The ‘Hard Problem’ of Consciousness

For my birthday, Vika got me Consciousness, an Introduction, by Susan Blackmore. Much of the text so far revolves around the purported mind-body problem, or the hard problem of consciousness. I’m not sure I have much patience for this alleged ‘hard problem’, and I think the fact that so much time has been spent on it is more an artifact of historical precedent than any strong referent to some interpersonal thing.

I’d like to walk with you down this riverbed while I try to talk out why it seems this way. As I understand the problem, it is a question of “how can I have this ineffable, irreproducible, irreducible experience of being in the moment if I am merely a collection of neurons subject to largely deterministic physical behaviours?” Blackmore surveys the dualist answers to this question, so I shan’t repeat them here, but I remain firmly a monist. Now, before you get too upset with me, I’ll quickly say that I don’t think consciousness is an epiphenomena.

Let’s take a rock and smash it.

Now, pick up one of the pieces. This is your rock. There are many rocks, but this one is yours. Does the rock have a subjectivity? That is, is there something it is to be that rock?

On the first hand it seems the answer is obviously no; it’s a rock, damnit, and it doesn’t think, it has no “experience” of what it is.

But on the other hand, this fragment you hold in your hand is a specific thing; it is a fragment of a rock worn smooth from the flow of the river, and a sharp jagged edge because we just shattered it. This fragment of basalt was pouring from the earth a mere million years ago, something you can see in the rock itself based on the orientation of the magnetic fields within it.

No other rock in history has been subjected to those particular iniquities, so even something as inert and senseless as this rock has some irreducible complexity to it. Moreover, the particular combination of molecules that is represented in this specific fragment of rock are most likely not found in anything with the same volume, and are definitely related to the upwelling it came from. Even though I can’t give you the specific details of this rock, a short thought experiment shows us it must be quite unique.

Lets assume the rock is around 56 grams, and that it has the same distribution of atoms as the average piece of basalt ( Oxygen: 45.6%, Silicon 23.0%, Aluminum 9.0%, Calcium 8.4%, Iron 6.7%, Sodium 2.0%, Potassium, 0.1%). 94.8% of it would be 1.401e+24 atoms. I’m sure the possible combinations of atoms in this rock are substantially smaller than the factorial of the number of atoms in the rock, but even if each known atom in the rock could only possibly be in one of seven positions, there are still 1e+90 more possible combinations that could make up that rock than there are atoms in the visible universe (~ 1e+79 ). So this is all strong evidence for the notion that this rock that you just carelessly shattered is absolutely unique in all the universe.

There is some literal thing it is to be this fragment of rock, and that literal thing cannot be found in anything else. I believe that this literal thing can be considered a subjectivity (though of course not a subjective experience.)

Now, living things actually go out of their way to reduce the combinatoric space they inhabit; it wouldn’t do if every cell got a perfectly random but equivalent length strand of DNA, nor would it be pleasant if one attempted to randomly assemble ribosomes out of their constituent atoms. Nevertheless, there is something unique that it is to be a living organism. There are all of the aforementioned slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but in addition, life is all about letting experience affect you in particular and repeatable ways. In bacteria differing molecules in the cell trigger different biochemical pathways; in neurons, ongoing stimulation induces the folding of molecules into particularly stable alternate conformations, which in turn affect their potential for additional stimulation.

So if everything has an innate quality of what it is to be that thing, then it should come as no surprise that adding senses into the mix leads to organisms with a sense of what it is to be themselves. The richness and complexity of our subjectivity is more an artifact of the aggregate intersubjectivities of the one hundred trillion cells (including ten billion neurons) that make up one particular human. Thus it is that I come to think the “hard problem” is illusory.

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