Friday, August 22, 2008

The Real Hard Problem

The hardest thing in philosophy is coming up with a genuinely hard problem. The most impressive thing for a philosopher to accomplish is to come up with a genuine hard problem and to articulate it in a very clear way. By these criteria, there is no doubt that Chalmers has accomplished something impressive through his notion of the ‘hard problem’ in philosophy of mind. With this sincere kudo out of the way, let me make forth with a reservation. I’m not completely sold on Chalmer’s distinction between the phenomenal and the psychological, and not being sold on this, I wonder if he really has picked out a genuine hard problem. No doubt the problem he has articulated is genuinely hard, I’m just not convinced that it’s a genuine problem.

Chalmers opens The Conscious Mind (all citations below are to this edition) by insisting that two concepts of mind exhaust all there is to say about mindedness: these are the phenomenal and the psychological. The psychological concept of mind encompasses a broad definition of the field of cognitive psychology, and as such, is primarily oriented toward explainnig the behavior of minded organisms in terms of inner processes or mechanisms—such mechanisms might be striclty neurological, computational, connectionist, informatic or even Freudian (and by the way, don’t worry about meaning of ‘inner.). The phenomenal concept of mind Chalmers approvingly defines through Nagel’s ‘something that it is like to be that [minded] organism,’ a unique property I like to call ‘what-it’s-like-ity.’ Chalmers points out that this sort of property will only allow ostensive definition, and typically can be pointed out only through its association with publicly recognized psychological states. Because of this, there is is always a danger to conflate the pychological and the phenomenal, and while this is fine for most everyday contexts, in science and philosophy especially we must always be mindful of the distinction.

“…for philosophical purposes and in particular for the purposes of explanation, to conflate the two properties is fatal.” (23)

Minding this conflation, Chalmers famously argues, gives rise to a division of labor among philosophers of mind, whereby the psychological matters, while extraordinarily complex, are in principle solvable. In Chalmers words, psychological issues pose immense technical difficulties, but no real metaphysical ones (this claim I suspect is too cavalier, but I’ll not make anything of that here). But because the phenomenal character of consciousness fails to fit into any acceptable current scientific or philosophical framework (since dualism is ruled out of court), it is this feature that poses the truly ‘hard problem’ in philosophy of mind.

So, what then is this phenomenal property, exactly? Again, Chalmers doubts, at least within any existing conceptual repitoire, that anything other than an ostensive definition associated with recognized psychological states will be possible. He chooses pain as an exemplary case. A roughly acceptable definition of pain can be given in psychological (i.e. functional) terms, but this leaves out the phenomenal feature of pain that, in the end, makes pain matter so much to us. Pain is exemplaroy here in that this fact is common to all sorts of mental concepts, viz. a phenomenal property supervenes on a psychological one but does not seem to be essential to that psychological property qua psychological. One is tempted to say that this what-it’s-like-ity is a sort of sensation, except that it is that very feature whereby a sensation (like any other mental phenomena) becomes a sensation. At the very least, it seems to be a rather logically simple, discrete and ethereal property, one that is incidental to the psychological state underlying it (indeed, this is the whole rub).

Does intentionality fit into any of this? Chalmers is confident that intentionality (and therefore the theory of intentionality) belongs on the psychological side of the divide. Chalmers—typical of most of the anglophone literature on the matter—defines intentionality through the notion of a propositional attitude, and therefore accepts the semantic concept of intentionality. On this semantic conception, to be in an intentional state is to adopt a sort a sort of attitude towards a propositional-like structure (a belief, typically). And since it seems that a plausibly psychological notion of belief is available (something like: ‘a belief is a doxic attitude towards a state whereby one’s behavior would be appropriate in a situtation if that proposition were in fact true, and such that this state is normally brought about when that proposition is in fact true’), we can quibble about whether some phenomenal state is also essentially involved with intentional states, but it’s probably not worth the bother (see pp19-20).

This is where I would like to register my reservations. Chalmers wants to argue that the phenomenal and the psychological come together merely contingently, as a matter of empirical fact, but not essentially. This seems wrong to me. He can say things like this because he chooses phenomena like pain, or hearing middle-C, or the sensation of red, as his examples, but these sorts of ‘raw feel’ examples, and pain especially, are very untypical phenomenal states. For the most part, the world is revealed to us through our phenomenal states, and the separation between the phenomenal and the psychological that Chalmers insists upon is rather the exception than the rule. In other words, for humans at least, phenomenal states have the peculiarity of being intentional, ie., they reveal objects therefore are world-disclosing. Thus the phenomenal and the psychological come together, not as merely concurring phenomena, not as a mere matter of fact, but through some sort of necessity.

What is actually peculiar about the phenomenal feature of human consciousness is that it is intentional, which is to say, that it is by virtue of our phenomenal consciousness that we are aware of an objective world. Now, this introduces the heady problem of what to count as consciousness of an objective world, and therefore, of how to understand ‘objectivity,’, but this problem—I want to stress—is a formal or logical problem, and not primarily, maybe even not at all, a scientific one, and it is certainly not a problem that Chalmers has cared to recognize. Moreover, I believe that this is a legitimately hard problem, but unlike Chalmers own hard problem, we at least have some respectable ways to think through it.

I am arguing that, contra Chalmers, the psychological and the phenomenal are not together as a matter of mere empirical fact, but through a sort of logical necessity. When we speak about this essential unity of the psychological and the phenomenal, we are speaking about intentionality. In a follow-up post, I will say more about what this sort of logical necessity is (spoiler: it’s mereological), so I want to finish with just this observation. I do not doubt that as a matter of fact we will someday be able to construct complex systems that are genuinely psychological in the sense relevant to Chalmers. That is, we will construct systems that will, without speaking merely metaphorically, learn, memorize, process information, believe, perceive, and so on. And I also do not doubt that there are plenty such beings alive on earth already, viz., all the more complex mammals and fish and reptiles (I have my doubts about them amphibians). Nor do I doubt that animals have a phenomenal consciousness, again in Chalmers sense. But from the fact that we can both conceptually and in reality separate these two aspects does not in any way require that their concurrence in human consciousness is itself also merely factual or contingent. This would be like reasoning from the fact that, since some organic visual systems do not detect color, that color is merely incidental to normal human vision, a fact that merely supervenes upon visual psychology. But that’s not right. Normal human vision is intrinsically, not accidentally, colorful.


  1. With the talk of the essential unity of the psychological and the phenomenal, and the simplicity of the phenomenal - aren't you merely re-discovering the really hard problem of the mind-body union?
    And seeking a clarification: if Chalmer's concept of intentionality is semantic, what is yours as something world-disclosing, and is it other than semantic, and if so, how does it impact the Chalmer-interpretation of intentionality?

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Re-Discovering? I'm not sure. I would think of it as re-defining, and re-situating. In other words, I'm don't mean to be implying that I've either solved or explained away the 'hard problem' (obviously--I'd be dictating my own book contract to Oxford Press if I'd done that!), and this means that, even if we adjust the terms of terms of the issue like I am suggesting, the Hard Problem™ still remains. But for Chalmers, the hard problem is to explain the queer fact of 'what it's like'-ness, which is just the sensorial fact that, literally inexplicably, seems to accompany most sorts of mental acts. I'm suggesting that this question is wrongly truncated; it gets our phenomenology wrong, for what is peculiar about human phenomenology is that it is through this that a world is presented to us and we behave in a world; in other words, our phenomenology is NOT incidental to psychology (nor vice versa) in the way that Chalmers asserts. I hope this will be made a little clearer in my next post. Further note: this seems to me to be an important point, but maybe I'm mistaken, and I'd love to hear what others like yourself think about.

    As for the clarification: I would say that I use intentionality like Husserl, as the invariant structure present in all object-awareness. Husserl criticized Brentano for identifying consciousness with intentionality. There are conscious states (such as pleasure, pain, even warmth, sometimes) that are not object-directed and hence non-intentional. Also, while all intentional acts are conscious (or parts of consciousness), we are not aware of all such acts: attention and the intentional are not coextensive.

    Against the semantic tradition in intentionality, intentionality is involved in all mental acts involving reference to objects, or is the structure of such acts (noesis-noema-object). We can call this 'world-disclosing' just because there is no awareness of an object without there also being an awareness of a network of background awareness and beliefs (the 'horizon') in which that object appears. This is just as true for objects like Zebras and bricks as it is for objects like the square root of negative one and transfinite cardinals.

  3. In your article you have written:
    “I am arguing that, contra Chalmers, the psychological and the phenomenal are not together as a matter of mere empirical fact, but through a sort of logical necessity”
    Idea that leads me to think, firstly that we are talking about two different entities the Psychological and the phenomenal; argument which denies a possibility of monism in which “phenomenal or protophenomenal properties are located at the fundamental level of physical reality, and a certain sense, underlie physical reality itself.”
    My question for you is:
    In accordance with the theory that you are defending, are Chalmers’ Zombies conceivable?
    Ps: Congratulations for such interesting article. I hope that you could answer my question. For any further discussion contact me in Roberto