Friday, 3 July 2015

Dennett & Chalmers on the “Easy Problems” of Consciousness


Daniel Dennett says that when all the “easy” (or functional) questions about consciousness have been answered, then that's all we need to know. Or to use Dennett's own words: “Once all the Easy Problems are solved, consciousness is explained.”

So what are these easy questions? According to David Chalmers (whom Dennett was partly responding to), they include:

... all the cognitive and behavioural functions in the vicinity of experience – perceptual discrimination, categorisation, internal access, verbal report...”

Of course Chalmers offers a riposte to Dennett by saying 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? 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. But why?

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:

... once 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 elimitivists may well agree with that statement. In other words, why bother talking about experience or consciousness? Let's just stick to more scientific terms such as 'accessibility', 'reportability', etc.

This verificationist position, on the other hand, seems both obviously false and absurd. Yes, there is a problem – indeed a scientific problem – with verifiability when it comes to experience and the mind generally. Though having a scientific or philosophical problem with X doesn't automatically mean that X “can't be real” or doesn't exist.

The basic point is that “perceptual discrimination, categorisation, internal access, verbal report” could all occur without consciousness or experience. Is that true? (That's question against Chalmers rather than against Dennett.) And even if they could occur without consciousness in principle, perhaps they always come along with consciousness... at least in human beings.

One argument would be that all these functional things can happen within a computer. A computer could perceptually discriminate, categorise, have internal access to its own states or information and even verbally report things. In fact computers do these things today. However, computers aren't concious – they don't experiences anything when they carry out these functions. Despite saying that, wouldn't a functionalist, Dennett or a believer in AI say that if a computer carries out these functions then, by definition, it would be conscious? Chalmers would deny that. However, many scientists and some philosophers wouldn't.

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? If they occur without consciousness in computers, the they must occur without consciousness in humans. That seems obviously false.

It can also be said that consciousness or experience itself is functional. Or, at the 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/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 we aren't conscious of. Though there are functions which we are conscious of. Indeed there are some functions which at certain points we're not conscious of and which we 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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