The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

The Not-So-Hard Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness is called “The Hard Problem” which Prof. David Chalmers of the University of Arizona explains: (Chalmers is not a materialist.  jfly has explained his position more clearly in the comment section below.)

  The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

This is the mainstream view of the problem, which assumes that experience arises from a physical basis.  It is an automatic, unquestioned assumption that guides scientific thinking.  Yet this problem isn’t particularly difficult and I don’t think it takes a big brain scientist to sort it out, as long as you’re willing to question whether experience arises from physical processes.  The reason that the problem is so hard is that it’s being viewed from the wrong direction.  If you come at it from a different direction, it is not nearly so difficult.

Mainstream science starts with the body and works its way out.  Study the body and brain more, the thinking goes, and the problem will eventually be solved.  But this is not the only direction available; it is quite possible to start with consciousness and work towards the body.

The first part of solving the problem is to understand the difference between an object and its meaning.  An object is not the meaning that we attach to it.  This can be quite difficult to grasp, so I’ll take quite a bit effort to explain it.

We’ll use the example of a chair for the sake of simplicity, but this could be absolutely anything at all.  A chair can be thought of as a pattern.  It is not an object, it is an idea.  As such, it is completely immaterial and has no basis in physical reality as we know it.

A chair can be a picture of a chair.  It can be made of individual atoms or it can be made out of galaxies or wood.  It’s still a chair.  It does not matter whether we can sit in it as long as the representation looks like a chair to us.  The materials that a chair is made out of do not have an inherent “chairness” to them.  If you took the backrest off of a flat chair, you might have a small table instead.

If you grind a chair up into itty bitty pieces then it ceases to exist at all even though all of the materials that made the chair still exist.  It is possible to have an object that some people regard as a chair, but others do not.  It can be made from a very wide range of materials and in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes.  It is possible to construct an object that looks like a chair from a certain angle, but if you move, it no longer looks like a chair any more.  In that case, a chair can vanish completely from existence just by moving the observer.

No pattern recognition = no chair.  The materials are all still there, but what’s absent is the idea that they form a chair.  If, for some reason, the materials stop being recognized as a chair, then the chair ceases to exist because “chair” was only ever an idea.

A chair isn’t just meaning that we have attached to a pattern.  A pattern is not a pattern until we attach meaning to it because a pattern is an idea, not a thing. And because it is an idea, we don’t discover patterns, we create (and destroy) them. To put this another way, there is no such thing as a pattern without consciousness.

So for the brain to arrange electrical fields into patterns that become consciousness, would require the brain to self create those patterns, which it cannot do unless it already understands how to create patterns. (because a pattern is an idea and is not made of anything) This creates a paradox whereby the brain requires consciousness in order to create consciousness.

The creation of patterns absolutely requires interpretation of those patterns which requires consciousness.  Energy/mass cannot create patterns unless it knows what they mean.  So either all matter is conscious, (which cannot be ruled out a priori) and acting on itself or we have a dualistic situation whereby consciousness is acting on mass/energy.  Otherwise, the act of interpretation can never occur and therefore no form of consciousness at all can exist.  Since consciousness does exist, we have to reject models where it arises from the patterns that only it can create.

In other words, the brain cannot possibly create consciousness.

27 comments on “The Not-So-Hard Problem of Consciousness

  1. Dan Booth Cohen
    December 15, 2013

    Craig – I’m a little late to this. I haven’t drilled into all the comments so this may be covered.

    My response is the summation of the Hard Problem that you presented is hard to grasp. To my understanding. the Hard Problem is how do molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, etc., which themselves are non-conscious, gather together and become conscious? It is a Hard Problem because after a century of neuroscience, there is still no theory of how consciousness is created from non-conscious matter. Scientists insist that the brain generates consciousness without the prerequisites of science to back their claim.

    • craigweiler
      December 16, 2013

      I found out just how hard it is to grasp when I put it on a forum. A few people just flat out failed to understand and accused me of misunderstanding the point. It seems to be very difficult for some people to grasp that you can’t have order without consciousness because order isn’t a thing, it’s just an idea.

      They have the idea that somehow order can exist without consciousness, that order is a mechanical property of nature. But non conscious matter wouldn’t “know” that it was ordered so it becomes a meaningless statement.

      • Jody Schmidt
        April 17, 2014

        Agreed. Why are some people baffled by the Hard Problem and p-zombies, whereas others dismiss them as not particularly compelling or worthy of consideration. Such polarized opinions. I find it truly awe inspiring and cannot understand how others do not, but I also respect the opinions of others and am open to the possibility that I am wrong or misguided. Interesting stuff.

  2. Sheila Joshi
    December 13, 2013

    Craig — thought you and your readers might be interested in this petition to Wikipedia started by the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology —

    • Howell Michael
      January 19, 2014

      We need to stop relying on pseudo skeptics for confirmation of what we know they refuse to think differently we need to form an association confirming and enhancing the truth and put them on the defensive. they are only negators and offer nothing real.. We must develop awareness without them

  3. jfly
    December 12, 2013


    I intend this comment to be informative and not offensive – but you misrepresent Chalmers’ view in the opening of this article. As the first commenter notes, both Chalmers and Nagel are strongly opposed reductionist accounts of consciousness (on the basis of several current analytical arguments in philosophy of the mind). In fact, Chalmers is one of the most prominent modern day advocates of panpsychism/neutral monism.

    I think it’s very important to understand the above excerpt, so that one may see where reductionism runs into fatal problems. When Chalmers says states of consciousness somehow arise from physical processing, he is not saying that those states are reducible to physical processing – quite the opposite. According to Chalmers, physical processes “give rise” to experience in the sense that producing a physical system (e.g., a brain) with the right physical properties in our universe yields corresponding states of experience. This seems incontrovertible – it’s the same as saying that states of consciousness are reliably correlated with physical states of the brain. But the questions of why and how these physical processes give rise to experience is unanswered – i.e., the hard problem.

    • craigweiler
      December 12, 2013

      No offense taken. I used the quote from Chalmers (and I linked to the source) because he did such a good job of explaining the materialist position.

      I’m going to update the post though. I don’t want to mislead readers about Chalmers.

      • jfly
        December 14, 2013

        Yes, it’s also very significant that both David Chalmers and Tom Nagel – two highly distinguished mainstream academic philosophers, who are leading authorities in philosophy of the mind – are nonreductionists. (In fact, Philpapers’ recent meta-survey of the target faculty in academic philosophy revealed that 27% of philosopher accepted or lean towards mind as being non-physical, while 16% chose “other” than physical or nonphysical.)

        • donsalmon
          December 14, 2013

          Does anybody know the percentage of physicists who currently accept that psi is compatible with modern physics? The last I heard, about 5 years ago, was that it was 60%.

          • Stephen
            December 14, 2013

            This would be a difficult question to answer because few physicists are aware of psi research beyond the superficial level. In my experience, those who have actually familiarized themselve with parapsychology research have always concluded it is compatible with modern physics. Non-local quantum effects and time reversibilitiy are extremely well established concepts in modern physics. Believing in results like presentiment and telepathy are not big leaps. What worries physicists about psi are problems on the neuroscience level because you probably need some kind of quantum mind model.

            A major problem is that many physicists are simply completely unaware of the quality of psi research. Many get all their information about the field from publications like the Scientific American where the extremely biased Micheal Schermer sits on the editorial board. Other science magazine are often almost as bad.

            Most professional skeptics come from the field of psychology. It is in psychology where resistance to parapsychology is greatest. Often this is because those trained in psychology falsely believe psi is impossible according to physics!

            • donsalmon
              December 15, 2013

              Thanks Stephen – very thoughtful comment. I’m a psychologist (clinical) and I have much first hand experience of what you say. It’s become a cliche, but psychologists definitely have “physics envy” – many feel insecure about being ‘scientists” which makes them all the more likely to be fearful of supporting something (psi) they fear is unscientific.

              Interestingly, clinical psychologists tend to be far more open than academic psychologists. In fact, if you go “down” the prestige ladder, starting at psychiatrists, you’ll find increasing openness to psi – psychiatrists being the least open, then clinical psychologists, then social workers and finally, you talk to a licensed therapist – at least around here – and they’re likely to include psi type experiences in most of their descriptions of what happens in therapy.

              If you find a therapist who has been a musician (remember the music school psi experiments? Musicians often have off the chart psi skills) you’ll double the likelihood of openness. This is a good place to look for test subjects as well. I did an experiment with 12 psych grad students, about half of whom were musicians, teachign them to maintain awareness from waking to dreaming, and it was remarkable over the 6 months I worked with them how many psi experiences there were (including both having the same dream experience at the same time).


              By the way, i see nobody responded to my non-materialist rant. If anyone cares to look, I’d be curious. I think it’s the only solution to physicalist thinking; what’ smore, it’s an incredibly easy one.

  4. George Williams
    December 12, 2013

    Actually, Chalmers and Nagel resist materialistic explanations too. They believe that to explain the hard problem of consciousness, you have to see consciousness as fundamental. Interestingly, they do not cite any psi research, as far as I know.

    The hard problem of consciousness is important because it is a strong challenge to a purely materialistic explanation of consciousness. That is, there is nothing in our understanding of the laws of physics or chemistry that suggests how consciousness might emerge from complex collections of non-conscious elementary particles. On the other hand, few scientists or science journalists are persuaded by philosophical arguments. Genuine persuasion requires empirical data.

    On the other hand, advocates for psi have pretty compelling evidence that consciousness is not purely physical. But many are not persuaded because many are convinced that psi goes against everything that we know about science.

    And here is what’s been missing from this debate (in my opinion): everything we know about science cannot (so far) give us a convincing theory of consciousness. That is, we are not any closer to explaining the hard problem using conventional material explanations.

    Hence these two need to be presented together: 1) hard problem of consciousness and 2) the evidence for psi.

    Thanks for your work, btw, Craig.

    • craigweiler
      December 12, 2013

      That is an excellent observation. Thank you.

      Although what I presented may seem like a philosophical argument, it does rely on empirical data. It’s just that we don’t need an experiment to gather the data because it’s self evident. A thought experiment is sufficient, for example, to establish that a chair is an idea, not a thing. The data is no less sound.

      • donsalmon
        December 16, 2013

        I’ll just say again, as I wrote at the end of this comment thread, that the burden of proof should be on the physicalists – it’s their idea of matter (or whatever they’re calling it this month) that is the problem. How could there possibly be a problem for consciousness, which is the single most obvious thing we – any human being who has ever lived, for that matter – can ever know or experience. If there’s a problem with consciousness, then that just points to some fundamental confusion at the basis of science. I think a good tactic would be for psi folks to stop being defensive and be bold. The vast majority of people experience psi, have no problem with it, and if some (a much smaller number than one might think, though overblown by loud mouthed debunkers) scientists do have a problem, the burden should be on them to try to arrive at some semblance of rationality with regard to their truly bizarre ideas about laws of nature that somehow mysteriously arose out of nowhere, and somehow mysteriously just continue to keep working to hold everything together (this is already an anthropomorphism that makes no sense), and somehow sentience and life and intelligence just arose out of nowhere, and we have a whole qualitative aspect of our every moment experience which essentially is completely invisible to the predominant quantitative methods. If scientists could face this squarely, the conflict would go in the exact opposite direction. Psi, and consciousness make perfect sense, and it’s up to the materialists and physicalists and so-called “naturalists’ (who promulgate the most unnatural view imaginable – more properly called extreme left-mode thinking – see McGilchrist for more on this) to explain why they hold such strange, irrational, incoherent views.

  5. marcustanthony
    December 12, 2013

    I agree the physical basis of consciousness is a basic and unexamined presupposition in mainstream science. It is not an illogical one, though, given the strong correlation between brain activity and experience/perception. But I agree that the physicalist model doesn’t account for a lot, including much of the data from parapsychology, and indeed a lot of human experience – psi perception, NDEs and so on. These are dismissed not because the evidence is weak, but because they don’t fit the dominant model.

    However, your take doesn’t really explain why conscious experience arises from “consciousness” either. The same problem remains. How does experience arise from whatever the conscious (presumably) immaterial self is? How does the experience of “chair” impress itself on that ghostly self?

    In science if there is no mechanism, there is no explanation, in all but a few instances.

    • craigweiler
      December 12, 2013

      You’re right. I didn’t really address that. I’m not sure that can be explained. How do you describe consciousness within the framework of consciousness? It’s not like anyone can ever get outside of consciousness to get an objective idea of it.

      • donsalmon
        December 12, 2013

        This is a constant refrain of debunkers and it’s absolutely false in all areas of science. There are literally thousands of accepted phenomena that are the object of scientific study that have unkown mechanisms. Please don’t fall for this red herring.

        • craigweiler
          December 12, 2013

          The comment I was responding to was factually correct. My argument was about demonstrating that consciousness cannot arise from the physical, I did not address what it is.

          You are also right that it is unnecessary to be able to define it.

          • donsalmon
            December 16, 2013

            hmm, confused by this flow – Craig did you think I was responding to your comment? I was saying that the common tactic of debunkers of saying if there’s no mechanism for something you can’t say it’s scientific, is a red herring. Sorry if that was confusing.

            • craigweiler
              December 16, 2013

              Ok. something got confused. No worries.

  6. Kilianamalaan
    December 12, 2013

    Reblogged this on Being The Goddess Within.

  7. Derek Stephen McPhail
    December 12, 2013

    works for me.

    • Kilianamalaan
      December 12, 2013

      also works for me too. What intrigues me is this all actually makes complete sense to me whereas the indoctrinated old world thinking of a non-conscious universe not only made no sense to me it made my life reverse polarity and was actually “killing me” (after all if we believe reality is dead / separate and non-conscious then we reflect that belief / idea / thought by becoming it. Such is the way of existence. We are because we believe we are or are observed to be what we are . . . or whatever. I think my brain just imploded.

      • Derek Stephen McPhail
        December 12, 2013

        I hear ya. was born autistic, which doesn’t mean a lot to most people. however, the good news was, that I was experiencing the universe directly for a longer period of time, while others were more quickly socialized into the pervasive scientific materialist paradigm.

        could always tell when people were lying to me, as I was responding in a pure right brain/intuitive way to the liar’s energy. lead to my being very leery of my teachers and most authority figures in general. you know those cartoons, where the person says one thing; but, the balloon over their head says what they’re really thinking?

        fortunately, my dear ole Dad introduced me to nature walks and taught me to meditate, giving me books about Tibetan Buddhism and yoga, that helped me figure it out.

  8. donsalmon
    December 12, 2013

    Very nice post, Craig. Here’s a slightly different take, but related, I think.

    WARNING: THIS IS **NOT** AN IDEALIST VIEW. I put this in caps because no matter how many times I state this up front, there’s always at least one person who says I’m stating an idealist view. I’m not putting forward ANY positive view about “how things are” – rather, I’m simply stating, given our current scientific methodology, what it is possible to say “things are not.”

    Ok, here goes (inspired partly by William James and partly by Nagarjuna, among others)

    1. Look carefully at your present moment experience without labeling it in any way. This is very very difficult and requires much concentration and attention.

    2. To use Craig’s example, focus on a chair. How would you describe your experience, while withholding any additional assumptions – to whatever extent you’re capable?

    3. There is an unbroken field of awareness (note again, this not a statement of what “really is”, simply what you’re aware of). Within that field, a particular “patch” – a particular shape, form, color, etc is identified as “chair.”

    4. There is not a single piece of evidence that a purely material, dead, unconscious “thing”, purely ‘objective” “object”, exists outside this unbroken field of awareness (idealism denial alert – note that I have nowhere even implied that there IS no such thing; simply that there is no evidence for it).

    5. Given our currently accepted scientific methodology, there is simply no way to determine whether such a dead, unconscious purely material thing exists apart from that field of awareness. (note this is in no way a solipsistic position either; it is not a metaphysical or ontological position of any kind – simply a statement of our limitations, how little we know of this “world” we experience).

    There is no need to hypothesize the existence of dead, unconscious matter in order to do physics, biology, etc. One can hold in abeyance, or take an agnostic view – the ultimate “nature” of the various forms that appear in our awareness, whether they are rocks, rivers, planets or stars.

    So far from being a mystery, consciousness is the most obvious thing in the world. It’s all we ever know, awake, dreaming or asleep. In fact, the real problem is the “hard problem of matter”. If by “matter’, we just mean the object pole of awareness, then there’s no problem. But the debunkers’ view of matter or physicalism or naturalism as pointing toward a world that is ultimately dead and unconscious is not only irrational but actually, incoherent, inconceivable, a phantasmagoria that never was and never could be (or at least, never could be proved, and in fact, never could be determined to exist by any scientific means).

    • donsalmon
      December 15, 2013

      by the way, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman puts forth a somewhat similar view. James Corrigan, and Donald DeGracia – a philosopher and physiologist, respectively – have also.

      • donsalmon
        December 15, 2013

        and of course, Alan Wallace – this lies somewhere between his presentation of “citta-matra” and madhyamaka

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This entry was posted on December 12, 2013 by in Consciousness, parapsychology, Philosophy and tagged , .
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