“Suppose you have just had a dental procedure under general anaesthetic and are coming round. You are aware of a dazzling light above you and of a muffled voice echoing in your ears. There is sickness in your stomach and a sharp metallic taste in your mouth. You feel a moment of panic as you struggle to work out what has happened. Moving your head, you recognize the dentist’s face and realize that he is speaking your name and asking if you want a glass of water. You remember where you are, sit up shakily and take the glass.” (Frankish 2010, p.2)
These experiences, the dazzling light above you, hearing a muffed voice, having a metallic taste on your mouth, and so on each have a certain feel/character to them. There issomething of what it feels like from the inside. We recognize these feelings instantly but find it difficult to describe. David Chalmers has dubbed this “the hard problem of consciousness” and describes it as “one of the most exciting intellectual challenges of our time.”
Those in philosophy and other similar realms are perplexed by this problem. However, if one is not within the realm it is not obvious that there is a problem at all. My (mostly failed) attempt to explain the problem of consciousness to friends has made me think this. “Why is it important? Why would you want to know the subjective experience of others anyway”, was a reply from a friend after my attempt to convince her that there is a problem.
Nonetheless, as Nagel has pointed out, bats (or any other creature for that matter) have inner lives, that there is something it is like to be a bat which is simply beyond our ability to conceive. I can imagine what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves - having webbed arms, catching insects in my mouth, having poor vision and perceiving the world around me by means of sound signals, and so on. However, this is beside the question according to Nagel. The question is to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. This remains a mystery as the what-it-is-likeness of an experience is essentially subjective and can only be appreciated from the first-‘person’ point of view. This is not something we can investigate using scientific methods which by their nature operate from the third-person perspective.
At the core of his argument Nagel attempts to convince us that there is something-it-is-like to experience certain things. The way my raw coffee beans smell to me as I roast them, for example, has a distinct character, that is ineffable and available to me and me only. Chalmers agrees that the phenomenal characters of an experience resist explanations through the standard methods of science such as computational or neural mechanisms. What is, in principle, susceptible and explainable using these methods according to Chalmers are “the easy problems”. My ability to recognize the smell of coffee beans, to verbally report on my experience, and so on, includes the “easy problems”.
Chalmers argument that there are hard and easy problems does rely on the assumption that we can distinguish phenomenal characteristics of an experience from its associated psychological ones, which is disputable to say the least. In addition, Chalmers opponents have argued that his arguments rely on misleading thought experiments and that he deliberately mystifies the problem. Others, such as Dennett, have argued that the hard problem of consciousness is “a figment of philosophers’ imagination.” Dennett denies there exists phenomenal experience – phenomenal experience that supposedly has “qualitative character”, that is “ineffable”, or “subjective”. Such an approach which portrays experience as illusive according to Dennett is misleading and driven by misconception of what consciousness is. The hard problem simply does not exist.
But hold on. I intuitively know that my experience of the smell of raw beans has something ineffable that I cannot adequately describe using words, something distinctive about it, something-it-is-like to it. Dennett’s reply would be that our intuitions are often faulty and need to be treated with caution. Dennett sites The colour phi phenomenon and other examples to illustrate this. When we refer to what an experience is like, we simply refer to a set of complex reactions and dispositions. My experience, of the smell of raw coffee beans, should in principle be detectable through questioning (or other forms of testing) and be available for reporting to others and sufficiently captured from the third-person perspective.
These debates are ongoing. Dennett’s opponents argue that his explanation misses the point – namely how things seem to us, and by denying the hard problem, Dennett simply ignores the issue that needs explaining. I, for one, am torn between aspects of each position. I intuitively know that I have a subjective inner life and that there is something-it-is-like-to the experience of the smell of those coffee beans. The faultiness of my intuitions is, on the other hand, something I can’t ignore. For the moment, I am willing to follow my intuitions and agree that there is something ineffable about the smell of my raw coffee beans as I roast them.
Chalmers, D.J. (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a fundamental Theory, New York, Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained, USA, Little, Brown and Company.
Frankish, K. (2010) Consciousness (2nd edition). Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, The Open University.