Sunday, 1 March 2015

The hard problem of the smell of the coffee

“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 is
something 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.


  1. > there is something ineffable about the smell of my raw coffee beans as I roast them

    Perhaps there is something about effing, rather than something about the experience, that is eluding you here. If effing (i.e. using words to refer to stuff) is actually a matter of intersubjective coordination, rather than a matter of pinning the reality of things to the wall, then the "hard" problem might appear different. Interested to get your feelings about Von Uexküll here.

    1. Hi Fred,

      I am not entirely sure how one is able to ‘pin the reality of things to the wall’ (in fact I am in doubt that there is one correct reality) independent of the use of words, particularly when referring to subjective experience.

      My understanding of Von Uexküll is that he provides an excellent account of what an animal’s subjective viewpoint might be as we see and conceptualise it based on our observations, empirical evidence, etc. (not from the experience of the animals themselves as it appears to them). If we mean experience in Nagel’s sense (I am not sure here that Von Uexküll means it that way) then Von Uexküll is only providing his account (from the third-person perspective) of how the world appears to animals. I tend to agree with Nagel here that we can only imagine and build a theory of how the world might seem to animals based on our conception and empirical evidence. Von Uexküll, for example, states that ‘experiments have proved that the tick lacks all sense of taste’. My take on this is that this can only be speculation, albeit a highly informed one, as proving/disproving the tick’s sense of taste needs access to its first-‘person’ subjective experience. How the world appears to the animal itself remains to be accounted for from that animal’s point of view. This of course is assuming that animals have a subjective inner world, which both Nagel and Von Uexküll seem to assume.