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Neuroscientist: Philosophers have made the problem of consciousness unnecessarily difficult

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Says neuroscientist Anil K. Seth at Aeon:

Let’s begin with David Chalmers’s influential distinction, inherited from Descartes, between the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’. The ‘easy problem’ is to understand how the brain (and body) gives rise to perception, cognition, learning and behaviour. The ‘hard’ problem is to understand why and how any of this should be associated with consciousness at all: why aren’t we just robots, or philosophical zombies, without any inner universe? It’s tempting to think that solving the easy problem (whatever this might mean) would get us nowhere in solving the hard problem, leaving the brain basis of consciousness a total mystery.

But there is an alternative, which I like to call the real problem: how to account for the various properties of consciousness in terms of biological mechanisms; without pretending it doesn’t exist (easy problem) and without worrying too much about explaining its existence in the first place (hard problem). (People familiar with ‘neurophenomenology’ will see some similarities with this way of putting things – but there are differences too, as we will see.) More.

Well, of course that will work as long as one acknowledges that one is giving up on the hard problem, one that even Richard Dawkins acknowledges.

How hard a problem? Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can help:

I’m a neuroscientist and professor of neurosurgery. The mind-brain question haunts me. Neurosurgeons alter the brain on a daily basis, and what we find doesn’t fit the prevailing view that the brain runs the mind as computer hardware runs software.

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English.

The hard problem is explaining consciousness in the absence of supposed essential mechanisms.

See also: Dawkins: Maybe the hard problem of consciousness can never be solved


Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?

If the mind operates on subatomic, quantum level, as it appears to be, then parts of the remaining brain (after the majority of it has been surgically removed) in microtubules of neurons continue to function via quantum entanglement. Since quantum information cannot be lost, the remaining or functioning parts of the brain, continue to process that quantum information, which could account for our memories, past and the now experiences... J-Mac
If the mind is the brain's software, then we can copy a mind by copying the software. And if the mind is identical to the code, not its instantiation, then every instantiation of the same code is the same mind. This leads to all sorts of weirdness, so by reductio absurdum the mind is not the brain's software. EricMH
> Therefore I suppose the material of the brain is not the mind? Huh? The material of the door is not the door? Yeah, I feel comfortable saying that. ETA: And the material of the brain is not the brain. Mung
EugeneS @ 5: Good point. Not wise to bet on something that one knows so little about. Truth Will Set You Free
"I bet however if he other half were removed the ‘mind’ would suffer.:)" I wouldn't bet, if I were you. People simply know next to nothing about how our brain works. EugeneS
RVB8, actually, the body would suffer. KF PS: The mind seems to be other-dimensional, with capability to extend itself in and arguably sometimes beyond our bodies. kairosfocus
Egnor explains how some of his patients are missing large parts of their brain but remain human, functional, and thinking, with their mind intact. Therefore I suppose the material of the brain is not the mind? But the real question is how much material can you remove before the 'mind' dissapears" Some epileptic patients are so bad they remove fully half the brain, and regain almost full cognitive abilities, they retain their 'mind' I suppose you would say. I bet however if he other half were removed the 'mind' would suffer.:) rvb8
Seth proposes two measures: Informativeness and Integratedness. Informative is a poor metric. Any computer, or even a complex mechanical system like a fuel injection system, gathers and knows the present situation in great detail. Also, judging consciousness by degree of input information treads into Peter Singer territory. A blind person has less sensory input but does NOT have less consciousness. The lack is filled in by the GENERATIVE part of consciousness, the scene-builder, which Seth calls Integrative. Even with normal vision, the scene-builder is constantly filling in spatial gaps in the retina and temporal gaps caused by blinking or saccades. Our internal world is 90% fiction, occasionally 'checked' or 'grounded' against sensory inputs. polistra
"the brain runs the mind as computer hardware runs software" Yes, that's the way it's always explained in school. But then from where do original thoughts and creativity come? Some can be serendipity (an unexpected result for which the observer sees a use). But 100 people can experience the unexpected result and ignore it. THEIR software is running just fine. But the 101st person goes, "OH!", and tries to replicate the "error". How does one write software that SOMETIMES sees application of results to other areas? vmahuna

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