Members' Weekend 2019, 17-18 August
The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Links to talk recordings and transcripts will be added in the near future.
Seven speakers tackled what is perhaps the most fundamental problem in the Philosophy of Mind – that of explaining how and why a physical brain creates consciousness.
Saturday 17th August
For philosopher David Chalmers, questions of how the mind or brain functions – e.g. how we respond to stimuli, report on our mental states or control our bodies - are ‘easy problems’, relatively speaking. The really ‘Hard Problem’ is that of explaining how and why such functioning is accompanied by a subjective phenomenal experience.
“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?
In setting out his Hard Problem, Chalmers casts doubt on our physicalist understanding that consciousness arises from processes within the brain, opening the door to previously discredited forms of dualism. Mike will offer his rebuttal to Chalmers’ main arguments, suggesting that, while the problem of consciousness is indeed a hard one, it is not for the reasons given by Chalmers.
Mike Arnautov comes from Prague where he studied mathematics and physics, followed by MSc in statistics. He came to England in 1970 and four years later was awarded PhD by Bristol University for research in Artificial Intelligence. He then spent 30 years working as a systems programmer/architect in a research environment, supporting biologists, geneticists and bioinformaticians. In his spare time, he reads a lot of science fiction, which is how he got interested in AI. Mike considers all these strands important in shaping his views on mind.
2.40 Short break
According to the Singularity Hypothesis, artificially-intelligent computers will soon be better than humans at designing artificially-intelligent computers, creating an accelerating explosion of superintelligence that will surpass the capabilities of the human brain. Once this ‘singularity’ has occurred, it should be possible to build synthetic humans that are indistinguishable from the real thing. If this proves to be the case, what will that tell us about consciousness? After all, if physical processes within biological humans create consciousness, then what reason will we have for thinking that physical processes within indistinguishable synthetic humans do not do likewise?
Paul Griffiths spent many years in management consulting, prior to which he was an engineer working on pipelines and hydro-electric dams. He is now a full-time academic, specialising in the management of intangible assets, in particular intellectual capital. Paul graduated in science and engineering and then went on to study management in which he completed his doctorate. It was during his doctoral studies that he developed an interest in philosophy. Having lived in 9 and worked in 17 countries he defines himself as monotonously multicultural.
3.30 Beverages in the Common Room
This talk will address the Hard Problem through a critical engagement with prominent quantum physicists, chemists, mathematicians and neuroscientists. Kanan will examine the way electrical pathways in the brain demonstrate quantum characteristics and make the case that human consciousness is an emergent property of such interconnected processes. He will argue that a new discipline of quantum neuroscience is required to investigate the quantum character of brain functions, including both subjective conscious and unconscious states.
Dr Kanan Purkayastha is a Chartered Scientist who has worked as a Module Leader in Chemistry and Environmental Sciences at University Centre Weston and the University of West England. He was a researcher at Kyoto University, Japan and spent many years as a scientific adviser to UK Local Government. He regularly writes scientific columns for different newspapers, essays for journals and authored popular science books and book chapters. He holds a PhD in Atmospheric and Theoretical Chemistry from the University of Bristol.
4.45 Short break
It is clear that conscious states can be correlated with states of the the brain. The question is: what accounts for this correlation? Bob will discuss a number of possible answers to this question, assessing which if any of these provides a convincing way of describing conscious states. Based on this assessment, he will consider whether a solution to the Hard Problem is even possible and what assumptions we may need to change if we are ever to find a convincing explanation of consciousness.
Bob Stone is a classicist, who specialised in Greek philosophy at Cambridge, taught classics in schools for 35 years, then – since retiring nine years ago – resumed his philosophical studies with a vengeance. He has done most of the OUDCE online courses, attends 2 or 3 weekly classes every year, as well as 4 or 5 of the weekend courses, and enjoys holding forth, both orally and in writing, on any philosophical topic under the sun. The OUDCE is now his spiritual home.
5.35 Short break
Chalmers defines 'the hard problem' as the unbridgeable gap between 'consciousness' and 'nature'. Alan suggests that if we see reality in terms of events rather than things, and focus on epistemology (how we know) rather than ontology (what there is), we can understand the two concepts as different ways of knowing and discuss their relationships more coherently in terms of two radically different (subjective and objective) 'streams of phenomena'.
Alan Bailey read philosophy at Oxford from 1951 to 1956, taught by Grice, P. Strawson and Austin, then spent 35 years in the civil service (mainly Treasury and Transport), before catching up with philosophy at OUDCE and enjoying 20 years of Philsoc discussions.
6.30 Bar7.00 Annual Society Dinner, with presentation of Chadwick and Boethius Prizes
9.00 Discussion in Bar
Sunday 18th August
8.00 Breakfast (for Rewley House residents)
Chalmers asks why and how our brains give rise to consciousness, suggesting a gulf between the physical world and our subjective inner lives. And yet consciousness is demonstrably part of the physical world, amenable to physical investigation and robustly objective. This makes the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of consciousness scientific questions, not philosophical problems. We answer the question of why in terms of evolution and the clear advantages it gives us, and we leave the question of how for neuroscientists to investigate. Consciousness is marvellous. But it is not mysterious.
Jonathan Harlow served in the Royal Artillery (National Service) and worked as a government administrator and business manager in Africa and Guyana. He taught History and Economics in a comprehensive school for twenty years and, part-time, at university for ten. Now retired, he is mainly engaged in local history research and writing
Facts about conscious experience cannot be expressed in physical terms, leaving us unable to explain how consciousness arises from physical matter. But why limit ourselves to today’s ‘physical terms’? By allowing components of matter to possess qualitative as well as quantitative properties, we change what we mean by ‘physical’ and convert the Hard Problem into an easy problem. This, however, requires that particles of matter possess experience, leading to the strange world of panpsychism.
Tim Bollands studied Mathematical Physics at Oxford, spending the next 30 years or so as a management consultant, helping large organisations gain greater value from their IT systems. He never lost his desire to make sense of the universe, however, and since the age of 25 has been struggling to write his ‘magnum opus’ in which all the great problems of existence would be solved. Finally, after turning 50, he put his career on hold, started writing in earnest and is hoping to soon publish his first book – Life, the Universe and Consciousness.
11.00 Beverages in the Common Room
11.30 Panel DiscussionRecording (MP3 format)
12.30 Bar, then Lunch
If you would like to read about the Hard Problem of Consciousness in advance of the Members’ Weekend, the following books, papers and internet resources are recommended.
Wikipedia, The Hard Problem of Consciousness https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Hard Problem of Consciousness https://www.iep.utm.edu/hard-con/
Chalmers, David (1996), The Conscious Mind, Oxford University
Chalmers, David (2002), Consciousness and its Place in Nature,
published in (D. Chalmers, ed) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and
Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press,
Dennett, Daniel (2018), Facing up to the Hard Question of
Consciousness, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal
Society B: Biological Sciences/, 373(1755)
Levy, Bernard-Henri (2019) Embracing Humanity, New Philosopher, No. 23: Being Human, Feb-Apr, pp.56-7 (See also https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/opinion/we-are-not-born-human.html
Lockwood, Michael (1989), Mind, Brain & the Quantum: The Compound 'I', Blackwell Publishers Ltd https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/839111.Mind_Brain_and_the_Quantum
Penrose, Roger (1997), The Large, the Small and the Human Mind, Cambridge University Press https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/187101.The_Large_the_Small_and_the_Human_Mind
Koch, Christof (2017), Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, MIT Press https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13557108-consciousness
Robinson, Howard (2017), From the Knowledge Argument to Mental Substance: Resurrecting the Mind, Cambridge University Press https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/from-the-knowledge-argument-to-mental-substance-resurrecting-the-mind/
Dennett, Daniel C (2017), From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Allen Lane https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35167699-from-bacteria-to-bach-and-back
Strawson, Galen (2006), Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?, Imprint Academic https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/consciousness-and-its-place-in-nature-does-physicalism-entail-panpsychism/
You may also wish to refamiliarize yourself with some of the more popular positions in the Philosophy of Mind:
Identity Theory: https://www.iep.utm.edu/identity/
Anomalous Monism: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anomalous-monism/
as well as: Theoretical Reduction: https://www.iep.utm.edu/red-ism/