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THE “HARD PROBLEM” OF CONSCIOUSNESS Marcus Abundis1 Abstract This paper analyzes David Chalmers’s “Hard Problem” and his argument against natural selection in the formation of human consciousness. It explores specific problems in Chalmers’s reasoning and evidence from his published articles over the years. Keywords: consciousness, hard problem, psychology, mind, evolution, natural selection, duality. INTRODUCTION – Statement of Problem and Proposed Approach David Chalmers (1996), in The Conscious Mind, is known for naming a Hard Problem in the study of consciousness, a view often taken from Descartes’s Meditations as separation of “body” and “mind.” These terms are seen to have interrelated functional roles but where “mind” has no specific physical identity and “body” has a specific physical form. This supposed separation of a material world (body) from a thinking world (mind), for Chalmers, presents an insoluble point – a logical gap ‘not open to investigation by the usual scientific methods.’ He maintains that a ‘reductive explanation of consciousness is [therefore scientifically] impossible’ (ibid., p. xiv). Chalmers presents a general case against science in the study of consciousness. He does this by presenting an abstract “logical supervenience” that he sets against “empirical supervenience” (ibid., p. 34-35).2 But this abstract general case cannot encompass all of science, since empirical science is a rather specific, yet diverse, unfinished, and at times puzzling area of study.3 Because of this scientific variety the only way to gauge the Hard Problem’s merit is to measure its claims against just one scientific theory. This essay undertakes such a study using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. 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 assertion against natural selection in the formation of human consciousness. Chalmers 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 1

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

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Supervene – (of a fact or property) entailed by or dependent on the existence of another: mental events supervene upon physical ones. Chalmers enlarges this definition beyond “fact or property” to include conceptual (logical) supervenience, and then gives primacy to this abstract view over an empirical view. 3

This includes: a missing final theory of biology, the ambiguity of quantum events, imprecise models of how evolution occurs, “emergent traits” (Clayton & Davies 2006), dark matter and dark energy, etc.

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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). Chalmers offers this essentially functionalist view of consciousness to support the contrascientific model he expands throughout his book. These are his only express comments on natural selection. He gives no further explanation or outside references, but uses this “zombie argument” alone and proceeds from there. Chalmers is not alone in using zombie-like devices to portray problems of consciousness (Kirk, 2012, Deacon, 2011), so this “zombie trope” is, at times, a useful tool. Still, Chalmers’s use of zombies here to rebut natural selection is singular in the literature. Furthermore, this empirically impossible “zombie rebuttal” of natural selection seems to collide with his earlier 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). Chalmers’s (1996) sparse comments on natural selection prompt a further study of the volume for insight. With no other notes on natural selection available, perhaps exploring the functionalist 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). In his deliberation of “the phenomenal and the psychological” Chalmers identifies many likely co-adaptive functioning roles (e.g., pain, emotions, etc.). Chalmers believes 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). Further, he accedes to causal/functioning ‘relational properties’ between the phenomenal and the psychological (ibid., pp. 13, 16-17, 21-22), implying a likely role for natural selection (i.e., selection for synchronous functioning of phenomenal “sensory input,” along with efficient psychological views of that input). But oddly, Chalmers then insists on holding the two, the phenomenal and the psychological, apart. He argues that this separation is “logically possible” and, thus, must be used to model consciousness. This forced conceptual separation of “phenomena and functioning,” realized via logical possibility, arises in Chapter 1.3. This sense of logical possibility thus underpins Chalmers’s call for a Hard Problem (note 2), and is expanded in ensuing arguments. 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 model posits), 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 a zombie twin (from above). Chalmers later disavows all functionalist attempts to model consciousness by stating that to ‘analyze consciousness in terms of some functional notion is either to change the subject or to define away the problem’ (ibid., p.

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105) – a statement that ignores his own use of a functionalist model, above, to justify his zombie twin contra natural selection. A survey of Chalmers’s other work, while giving no further notes on natural selection, continues in a non-Darwinian vein. In Strong and Weak Emergence, Chalmers (2006) argues that the emergence of high-level truths like consciousness are not conceptually or metaphysically necessitated by low-level truths like material survival (i.e., consciousness is “strongly emergent,” non-physical). He later states that the arrival of evolution as a life dynamic (via genetic events) is not surprising, in contrast to the strong emergence of consciousness. But he seems to then contradict himself by stating that a ‘most salient adaptive phenomena like intelligence’ does seem like a natural adaptation (ibid., 253) – living intelligence is not strongly emergent. It is unclear if this adaptive intelligence differs significantly from consciousness, as Chalmers offers no definition for intelligence here (nor does he ever define consciousness). In the end, he bases this claim for a strongly emergent consciousness by pointing to his zombie argument: ‘I have argued this position at length elsewhere’ (ibid., p. 246-247, indicating Chalmers, 1996). 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). Chalmers again asserts a dualist-conceptual view to challenge our ideas of ‘natural order’(e.g., natural selection). Chalmers’s distrust (shared by others [Koch, 2012]) of the current “science of consciousness,” drives his call for new “psychophysical laws,” a regular feature of his work (Chalmers, 1996, 2006, 2010). These argued-for laws are posed as an alternative to evolution, natural selection, etc. But they are never formally developed, they are only invoked as necessary to solve persistent questions about consciousness.4 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 How do we relate the foregoing to natural selection’s role in studying consciousness? Chalmers’s position is that we cannot. To justify this “evolutionary exclusion” his 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 modeling consciousness, we must first accept a logical superiority (or “logical possibility”) of fictional devices over scientific theory. Chalmers thus embraces a line of thought that ‘is not defined in terms of deducibility in any system of formal logic’, or functioning (Chalmers, 1996., p 35). This seems like an odd gambit for one

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Koch (2012, p. 124) calls this view a crude type of information theory.

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seeking to conform to scientific thinking and natural law (noted above); moreover this fictional foundation presents a catalogue of 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, Terrence Deacon (2011, pp. 40, 45) states that the use of ‘homuncular representations,’ which Deacon 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 particular zombie device is imprecisely drawn. As an 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 functioning 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. Chalmers’s nonfunctionalist “fictional ontology” for a zombie twin (as logically possible) collides with his later claims of a “fully-functioning zombie.” As a further example of this imprecision, Chalmers (1996 p. 35) first posits his 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 an obvious gender contradiction. But then Chalmers’s God seems unfazed by the contradictory “living death” that characterizes all zombies and is blind to humanity’s occasional “gender bending” habits (e.g., hermaphrodites, transsexuals, transvestites, bisexuality, hijras, LGBT, etc.) Chalmers’s claim of “logical possibility” seems unfounded here, especially as a statement ‘in terms of its truth across all logically possible worlds’ and 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 twin 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” (mixed metaphor) ignores the function 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, since the necessarily massive device5 could not even be lifted, let alone mounted and ridden, by any one human. 5

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.

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Chalmers recognizes the risk of mixing conceptual and empirical views, citing W. V. Quine ‘who argued that there is no useful distinction between conceptual truths and empirical truths’ (ibid., p. 52). But Chalmers repeatedly “solves” his problem by conflating logical possibility with natural facts and functioning; as with his zombie-unicycle exemplar – mixing metaphors (fictional vs. material) to bestow zombies a modicum of “logical possibility,” while claiming to hold the two, the conceptual and the empirical, separate (as done with psychological and phenomenal vistas). Beyond these imprecisions, in the whole of Chalmers’s (1996) volume consciousness is never defined. 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’. So, when he deprives his zombie twin of consciousness, it is denied what, exactly? If this zombie has no functioning sensorium for “experience,” how then does it exist, eat, walk, or talk? Again, as noted by Frigg and Hartmann, even basic self-regulation cannot be explained absent any ontologic, epistemic, or operative framing. Since 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. The lack of even a working definition for consciousness deprives us of the practical taxonomy needed for the practical study of consciousness, taxonomic naming being prerequisite to all formalized endeavors (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 hope of studying “that which we cannot even name.” Ascribing such “unnamable traits” to consciousness is oddly reminiscent of our mystical pre-scientific era; moreover, it hinders the honest appraisal of likely flaws in one’s framing of the basic matter. Finally, Chalmers never offers an alternative to natural selection. It is this complete absence of a workable framing for consciousness that, in fact, makes his Hard Problem hard. Chalmers denies us natural selection as a likely scientific tool, and then provides no substitute – beyond his 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 crucial concept. Chalmers sees the pitfalls likely to 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

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a purported possibility . . . [revealing] that the concepts are being incorrectly applied’ (1996, p. 98-99). But then he seems blind to the incoherence of his own logical possibilities. The innate incoherence of Chalmers’s “logical possibilities” makes his argument arbitrary. A number of equally incoherent countervailing fictional possibilities are easily offered as counter claim (e.g., Chalmers’s zombie could never perform functionally, as claimed, because it would be constantly harried by flying monkeys). While highly entertaining, such heavily fictionalized debates offer no real basis for understanding or modeling 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 feels forced is Chalmers’s imposed conceptual separation of “logically possible worlds.” This conceptually based style of argument is 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 our eyes – natural selection’s likely relevance in framing questions of consciousness. Chalmers and others argue for zombies as logically possible (Kirk, 2012). Yet Chalmers’s “zombies” are by no means logically verifiable or comparable, as practical modeling requires. Regardless, this paper does not deny the factors Chalmers names as problematic in studying consciousness. Nor does it deny that “science” can say little about consciousness – Chalmers’s main point (which is heartily agreed). This critique only covers Chalmers’s general case against natural selection, and thus asserts that the Hard Problem is not as irreducible as claimed. The “next step,” the specific use of natural selection to frame questions on consciousness, is pursued in a subsequent essay. REFERENCES (1) Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (2) 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. (3) Chalmers, D. J. (2010). The character of consciousness. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. (4) Clayton, P., & Davies, P. C. W. (eds.). (2006) The re-emergence of emergence: The emergentist hypothesis from science to religion. Oxford, Engalnd: Oxford University Press. (5) Deacon, T. (2011). Incomplete nature: How mind emerged from matter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

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(6) Frigg, R., & Hartmann, S. (2006). “Fiction and scientific representation,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online] Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Available at: <http:// plato.stanford.edu/entries/models-science/> [Accessed 1 January 2011]. (7) Ford, D. (2007). The search for meaning: A short history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (8) 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: <http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/raw-science/the-neuroscientific-basisof-consciousness> [Accessed 1 January 2011]. (9) 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:// plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/zombies/> [Accessed 1 March 2012]. (10) Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a romantic reductionist. Boston, MA: MIT Press. (11) 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: <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/supervenience/> [Accessed 30 November 2012]. (12) OnlineMetals (2012). “4130 - Alloy Tube Round.” [online] Seattle, WA: OnlineMetals.com. Available at: http://www.onlinemetals.com/merchant.cfm?id=250&step=2 [Accessed 30 November 2012]. (13) Searle, J. R. (1998). Mind, language, and society: Philosophy in the real world. New York, NY: Basic Books. (14) Shuttleworth, M. (Sep 21, 2008). Falsifiability. Retrieved Feb 10, 2013 from Explorable.com: http://explorable.com/falsifiability (15) 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:// sackler.nasmediaonline.org/2009/evo_iv/eo_wilson/eo_wilson.html> [Accessed on 1 January 2011].

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The Hard Problem of Consciousness