is mysterious from the standpoint of cognitive science. What is thought to be puzzling is so-called phenomenal consciousness—the introspectively accessible felt properties of our experiences. The nature of this puzzlement is best captured through—and arguably depends on—philosophers’ thought experiments. (My view is that cognitive scientists wouldn’t take these thought experiments seriously were it not for their own tacit dualism about the mind; and non-scientists find the consciousness-debate so fascinating because it confirms their tacit dualism about the mind.) For it seems that I can imagine a creature for whom perceiving the greenness of grass feels introspectively to it in just the same way that seeing the redness of a rose feels to me. Indeed, it seems that I can imagine a creature exactly like myself in all respects (physical, functional, and representational) except that it lacks this (the way my current experience of red feels to me). Many think, in consequence, that phenomenal consciousness involves special properties—often called “qualia”—that aren’t explicable in physical terms.

In fact, however, there are no special properties. There are no qualia. The temptation to think otherwise derives from the special way in which we can think introspectively about our own perceptual states, deploying concepts such as this (feel of my experience of red). The “problem” of consciousness merely arises out of the contrast between first- and third-person modes of thinking about our own states. For it is one-and-the-same state, with one-and-the-same set of physical and functional properties, that can be thought of now as a perception of red and now as this feel. The latter is just a different way of thinking of the very same state as the former.

Given that there is no extra property that enters the world with phenomenal consciousness, it follows that the question of consciousness in non-human animals is of no scientific importance. There are many important questions that arise when comparing the minds of ourselves and other animals. We can ask about capacities for long-term planning in animals, for example, and we can ask to what extent their working-memory capacities resemble our own. But the question of qualia isn’t among those questions. For there are no qualia. There are just perceptual states that are available to be thought about (in humans) using a distinctive set of first-person concepts like this feel.

Some will say that although the question of animal consciousness might not matter for science, it surely matters for ethics. And indeed, as the continuities between human and animal minds have been increasingly recognized, so people have come to feel that it is urgent to identify the set of creatures that are capable of consciousness. This may be because consciousness is a prerequisite for empathy. One can’t enter imaginatively into the experience of another creature unless those experiences, like one’s own, are like something to undergo, it is thought. But empathy arguably is not, and shouldn’t be, foundational to ethical thinking. And the emotion of sympathy, in contrast, can be grounded in a third-person understanding of the desires and sufferings of the creature in question. Perhaps this may be all that is necessary for questions about the ethical treatment of animals to arise.

Photo by Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Arthur Reber

    Interesting… For a rather different approach to the issue see my recent “The First Minds: Caterpillars, Karyotes, and Consciousness” (Oxford University Press). The argument made there is that sentience, subjectivity, feeling is a primitive element of all organisms. The model, dubbed the Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC), is based on the presumption that life and sentience are coterminous. Unicellular species have a primitive form of consciousness. As Thomas Nagel would put it, “there is something it is like to be a bacterium.”

    The logical extension of this perspective is that all minds, including human conscious minds, are evolutionary descendants of these original representational states — just as all species, including humans, are descendants of prokaryotes.

    The model is developed in detail in TFM with documentation based on the rather remarkable behavioral repertoire that prokaryotes display.

    For a humorous little essay on these notions see:

  2. David Thurman

    “has arguably been solved by cognitive science through some combination of functionalism and the representational theory of mind. ”

    So the above statement is nothing more than simple functionalism and representationalism of the mind itself? Can a statement point to itself, and make a claim about itself, and be independent from itself? Can it literally make an objective claim about itself? All Cretans are liers, I am a Cretan”.

    The first person I am a Cretan, conflicts with third person all Cretans are liers. Therefore, can any “third” person narrative ever define first person and be correct? I do not think you have resolved the liers paradox but merely reinforced it.

  3. S Malo

    Is it just me, or does something about this thesis ring medieval? While the possibility that “there is no extra property that enters the world with phenomenal consciousness” certainly deserves serious consideration, the logic that “the question of consciousness in non-human animals is of no scientific importance” only holds water if “the question of consciousness in HUMAN animals is of no scientific importance”. Surely we’ve outgrown human exceptionalism? That fundamental fallacy is perhaps the foremost lesson to be drawn from science (from mental life, in general…) Empathy, etc. are beside the point.

  4. Abraham Joseph

    If philosophers stop having awareness on various questions of conscience as an academic subjuct, perhaps the issue will end; this remedy will throw clear light on the phenomenon of consciousness too.

    Consciousness is simply the state for life nature had devised creatively. We need some events, some thoughts to spend the tenure of our lives. There is nothing more to understand about consciousness. It is exactly similar to what each humanbeing is bestowed with particular experience realm in life. Consciousness realm is a replica of how life presents itself to each person.

    Life is a only a means; not an end in itself. This facts demand urgent, serious change of attitude of philosophers towards life.

    Love to share here a study on what is life here; kindly search this study from Google blogger page’ voice of Philosophy/ blogs’ and search for paper ‘why life’ series of blogs. Read the post ‘ why life; why existence’.

  5. Italo Giardina

    Mad pain suggests an out sider individuated state within a significant linguistic social context. Martian pain as any possible complex system that qualifies having a believable social structure that anthropology could qualify as being similar to human culture. Zombie pain places the term as a positive paradox (all confirming false positives). Trans subjective states would place the term as existing on a boundary of any space/time, so qualifying any intentional system, so a negative paradox ( all confirming true negatives).

  6. Ani-mal

    This article is exactly the opposite of the ml ost up to date information. Qualia is fundamental. Pure subjective awareness is pervasive.

    Consciousness and physical perception is related to complex integration by the brain. But pure awareness is not a property of matter.

    Animals have very simple ” non-referential now” type of 2 or 3 pointed consciousness. Animal litteraly translates as “has a soul”

  7. Mike Fraumeni

    Fascinating read. I’m not well read on the topic but I lean towards Bernardo Kastrup’s idealistic thinking that rather than looking at individual consciousness of humans or other life forms, that we live in a universe of consciousness, consciousness just ‘is’, consciousness is the most fundamental aspect of the universe I think he is saying.– https://www.imprint.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Kastrup_Open_Access.pdf

  8. Ian Wardell

    We need to forget qualia, forget feels. We just directly see a red tomato. The [i]perception[/i] of red [i]is[/i] the experience of red itself (which others call a quale). The perception shouldn’t be conflated with the physical chains of causes and effects leading up to the perception/experience.

    Where is Peter Carruthers’ argument that this experience doesn’t exist, nor any other experience?

    And it’s not [i]phenomenal[/i] consciousness, it’s simply consciousness. Carruthers, like other professional philosophers and many scientists, are redefining consciousness to refer to physical processes.

  9. Imre Mikoss

    Is for me a mystery how can still exist people that denies the existence of the hard problem of consciousness and therefore of qualia, like you are doing in this text. My approach to this issue is that probably your own experience of consciousness is handicapped for some reason. Unable to experience consciousness by yourself, you simply deny it. But you should check your reasoning regard your posture, as the impossibility to seeing some colors by the color blinds is clearly not an argument for the nonexistence of those colors in the perception range of else one. Your consciousness blindness is not an argument for the absence of consciousness in else one even animals. Although you never mention it, your arguments are quite similar to the ones who say that consciousness is an illusion. Now, this argument is easily eroded with this simple question: who and how feels this illusion? An illusion is feeling an illusion? This circular argument clearly makes no sense, otherwise you would be able to explain all the universe with similar empty circular reasoning. With no proofs you argue that there is no qualia and take this for granted. That is a great example of scientific thinking by the way.

  10. Mathew Vivan

    A great thought through submission but the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’ according to David Chalmers is not unsolvable. It is rather a problem of cognition differentiating animal sensations from…
    … As Alfred Bloom will say, ‘Education is the Movement from DARKNESS to LIGHT’. I’m sure Bloom wasn’t talking about material light from photons. I’m not sure consciousness is material. We’ll get there very soon.

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