Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Martine Rothblatt offers to solve the Hard Problem for us in her piece “Can Consciousness be created in Software?”. The Hard Problem, as regulars here will know, is how to explain subjective experience, the redness of red, the ineffable inner sense of what experience is like. Rothblatt’s account is quite short, and on my first reading I had slipped past the crucial sentences and discovered she was claiming victory before I quite realised what her answer was, so that I had to go back and read it again more carefully.
She says: “Redness is part of the gestalt impression obtained in a second or less from the immense pattern of neural connections we have built up about red things… With each neuron able to make as many as 10,000 connections, and with 100 billion neurons, there is ample possibility for each person to have subjective experiences through idiosyncratic patterns of connectivity. “ The point seems to be that the huge connectivity of the human brain makes it easy for everyone’s experience of redness to be unique.
This is an interesting and rather novel point of view. One traditional way of framing the Hard Problem is to ask whether the blue that I see is really the same as the blue that you see – or could it be equivalent to my orange? How would we know? On Rothblatt’s view it would seem the answer must be that my blue is definitely not the same as yours, nor the same as anyone else’s; and nor is it the same as your orange, or Fred’s green for that matter, everyone having an experience of blue which is unique to them and their particular pattern of neuronal connection. I find this a slightly scary perspective, but not illogical. Presumably from Rothblatt’s point of view the only thing the different experiences have in common is that they all refer to the same blue things in the real world (or something like that).
Is it necessarily so, though? Does the fact that our neuronal connections are different mean our experiences are different? I don’t think so. After all, I can write a particular sentence in different fonts and different sizes and colours of text; I can model it in clay or project it on a screen, yet it remains exactly the same sentence. Differences in the substrate don’t matter. We can go a step further: when people think of that same sentence, we must presume that the neuronal connections supporting the thought are different in each individual – yet it’s the same sentence they’re thinking. So why can’t different sets of neural connections support the same experience of blue in different heads?
Rothblatt’s account is a brief one, and perhaps she has some further theoretical points which explain the relationship between neuronal structures and subjective experiences in a way which would illuminate this. But hang on – wasn’t the relationship between neuronal structures and subjective experience the original problem? Slapping our foreheads, we realise that Rothblatt has palmed off on us an idea about uniqueness which actually doesn’t address the Hard Problem at all. The Hard Problem is not about how brains can accommodate a million unique experiences: it’s about how brains can accommodate subjectivity, how they make it true that there is something it is like to see red.
I fear this may be another example of the noticeable tendency of some theorists, especially those with a strong scientific background, to give us clockwork oranges, to borrow the metaphor Anthony Burgess used in a slightly different context: accounts that model some of the physical features quite nicely (see, it’s round, it hangs from trees effectively) while missing the essential juice which is really the whole point. According to Burgess, or at least to F. Alexander, the ill-fated character who expresses this view in the novel, the point of a man is not orderly compliance with social requirements but, as it were, his juice, his inner reality. I think the answer to the Hard Problem is indeed something to do with our reality (I should say that I mean ‘reality’ in a perfectly everyday sense: Rothblatt, like some purveyors of mechanical fruit, is a little too quick to dismiss anything not strictly reducible to physics as mysticism) : we’re fine when we’re dealing with abstractions, it’s the concrete and particular which remains stubbornly inexplicable in any but superficial terms. It’s my real experience of redness that causes the difficulty. Perhaps Rothblatt’s ideas about uniqueness are an attempt to capture the one-off quality of that experience; but uniqueness isn’t quite the point, and I think we need something deeper.