Philosopher and cognitive scientist Dave Chalmers, who coined the term hard problem (of consciousness), also coined the term meta hard problem, which asks why we think the hard problem is so hard. Ever since I was introduced to the term, I’ve been trying figure out what to make of it.
While the hard problem addresses a real problem — how phenomenal experience arises from the physics of information processing — the latter is about our opinions regarding that problem. What it tries to get at, I think, is why we’re so inclined to believe there’s some sort of “magic sauce” required for consciousness.
It’s an easy step when consciousness, so far, is quite mysterious.
For me, what makes the “hard” problem “hard” involves the last clause of what I take as a full statement of the question:
How does the brain, which seems to be a very complex information processing system, give rise to something that experiences, when no physical principle we know suggests such a thing is possible?
That’s the difficultly. Why should there be something it is like to be an information processing system? What physics accounts for experience?
At least a brain says it experiences something. Some suggest this is an illusion that doesn’t count, but put me firmly in the camp that says the illusion is the experience. There is definitely something it is like to be a human.
Put me also firmly in the camp that, while fully agreeing our senses and perceptions are prone to deception and illusion, also sees those as things we experience.
For me, that I experience is, as Descartes suggested, the one true fact I can count on. It is irrefutable and irreducible.
The meta-problem seems vaguely like the multiverse idea to me. That is, it’s a conclusion based on an assumption about reality.
In the cases of the multiverse, a perception that our universe is “fine-tuned” plus the Copernican assumption that “we’re nothing special” leads, via the Anthropic Principle, to demanding lots of other universes.
It’s as if a lottery ticket company only made and sold one ticket — which happened to be a winner. That would seem… pretty astonishing.
But when that company makes and sells many millions of tickets, then it’s no surprise one of them is a winner.
So if we see this universe as seeming special (or unlikely) but also refuse to acknowledge that it could be special, then multiverses are a way out.
Simply put: Given a winning lottery ticket, one assumes there must be a whole bunch of other (losing) lottery tickets.
Somewhat likewise, if we assume physicalism — that there’s no “magic sauce” in reality — then the brain is necessarily just a physical object, albeit a very complex one.
As such, we’ll eventually figure it out just as we have so many other physical systems.
Except there’s a strong argument that we haven’t really figured out so many other physical systems, plus there are some critical unsolved questions about fundamental things (e.g. what is time).
Given the complexity of the brain, it’s not impossible it could forever remain, at least a little, intractable.
Weather systems are intractable and will likely remain so for a number of reasons. Even something as basic as multi-body orbital problems are intractable.
So consciousness might remain a hard problem due to intractability, even if we figure out the physical principles behind it.
[On the other hand, deep-learning neural nets have shown an ability to find solutions for certain forms of three-body problem. I suspect a similar mechanism as allows bees to apparently solve traveling salesman problems involving paths to flowers. Natural physical systems can easily solve problems that are intractable computationally, and neural nets overall behave a bit like a natural system.]
In any event, the physicalism argument is that, since the brain has to be physical, then mind has to be just what a brain does. Phenomenal experience will eventually be fully explained by physical principles (although it might require new principles or forces).
On that account, the meta hard problem asks why we think the hard problem is so hard (implying we shouldn’t think that).
An interesting aspect of this is that perceptions of there being a hard problem tend not to be pre-theoretic. That is, we only see the problem, let alone how hard it is, when we learn enough about brains and minds to have some theory about how they work. Only then do we find ourselves unable to give a full account of how they work.
Only then do we realize we have no physics to explain what we live with every day.
(Or course, we can’t explain time, either, or even how it is that we even exist. We’re actually pretty ignorant about some important basic facts.)
So I am not sympathetic to the idea that perceptions of a “hard” problem are some kind of intuitive error. (To be honest, I’m a little hostile to the idea. I think it’s actually a scientism bias at work.)
There is, I think, a pre-theoretic form of the hard problem — one that goes back to Descartes. It may be that the meta problem speaks more to these perceptions — that consciousness, just as an artifact of reality, seems mysterious.
But here, too, I think the perception of something going on that is unique, complex, and difficult to understand (perhaps even beyond us), is a reasonable view. I think it’s inappropriate to hand-wave away the challenges.
For one thing, consciousness has a unique subjective/objective divide we don’t have in any other thing science studies. That alone makes the study of the mind unique.
The brain is one of the most astonishing things nature has ever produced. Its complexity, both on the large network scale and on the small synapse scale, is orders of magnitude beyond anything else we have experience with.
That the brain produces a mind is amazing (because look at what brain-minds have done in such a short time), but that a physical information processing system gives rise to personal experience is (literally) incomprehensible. (So far.)
Phenomenal experience is a fact we all experience. It is irreducible, undeniable, and incorrigible. It is the one fact we can fully trust, the one thing we can truly know.
There are no physical principles, laws, or forces, we know of that account for this. (So far.)
There is a subject/object divide we don’t see anywhere else in science.
Therefore, we’re faced with a hard problem.
A very hard problem.
I think the answer to the meta problem is that, once we realize what the brain amounts to, we justifiably realize that figuring it out is legitimately hard, because we don’t know what the physics are.
Even in a pre-theoretic view, things like the subject/object divide, along with how the mind behaves, justify a view that brain/mind is special and challenging.
Simply put, Chalmers was right the first time. It’s a hard problem.
Stay irrefutable, my friends!