According to the great American philosopher Charles Peirce, the first rule of reason is: Do not block the way of inquiry. The history of science displays various questions that seriously blocked inquiry, such as Aristotle's question "what holds up the stars?" This question is misleading because it is based on a host of faulty assumption, including that there needs to be something holding up the stars.  Similarly, current discussions about consciousness are often blocked by bad questions.

You might think that all questions are legitimate and deserve answers, but some are either hopelessly confused or based on false presuppositions. Nothing is gained by asking questions such as how many hours there are in a kilogram, which simply fails to understand the nature of time and weight. The question “Why is a duck?” is too ungrammatical and underspecified to be worth bothering with.

More seriously, examination of the history of science reveals episodes when inquiry was seriously blocked by questions based on false assumptions. When Aristotle asked what holds up the stars, he came up with the apparently reasonable answer that the stars are held up by a substance he called aether, a fifth element on top of the traditional Greek four of earth, air, fire, and water. But we now know that nothing holds up the stars, which are suns operating on their own many light-years away.

Another inquiry-blocking question in the history of science was the 18th-century query: What is given off when things burn? Lavoisier figured out that, despite appearances, nothing is given off, because combustion is a matter of combination with oxygen. Before Darwin, it was popular to amass evidence that supports the hypothesis of divine design, but evolution by natural selection showed that this hypothesis could be eliminated.

Scientific investigation of consciousness is similarly blocked by a proliferation of bad questions. Thomas Nagel made famous the question “What is it like to be a bat?” designed to show that there is something ineffable about conscious experience. David Chalmers asked about a hard problem of consciousness, where “hard” was intended to mean “impossible” because of thought experiments that merely reinforced prejudices.  Another bad question that has become endemic in philosophy is "Do qualia exist?", which misleadingly suggests that conscious experiences are things rather than processes.  Processes like combustion and digestion need to be explained by underlying mechanisms, rather than counted like things. Consciousness is similar to life, a complex process resulting from interactions of many biological mechanisms. 

Questions about "What is it like?" block inquiry because they are so underspecified that no reasonable answers are foreseeable. Here are some good alternatives:

  1. How and why do different modalities such as pain, vision, and emotion yield different conscious experiences?
  2. Within each modality, how and why are there different experiences, such as emotions of happiness and sadness?
  3. Why do people switch from one conscious experience to another?
  4. Why do conscious experiences stop when people fall into a dreamless sleep and start again when they wake up?
  5. How is conscious experience modified by drugs?

Evidence-based answers to these questions will go a long way to solving the problem of consciousness, by a theory of the neural mechanisms primarily responsible for consciousness.

Related blog posts:

Is your cell phone conscious?

The hard problem of life

Consciousness is a brain process

Related articles:

Thagard, P. (2014). Thought experiments considered harmful. Perspectives on Science, 22, 288-305.

Thagard, P., & Stewart, T. C. (2014). Two theories of consciousness:  Semantic pointer competition vs. information integration. Consciousness and Cognition, 30, 73-90.

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