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Members' Weekend 2019, Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th August

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

A Members' Day or Weekend is held once a year at Rewley House, Oxford and the speakers are Society members. These events are open to everybody, but members have the advantage of a reduced fee. The Members' Day/Weekend Archive page gives access to recordings and other materials of past Members' Days and Weekends.

The Philosophical Society’s annual Members’ Weekend is being organised this year by Committee Member Tim Bollands. The weekend will coincide with our annual dinner on the Saturday evening, which will include the presentation of the Chadwick prize. Further information and booking details will be available on this page from around May or June.

Call for Speakers

The topic this year is The Hard Problem of Consciousness – arguably the most important problem in the Philosophy of Mind and one that attracts a great deal of interest from both professionals and amateurs philosophers alike. The term was coined by David Chalmers in 1995 and explained more fully in his 1996 book The Conscious Mind. Chalmers believed that much of the Philosophy of Mind concerned what he considered the ‘easy problems’ of how the mind or brain functions, e.g. how we respond to stimuli, report on our mental states or control our body’s behaviour. The really ‘hard problem’ was that of explaining both how and why such functioning is accompanied by a subjective phenomenal experience.

As Chalmers said:

“Why is it that when our cognitive systems [process] visual or auditory information, we have visual or auditory experience - the quality of deep blue or the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does”

The aim of the Members’ Weekend will be to present a range of perspectives on such questions, shedding light where we can on this most intractable of problems. So, if you believe you have the answers, or would like to present your argument for a particular position, then please consider giving a talk. The Hard Problem is a wonderful example of a major philosophical problem for which the solution eludes everybody, so the failure of the professionals to agree on the answers should not put anybody off.

If you are a member and are interested in speaking at our Members’ Day, please contact Tim Bollands via email at [email protected] by the 17th March to indicate your interest, including a working title and brief outline of your talk (no more than 100 words). You should plan to speak for around 25-30 minutes (approx. 3000 – 3500 words), to be followed by 15 minutes of questions. Don’t worry if you have not spoken at such an event before. We are not looking for experts, just good communicators who are prepared to do a little research and present a cogent and passionate argument, which is philosophical in character.

Ideally, we will have a range of physicalist and non-physicalist positions represented by our speakers. In his 2002 paper Consciousness and its Place in Nature, Chalmers wrote the following:

“Consciousness fits uneasily into our conception of the natural world. On the most common conception of nature, the natural world is the physical world. But on the most common conception of consciousness, it is not easy to see how it could be part of the physical world. So it seems that to find a place for consciousness within the natural order, we must either revise our conception of consciousness, or revise our conception of nature.”

If you disagree with Chalmers and think that consciousness does fit (easily or otherwise) into the physical world, then you might choose to make the case for a physicalist position, such as one of the following:

  • conscious experience arises due to the computational functioning of the brain. A computer which functions the same as a human brain may have the same experience as a human (e.g. Functionalism, Strong AI or the Computational model)

  • conscious experience is created by neurobiological processes within the brain or similar biological machine (e.g. Searle’s Biological Naturalism)

  • consciousness is not computational and arises due to quantum coherence within microtubules inside our brain cells (e.g. Penrose’s Orchestrated Objective Reduction Theory)

  • conscious experience is an emergent property of a complex dynamic system, whose properties cannot be reduced to the properties of the physical system on which it is based (e.g. Broad’s Emergentism)

  • conscious experience is created by physical processes in the brain, but we will never know how. It is beyond the capabilities of a conscious mind to understand how consciousness is created (e.g. McGinn’s Mysterianism).

Or you may agree with Chalmers and believe that we need to revise our conception of consciousness, making the case that:

  • conscious experience is the information processed and integrated by our brains, and exists in any structure that integrates information (e.g. Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory);

  • consciousness is simply the act of broadcasting information around the brain (e.g. Baars’ Global Workspace Theory); or that

  • what we think of as a subjective conscious experience does not in fact exist; it is merely an illusion which our brains are having (e.g. Dennett’s Eliminative Materialism).

Or you may agree with Chalmers and believe it is our conception of the natural world that needs revising, advocating for one of the following:

  • conscious experience is substantially distinct from the physical matter that makes up our bodies. It exists as a property of our spirit or soul, which exists alongside our bodies (e.g. Descartes’ Dualism)

  • particles of matter contain a rudimentary form of experience, or proto-consciousness, which combines within our brains to create a full conscious experience (e.g. Panpsychism)

  • what we think of as matter does not in fact exist; everything is mental in nature, existing only within our minds and in totality within the Mind of God (e.g. Berkeley’s Idealism).

Or you may have a quite different response to the Hard Problem and would like to share it with the society. Please don’t feel limited to the examples above.

Do use the vast resources of Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy when researching and writing your talk, as well as the writings of philosophers who have advocated for, or argued against, your chosen position.