Page 1

THE ‘HARD PROBLEM’ OF CONSCIOUSNESS Marcus Abundis 1 Abstract To frame any meaningful model of information, intelligence, ‘consciousness’, or the like, one must address a claimed Hard Problem (Chalmers, 1996) – the idea that such phenomenal roles fall beyond scientific views. While the Hard Problem’s veracity is often debated, basic analogues to this claim still appear elsewhere in the literature as a ‘symbol grounding problem’ (Harnad, 1990), ‘solving intelligence’ (Burton-Hill, 2016), Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) ‘theory of meaning’, etc. As such, the ‘issue of phenomena’ or innate subjectivity continues to hold sway in many circles as being unresolved. Also, direct analysis of the Hard Problem seems rare, where researchers instead typically offer related-claims asserting that: 1) it is a patently absurd view unworthy of study, or 2) it presents a fully intractable issue defying clear exploration, but with little clarifying detail. Debate on ‘the claim’ thus endures while new clarity remains absent. This essay takes a third approach, that of directly assessing the Hard Problem’s specific assertion contra natural selection in the formation of human consciousness. It examines Chalmers’s logic and evidence for this view, taken from his articles over the years. The aim is to set an initial base where it then becomes possible to attempt resolution of the aforementioned ‘issue of phenomena’ (8 pages: 4,000 words). Keywords: consciousness, hard problem, psychology, mind, evolution, natural selection, duality. INTRODUCTION – Statement of Problem and Proposed Approach Philosopher David Chalmers (1996), in The Conscious Mind, is known for naming a Hard Problem in the study of consciousness. This and similar views are often derived from Descartes’s Meditations as an innate separation of ‘mind’ and ‘body’. The terms are seen to have interrelated functional roles, but where ‘mind’ has no specific physical identity and ‘body’ has a specific physical form. Supposed separation of a thinking world (mind) from a material world (body), for Chalmers and others, presents an insoluble point – an explanatory gap ‘not open to investigation by the usual scientific methods.’ He then suggests that a ‘reductive explanation of consciousness is [therefore scientifically] impossible’ (ibid., p. xiv). Chalmers argues a general case against science in studying consciousness. Specifically, he does so by asserting an abstract ‘logical supervenience’ against practical or scientific ‘empirical supervenience’ (ibid., p. xiv, 34-35)2 – essentially claiming different logical orders in mind and body. But such an abstract general case cannot encompass all of science, as science includes specific, yet diverse, unfinished, and at times puzzling or even incompatible areas of study. For example, we lack final theories for biology and for gravity, quantum mechanics seem innately ambiguous, epigenetic roles cloud prior notions of DNA, dark matter and dark energy are wholly unexplained, etc. Due to ‘unfinished scientific variety’ the only way to formally gauge the Hard Problem’s merit is to assess its claims against one scientific view. As such, this essay undertakes 1

Organizational Behavior (GFTP), Graduate School of Business, Stanford University (March 2011).


Supervene – (of a fact or property) entailed by or dependent on the existence of another: mental events supervene upon physical events. Chalmers enlarges this definition beyond ‘fact or property’ to include conceptual/logical supervenience, and then gives primacy to that abstract view, over empirical views.

21 May 2017


that study using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – often seen as our most successful scientific theory. If the Hard Problem posits firm arguments contra natural selection, this would fortify the Hard Problem’s veracity, and further, it would drive a usefully proactive discourse. Nothing in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual information. Nothing has been more illuminating than the universal occurrence of biological evolution. Furthermore, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained than evolution by the theory of natural selection. (Wilson, 2009) CHALMERS’S VIEW AGAINST A DARWINIAN FRAMEWORK – Review of Literature Darwin’s theory of natural selection is widely accepted, but Chalmers’s Hard Problem makes a specific claim against natural selection in the formation of human consciousness. He dismisses natural selection as having any place in the development of consciousness claiming the ‘process of natural selection cannot distinguish between me and my zombie twin. Evolution selects properties according to their functional role, and my zombie twin performs all functions I perform just as well’ (emphasis added, Chalmers, 1996, pp. 120-21). A zombie is defined earlier as ‘physically identical to me . . . molecule for molecule . . . but lacking conscious experiences altogether . . . all is dark inside . . . empirically impossible’ (ibid., pp. 94, 96), thus laying ground for a ‘zombie twin versus David Chalmers’ functional thought experiment. Chalmers offers this functional-but-fictional view of consciousness to support a contra-scientific view developed throughout his book. The above notes are the only express comments offered on natural selection. He gives no other details or outside references, but lays out this ‘zombie trope’ and then proceeds from there. Chalmers is not alone in using zombie devices to portray problems of consciousness (Kirk, 2012, Deacon, 2011), so this ‘zombie’ may be useful. Still, Chalmers’s use of zombies here to rebut natural selection is singular in the literature. Also, this ‘empirically impossible’ zombie rebuttal of natural selection appears to collide with introductory claims to not ‘dispute current scientific theories in domains where they have authority’, and to ‘take consciousness to be a natural phenomenon . . . under the sway of natural laws’ (Chalmers, 1996., p. xiii). As such, early on, somewhat contradictory views begin to appear. Chalmers’s (1996) sparse comments on natural selection prompt further study of his volume for more insight. With no other specific notes on natural selection found therein, perhaps exploring the functional view he uses to argue against natural selection can help. ‘Functionality’ arises in Chapter 1.2 where Chalmers ties phenomenal events with ‘subjective conscious experience’ and psychological views of those phenomenal events with ‘functionalism and cognitive science’. He then ponders ‘whether the phenomenal and psychological will turn out to be the same [practical] thing’ (ibid., p. 12). For example, in jointly considering ‘the phenomenal and the psychological’ he names many likely co-adaptive functional roles (e.g., pain, emotions, etc.). Chalmers states that ‘the co-occurrence of phenomenal and psychological properties reflects something deep about our phenomenal concepts’ of consciousness and that it is practical ‘to say that together, the psychological and the phenomenal exhaust the mental . . . there is no third kind of manifest explanandum’ (ibid., p. 22). He accepts causal or functional ‘relational properties’ between the phenomenal and the psychological (ibid., pp. 13, 16-17, 21-22), thus implying a role

for natural selection (i.e., selection for synchronous functioning of phenomenal sensory input, and efficient psychological views of that input). But soon after, Chalmers oddly after insists on holding the two, the phenomenal and the psychological, apart. He argues that this separation is somehow ‘logically possible’ (despite earlier arguments) and therefore must be used in modeling consciousness. This forced conceptual separation of ‘phenomena and function’ (versus a functional sensorium), realized by asserting ‘logical possibility’, arises in Chapter 1.3. This sense of logical possibility is then what ultimately underlies his call for a Hard Problem, subtly displacing his earlier-stated claim of ‘logical supervenience’ (note 2). Further, Chalmers accepts that ‘functional analysis works beautifully in most areas of cognitive science’ and that many ‘mental concepts can be analyzed functionally’ (ibid., p. 42). But as ‘functionalist analysis denies the distinct’ separation of phenomenal from psychological (that his view requires), it is ‘therefore unsatisfactory’ (ibid., p. 14) for studying consciousness. He states that ‘no matter what functional account of cognition one gives, it [still] seems logically possible’ to imagine a scenario requiring no conscious presence (emphasis added, ibid., p. 47). The model used most often to depict this logical possibility is his zombie twin (from above). Chalmers later baldly disavows any functional attempt to model consciousness, for to ‘analyze consciousness in terms of some functional notion is either to change the subject or to define away the problem’ (ibid., p. 105) – thus ignoring his own use of a functional example to justify his zombie twin contra natural selection. Leaving Chalmers’s (1996) major volume behind, a survey of later work continues in a nonDarwinian vein, but with no added detail on natural selection. In Strong and Weak Emergence Chalmers (2006) argues that the emergence of high-level truths like consciousness are not conceptually or metaphysically dependent upon low-level truths like material survival (i.e., consciousness is ‘strongly emergent’ or non-physical). He later offers, as a comparative, that the arrival of evolution as a life dynamic (via genomic events) is unsurprising, in contrast to strong emergence for consciousness. Next, he again seems to contradict himself, stating that a ‘most salient adaptive phenomena like intelligence’ does seem like a natural adaptation (ibid., 253) – living intelligence is not strongly emergent, and tied to survival. It is unclear how this ‘adaptive intelligence’ would differ significantly from consciousness as he never defines intelligence, nor does he ever define consciousness. In the end (as he continues), he bases his claim for a strongly emergent consciousness by again pointing to his zombie argument: ‘I have argued this position at length elsewhere’ (ibid., p. 246-247, indicating Chalmers, 1996). Thus, arguments in Chalmers 2006 are based wholly on views raised in the earlier volume. Later, Chalmers (2010, p. 103) begins Consciousness and Its Place in Nature with the following: ‘Consciousness fits uneasily into our conception of the natural world. On the most common conception of nature, the natural world is the physical world. But on the most common conception of consciousness, it is not easy to see how it could be part of the physical world. So it seems that to find a place for consciousness within the natural order, we must either revise our conception of consciousness, or revise our conception of nature’ (emphasis added). Thus, Chalmers again asserts a dualist-conceptual (‘logically divided’) view to challenge basic notions of ‘natural order’(e.g., natural selection, etc.). Further, his innate distrust (shared by others [Koch, 2012]) of the current ‘science of consciousness’ drives a call for ‘psychophysical

21 May 2017


laws’ as a regular feature of his work (Chalmers, 1996, 2006, 2010). These argued-for laws are posed as a likely alternative to evolution and natural selection, or ‘natural order’. But those laws are never formally developed, they are only invoked as necessary to solve persistent questions on consciousness. Neurologist Christoph Koch (2012, p. 124) sees Chalmers’s psychophysical laws as a ‘crude type of dual-aspect information theory’ – per Koch, set in an appendix to Chalmers 1996, but unseen in any generally available edition. There is something extremely puzzling about the claim that consciousness plays no evolutionary role, because it is obvious that consciousness plays a large number of such roles. (Searle, 1998, p. 63) CHALMERS’S FRAMING – Discussion of Literature Next – how should we relate these notes to natural selection’s role in grasping consciousness? Chalmers’s view is that we cannot. To justify this ‘evolutionary exclusion’ his only evidence is a zombie, a fictional device from Chalmers’s only express comment on natural selection. So, if we are to accept that evolutionary theory cannot help in understanding consciousness, it seems we must first accept a logical superiority (or ‘logical possibility’) of fictional devices over scientific theory. The question then remains of ‘How well supported is that logical possibility?’ Chalmers embraces a line of thought that is, by his own words, ‘not defined in terms of deducibility in any system of formal logic’ or functioning (Chalmers, 1996., p 35) – seeming to say his own view is unsupported. Also, this fictional account seems like an odd gambit for one wanting to conform to scientific thinking and natural law (noted earlier). Lastly, this fictional base presents a catalogue of additional problems. À propos of Chalmers’s use of zombies, Frigg and Hartmann (2006, p. 11) have noted: ‘The drawback . . . is that fictional entities are notoriously beset with ontological riddles. This has led many philosophers to argue that [such devices] . . . must be renounced.’ And yet other problems arise in using zombie-like devices, noted elsewhere in the literature (Kirk, 2012). Specifically, neuro-anthropologist Terrence Deacon (2011, pp. 40, 45) states that the use of ‘homuncular representations’, which he equates to zombies, ‘can be an invitation for misleading shortcuts of explanation . . . although [the ‘map’] is similar in structure to what it represents it is not intrinsically meaningful . . . the correspondence . . . tells us nothing about how it is interpreted . . . Appealing to an agency that is just beyond detection to explain why something happened is an intellectual dead end in science. It locates cause or responsibility without analyzing it.’ Regardless, Chalmers’s argument is a thought experiment, which must use fictional devices and may still prove useful. The problem is that his zombie device is imprecisely drawn. For example, Chalmers defines his zombie as ‘lacking conscious experiences altogether . . . all is dark inside,’ while also claiming this ‘zombie twin performs all functions I perform just as well.’ Does Chalmers then envision this zombie in a functional role, writing a piece on consciousness ‘just as well as he’? And with what for content? It’s empty inside. Such complex functioning cannot be explained absent the informational content of accrued life experience or a functioning memory. Chalmers’s de facto non-functional ‘fictional ontology’ for zombies (as logically possible) starts to sound glib, and collides with later firm claims of a fully-functioning zombie.

As a further example of imprecision, Chalmers (1996 p. 35) posits a logically-possible zombie by pondering what ‘would have been in God’s power (hypothetically!) to create, had he chosen to do so. God could not have created . . . male vixens’ because of obvious gender contradictions. But then Chalmers’s God is somehow unfazed by the contradictory ‘living death’ that typifies all zombies, and is blind to humanity’s gender bending habits (e.g., hermaphrodites, transsexuals, transvestites, bisexuality, hijras, LGBT, etc.) Chalmers’s claim of logical possibility is unfounded here, especially as a statement ‘in terms of its truth across all logically possible worlds’, holding to a ‘notion of conceptual truth’ to support ‘[k]ey elements of [his] discussion’ (ibid., pp. 52-54). Chalmers (1996, pp. 94-97) later elevates his zombie to something ‘quite unlike the zombies [of] Hollywood movies’ with ‘significant functional impairments.’ A ‘creature [that] is molecule for molecule identical . . . . He will certainly be identical to me functionally’ and ‘psychologically identical’ too, but lacking conscious experience – a phenomenal zombie. Chalmers then states: ‘the logical possibility [of such] zombies seems equally obvious’ as that of a mile-high unicycle. But his zombie-unicycle comparative ignores the functioning that makes a unicycle a unicycle – namely that it is a one-wheeled vehicle acrobatically ridden by a human. Chalmers’s mile-high unicycle is not logically possible as the necessarily massive device 3 could not even be lifted, let alone mounted and ridden, by any one human. Chalmers sees the risk in mixing conceptual (zombie) and empirical (unicycle) metaphors, citing W. V. Quine ‘who argued that there is no useful distinction between conceptual truths and empirical truths’ (ibid., p. 52). But he repeatedly ‘solves’ the issue by conflating fictional logical possibilities with natural facts and functioning – as with his zombie-unicycle exemplar. By one count, he holds psychological (concepts) and phenomenal (empiric) views apart, but then ties his zombie concept to a ‘presumably empiric’ unicycle that is merely another fictional device. This is how Chalmers supports his zombie twin with presumed measures of logical possibility. Beyond this imprecision, in the whole of Chalmers’s noted work he never defines consciousness. The closest he comes is this: ‘What is central to consciousness, at least in the most interesting sense, is experience. But this is not a definition. At best, it is a clarification . . . to define conscious experience in terms of more primitive notions is fruitless’ (Chalmers, 1996, p. 3-4). So, when he deprives his zombie of consciousness, it is denied what, exactly? If this zombie has no functioning sensorium to support ‘experience’, how does it exist, eat, walk, or talk? Again, as noted by Frigg and Hartmann, even simple self-regulation cannot be explained absent any ontologic, epistemic, or operative framing. As Chalmers never defines consciousness, so too, he never defines his zombie in a delineated way that allows for a clarifying argument. He can make whatever ‘zombie claim’ he wishes with impunity. It is an argument impossible to refute, simply because it has neither bounds nor logic – it is untestable and unfalsifiable (Shuttleworth, 2008). Later, Chalmers even uses the phrase ‘has the consciousness of a zombie’ (Chalmers, 1996., p. 254). So a firm sense of what this zombie is, conscious or otherwise, seems absent.


One mile of CroMoly 1.5” tubing, used in light-weight frame building, with a wall 0.035" or 0.25" thick, weighs 2,878 or 17,541 pounds (OnlineMetals, 2012). Several lengths would likely be needed.

21 May 2017


The lack of even a working definition for consciousness deprives us of the taxonomy needed for practical study, taxonomic naming being prerequisite to any formal endeavor (Ford, 2007, p. 91). Some even think a precise naming of consciousness is unlikely (Greenfield, 2009, Koch, 2012). But if no formal name for consciousness is likely, there seems little point in studying ‘that which we cannot even name’. Ascribing such unnamable or opaque traits to consciousness is oddly reminiscent of a mystical pre-scientific era. Further, it hinders (precludes) the honest appraisal of one’s basic framing of the matter. Finally, Chalmers never offers an alternative to natural selection. It is this complete lack of a practical framing for consciousness that, in fact, makes his Hard Problem hard. He denies us natural selection as a likely tool, and then offers no substitute – beyond empty ‘psychophysical laws’. Yes, this is indeed a hard problem. His zombie trope abruptly plants us within a fictional terra incognita, an informationally spare state defined only by the author’s allowances. It’s unclear how even Chalmers hopes to advance his own psychophysical laws in a serially coherent manner. CONCLUSION Chalmers presents his thesis by stating that the ‘one technical concept that is crucial to [his argument] is that of supervenience’ (1996, p. xiv). But a close reading of his work shows that logical possibility is, in fact, his one key concept. Chalmers sees the risk in any such conceptual framing, noting that the ‘way in which conceivability arguments go wrong is by subtle conceptual confusion: if we are insufficiently reflective we can overlook an incoherence in a purported possibility . . . [revealing] that the concepts are being incorrectly applied’ (1996, p. 98-99). But he seems blind to the incoherence and imprecision of his own logical possibilities. The weakness of Chalmers’s logical possibilities makes his arguments arbitrary. Any number of equal fictional possibilities can be offered as counter claim (e.g., Chalmers’s zombie could never function as claimed, as it would be constantly harried by flying monkeys). While such vistas may entertain, heavily fictionalized debate offers no basis for understanding or modeling challenging topics, let alone consciousness. Chalmers further acknowledges that there ‘is certainly a sense in which all these arguments are based on intuition, but [he tries] to make clear just how natural and plain these intuitions are, and how forced it is to deny them’ (1996, p. 110). But what is forced is the conceptual separation of logical and functional possibilities – the only logic this supports is dysfunctional logic. Such arguments are called, by some, a FIST, a false implied supervenience thesis (McLaughlin & Bennett, 2011). Chalmers’s use of zombies, as Frigg and Hartmann suggest, only offers impossible riddles. His ‘zombie twin’ begins to sound more like a conjurer’s ploy of misdirection, rather than a genuine effort at clarification. This intellectual sleight-of-hand diverts us from that which is right before us – natural selection’s likely relevance in framing questions of consciousness. Chalmers and others argue for zombies as logically possible (Kirk, 2012). But Chalmers’s zombies are by no means logically verifiable or even roughly comparable to reality, as practical modeling requires.

Still, this analysis does not deny the many factors Chalmers names as problematic in studying consciousness. Nor does it even deny that ‘science’ (as presently grasped) can say little about consciousness – Chalmers’s main point. This critique only addresses Chalmers’s general case against natural selection, and thus asserts that the Hard Problem is not as irreducible as claimed. The ‘next step’, the use of natural selection to frame basic issues on consciousness, information, intelligence, and the like, is pursued in later essays. Lastly, this analysis stresses Chalmers’s Hard Problem as it is perhaps the best known of many such claims. A similar analysis is thus possible for each of those other views from other authors. For example, philosopher Daniel Dennett (1991) often appears to argue the opposite of Chalmers (i.e., ‘consciousness as illusion’). Still, even as an opposed view Dennett’s model also fails due to ignoring the role of a functioning sensorium in natural selection. But to now examine every view offered over the last 2,500 years is pointless when firm solutions are needed. Recent gains and challenges in machine learning and artificial intelligence (LeCun et al., 2015; Rosa, 2017) make the call for useful models (rather than endless debate) compelling and more interesting, and is thus the track pursued in the essays that follow. REFERENCES Burton-Hill, C. (2016). The superhero of artificial intelligence, The Guardian, 16 February 2016 [Online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2017]. Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Chalmers, D. (2006). Strong and weak emergence, in Clayton, P., & Davies, P. C. W. (eds.) The re-emergence of emergence: The emergentist hypothesis from science to religion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Chalmers, D. J. (2010). The character of consciousness. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Deacon, T. (2011). Incomplete nature: How mind emerged from matter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton. Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co. Frigg, R., & Hartmann, S. (2006). “Fiction and scientific representation,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online] Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Available at: <http://> [Accessed 1 January 2011]. Ford, D. (2007). The search for meaning: A short history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Greenfield, S. (2009). “The neuroscience of consciousness,” Towards a Science of Consciousness Conf., 10–14 June 2009, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Polytechnic Univ. [online] Available at:

21 May 2017


<> [Accessed 1 January 2011]. Harnad, S. (1990). The Symbol Grounding Problem. Physica D 42: 335-346. Kirk, R. (2012). “Zombies,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). [online] Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Available at: <http://> [Accessed 1 March 2012]. Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a romantic reductionist. Boston, MA: MIT Press. LeCun, Y., Bengio, Y., and Hinton, G. (2015). Deep learning. Nature, 521:436–444, 2015. McLaughlin, B. & Bennett, K. (2011). "Supervenience," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). [online] Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 November 2012]. OnlineMetals (2012). “4130 - Alloy Tube Round.” [online] Seattle, WA: Available at: [Accessed 30 November 2012]. Rosa, M. (2017). AI Roadmap Institute, [Online]. Available at: <https://> [Accessed on 12 March 2017]. Searle, J. R. (1998). Mind, language, and society: Philosophy in the real world. New York, NY: Basic Books. Shuttleworth, M. (Sep 21, 2008). Falsifiability. Retrieved Feb 10, 2013 from Wilson, E. (2009). “The four great books of Darwin,” in National Academy of Sciences - Sackler Colloquim: In the Light of Evolution IV. [online] Available at: <http://> [Accessed on 1 January 2011].

The Hard Problem of Consciousness  

This paper analyzes David Chalmers’s “Hard Problem” and his argument against natural selection in the formation of human consciousness. It e...