Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness, the Hard Problem: In Search of the Self
Lead: Trevor Frederickson, Aaron Hope, and Rebecca McMahon


Summary by James Ledoux:


Consciousness, the Hard Problem

After a brief skit demonstrating temporary loss of consciousness due to brain injury, the presenters explained the hard problem of consciousness and the three methods that attempt to solve it. The hard problem of consciousness is to explain where our consciousness emerges from. The standard responses to this problem were presented as the dualist, materialist, and mysterian positions. Most of the introductory information closely followed from the book “Introducing Consciousness” by Papineau and Selina that we read for this week.

Descartes, Leibniz, and Berkeley championed versions of the dualist position, which holds that mind and consciousness resides in a realm outside the material world. Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) felt that the mind world and matter world could interact with each other, which he hypothesized occurred in the symmetric pineal gland. Leibniz's theory stated that all substances were composed of monads, an analog to the atom. These monads are the simplest substance that anything could be composed of, which in his theory automatically had perception and consciousness in the dual world as well. Berkeley (“to be is to be perceived”) took the line of argument of the dualist that the material and mind worlds are separate further by hypothesizing that only the realm of consciousness was real. Johnson tried to refute his theory by kicking a rock, to show that matter does exist, as we can kick it, feel it, and see it.

The presenters also showed the materialist position, which states that there really is only one material world that matter, mind, and consciousness all exist in. In this viewpoint, Consciousness and mind are phenomena that occur out of material actions. The software analogy was made, where consciousness and the mind was simply the software, running on the hardware of the physical brain. This functionalist viewpoint presents consciousness as an emergent property of brains that could exist in radically different conscious beings.

The mysterian viewpoint, which states that the hard problem is fundamentally mysterious, was briefly addressed by a few people. However, as this viewpoint simply states that the hard problem is unsolvable, it didn't lead to much discussion or insights.

At this point, the presenters conducted a survey of the class asking what we thought was conscious. To make things concrete, we voted on whether we thought an object had consciousness or could sometimes have consciousness. [Some people objected to not having more options to vote on, such as undecided or sometimes conscious, but these objections were put aside.] Table-1 tabulates the results of the poll on the 19 selected topics, which demonstrates that wide range in views of what consciousness is.






Comatose Patient










Artificial Intelligence (HAL) or similar



Severely Autistic Child







Beehive (as a collective)








Alien Life


Praying Mantis






With this introductory material laid down, the class discussion started to really begin. The dualist position was contrasted with the materialist position through the zombie/malfunctioning transporter argument. This dualist argument says that if a perfect copy of some conscious being was somehow created (as a zombie or through some device like a malfunctioning star trek transporter) in the material world that the copy would lack consciousness. However, some dualists would argue that the copy would act in exactly the same way as if it did have a consciousness. Therefore, a dualist would not believe that an object had consciousness simply through observation that appears to indicate conscious behavior. This view comes dangerously close to the view of solipsism that states that only the one individual is conscious, while all other individuals only are acting like they possess consciousness.

A possible functionalist answer to detect consciousness was suggested through the Turing test. This test basically consists of allowing an interviewer to question a human and a computer, both of whom are trying to convince the interviewer of their humanness/consciousness. The computer (or other being) that passes the Turing test is said to have intelligence (and consciousness) if the human interviewer cannot decide if the interviewee is a computer or human. A computer only truly passes the Turing test, if the computer can pass any possible Turing test by any human. [This requirement is necessary as it would be fairly simple to construct a computer that could pass any finite number of known Turing test questions, without having the computer need any understanding or consciousness.] However while this test could test computers for intelligence and consciousness, other things such as plants and animals that do not possess humanly understood language couldn't be subjected to this test. Likewise, group objects such as cultures, beehives, and ant colonies that are composed of multiple individuals couldn't be tested for a group consciousness by this method either.

During the discussion, somebody asked whether it was possible to be both a materialist and dualist, though it was generally agreed that the two terms are mutually exclusive as the dualist picture necessarily contains this extra realm of mind. The idea of souls as identities that can be separated from the body was then looked at from both the dualist and materialist perspectives. The dualist view easily allowed souls to exist separate from the material body that contains them, which fits well with Judeo-Christian religious views that answered the hard question for some people. However, the soul could be understood in a materialist viewpoint as something that can exist outside a physical body in a software type of sense. Just as a computer program can exist without being run on any specific computer, a soul or a consciousness could exist and persist even after death, if you simply view it as the software to the material body that is the hardware. For example, the free-ware Office programs (similar to the expensive Micro$oft Office) that this paper was written on, can exist even if they are not running on a specific computer or even if the computer they are running on 'dies'. The software of a soul or consciousness could likewise be stored somewhere by some means, in theory, and then revived or copied even after death of a material body.

Another major topic in the discussion was whether plants and (non-human) animals had consciousness or not. A quick look at the survey found most of the class (15 out of 24) to be in favor of the opinion (at least for large mammals such as dogs). About a third of the class felt that even plants had consciousness. The argument in favor of consciousness for plants was that they responded to stimuli such as singing or presence of light. Similarly for dogs, it was argued that they have memory, intelligence, emotions, and feelings, so therefore they must have consciousness as well. The counterargument to these claims is that intelligence, sentience, response to environment, memory, or emotions doesn't necessarily need the existence of a consciousness. One way to kill this argument is with the dualist argument of the consciousness-lacking zombies that can respond to environment in a way mimicking conscious non-zombies. Having the ability to be trained, which some could view as memory, doesn't necessitate having a consciousness. [A computer can be programmed, but that doesn't necessarily constitute it as having the ability to think.]
Self-awareness is usually taken to be a key property of consciousness, and the example of animals being aware of their death was brought up as an argument for their possessing consciousness. Most animals tend to die alone in areas isolated from the group, which tends to portray the animals as having a concept of the idea of their own mortality. However, the fact that animals with life-threatening diseases isolate themselves from the group could simply be an evolutionary trait designed to protect the group, since corpses of dead animals could carry diseases or attract predators. Again this wouldn't necessarily need any consciousness or thought-processes to occur.

Josh brought up the point of animals that can dream, as seen by dogs that run in their sleep. While consciousness doesn't necessitate the ability to dream, any simple interpretation of dreaming seems to require a consciousness to be doing the dreaming. As dreaming makes little sense being perceived in a non-conscious sense, this is strong evidence for some form of animal consciousness. However, again the dualist zombie argument could be used or some other analogy that holds that their isn't a consciousness truly dreaming for these animals, but only behavior that appears to be interpreted as a consciousness dreaming. Another method to counter this dream argument is by hypothesizing that it is true and then picture an animal as being constantly asleep and dreaming. The animal would be in a constant dream state whenever it acts, and thus be shown to have consciousness by this argument.

Besides raising the question about whether animals and plants possess consciousness individually, the idea was raised whether groups of individuals could possess consciousness. This would be as if a beehive or a society had a single collective consciousness. Jayson brought up the point that you could have a Chinese society interconnected with cell phones, that manages to build up and have a group consciousness. This is roughly analogous to the role of neurons in the brain, which form a network of individuals to create a consciousness that none individually possessed. The materialist viewpoint with the software analogy fits well with this idea of groups of individuals that may or may not have consciousness on an individual level, can generate a new consciousness on a group level.

Finally to complete a trend of our previous discussions, quantum mechanics was brought up just for the fun of it. Things such as Schrödinger's cat, microtubules, and Penrose's idea that consciousness would be included and explained by a theory of quantum gravity were briefly mentioned, but for obvious reasons nothing was accomplished using this quantum mechanical thinking. [The Introducing Consciousness book also had this flaw and talked about it for about ten pages too, instead of correctly avoiding quantum mechanics as an unnecessary level of confusion to be avoided at all costs.]