Monday, 14 August 2017

Is David Chalmers' Hard Question Unanswerable?

First things first.

The following isn't a hardcore empiricist or positivist polemic against the Hard Question of Consciousness. (At least I hope it isn't.) It certainly isn't a “scientistic” (as some panpsychists put it) piece. It may well be an “anti-mysterian” in some sense or other. (I'm not sure about that.) If anything, the positions advanced in the following are primarily logical and metaphysical in nature; not scientific.


What if the question

Why does physical X give rise to experience Y?

didn't have an answer or a solution? What if the question itself is suspect? Compare it to another unanswerable (if ironic) question raised by Richard Feynman. He recalled:

You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!”

Of course this may not be in the same ballpark as the question why physical states give rise to experience; though it's surely on the borders of it.

It's not really a surprise that Feynman should have seen that number plate. So it may not be such a deep surprise that a physical state (or states) should give rise to an experience. Moreover, perhaps there's no deep answer - other than mundane facts about probabilities or statistics - to the question as to why Feynman should have seen that number plate.  Similarly with experience arising from the physical. Beyond the fact that it does, there may be nothing more to say.

The other thing is that if we already believe that the physical and experience/consciousness are different categories or things; then, by definition, there's bound to be an “explanatory gap” between the two. Thus Chalmers' “explanatory bridge to cross” that gap will never be forthcoming. It may be like turning water into wine or trying to hear the sound of wine.

Of course if Chalmers' panprotopsychism turns out to be correct/true/accurate, then the Hard Question may well have been solved! In fact it can be cynically argued that Chalmers continually asks the Hard Question (at least after his conversion to panpsychism) in order to push people towards panpsychism.

However, Chalmers' commitment to a scientific account of panpsychism also seems to mean - on the surface at least - that he isn't what is sometimes called a “mysterian”. Having said that, some mysterians do believe that consciousness/experience may be comprehensible in the future due to advances in science and technology. Isn't that also Chalmers' position?

Fundamental Matter/Experience

So is Chalmers committed to the “principle of sufficient reason” - the belief that everything can be explained? Not entirely, as we shall now see.

Firstly, it's very clear that Chalmers sees experience in the same way as he sees matter, space-time, gravity, etc. He tells us that

(n)othing in physics tells us why there is matter in the first place, but we do not count this against theories of matter”.

That means that Chalmers himself seems to accept an end to questions (hard or soft) when it comes to what he calls “the fundamentals of physical theory”. He argues the question of “why there is matter in the first place” may also be illegitimate - at least from a position within physics.

Thus, just as physics “does not tell us why there is [matter] in the first place”, so the same may well be the case for experience/consciousness.

To repeat. To Chalmers, the question as to why the physical gives rise to consciousness is very important and indeed highly nutritious food for thought; whereas the question as to why there is matter in the first place “does not count... against theories of matter”. One must conclude, then, that it may not count against Chalmers' posit of fundamental experience/consciousness either. 

However, what if Chalmers' Hard Question is in the same – mysterian? - ballpark as Kitty Ferguson's questions about the constants of nature, symmetry and mathematical logic? Namely:

... no scientific theory we have at present can tell us why the speed of light and the strengths of the fundamental forces of nature are what they are.”

We can say that these values/strengths just are the values/strengths that they are. They have to be of some value/strength. The fact that they have the values/ strengths they have is entirely contingent. If the values/strengths were necessary, then perhaps there would be answers to Ferguson's questions. (Of course all this is tangentially linked to the anthropic principle; though I don't think it's too relevant in this context.) So perhaps we can also say that the link between the physical and experience just is.

As for symmetry:

... we might ask whether there are underlying reasons why this symmetry and not another should be the one to apply in our universe.” 

There had to be some kind of symmetry (i.e., if there was symmetry in the first place). Sure, other kinds of symmetry might have been instantiated. They weren't. (Perhaps, again on the anthropic view, we can say that this question couldn't have been asked without the given symmetries.) Thus perhaps the question is whether or not there was something before our symmetries; something responsible for our symmetries; or something more basic than our symmetries which can answer Ferguson's questions. Moreover, these questions, prima facie, do seem answerable.

Finally, here's Ferguson on mathematical logic:

It's a question of profound importance whether mathematical consistency required an Inventor. I've heard it asked at the end of public lectures on physics: 'Is mathematical consistency as we know it the only way it COULD be – or is it conceivable it could be something different?...' If the lecturer is a scientist or mathematician, he or she may answer that mathematical consistency just is.”

Ferguson betrays her mysterian (or theistic) proclivities in this passage. The idea that mathematical consistency would need an “Inventor” will strike many as being ridiculous. Nonetheless, it may still be a good or legitimate question. As for the possibility of alternative mathematics, it has been roundly rejected. Some say that even the question can't be constructed without begging the question. (This, of course, doesn't rule out rival mathematical systems, incompleteness, inconsistency, etc.) As for logic, if we take away the basic building blocks (first forcefully stated as long ago as Aristotle), the idea of truly independent logics is also largely rejected - even by those who accept paraconsistent and dialethic logics. As Dale Jacquette put it:

Even paraconsistent logics that tolerate logical inconsistencies without inferential explosion, that accommodate contradictions but do not authorize the logically valid deduction of any and every proposition, do so according to strict rules, as strict as the rules that govern Aristotle's syllogisms.”

So, to repeat. Chalmers himself isn't a mysterian when it comes to the existence of experience in the first place; though he arguably is when it comes to the physical-experience link. Kitty Ferguson, on the other hand, may well be a mysterian about the constants of nature, universal symmetries and mathematical logic. She's also a mysterian about the mind and consciousness.

An Example: Crick & Koch's Thesis

Chalmers says that

Crick and Koch’s theory gains its purchase by assuming a connection between binding and experience, and so can do nothing to explain that link”.

What does Chalmers mean by the word “explain” here? What kind of explanation would make him happy? Is there even a possible (or hypothetical) explanation which could be conjured up care-of speculative philosophy/metaphysics? Think about it. Think about any possible argument or set of data which could explain the link between the physical and experience. What would it look like? What could it look like?

Chalmers – elsewhere - makes much of "conceivability" leading to "metaphysical possibility". Thus if we can conceive of such a link between the physical and experience, then that link would be metaphysically possible. So, go ahead, conceive of such a link. What, precisely, have you conceived?

Does Chalmers (kind of) admit that such a link can't be found because it can't even be conceived of in the first place? Is that why he quotes Christoph Koch saying the following? -

'Well, let’s first forget about the really difficult aspects, like subjective feelings, for they may not have a scientific solution.'”

Sure, Koch refers to a “scientific solution”, not a philosophical/metaphysical one. However, would a philosophical/metaphysical solution be any more easily forthcoming than a scientific one? So what would it look like?

Is the question

Why do the oscillations give rise to experience?”

even a good question? Is there an answer - even in principle? What kind of answer is Chalmers looking for?

He isn't asking the following question:

How do the oscillations in the brain give rise to experience?

That question can be answered in physical terms.

As for the why-question (rather than the how-question), perhaps there isn't an answer. 

Thus is the Hard Question like this? -

Why is water wet?

An answer to that would presumably tell us about the interaction of H2O molecules and human skin. It would also involve a subjective component as to what it is like to experience something wet. Liquidity (not wetness), on the other hand, can be explained by science.

Thus perhaps we should ask the following question:

Why do H2O molecules give rise to liquidity?

That question doesn't involve an experiential component.

However, perhaps the Hard Question is closer to this question:

Why is water H20?

Isn't this question necessarily unanswerable or even meaningless?

Perhaps, like H2O molecules giving rise to water (actually, they equal water), it's just a brute fact that the physical gives rise to experience. In other words, this brute fact isn't amenable to an explanation. Though if there's no answer, does that automatically mean that the question is worthless? Not necessarily. The fact that a question is unanswerable may tell us something interesting or even profound. On the other hand, it may not.


So, to summarize. When Chalmers asks,

Why do the oscillations give rise to experience?”

we can reply:

Why does anything give rise to experience?

Indeed it can be said that whatever someone posits, Chalmers could ask the very same question. Could a neuroscientist, physicist or philosopher cite any fact about the physical (or the brain) which would make Chalmers happy? In other words, Chalmers could ask his question no matter what anyone says about the brain or the physical. The question,

Why does X (or Y) give rise to experience?

can always be asked. Indeed Chalmers will keep on asking it. At least he will until he fully accepts and then fully endorses some form of panpsychism; which may be any time soon.

However, as panpsychism has just been mentioned, it's conceivable that even if some form of panpsychism were true/accurate, it still wouldn't solve the Hard Problem. Or, alternatively, it may create another Hard Problem!

For example, how does the possibility that all the atoms, subatomic particles and even microtubles in your brain have some kind of proto (or rudimentary) experience add up to the Big Consciousness which adult human beings have? This, succinctly, is called the “combination” or “subject-summing” problem for panpsychism. Indeed William Seager, ironically, sees the “combination problem” as the/a Hard Problem for panpsychism.

So here we go again?

Finally, has Chalmers moved much – or even any - further than Thomas Huxley when the latter expressed his angst in the following much-quoted passage? -

"[H]ow it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp."

Of course Chalmers may not claim to have moved much further than Huxley. At least he couldn't have done so before he adopted his own brand of panpsychism.

Finally, perhaps the true "mystery of consciousness" is that we think it's a mystery.

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