10 Problems With Consciousness

These major problems must be considered when tackling the concept.

Posted Dec 05, 2018

On the surface, the concept of consciousness can seem pretty straightforward. It refers to what people are mentally aware of, right? Turns out it is more complicated than that. John Horgan recently released a book about the knotty issues that come up in attempting to deal with all the various mind-body problems. His book reviews the perspectives of nine different scholars, and his conclusion was that we remain very confused. I agree with Horgan’s claim that there are many problems associated with the concept of consciousness. I am working on a book on how to define behavior, mind, and consciousness. I argue these concepts are central to the science of psychology, but they have not been effectively defined and interrelated.

Here I offer a taxonomy of 10 different conceptual problems associated with consciousness. I welcome critiques or suggestions in the comment section.

1. The Language Game Problem.  This is the problem of our concepts and vocabulary. Because consciousness is such a pervasive concept, the language game we use is crucial to how we come to understand it. Consider that, as this Great Course notes, most Western language systems give us vocabulary that sets us up to make a choice between (a) some form of Materialism or Physicalism versus (b) some form of Mentalism or Idealism or (c) Dualism, which is some kind of combination. Eastern philosophical traditions do not necessarily divide the world up this way. The language game problem includes how we talk about physical relative to mental causation and other relationships between matter and mind (e.g., reductionism versus emergence; primary versus secondary qualities, etc.). I think the language game problem is, in some ways, the most fundamental. Central to the book I am writing is the claim that we need a new language game to help define the concepts of behavior, mind, and consciousness. I argue that my unified theory/approach provides a new language game to solve these issues (see, e.g., here for behavior, here for mind, and here for consciousness)

2. The Worldview Problem. This relates to the language game problem, but specifically pertains to one’s overall conception and picture of reality. There are three broad worldviews pertaining to consciousness. One is the supernatural view. A version of this is the Christian view that there is a dimension of reality that exists separate from the natural world and connects to consciousness in that each person has a soul from that supernatural world, which, is given to the body at some point after conception and upon death, separates from the body and returns to the other heavenly plane. Another worldview is the mystical or paranormal view, which argues that the standard science vision for how energy, matter, information, and the mind operate is wrong and that there is a dimension of mind or consciousness that is not brain based and plays a causal role in the world in a way that is very different from current models of natural science. Dawson Church’s recent book Mind to Matter is based on a mystical worldview. Finally, there is the standard, natural philosophy view. Although there are many variations of a naturalistic view, they reside within the assumptions of natural philosophy. 

3. The Various States of Consciousness Problem. When we talk about consciousness in a basic way, we talk about being fully awake versus being in a deep sleep or a coma. We can also identify dreaming as a kind of state of consciousness, and lucid (self-conscious) dreaming an even more specific state. There are also all the altered states of consciousness, some of which are pathological, such as psychotic episodes involving hallucinations and delusions. There are also unusual or spiritual states of revelation or awakening. The basic point here is that we must consider fluctuations in states of consciousness and notions about normal versus altered states. 

4. The Parts and Layering of Awareness Problem. This refers to the structural issues associated with what makes up consciousness—and was the focus of early psychologists like Wundt. Some parts or domains might include sensory qualia (the fundamental elements of experience), perceptual wholes, drives or urges, emotional feeling states, imaginative wonderings, self-talk, thought, or logical analyses. To get a sense of these contents, here is a book on people's inner states. In addition to consciousness having different parts, there are good reasons to suppose that we can think of it as a "layering" process of attention and awareness. For example, virtually all of us have had the experience of driving down the road and thinking of other things such that we were not conscious of the road. But what does that mean to say we were not conscious of the road? Clearly, if someone put a blindfold on us, we quickly would realize there was a problem. Thus, we were “seeing” the road at one level of awareness. But we were not aware of being aware of our sensory-perceptual world because our focus was elsewhere. This means we need to consider the concept of awareness, which as the dictionary notes, overlaps substantially with the concept of consciousness. It also means we need to consider awareness occurring at various levels.

5. The Topographical Problem. This relates to the language game and the parts and levels problems, but it specifically refers to our working map of the territory or domains that make up consciousness. One such map is Freud’s topographical model that divides the concept up into the conscious, preconscious (i.e., memory), and unconscious domains. Freud’s model is a start, but it is not sufficient. For example, additional analyses have made it clear that Freud’s unconscious should be divided into subconscious and nonconscious domains. Subconscious refers to mental contents that are initially avoided but can be brought into conscious awareness with the appropriate attentional focus (e.g., a process of guided discovery in psychotherapy). In contrast, nonconscious contents refers to all the neuro-information processing that can never be brought into awareness (nerves firing in the brain, mechanisms of memory storage, operations involved in moving to catch a ball, etc). Even more crucial is the need to topographically divide Freud’s “consciousness” into the two broad domains of experiential consciousness (sometimes referred to as core, perceptual, phenomenological, or primary consciousness) and self-conscious awareness and/or self-reflective narration. These are clearly different issues and some of the key conceptual problems involve experiential consciousness (Problem 6), whereas other problems involve self-consciousness and narrative reflection (Problem 7).

6. The Experiential Consciousness (EC) Problem. This refers to the felt experience of being in the world, the stuff of perceptual experiences like seeing red and feeling hungry. Some call the basic units that make up experiential consciousness “qualia.” It can also be described as the “subjective theater of experience.” It has also been talked about as the thing that it is like to be something, which is taken from Thomas Nagel’s famous work, What is it Like to be a Bat? There are two sub problems involved with the EC problem, each of which have two additional problems.

   6a. The Subjectivity Epistemological Problem. This is the problem associated with “subjective” versus “objective” perspectives on being in the world, and is highlighted by folks like Andre Marquis' quadrant analysis. A way to think about this is that subjective experiential consciousness is fully "contained" within the individual. This containment results in two important sub problems, which are mirror images of each other. The first (6a1) is the problem of directly knowing another’s subjective experiencethe problem being it cannot be done. This is the problem of: “How do I know that you see red the way I see red?” This problem also relates to our knowledge of consciousness in other animals, which we can only know indirectly. This is also related to the philosophical problem of zombies. Indeed, all subjective experiences can only be inferred via behavior from an objective perspective. The second (6a2) issue is the inversion of this problem. This is the problem that, as individuals, we are trapped in our subjective perceptual experience of the world. That is, the only way I can know about the world is through my subjective theater of experience. We can see the nature of this problem when we ask, as Rene Descartes did a long time ago, How do I know the external world is real and that I am not living in a dream arranged by some evil demon? This problem was the basis of the popular movie series The Matrix.

  6b. The Neuro-Engineering Problem. This refers to the specific mechanics of how the activity of the brain gives rise to felt experiences of reds, and pleasures and pains. We can also break this up into two different problems, the neuro-correlation problem and the neuro-causation problem. The Neuro-Correlation problem (6b1) refers to how we map the correlations between felt experience and brain activity. Consider, for example, we have long been aware that damage to the occipital lobe impairs vision, whereas damage to the auditory lobe impairs hearing. Even more directly, scientists have homed in on the kinds of brainwave activity that directly corresponds to conscious access. For example, in an exciting line of research on an idea called “global neuronal workspace” theory, Dehaene and his colleagues have identified a P3 “ignition wave” that occurs approximately 300 milliseconds after sensory input that is associated with consciously experiencing a visual stimulus. We are getting better and better at mapping brain correlates of conscious experience and that is leading to clearer frameworks for understanding the subjective conscious mind. The Neuro-Causation problem (6b2) is the question of why and how certain brain processes produce the subjective experiences that they do. Specifically, what causes the experience of redness versus greenness? Why does the architecture of the occipital lobe produce the experience of vision, whereas the architecture of the auditory lobe produces the experience of sound? Similarly, what are the minimal brain processes that generate conscious experiences to begin with and why and how do they do that? This is often referred to as the “hard” problem of consciousness. It is also sometimes called and/or relates to the neuro-binding problem. Currently, the question of “why” specific brain states result in specific experiential states is pretty mysterious.

7. The Self-Consciousness (SC) Problem. This refers to the nature of self-reflective consciousness, which, in its full form, involves self-reflective narration. In the beginning of Horgan’s book, he speaks of a time when he went fishing as a kid with his friends when he all of a sudden had a profound moment of self-reflective awareness and announced, with newfound awe, “I am me!” to his friends. Although his friends were not impressed, Horgan was deeply impacted. What changed in Horgan at that moment was not so much his experiential consciousness (i.e., his sense of the fishing rod in his hand), but of self-reflective awareness of himself as an independent entity. This domain of consciousness involves questions such as: What is self-consciousness, when and why did it evolve? What is human consciousness relative to animal consciousness? How does self-consciousness develop? How does it relate to language and narration?

One key feature of self-conscious narration that is very different from experiential consciousness is that it is not contained inside the nervous system. In contrast to the slight pain in my finger, which I can indirectly report on because it is contained in my subjectivity, I am directly sharing with you my thoughts about the 10 problems of consciousness. Language allows for an explicit intersubjective sharing. That is one key difference between experiential and self-consciousness, and there are several. Four sub-problems associated with self-consciousness are: the problem of the self (SP); the problem of free will (FWP), the problem of personhood (PP); and the strange loop problem (SLP).

  7a. The problem of the self. Self-consciousness brings in a new word, self, into the mix. What is the self, what is the sense of the self? Is there a self at the experiential consciousness level? What is the relationship between the self and consciousness at both levels? What is the relationship between related concepts like self-concept, identity, self-esteem? How does the self-consciousness self-system develop over childhood? What are we to make of the Buddha's insight that there is no self? How does that contrast with earlier notions of Atman or other language games that emphasize the central role of the self in human psychology?

  7b. The problem of free will. Self-awareness means that I am aware of me and of what I am doing and what I might or should be doing. These are the key ingredients for the concept of free will, which is the idea there is a self which is choosing to act. I experience myself as deciding to write this blog. But what does that mean? Does self-awareness really give rise to the capacity to self-consciously choose one’s actions? Are (or can) those actions be chosen freely? How is that possible if we live in a universe determined by physical processes?

  7c. The problem of personhood. Normally, we say a person is a human being. But in the Behavior of Persons, Peter Ossorio makes the compelling argument that this is not quite right. According to Ossorio, a person is an entity who is self-aware and takes reflective responsibility for their actions, whereas a human being is a particular kind of great ape. To make his point that the concept of personhood is different than the concept of a human being, Ossorio points out that there are many science fiction characters (think of beings in Star Wars like Yoda or Jabba the Hut) who clearly are persons in the conceptual sense, but are not human beings. Ossorio's analysis also highlights the intimate connection between language and personhood, such that full fledged exemplars of persons behaving as such involve narrative awareness and a sense of ownership for one's actions.  

  7d. The problem of the strange loop of self-awareness. Something odd happened to Horgan as he repeated “I am me.” As he narrated that, his conception of his situation changed. Thus, he found himself in a “strange loop” where the cause and effect of his narrative behavior was all tangled up. The cognitive scientist/philosopher Douglas Hofstader has explored the dynamics of being a strange loop. I believe that the strange loop can also be applied to broader issues, like the problem of the double hermeneutic and Sartre’s analyses exploring the nature of human freedom and the fusion of facts and values. The bottom line is that it does carry complicated implications for things like the relationship between causes and effects and describing/explaining and prescribing/influencing things.   

Finally, there are at least three other problems that are intimately related to the conceptual analyses of consciousness. They are the problem of mind, of behavior, and of morality.

8. The Problem of Mind. This relates to how mind is defined, and how it relates to consciousness, which gets back to the language game problem. In addition to the definition issue, there is a second issue, which is that one can take a cognitive-functionalist view of the mind without necessarily saying anything directly about the nature of consciousness per se. A cognitive functionalist view is the idea that overt actions that can be seen as arising out of the nervous system’s information processing capacity. A functional-cognitivist conception of mind can be adopted without saying much about the problem of subjectivity. Consider that Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works was a cognitive functionalist view of the mind, but by his own admission, the book hardly touches on the issue of experiential consciousness at all. In a similar vein, we can take a functionalist or information processing view of the computer chess program Deep Blue or the Jeopardy playing computer Watson without any imputing of experience. The bottom line is that the mind can be conceived of very differently than consciousness, especially if a cognitive-functionalist view is taken. As such, a full analysis of consciousness needs to be framed in reference to an analysis of the mind and the nervous system as an information processing system of some sort.

9. The Problem of Behavior. This relates to how behavior is defined in relationship to consciousness. Consider that radical behaviorists like B F. Skinner define subjective consciousness in behavioral terms. Experiential events, such as having a toothache, are considered “covert behaviors” by Skinnerians. Likewise, narration of what is happening are considered verbal behaviors caused by the contingencies in the environment. Although I am a critic of the radical behavioral view, it highlights what I believe is another and often overlooked problem. To effectively map consciousness, we need to deal with the concept of behavior and understand what that is in relationship. 

10. The Moral Problem. In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris make a powerful argument that experiential consciousness (what he called sentience) is a fundamental aspect associated with moral problems, values and decisions. Specifically, he argued that the the foundation of morality was (or involved) the well-being of sentient creatures. Whether or not you agree with this analysis fully, it does highlight that experiential consciousness and the ability to feel pleasure and pain connects deeply to the concept of morality. If there were no suffering or happiness or anything of the sort, then concept of morality disappears. In addition, many argue that to be justified in holding people morally accountable for their actions, humans must have been free to behave other than they did. In other words, they must be able to choose their behaviors freely. This means that the concept of self-consciousness (and personhood and free will) relate deeply to moral theory and assertions.

As Horgan's book makes clear, consciousness is a slippery and complicated construct that is attached to many different conceptual problems. My hope is that this blog contributes to untangling the difficulties by helping us get clearer on the kinds of problems we need to be addressing. A good language game would be one that helps us clearly address these issues. The goal of my book is to show that there is a language game that can handle all these issues and set the stage for psychology to develop into a more coherent science.