Pete Mandik has posted a thought-provoking paper (pdf) by Jack, Robbins, and Roepstorff which suggests we may have been considering the wrong issue all along. The problem with the Hard Problem (how do we square our ineffable, subjective experience of the world with the mechanical reality described by physics), they say, is that we tend to regard subjective experiences as being out there in the same sort of way as physical objects. This makes it hard for us to understand how our two pictures of the world can be reconciled. We end up looking for a mysterious missing ingredient in subjective experience, but that search is hopeless. In fact, JR&R suggest, the difference between the two accounts of the world arises from our using two different brain modules: one aimed at the world in general, one aimed specifically at phenomenal states.
That seems plausible enough at first sight and JR&R contend that it is a parsimonious theory too. It does require an additional brain module, but if you assume that the alternative is some form of dualism (as I think they do) then they’re right, since the additional ontological commitment invoved in dualism would easily outweigh the merely neurological one required for an extra brain module. Moreover, there is apparently some good evidence to support the existence of the phenomenal brain module. It has been shown that activity in parts of the brain concerned with the external world correlates negatively with activity in the parts concerned with thinking about our own mental states (not too surprising, this – it’s hard to imagine paying close attention to your own feelings and to the details of what is going on around you at the same time). More dubiously, JR&R suggest that autism looks a bit like what you get when your phenomenal module fails to operate correctly.
This doesn’t seem quite right, however. If your phenomenal module ceases to function, you surely ought to become a philosophical ‘zombie’ – someone who has no subjective experience. That wouldn’t be at all like autism, however. The behaviour of a philosophical zombie is perfectly normal (since your behaviour is determined by your non-phenomenal cognition): autism, however, certainly does affect your behaviour, in some cases very severely.
The problem is that JR&R are actually assigning three distinct roles to their module: they want it to provide phenomenal experience, to be a kind of higher-order facility which tells us about our own mental states, and a theory-of-mind machine which enables us to understand other people and social interactions (the bit most relevant to autism). The paper, I think, is a little light on explaining why these three things arise from the same basic function – in fact it almost seems to treat them as evidently equivalent. In fairness the paper doesn’t pretend to be more than a sketch of quite a wide-ranging set of ideas.
Do the three go together? I suppose the insight that links them all is that knowing how something feels to us helps us understand how similar experiences feel to other people (only helps, though – I think our understanding of other people consists of a good deal more than just empathy). It is certainly plausible that our understanding of our own mental states arises from our understanding of other people’s (though there are those who would say that it is our understanding of other people’s minds that leads us to think we have our own). Less persuasive on the face of it is the view that our subjective experience is a matter of knowledge about our own inner states. My subjective experiences appear to me to be about the external world for the most part, and it isn’t immediately clear why second-order knowledge of my own mental states should endow them with subjective qualities. Of course, some people have put forward theories very much along those lines – Nicholas Humphrey, for example. But you certainly can’t, as it were, have that conclusion for nothing.
Anyway if JR&R are at least broadly right, then there will always appear to be a mysterious Hard Problem, because we’re just built that way. But they hold out instead the possibility of addressing instead the ‘Genuine Problem’, namely the question of the structure of cognition and its two modules. The good news, they say, is that this question can be addressed scientifically, so we won’t have to wait around to see whether philosophers can get anywhere with the issues over the next thousand years or so. As a project, this is unquestionably a good idea: if science could explain the differences between the two modules and how one gives rise to subjectivity, that would be a very major advance. Unfortunately, I think merely saying that makes it clear how much remains to be done, and raises a fear that JR&R have themselves fallen into a trap they describe: of setting out to explain qualia and ending up explaining something more amenable to science instead.
JR&R also make a plea for the return of the subjective as a field of proper research, mentioning the introspectionists of bygone days. Rhetorically this may be a mistake: I found my own automatic reaction was more or less the same as if they had called for a fresh look at the virtues of Ptolemaic astronomy. In fact they are careful to distinguish between the problematic efforts of Titchener and Wundt and the more measured approach they advocate.
A stimulating paper, anyway, though I for one will continue to beat my head philosophically against the good old Hard Problem.