Friday, 3 July 2015

Dennett & Chalmers on the “Easy Problems” of Consciousness


The American philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that once all the “easy” (or functional) problems of consciousness have been solved, then that’s all we’d need to know about consciousness. Or to use Dennett’s own words: “Once all the Easy Problems are solved, consciousness is explained.”

So what are these easy problems?

According to the Australian philosopher David Chalmers (whom Dennett was partly responding to), they include the following: “perceptual discrimination, categorisation, internal access, verbal report”.

Of course Chalmers offers a riposte to Dennett by adding that

“there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?

Is it that Dennett simply ignores this question or problem? Surely not. Does he see it as a “pseudo-problem”? Possibly. He certainly sees qualia as pseudo-entities, so perhaps this “problem of consciousness” is a pseudo-problem.

Chalmers himself comments on Dennett’s position (or on those who hold a similar position). He says that people like Dennett “deny the phenomenon”. Chalmers continues:

“[O]nce we have explained the functions such as accessibility, reportability, and the like, there is no further phenomenon called ‘experience’ to explain. Some explicitly deny the phenomenon, holding, for example that what is not externally verifiable cannot be real. Others achieve the same effect by allowing that experience exists, but only if we equate ‘experience’ with something like the capacity to discriminate and report.”

The obvious point to make here is that if

accessibility, reportability, discrimination, etc. = experience (or consciousness)

then why use the word “experience” or “consciousness” at all? The problem here is that these eliminativists may well agree with that question. In other words, why bother talking about “experience” or “consciousness” at all? Instead, let’s just stick to more scientific terms such as “accessibility”, “reportability”, “discrimination”, etc.

This verificationist position seems both obviously false and absurd. Yes; there may well be a problem — indeed a scientific problem — with verifiability when it comes to experience and the mind generally. Though having a scientific and/or philosophical problem with any given x doesn’t automatically mean that this x “can’t be real” or doesn’t exist.

Chalmers’ basic point is that “perceptual discrimination, categorisation, internal access, verbal report” could all occur without consciousness or experience. So is that the case? (That’s question for Chalmers rather than for Dennett.) And even if they could occur — in principle — without consciousness, perhaps they may still always come along with consciousness… at least when it comes to human beings.

One argument would be that all these functional “abilities” happen within a computer. A computer can perceptually discriminate, categorise, have internal access to its own states or information and even verbally report things. However, computers aren’t conscious — they don’t experience anything when they carry out these functions. Despite that, wouldn’t a functionalist, Dennett or a believer in AI say that if a computer carries out these functions then, by definition, it is conscious? (They would certainly say that a computer is intelligent or displays intelligence.)

Or is the argument that if these functions are carried out without consciousness in computers, then that could also be the case with human beings? Indeed is the argument stronger than that? Is it that if they occur without consciousness in computers, then they must also occur without consciousness in humans? But that seems obviously false.

It can also be said that consciousness (or experience) itself is functional. Or, at the very least, it has a “functional role”. That’s exactly the possibility which Chalmers brings up. He writes:

“This is not to say that experience has no function. Perhaps it will turn out to play an important cognitive role.”

I would say that experience (or consciousness) obviously has a “cognitive role”. Indeed why does Chalmers see it as a mere possibility rather than an actuality? There are of course brain functions which occur which human beings aren’t conscious of. Yet there are also functions which human beings are conscious of. Indeed there are some functions which at certain points human beings are not conscious of and which the same beings then become conscious of.


Chalmers, David, ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’, from the Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (1995).

Dennett, Daniel, Consciousness Explained (1991)

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