What is experience? An interesting discussion from the Institute of Art and Ideas, featuring David Chalmers, Susana Martinez-Conde and Peter Hacker.

Chalmers seems to content himself with restating the Hard Problem; that is, that there seems to be something in experience which is mysteriously over and above the account given by physics. He seems rather nervous, but I think it’s just the slight awkwardness typical of a philosopher being asked slightly left-field questions.

Martinez-Conde tells us we never really experience reality, only a neural simulation of it. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because experience seems to be mediated by our sensory systems, and sometimes misleads us, it never shows us external reality. That’s akin to thinking that because some books are fiction no book really addresses reality.

Hacker smoothly dismisses the whole business as a matter of linguistic and conceptual confusion. Physics explains its own domain, but we shouldn’t expect it to deal with experience, any more than we expect it to explain love, or the football league. He is allowed to make a clean get-away with this neat proposition, although we know, for example, that physical electrodes in the brain can generate and control experiences; and we know that various illusions and features of experience have very good physiological explanations. Hacker makes it seem that there is a whole range of domains, each with its own sealed off world of explanation; but surely love, football and the others are just sub-domains of the mental realm? Though we don’t yet know how this works there is plenty of evidence that the mental domain is at least causally dependent on physics, if not reducible to it. That’s what the discussion is all about. We can imagine Hacker a few centuries ago assuring us loftily that the idea of applying ordinary physics to celestial mechanics was a naive category error. If only Galileo had read up on his Oxford philosophy he would realise that the attempt to explain the motion of the planets in terms of physical forces was doomed to end in unresolvable linguistic bewitchment!

I plan to feature more of these discussion videos as a bit of a supplement to the usual menu here, by the way.

13 Comments

  1. 1. VicP says:

    Awesome video. One can sense the conceit of science which is actually an extension of our normal human psychology.

    I like this little song that I remember from the 1960’s when I was just a kid.

    https://youtu.be/4ny5z8gKM18

    The song has a very Fregean flavor.
    She tells three little stories about her life.
    Do you know what these three stories have in common?

  2. 2. Sci says:

    “We can imagine Hacker a few centuries ago assuring us loftily that the idea of applying ordinary physics to celestial mechanics was a naive category error. If only Galileo had read up on his Oxford philosophy he would realise that the attempt to explain the motion of the planets in terms of physical forces was doomed to end in unresolvable linguistic bewitchment!”

    I’m never sure why these types of comparisons are made. What linguistic bewitchment would come from trying to explain the motions of the planets?

    Seems the best answer is we don’t know if consciousness is fundamental or transcendent of physics, but as you note the best evidence suggests it is at the least tied to biological systems. Whether it will be reduced/eliminated, or found to be “emergent” or to be an “ontological fundamental” or whatever…well that remains to be seen.

    We also don’t have satisfactory explanations for Causation nor Time after all, and people seem more okay with that than Consciousness.

  3. 3. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    It’s been said many times, but bears repeating: Every successful philosophical discussion requires charity in interpreting the language of other participants. We should always strive to understand what the other person is trying to convey with their language. In that light, Hacker’s approach here didn’t strike me as particularly productive.

    That said, Chalmers does seem somewhat reluctant to unpack the word “experience”, and I think that exaggerates his perception of its mystery. Yes, no amount of objective data will ever add up to the experience of seeing red. I don’t see that so much as a “problem” but as simply the stark reality of the divide between objectively understanding a system and actually being the system.

    We can still explore how the visual cortex processes signals from red sensitive light cones in the retina, and how the effects of that processing trigger certain associative emotions (both instinctual and learned), and our awareness of some but not all aspects of this processing, all of which seem to be part of the experience of red. We’ll never find in that data what it feels like to be the actual subject experiencing red, but we shouldn’t expect to.

  4. 4. Peter says:

    What linguistic bewitchment would come from trying to explain the motions of the planets?

    Just my little joke, really, but what the hell, we might imagine my proto-Hacker saying something like the following.

    “In terrestrial science we have the well-understood phenomenon of falling; unobstructed objects move downwards, and the heavier they are, the faster they go. Now the astronomers want to reinterpret that normal earthly behaviour of falling as being the result of a substantive entity called “gravity” with very spooky, inexplicable properties. Let’s leave aside the ontological redundancy of this entity and its supernatural ability to act at a distance. Once we apply the notion of falling to the heavens in this extended manner, we are forced to adopt the idea that certain bodies, under the influence of the gravity of Jupiter, say, will actually fall upwards, away from us; although a moment’s reflection suffices to show that the notion of falling upwards embodies a direct contradiction. We will also find that two large celestial bodies move towards each other under the influence of gravity. Which is falling? Both, neither – or arbitrarily one and not the other? It should be clear to any reasonable person that these questions simply have no sensible answer; the question is simply meaningless. These illegitimate questions and contradictions are the confusions that directly arise from attempting to apply the clear terrestrial concept of “falling” outside its correct explanatory domain, ie applying it in celestial rather than terrestrial mechanics.”

    Please nobody undertake to explain to me why this reasoning is erroneous!

    I dare say this is a little unfair to Hacker, who puts his case very persuasively and no doubt would have had good defences if he’d been put under any pressure.

  5. 5. john davey says:

    i don’t understand why ‘experience’ is restricted to sensory experience. I read a book, isn’t that an experience ? If I argue about reality, and how it might include more than sensory experience, isn’t that experience which includes that which is not experienced by the senses ? We cannot and never will “experience” electrons – in that we will never see them or feel them? Does that mean reality excludes them ?

    Possession of a theoretical framework of the world is surely that which distinguishes human experience from other experience. It’s just as ‘real’ as anything else.

    I don’t think much of philosophers deciding what will be and what will not be the fate of young sciences either, think Hacker was just plain old “hacking away” there.

    I always think that Chalmers never seems to distinguish the “subjective” nature of consciousness and it’s very “objective” existence. If it didn’t objectively exist, all the world’s anaesthetists would be chasing shadows. There isn’t an ounce of contradiction between objectively existing consciousness and the objectively existing causes that bring it about. He probably knows. But would it sell books ?

    JBD

  6. 6. john davey says:

    Sci


    We also don’t have satisfactory explanations for Causation nor Time after all, and people seem more okay with that than Consciousness.

    Yes, the old Dennett gubbins. Consciousness is difficult to define, so evidently it doesn’t exist. We wont apply that to ‘time’ though. Or ‘space’. Or ‘matter’ for all that.

    JBD

  7. 7. djc says:

    actually jet-lagged — i was just off an overnight international flight a couple of hours before this, and the sleeping pill may not have entirely worn off!

  8. 8. Peter says:

    Thanks – not a bad performance, then! With no disrespect to Robert Rowland Smith I don’t think the art of interviewing philosophers is well developed. I’m often slightly foxed myself by the questions that get asked in these circumstances.

  9. 9. VicP says:

    I’m sorry Peter but the opening introductions reminded me of this:
    https://youtu.be/Q8jhb5NnADM

  10. 10. Tom Clark says:

    SelfAware in #3: “…no amount of objective data will ever add up to the experience of seeing red. I don’t see that so much as a ‘problem’ but as simply the stark reality of the divide between objectively understanding a system and actually being the system.”

    But the question remains of why only certain sorts of systems, doing certain sorts of things, end up being conscious. Being a brick presumably doesn’t feel like anything, but being me definitely does. Chalmers is simply drawing attention to the explanatory gap: there’s as yet no accepted account of why experience attends certain functions, so in that sense there’s an unsolved mystery. To which Hacker, a remover of conceptual confusions, seems distressingly oblivious.

  11. 11. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    Hi Tom,
    I think there are two replies to your question.

    The first is to ask what you mean by “experience” or “feels like”? What are its components? What does it unpack into? Which of the resulting components do not currently have at least a theoretical explanation?

    My experience is that many of those troubled by the hard problem reject this approach. Which leads to the second response, that the hard problem will likely never be solved to their satisfaction. The question is whether failure to satisfy them will encumber neuroscience or artificial intelligence. I personally don’t think it will.

  12. 12. Tom Clark says:

    SAP (12),

    Thanks. I agree that an important first step is to carefully consider the explanatory target (experience) and its components, then see what physical or functional goings-on might account for them. Tononi takes this approach in IIT, first specifying some characteristics of consciousness, then exploring how a purely physical system properly arranged might end up with subjective, qualitative properties available to/for the system, and only the system. It isn’t yet clear to me why integrated information should feel like anything, but at least Tononi tries to break the problem into potentially manageable chunks. I’d also recommend Jesse Prinz’s book, The Conscious Brain: How Attention Engenders Experience, for a very empirically-informed hypothesis about the NCC and their functions.

    Anyone troubled by the hard problem at least owes careful attention to IIT and other theories, however incomplete, that actually grapple with it before they can say confidently that it’s unsolvable. Chalmers, btw, has never said it’s unsolvable, only hard 🙂

  13. 13. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    Thanks Tom. I have to admit that I’m rusty on IIT, having read about it in detail several years ago, concluding that as an explanation for consciousness it was incomplete, and moving on to other theories. My current thinking is that metacognitive theories, involving the brain modeling its own state, show more promise, particularly Michael Graziano’s Attention Schema Theory.

    Chalmers does seem to make a strong effort at being open minded, and I think many of his ideas on computationalism are pretty sound, but I do think he overstates the case on the mystery of experience.

Leave a Reply