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Cognition

The Hard Problem of the Psyche

The psyche does not fit within the language game of natural science.

Key points

  • The psyche is defined as your unique, qualitative, subjective experience of being in the world.
  • Modern empirical natural science is about describing behavior patterns in the world that are grounded in data that are objectively available.
  • The psyche does not fit into the modern science language system.
  • This means that we will need a new system of knowledge that places objective natural science and the subjective psyche in proper relation.
fran_kie/Shutterstock
Source: fran_kie/Shutterstock

One of the most famous problems in science is "the hard problem of consciousness." It refers to our lack of scientific understanding regarding the specific neurobiological mechanisms that generate the subjective conscious experience of being. The hard problem can be contrasted with easier problems, such as the neurocognitive correlates of consciousness (e.g., we can correlate working memory with portions of the brain such as the hippocampus, or vision with the occipital lobe). The hard problem is about the mechanisms by which brain functions generate the qualitative experience of being in the world.

David Chalmers is best known for his framing of the hard problem of consciousness. He recently explained it to Sam Harris on the Making Sense podcast1:

The easier problems fall within the standard methods of neuroscience and cognitive science. What makes the hard problem of experience hard? Because it doesn’t seem to be about behavior or about functions. You can, in principle, imagine explaining all my behavioral responses to a given stimulus and how my brain discriminates and integrates and monitors itself and controls my behavior. You can explain all that with, say, a neural mechanism, but you won’t have touched the central question, which is, “Why does it feel like something from the first-person point of view?

In a previous blog post, I argued that there are really two problems we face2. First, there is the “ontological mechanism problem,” which is the problem of explicitly stating how the activity of the brain gives rise to the subjective experience of being. But there is also what I call the “epistemological portal/gap problem.” The epistemological portal/gap problem refers to the problem that subjective conscious experience is only available from the first-person perspective. That is, subjective conscious experience is a portal of perception that is only available from the “inside out” perspective.

This is important because our primary system for authoritative knowing is modern empirical natural science3. Modern science is a knowledge system that justifies its knowledge via a set of specific rules. For example, it presumes natural as opposed to supernatural causes. It is also a knowledge system about mapping behaviors in the world that can be seen by any trained observer4. This is a problem for subjectivity because, as Chalmers notes in the quote above, subjectivity “doesn’t seem to be about behavior.” Indeed, there is an epistemological gap, such that exterior observers cannot directly see what the subject sees through their own epistemic portal.

There's a third problem to consider. This problem shifts the focus from subjective conscious experience in general to the specific subjective conscious experience that each of us has in the here-and-now moment. To do that, I want to introduce the term “psyche” and define it as each of our unique, particular, epistemic portals into the world5. Whereas subjective conscious experience refers to the general phenomena, the psyche refers to the unique, idiographic, specific, local particular person experiencing the world in the moment.

You may be wondering why I seem to repeat myself in the above sentence, with words like “unique” and “particular” and even include the less common word “idiographic.” I am driving home an important point, which is that, as I have defined it here, the psyche is a concept defined in a way that is outside the language game of natural science. That is, modern empirical natural science is a justification system that structured to develop general causal models of behavioral patterns that are lawful, generalizable, quantifiable, repeatable, and are based on data available to any trained observer. The shorthand for this is “objective.” In contrast, as defined here, the psyche is local, contingent, qualitative, specific, unique, and based only on one point of view. In a word, it is purely “subjective.”

In my forthcoming book, A New Synthesis for Solving the Problem of Psychology: Addressing the Enlightenment Gap, I argue that we can coherently define the science of psychology in a way that is consistent with the natural sciences by framing it as the science of mindedness (or mental behavior). Mindedness refers to the functional awareness and responsivity we can observe in animals that arises out of sensorimotor looping6. This allows scientists to effectively frame the concept of mind in behavioral terms7.

However, although we can develop a science of animal and human mental behavior, the psyche, as defined here, does not fit into the language game of modern empirical natural science. This is because modern science evolved as a kind of “anti-subjectivity” language system based on a systematic third-person empirical process that ended up factoring out the unique particular qualitative perspective. Many experiments are designed to be “blind” (e.g., double-blind randomized controlled clinical trials) for this reason.

What does this mean for our systems of knowledge? The key take-home point is that we need to understand that modern empirical natural science has a blind spot concerning the psyche. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Indeed, modern science made great strides precisely because it shifted our empirical perspective from a first-person, qualitative view to a systematic, third-person, quantitative behavioral view. But what it does mean is that if we are going to develop a coherent theory of knowledge, we will need to develop a different kind of onto-epistemological framework than one that is just based on science alone. Rather, we need a framework that includes the psyche and places it in proper relation to the behavioral patterns mapped by modern science.

References

1. Harris, S. (2020). Making sense: Conversations on consciousness, morality, and the future of humanity. Harper Collins Publishers.

2. Henriques, G. (2019, October). There are two hard problems of consciousness, not one. Psychology Today Blog on Theory of Knowledge.

3. Henriques, G. (2020, July). A theory of MENS knowledge. Psychology Today Blog on Theory of Knowledge.

4. Henriques, G. (2021, November). Does the concept of behavior unify natural science? Psychology Today Blog on Theory of Knowledge.

5. Henriques, G. (2022, March). How can we define the psyche? Psychology Today Blog on Theory of Knowledge.

6. Henriques, G. (2022, August). Seeing mindedness in cats. Psychology Today Blog on Theory of Knowledge.

7. For more on how modern cognitive science is framing sensory motor looping see John Vervaeke on Lex Fridman (Episode #317, September 4, 2022).

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