I have been away from my blog for a few weeks now. Since I was blogging quite frequently before this break, I feel like I need to explain my absence. I went away to a conference in Kolkata, which I visited for the first time and during that period I wasn’t able to access the internet apart from checking email. Since I was away from the blogging world for a week, the momentum that had built up before that period disappeared and was replaced by its opposite, i.e., an aversion to putting my thoughts to paper. You could say that this is a psychological law of inertia, i.e., you are likely to keep doing things the way you did them in the past few days and so if your routine gets upended for some external reason, its going to percolate into your life even when the intrusion disappears. I guess that explains why privacy is important for any kind of creative work because constant intrusions can upset your inertial state even when the offending person goes away (as opposed to self driven interactions with peers, where you are no longer in the work frame, so its not seen in your subconscious as an intrusion at all).
Anyway, this psychological law of inertial is not what I was going to talk about today. I was thinking about what is called the “hard problem of consciousness”. By the hard problem, philosophers and cognitive scientists usually mean two things:
(a) Why is it that there is anything like the qualitative aspect of an experience such as the enticing red of a local New England apple picked in September that burst with flavour when bitten and
(b) The uniquely subjective, “first person” character consciousness where supposedly you cannot tell whether I am having the experience of a red apple or a blue mango even if we are seeing the same object.
What seems really strange is that the subjective first person character of an experience of biting into an apple can be studied and even understood from an objective scientific point of view. Indeed, if I was running a apple orchard, I could test my apples for some combination of chemicals that increase their perceived taste and hybridize tastier varieties even if I didn’t have a taste bud on my tongue.
In other words, objective quantities can be reliable signatures of subjective experiences, a fact that is used all the time in a modern economy when allow our signatures on dotted lines to stand for our commitment to various actions of ours. Here is where the problem of consciousness really comes in: On the one hand, these signatures stand for our presence, but on the other hand they are not really us. Nobody would confuse you for your signature on a cheque, but in some sense, that signature is also you, as far as the domain of commerce is concerned. So, is the cheque part of you or not?
We seem to have varying intuitions when it come to collapsing the distinction between signatures and the things that the signatures represent. Turing, in his famous Turing test for intelligence argued that the signature is the thing itself when it comes to intelligence. According to the Turing test, a computer that cannot be distinguished from a human being as far as verbal behaviour is concerned is as intelligent as a human being, i.e., the signature of intelligence is the same as intelligence itself.
The same puzzle can be seen in our intuitions about the relationship between minds and our brains: if brain activities are reliable signatures of our mental states, then are they the same as our mental states? Or, to take another example: our facial gestures are reliable indicators of our emotional state, so should we identify facial gestures with their emotions? One can see the real quandary that arises in this case: while my feeling of joy doesn’t seem to be the same as my smile, the smile is surely part of the feeling of joy, its not just an abstract indicator of my joy.
Here is the heart of the problem of consciousness then: while objective facts, behaviours, chemical states etc are reliable indicators of our experiences, they are no more than signatures of our experience. To know a signature is to know enough about the object as far as current norms of scientific inquiry (i.e., inquiry based on the criteria of prediction and explanation) is concerned. If I know the path that the moon took last month when it revolved around the earth (the signature in this case) then I know as much as I need to in order to predict the future behaviour of the moon.
But predictive, explanatory knowledge is not enough for understanding experience. To take the emotion example again, while I can predict that you are angry by reading your facial gestures (and flee if needed), I don’t know what anger feels like to you. A real science of consciousness will not emerge until we can go beyond the current norms of scientific inquiry, which value prediction and explanation over understanding.
What would such a science look like? For one, it will have to start from something besides objective measurements (which are signatures of the things being measured after all). At the very least, we would have to record subjective and objective measurements simultaneously. In the emotion case, one would have to record both objective measurements (like the extent to which your eyebrows are raised and your lips pursed) and subjective measurements (reports of how angry or sad you feel). A real science of consciousness will take subjective and objective data as its starting point. Once it does that, both aspects of the hard problem of consciousness become amenable to investigation. Instead of asking “how come there is such a thing as the taste of an apple in a world of objective facts?” we will investigate the relationship between the objective and the subjective aspects of being an apple simultaneously. To conclude, its only our metaphysical bias towards “objectivity” that keeps us from doing scientific investigations of consciousness.