PMS WIPS 008 - Anthony Jack, Philip Robbins, and Andreas Roepstorff - The Genuine Problem of Consciousness

“The Genuine Problem of Consciousness” by Anthony Jack (Washington University),  Philip Robbins (Wahsington University), and Andreas Roepstorff (Aarhus University)

Those who are optimistic about the prospects of a science of consciousness, and those who believe that it lies beyond the reach of standard scientific methods, have something in common: both groups view consciousness as posing a special challenge for science. In this paper, we take a close look at the nature of this challenge. We show that popular conceptions of the problem of consciousness, epitomized by David Chalmers’ formulation of the ‘hard problem’, can be best explained as a cognitive illusion, which arises as a by-product of our cognitive architecture. We present evidence from numerous sources to support our claim that we have a specialized system for thinking about phenomenal states, and that an inhibitory relationship exists between this system and the system we use to think about physical mechanisms. Even though the ‘hard problem’ is an illusion, unfortunately it appears that our cognitive architecture forces a closely related problem upon us. The ‘genuine problem’ of consciousness shares many features with the hard problem, and it also represents a special challenge for psychology. Nonetheless, researchers should be careful not to mistake the hard problem for the genuine problem, since the strategies appropriate for dealing with these problems differ in important respects.

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10 Responses to “PMS WIPS 008 - Anthony Jack, Philip Robbins, and Andreas Roepstorff - The Genuine Problem of Consciousness”

  1. uriah says:

    Interesting paper. I am a little suspicious, however, of the argument for the illusoriness of the Hard Problem (HP). The argument seems to be this. HP - and dualism - are motivated by the conceivability of zombies, with the thought that what explains their conceivability is the truth of dualism; but there is an alternative (and purely physicalist) explanation of their conceivability, namely, that there is an inhibitory relation between our “module” for processing information about physical properties and that for processing information about phenomenal properties. My worry is that inhibitory relation between information processing about x and about y is insufficient for explaining the conceivability of x in dissociation from y. suppose Jim is such that there is an inhibitory relation between his modules for processing information about solids and about liquids. Would waterless ice be conceivable to Jim the way mindless brains are conceivable to us? I guess it’s an empirical matter, but I predict No. More to the point, I predict that there can be cases of informational inhibition without conceivability of dissociation. This prediction may turn out to be false, but if it doesn’t, then the alternative explanation of the conceivability of zombies is incomplete.

  2. Thanks for a delightful paper, Tony et al.! In response to Uriah’s worry, I don’t see why there can’t be conceptual gulfs so wide as to create problems for conceivability tests — though maybe there’s only one such gulf (the mind-body gulf), which admittedly would be a little suspicious. Perhaps the argument can be strengthened a bit on this point.

    I find myself agreeing almost entirely with the essay — but as usual, I think you’re too sanguine (near the end) about “trusting the subject”!

    A question: It seems to me that you should say that all the efforts you describe to bridge the divide between the two conceptual realms will be inevitably dissatisfying, in the same way solutions to the “hard problem” are dissatisfying, unless we undergo some major cognitive reorganization. Would you agree with that?

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Peter Hankins of Conscious Entities has posted a remark on “The Genuine Problem of Consciousness” here: link.

  4. Anthony Jack says:

    Thank you very much for your comments Uriah and Eric. First off, I want to apologise because there is substantial revision pending on this manuscript, which I meant to do before it going on the blog, but job interviews have taken all my time since start of November. Here are some responses to your points:


    The revision will, I hope, spread further light on your point, by being more specific about the actual claim (!) Inhibition is a vague term that can be cashed out in different ways. In fact, inhibition isn’t even central to the argument, which rests principally on the the claim of partial modularity between physical and phenomenal systems. Think of the classic modular case between dorsal and ventral streams. There are circumstance in which we adjust our arm movements with changing information, yet have no reportable access to the change in information - the representations simply fail to cohere. It might have been (indeed, to some extent it might actually be true) that we use completely different co-ordinate frames for ‘conscious’/'reflective’/'reportable’ representations of space versus for representations that directly control action. Further, we might lack any abiltity to translate between these reference frames. This is the closest analogy to the point being made. The ‘inhibition’ which appears to exist between these systems is intriguing, but ultimately I suspect its significance is more to do with how the two modular systems develop in the brain, rather than direct inhibition between concepts.

    Eric Schwitzgebel

    Is there anything suspicious about the principal gulf between (’conscious’/'reflective’/'reportable’) conceptual schemes being specific to mind and brain? From an evolutionary perspective, perhaps it makes sense that these modular systems would have evolved seperately. In any case, the empirical data from seperate modules in these domains is strong, and weak for any other conceptual gulfs (no doubt there are gulfs with non-reportable representations, such as with ‘dorsal stream’ processing, but that is different). ‘Suspiciousness’ is therefore not really relevant to the plausibility of the case, although I agree it is an interesting issue why (if true) there should be just this specific conceptual gulf.

    With regards to your other points. Yes, I entirely agree that it remains a very difficult problem to consider how (if at all) we can bridge the conceptual divide. That is not brought out sufficiently well in the current manuscript, except in the title. The point of calling it ‘the genuine problem’ is that it is a genuine problem in two senses: first it is a very difficult and important outstanding problem whose solution, if possible, is in no way trivial. And second, it is genuine in the sense of being real, rather than the imagined problem about metaphysics which is the ‘hard problem’.

  5. Eric Thomson says:

    An interesting paper, and as an analysis of the psychology of the philosophy of consciousness, I think it is useful.

    But wouldn’t Chalmers say that it commits the error that it warns against at the start of the paper: starting with a description of phenomenal experience, but by the end talking about something different? That is, by the end, it ends up as a discussion of our concepts about qualia, but not the qualia themselves. We could conceive of a system with the cognitive architecture of Rene that doesn’t actually have qualia (it only has concepts about its internal information processing). But we do have qualia, and the authors’ functional story doesn’t differentiate systems with bona fide qualia from those that merely describe their internal information-processing states using a conceptual framework that is incommensurate with the same system’s conceptual framework for physical events.

    Also, I don’t really buy posing the diagnosis that philosophers have tried to pose the problem as one of looking for a different feature of the world to differentiate conscious from nonconscious systems. Clearly, there is some feature of the world that is different in conscious systems: while this difference is probably a difference in the information processing capabilities of the physical system in question, that is still just a difference in the world.

    Finally, don’t we already have examples of incommensurate conceptual frameworks applied to the same thing? For instance, it seems we have different ‘modules’ devoted to thinking about animals versus physical things. This may partly explain the persistence of vitalism. But in that case, once people tried to clearly articulate what they thought was special about life, it turned out to be things that are not all that hard to map into the naturalist framework (e.g., inheritance). There is something that seems uniquely persistent about qualia that can’t be explained away as mere conceptual confusion.

  6. Eric Thomson says:

    Upon rereading the paper, I noticed the authors address my final concern to some degree on page 12, where they discuss the case of the concepts of energy and matter, which modern physics takes to be equivalent. There, they say:
    The most obvious and significant difference is that the concepts we use to understand minds don’t just help us to comprehend a class of external phenomena that are publicly observable (namely, overt behaviors); they also help us to comprehend a class of internal phenomena that are not observable in this way (namely, experiences). Our understanding of our own and other minds is partly grounded in a type of information that plays no role in modern science, namely, internally available information about our current perceptual, cognitive and affective states.

    I think this is all somewhat confused: even when I observe manifestly physical mechanical events in the world, this is still done via experience. I have concepts about what I see in the world (about what I experience), but even if that were the only conceptual framework I had (e.g., conceptually, I were a behaviorist), the problem of qualia would still exist. That is, there seems to be a confusion between a) systems for which qualia becomes a philosophical problem and b) systems that have qualia, but no concepts of qualia at all. Even if systems of type b) were the only type that existed, such that they had qualia but didn’t know it, there would still be a scientific philosophical problem of qualia. E.g., alien species without qualia would still have an incomplete science of qualia-laden but qualia-concept-barren species if they left out the experiential aspect.

  7. Anthony Jack says:

    Eric Thompson, thank you for your comments. I think you misunderstand what the paper does. From the start it talks not about phenomenal experience itself, but about our conception of phenomenal experience. It never deviates from this topic. Thus it certainly can’t be accused of the bait and switch charge that Chalmers makes against numerous theories of consciousness.
    You remark ‘but we DO have qualia’. Indeed, that depends on what you mean by qualia! This paper should make you think more carefully about that point, and specifically about what can validly infer from our ability to imagine that an entitity might have certain features yet lack qualia. (You can infer just about NOTHING, I hope you realize, because all the imaginative exercize is telling you is something about the structure of the processes that give rise to your imagination, and not about the world).
    I do like the analogy with vitalism, which stems from part of the same fundamental split in cognitive architecture. I also agree the qualia split is more fundamental. Indeed, these difference appear to play out in the brain. Areas involved in percieving biological motion forming part of the same larger network of areas as the ‘phenomenal stance’ areas. Yet the inhibitory relationship with areas involved in external attention is only seen for the phenomenal stance areas, and not for areas involved in percieving biological motion. Modularity is a matter of degree in the brain. There is nothing defeating in these observations.

  8. Eric Thomson says:

    Anthony: thanks for the response, which helps clear up some of my confusion about the paper. This kind of approach has always seemed the least ridiculous alternative to buying the hard problem at face value, and it is good to start to see some specifics. Also, I have always wondered why psychologists focused so much on the ‘intentional’ stance in the theory of mind studies. It is good to see you pushing for empirical study of the phenomenal stance as well.

  9. Marcus says:

    I am sympathetic with this article.

    The fact that so much of today’s “philosophy of mind” has been wrapped up with so much of this “hard problem,” is somewhat of a disaster for physicalists like me. Obsessing over qualia and property dualism, while seemingly bypassing what *physicalism* really entails, is pathetic.

  10. HHhusa says:

    there are tow matter

    what physicalism really entails
    what is meant by the problem of in question

    everyone who state the problem say explicitly that ist not part of physicalism in their sense of the term
    once one get what is physicalism then one can see if ist in ist range or not