Answering the Hard Problem of Consciousness

Answering the Hard Problem of Consciousness

There are still a lot of open questions when it comes to the science of the brain and mind. However, the deepest one, and one where a lot of progress has not been made, is what Chalmers has described as the hard problem of consciousness. How do subjective experiences arise from brain matter?

This is a question that scientists and philosophers have both been occupied with for centuries. So, we decided to delve deeper into it in this post.

Understanding the hard problem of consciousness

The “hard problem” is a name that was coined by David Chalmers. However, the issue is not completely new, as it is a chief element of the venerable mind-body problem. Still, Chalmers is one of the most responsible for the heaps of work on this topic.

This issue arises due to “phenomenal consciousness,” which is consciousness described in terms of “what it’s like for the subject,” does not yield to the standard type of functional explanation that has been successful in other areas of psychology.

Psychological phenomena such as remembering, reasoning, and learning can all be explained in terms of the “functional role” being played. If a system does the right thing, the behavior will be altered appropriately in response to the environment simulation, and this counts as learning. Specifying these functions enables us to know what learning is and enables us to see how brain processes may play this role.

However, what makes the hard problem so difficult and unique is that it extends beyond the performance of functions.

To understand this, see that when we have discussed the performance of all behavioral and cognitive functions in the vicinity of experience – verbal report, internal access, categorization, and perceptual discrimination, there can still be a further unanswered question: why is the performance of said functions accompany experience?

Exploring some of the different theories regarding the hard problem of consciousness

Now that you understand the problem, let’s take a look at some of the different theories proposed:

Quantum consciousness theory proposed by Penrose and Hameroff

You may know Roger Pensore as the physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020 for his prediction of black holes. However, long before this, in the 1990s, he teamed up with an anesthesiologist called Stuart Hameroff to provide an ambitious answer to whether or not quantum physics can solve the hard problem of consciousness.

The pair have claimed that the neuronal system in the brain forms an intricate network and that the consciousness this creates should obey the rules of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the theory that determines how electrons and other tiny particles move around. This, they argue, could explain human consciousness and its mysterious complexity.

Hameroff and Penrose were met with incredulity. Quantum mechanical laws are typically only found to be applicable at very low temperatures. For instance, quantum computers usually operate at around -272 °C. Classic mechanics will take over at higher temperatures. Because our bodies operate at room temperate, you would expect the classic laws of physics to apply. It is for this reason that a lot of scientists have outright dismissed the quantum consciousness theory. However, there are a lot of supporters at the same time. More recent research shows that quantum processes are active at normal temperatures on Earth.


Eliminativism is another theory that has been forward. Rey most clearly defended Eliminativism in 1997, but we have seen it explored and championed in other texts as well, including Ryle 1949, Wilkes 1984, and Dennett 1978,1988.

The theory of Eliminativism holds that there is no hard problem of consciousness because we do not have any consciousness to worry about in the first place. On the surface, you may think that this sounds absurd. How can we deny the existence of conscious experience?

Eliminativist views resist the idea that consciousness is the equivalent of what we call experience. They believe that consciousness is the construction of a philosopher.

Therefore, if we believe that consciousness is non-functional, we can then deny consciousness if we hold that the mind is fully functional.

There are a number of different justifications that have been put forward in favor of Eliminativism. Firstly, upon closing examining the notion of consciousness, there may not be well-defined conditions of the application – there may be no single phenomenon the term picks out.

In Rey 1997, it is stated that the term may not serve any use whatsoever in scientific theory.

If science tells us what there is, as some naturalists believe, and science does not have any place for non-functional intrinsic qualities, then there is no consciousness.

However, most people believe that Eliminativism is simply too much of a strong reaction to the issue and that it is counterintuitive to deny the existence of consciousness.

Strong Reductionism

Another theory is Strong Reductionism, which holds that consciousness does exist, but contends that it is reducible to non-intrinsic, tractable functional properties.

It is further claimed by strong reductionism that the reductive story we tell about consciousness fully explains all that should be and needs to be explained regarding consciousness.

Reductionism is typically the idea that complex phenomena can be explained in terms of the functioning and arrangement of better understood and simpler parts.

Key to Strong Reductionism, then, is the concept that consciousness can be broken down and explained in simpler things. Therefore, even if it does not seem that consciousness can be explained and analyzed in functional terms, those who believe in Strong Reductionism, feel that it can.

Weak Reductionism

In contrast to Strong Reductionism, Weak Reductionism holds that consciousness is a basic or simple phenomenon, i.e. one that we cannot informatively break down into simpler non-conscious elements.

However, according to this view, we can still use physical properties to identify consciousness.

Furthermore, once the identity has been established, there is no further burden of explanation. There is no explanation for identity: it is what it is.

We’ll talk you through how a Weak Reductionism view of consciousness may proceed so that you can get a better understanding.

  1. We locate stimuli that triggers reports of phenomenally conscious states from subjects in a reliable way
  2. We discover which neural processes are reliably linked with those reported experiences

We can then argue, on the basis of parsimony, that the reported state of consciousness is simply the neural state; an ontology holding that two states are present is less simple than one that identifies two statuses.


Another response to consider is what is known as Mysterianism, which does not provide a solution but holds that current scientific methods cannot be used to solve the hard problem. In fact, perhaps human beings cannot solve this issue at all.

There are two versions of this view. The first variety is what we can describe as the more moderate version of Mysterianism, sometimes called Temporary Mysterianism. As per this view, we have no explanation of why some physical states are conscious given the current state of scientific knowledge.

The gap between experience and the type of things we deal with in modern physics – dynamical, structural, and functional properties of basic particles and fields – is simply too wide to be bridged at the moment. However, it could be that the gap is closed in the future due to a conceptual revolution in the sciences.

The stronger version of Mysterianism is known as Permanent Mysterianism. This theory argues that our ignorance in the face of the hard problem is permanent, rather than being transitory, due to our limited cognitive capacities. Basically, we will never understand the issue of quantum mechanics.

Colin McGinn is the main exponent of this view, arguing that a solution to the hard problem is “cognitively closed” to humans.

To support his position, he stresses the consequences of a modular mind view, which have been inspired in part by the work of Chomsky in linguistics. Our minds may simply not be built to find any answer to this type of issue.

Interactionalist Dualism

Dualism is the claim that consciousness is ontologically distinct from anything that is physical. In its numerous forms, Dualism reasons from the conceptual, epistemological, or explanatory gaps between the physical and phenomenal to the metaphysical conclusion that the worldview from a physicalist is not complete and must be supplemented by adding irreducibly phenomenal properties or substance.

There are a number of different ways that Dualism can be unpacked. As per Substance Dualism, consciousness makes up a distinct fundamental “stuff” that can exist independently of any physical substance.

A more popular contemporary option is known as Property Dualism, which holds that the conscious mind is not a separate substance from the physical brain. Rather, the phenomenal properties are the brain’s non-physical properties. Those who believe in this viewpoint feel that it is metaphysically possible that the physical substrate occurs without the phenomenal properties, indicating their ontological independence, yet phenomenal properties are unable to exist on their own.

A chief question for Dualist views regards the connection between the physical world and consciousnesses, especially our physical bodies. As per Descartes, conscious mental properties can have a causal effect upon the physical matter, and this is what is called Interactionist Dualism.

There have been a number of defenders of Interactionist Dualism, including Swinburne 1986, Stapp 1994, H. Robinson 1982, Popper and Eccles 1977, Lowe 1996, Hodgson 1991, and Foster 1991.


This is a different sort of dualistic approach, which accepts physics’ causal closure by holding that phenomenal properties do not have any impact on the physical world. Therefore, any sort of physical effects, such as bodily behaviors, has a cause that is fully physical.

They believe that phenomenal properties simply accompany causally efficacious physical properties, yet they are not a part of what makes the behavior occur.

On this view, phenomenal properties could be lawfully linked with physical properties, therefore, assuring that whenever an event of the brain of a certain type happens, phenomenal property of a certain type also occurs.

There are no evident logical flaws in terms of this view, yet this is a powerful conflict with our typical notions of how conscious states are linked to behavior. If we are in pain, it is highly intuitive that we will cringe, scream, or have a reaction of this nature. However, as per the epiphenomenalist view, this could not be the case.

Dual Aspect Theory

The final view that we are going to take a look at is Dual Aspect Theory, which is very close in spirit to Dualism. It holds that phenomenal characteristics cannot be lowered to more than basic physical properties. Yet it may reduce to something even more basic still; a substance that is both phenomenal and physical or that underwrites both.

Defenders of this type of view agree with dualists in that the hard problem forces our basic ontology to be reconsidered, but they disagree that Dualism is entailed.

There are a number of different views of this concept. It could be that a more basic substance underlies all physical matters and that this basic substance has both physical and phenomenal properties. However, it could be that the more basic substance is “neutral” – neither physical nor phenomenal, yet somehow underlying both.

It could also be that phenomenal properties are the intrinsic categorical bases for dispositional and relational properties that are described in physics, and so everything physical has an underlying phenomenal nature.

These are views that have all been elaborated on extensively in previous eras of philosophy, yet they have been revived in response to the hard problem.

Final words on the hard problem of consciousness

As you can see, there are a number of different theories and views when it comes to the hard problem of consciousness.

There is certainly a lot more that needs to be explored, and we are sure that more views will come to the fore as time goes on and further exploration is conducted. One of the upcoming articles will explore several quantum theories of consciousness. The last few decades of research have made them likely possibilities.

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