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Saturday, 22 February 2020

The Hard Problem of Consciousness: Some Distinctions Between “How” and “Why”




i) Introduction
ii) The Grammar of How and Why
iii) The Hard Problem of Consciousness
iv) Confusing and Conflating How and Why
v) How and Why as Found Elsewhere

Many scientists say that “science doesn't ask 'why': it can only answer 'what' and 'how'”. So perhaps that same logic can also be applied to - at least some - philosophical questions. Of course many people will immediately respond by arguing that not only is this either/or position on how and why incorrectly applied to philosophy: it's not even properly applicable to science either.

The Grammar of How and Why

Sometimes this issue is simply a matter of grammar. For example, the question

Why is it that x is thus and so?”

can be neatly parsed into the following question:

How is it that x is thus and so?”

In other cases, however, a why-question can't be parsed into a how-question (as well as vice versa). For example, many people will argue that the question

Why is there something, rather than nothing?”

can't be parsed into the following question:

How is there something, rather than nothing?”

But even here, and with enough ingenuity, the why can be turned into a how. That is, the how may explain the why. And, therefore, the why-question will become a how-question (as well as vice versa).

However, in the main example of this piece, such a substitution (or parsing) doesn't seem to work. That is, it doesn't seem to be the case that the question

How does physical x cause experience y?”

can be accepted as a substitute for this question

Why does physical x cause experience y?”

Though even in this more clear and obvious case, these two questions have still been conflated, confused or interchanged by many people – even by certain philosophers.

In addition, in some cases both how-questions and why-questions seem suspect from the start. Take these two questions:

1) “How is it that H20?”
2) “Why is it that water is H2O?”

Yet, despite all this grammatical fun, it may still be the case that some why-questions are genuinely bogus. Perhaps this is so because they can't be turned into how-questions. That is, because of that lack of a substitution, they may well be bogus. This essentially means that (in certain cases at least) some why-questions can't even be answered – not even in principle. Now does that fact alone automatically make them bogus? One must presume so. That is, surely a question that can't in principle be answered must be bogus.

This issue is mudied, however, by the simple possibility that science – and even philosophy – may make discoveries in the future which will make certain of today's unanswerable why-questions answerable. That would mean that they aren't in fact unanswerable in principle at all – they're simply unanswerable at this moment in time.

However, it can still be argued that certain remaining why-questions will never be answered. Of course the problem with that claim - which is both modal and futurological in nature - is how to justify it.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Professor Donald Hoffman states the old(ish) philosophical chestnut in this way:

We still don't have any scientific theories that explain how conscious experiences could emerge from brain activity.

Yes “we” do! Though, of course, it entirely depends on what exactly Hoffman means by the words above. (Specifically, the modal phrase “how conscious experience could emerge from brain activity”.) For one, in many cases neuroscientists do know that when physical events and states of a certain type occur, then experiences of a certain type occur.

Sure, perhaps these are merely correlations. Though are they as simple as David Hume's example in which a cock's crow is deemed to be the cause of the rising sun? That is, is this simply a case of “correlation without causation”? Many would reply to the question in the following way: Of course it's more then “mere correlation”!

Neuroscientists also know a lot about the brain states and events which are tied (to use a non-committed word) to experience. So perhaps Hoffman means the following:

We still don't have any scientific theories that explain why [i.e., not how] conscious experiences could emerge from brain activity.

That is a tried-and-tested expression of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. It can be expressed in this way:

The problem isn't how experience y arises from physical x: the problem is why it does so.

Or more philosophically (or not):

1) Why does experience y arise from physical x?
2) Why does experience arise from the physical at all?

They above basically questions about the philosophical and conceptual connections between the physical and experience. Or to put that more concretely:

What has an experience of a red rose got to do with physical events and states in the human brain?

Confusing and Conflating How and Why

Does Donald Hoffman himself (in the quote above) confuse how and why?

It can be argued that scientists do tell us how “matter create[s] consciousness” or how “neural activity create[s] conscious experiences”. They tell us that when certain physical things do certain physical things, then experiences occur.

Yet even after an acceptance of brain-to-experience causation, the why-question can still be asked. Indeed it often is!

So, the argument goes, not only do these causal accounts not answer the why-question: they don't even answer the how-question. (As Ludwig Wittgenstein might have put it: Such is philosophy!)

Here's a very loose analogy.

When you press the light switch down, the light comes on. So when someone asks you, “How does the light come on?”, your answer could be: “By pressing the switch.” Of course there's more to it that than this. Yet all the hows can be described for the light coming on. However, it's indeed still the case that all the physical things and physical events (which are required for the light to come on) aren't identical to the light itself.

So now, of course, it has been argued that all the physical things and physical events required for a particular experience aren't identical to that experience.

How and Why as Found Elsewhere

Again, perhaps Hoffman means why not how. For example, what if the following why-questions are bogus? -

1) Why does physical matter create conscious experience?
2) Why does neural activity create conscious experiences?

What's more, what if many of the how-questions have already been answered and the rest can, in principle, be answered in the future?

So why may the why-questions be bogus?

Firstly, what does it mean to ask the following question? -

Why does neural activity create conscious experiences?”

Is there really a why beyond the how?

If I were to ask the questions

1) “Why is water H20?”
2) “Why do H2O molecules create water?”

most people would laugh. A chemist can tell you how H2O molecules create (or cause the structure of) water. However, can he tell you how water is H2O? And perhaps the question “Why is water H2O?” doesn't make sense either. As Ludwig Wittgenstein (more or less) put it in his Philosophical Investigations:

Just because a question can be asked, that doesn't mean that it has an answer.

Grammatically, the questions directly above (as well as many others) are in perfect shape; though philosophically, logically and conceptually, they may be inane. (See this excellent paper on this subject by Gordon Park Baker.)

Take two more obvious examples:

Why is the colour blue happy today?”

And my version of Noam Chomsky's well-known example:

Why do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?”

These are still grammatical sentences. Can these questions be answered? Could there even be a possible answer to these questions? So does the same apply to this question? -

Why does neural activity cause experience/s?”

That above is also a perfectly grammatical question and sentence. Though, admittedly, it doesn't seem to be in exactly the same ballpark as Chomsky's example and my question about the colour blue. Nonetheless, can that question about neural activity and experience be answered? Indeed could there even be an answer to that question?

Here again this may be a commitment to a modally negative answer to Hard Question [rather than “problem”] of Consciousness. And that may well be as controversial a position as claiming that these hard questions can – at least in principle – be answered.


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