The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness – Experience

Some comments inspired by two fascinating essays written by David Chalmers, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience and Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.

The “hard problem of consciousness” is the issue of why is it that we experience anything at all, or why is it that there is something that it is like to be something? The reason why this problem is intractable to empirical science is because in its philosophical foundations empiricism takes the contents of experience (phenomena) to be the foundation of its ontology, upon which all its later knowledge depends.

However it is impossible to use the contents of experience to construct a theory of experience because, in a causal sense, experience precedes the contents of experience. Empirical science studies phenomena, their perceivable attributes, behaviours and functional relationships hence it can explain much of the functional aspects of consciousness such as how do we integrate information from many sources into a coherent knowledge base or how can we verbalise our internal states (the easy problems of consciousness) but it cannot explain experience itself (the hard problem).

However, empirical science is not the whole of science. There are rationalist methods which, as quantum physics shows, can be very accurate (quantum physics is by far the most accurate science ever developed and it has rationalist rather than empiricist foundations). Rationalist approaches must eventually connect with, and be verified by their correspondence with the objects of experience, however these are not their starting point. They take a rational theoretical model as their ontological foundation and only when this foundation later connects with experience are they considered to be verified. It is conceivable that a rationalist theory could overcome the limitations of empiricism and provide a scientific explanation of conscious experience.

Two important issues to consider. Firstly, we can only verify the existence of our own experience. Secondly, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Hence there is no reason to assume apriori that only some systems experience and others don't – it could be the case that all systems experience and what varies is the complexity of the experience.

Through empirical observation of subsystems within a complex system (e.g. brains within organisms) we can learn and explain a great deal about the interactions between subsystems (e.g. neurons) in order for complex cognitive functionality to exist, but it cannot explain why it is that the resulting system experiences things. It is possible that this factor can only be explained by proposing that experience is the fundamental driving force within all systems and that our complex experience arises due to the interactions of countless simpler experiences in a similar way to how complex systems arise due to the interactions of countless simpler systems (meta system transition).

Simple systems would not have the same complex functionality that our complex experiences exhibit, however in their own simple ways they too may still experience. Of course, without feedback loops they would have no way of experiencing the fact that they were experiencing and would have no self-awareness. But in some direct manner it is conceivable that they do experience and that our complex experience is a product of their simple experiences just as our complex structure is a product of their simple structures.

An individual human being is an extremely complex system with a very complex stream of conscious experience. Other similar systems (other humans and some animals) are never verified to possess experience but it is assumed that they do. Other systems much simpler than ourselves are never verified to lack experience but it is assumed that they don't. There is at present no means to verify the presence or absence of experience in a system – we can only ever verify the presence of our own experience.

On the basis of these non-scientific assumptions we separate the universe into animate systems and inanimate systems; here I use these terms to describe the presence or absence of experience respectively. Furthermore, the set of systems accepted as animate has grown over time to include many animals (which were previously thought to be automatons) and potentially even future forms of AI. We observe that simple systems (which we assume are inanimate) integrate into complex systems (such as ourselves which we assume to be animate) hence we are bound to infer that inanimate systems following physical laws somehow produce conscious experience. From this perspective most researchers in the field of consciousness try to comprehend the situation and often declare that 'experience' is beyond the scope of science, when in fact it may only be beyond the scope of empirical science and not beyond the scope of a rationalist science that is not limited by naïve realist assumptions.

If there was a rationalist theory that showed signs of being able to provide an adequate explanation of experience, as well as the contents of experience (the domain of empirical science) then this theory should be put to the test. The fact that it does not make the same assumptions as traditional theories should not be a reason to exclude such a theory from examination, rather it should be considered a potential step forward that could free us from the binds of limiting assumptions and thereby expand the scope of rational enquiry.

My own rationalist approach derives from a mathematical model of general systems. Its ontological foundation rests on the principles of information processes. The resulting theoretical framework has the implication that all systems have both an inner aspect (experience) and an outer aspect (their appearance as the contents of experience). Hence all systems can both experience and appear as phenomena within experience. Without an inner aspect they could not experience other systems and without an outer aspect they could not be experienced – both are required if systems are to experience each other and thereby interact.

If systems are in fact inert and inanimate there arises the serious question of how it is that they can interact at all, which is glossed over by saying that they “follow laws”. This area of the philosophy of empirical science contains the explanatory gap of exactly how it is that an inanimate system can 'follow' a law and what exactly is a 'law' in the sense that it is not just a construct within a scientific theory but is something that inanimate systems follow.

It may well be that the laws are regularities that we perceive in the functional relationships between systems and that the systems don't actually 'follow' the laws. Instead they experience phenomena (contents of experience) and respond, thereby interacting with each other. Simple systems have very simple ways of experiencing and responding so from our experience of their interactions we discern regularities and from these we formulate theoretical principles that we call 'laws'.

If this were the case then the idea of an inanimate clockwork universe would best be replaced by the idea of an animate experiential universe, where systems are not somehow following laws but are driven, by experience and response, to participate in an experiential dynamic.

Whether there are inanimate systems following laws or animate systems interacting is still very much an open and much neglected question at the heart of science. It is addressed by some philosophical approaches such as panprotoexperientialism but on the whole the discourse is still bound within naïve realist assumptions and the majority of scientists assume that there exist inanimate entities that follow laws without questioning what it really means to say that an inanimate entity follows a law.

It may well be the case that just as the outer phenomenal appearance of systems covers a vast spectrum of complexity from single particles to organisms, so too the inner experiences of systems cover a vast spectrum of complexity from that which drives particle interactions to human consciousness. Very simple inner experiential processes give rise to simple behaviour and functional relationships hence they are easy to derive laws for, and to imagine as somehow following those laws.

However, very complex systems with complex cognitive functions and feedback loops have self experience, symbolic representation, complex awareness and self awareness, they have complex interpretations and responses, they make decisions and so on, hence it is impossible to derive simple laws for their observed behaviour (however regularities can be observed in large populations). Furthermore, our understanding of systems such as ourselves is augmented by our own awareness of our own experience hence we do not imagine complex systems such as ourselves as simply following some laws but rather as participating in an experiential dynamic. Hence experience is fundamental.

To many the rationalist theory that I propose would seem to be inside out, but I propose that due to naïve realist assumptions it is the empiricist perspective that is inside out. It generally assumes that phenomena are external entities that exist much how they appear to exist and these phenomena then give rise to consciousness, but phenomena are in fact the contents of experience – so rather than being external they are internal. When one does not make naïve realist assumptions one ends up with a theory where experience is fundamental and the phenomena are recognised as being the contents of experience, hence to a naïve realist this seems to be inside out.

When I experience a red ball it is not that there is a red ball in front of me, it is more that there is some system which, when interaction occurs between that system and the system that I identify as 'me' the other system appears to be a red ball within my stream of experience. There is something underlying that phenomenon that is real, but there is no logical or rational reason to assume that it is an inert material entity that exists as part of an inert physical universe within which there are laws that all inert material entities follow. It is more the case that there are systems that interact (of which I am one of them) and when these systems experience each other they appear in the contents of their experience as phenomena that have an appearance that could be mistaken as being that of material entities within a physical universe.

The question then arises, if these systems are not inert material entities that follow laws then what are they? What is a system? The rationalist theory that I am exploring implies that a system is a dynamic pattern of information that conditions the flow of information. It is entirely composed of information in the same way that a whirlpool appears as a distinct entity but it is entirely composed of water – it is a dynamic pattern of water that conditions the flow of water.

The term 'information' represents any discernible difference, hence anything can serve as an information medium so long as it can exhibit discernible difference and there is some process that discerns this difference. For example, these can be thought of as computer memory and CPU, which integrate to create a computational space in which dynamic patterns of information condition the flow of information, but the concept is far more general than that example.

In this sense all systems are distinct patterns of information. As the information flows between them they interact. As the information flows through them and changes their internal state they experience. Through the contents of their experiences (the particular flow of information through their inputs and the particular internal state changes that occur) they discern each other's outer phenomenal appearance and respond to this, thereby creating coherent causal interactions that result in complex integrated groups that appear to be more complex systems.

When a complex system (such as ourselves) studies the contents of their experiential stream they imagine that the phenomena are actually “out there” in some imagined material universe but what they are actually experiencing is more like a virtual reality than a material universe. Whilst it appears to be physical and phenomena are objectively verifiable from many perspectives by many observers there is in fact nothing 'material' underlying the phenomena. The entire context is one of complex dynamic patterns of information and the flow of information through and between these patterns. This is compatible with some interpretations of quantum physics.

All that a system can know about the situation comes via the contents of their experience so they can never directly perceive the information flow itself. This illustrates the difference between phenomena (contents of experience) and noumena (that which exists but cannot be directly represented within the contents of experience). This implies that there are fundamental limitations to the method of empirical enquiry, which stem from its reliance on the contents of experience as the foundation for knowledge. However via a rationalist approach we can infer the existence of the patterns of information and the information flows (we can even mathematically model them) and from this we can see what these rationalist models imply about the nature of experience and the contents of experience.

If the implications of the rationalist theory and mathematical models match with our own experience and the contents of our experience (empirical observations) then such a theory can be empirically verified. If they do not match then the theory is falsified. Hence such an approach is empirically testable even though it doesn't depend on the fundamental assumptions of empiricism.

I have spent roughly 8 years developing a particular theory, testing it and finding ways to explain it to people who are unconsciously bound by empiricist and naïve realist assumptions and who would therefore think that the theory is inside out. So far the theory has stood up to every test and has been growing in a logical and consistent manner, connecting with core aspects of system theory, with core aspects of quantum and relativistic physics and empirical science in general, with core aspects of perennial philosophy and metaphysics, and with core aspects of subjective experience. Many issues such as conscious experience, the present moment, the arrow of time and the effectiveness of mathematics in science which are intractable to empirical science become easy to explain within that theoretical context. Furthermore, there are no conflicts with existing scientific knowledge and it can easily accommodate the whole of empirical science within a broader theoretical framework that helps to explain things that empirical science alone cannot explain. This leads me to suspect that it may have some value as an alternative model of reality.

However there has been little success in explaining it, which has led me along a path of enquiry into the fundamental assumptions that underlie people's world-views and how to gradually make those assumptions conscious so that they can be questioned. Once those assumptions are replaced with questions, then it can be seen that the rationalist theory that I propose provides answers to those questions and results in an entirely different world-view. Many apparent paradoxes are then seen to not be paradoxes at all but comprehensible and necessary aspects of reality. And many commonly accepted but unproven facts about the nature of reality are seen to be resting on nothing but naïve realist assumptions.

To rigorously test this rationalist theory will require expertise and time which I alone cannot possibly provide, hence peer review is essential. However because it challenges core unconscious assumptions that underlie empiricism it has proven to be difficult to attract the attention of those who may potentially have the expertise to further test, develop and explain the theory. For this reason I just publish the material on the internet in the hope that eventually someone with the ability to understand will come across it. It requires both attempts to verify and falsify it, I don't seek to attract believers, but rather rational minds that are willing to question fundamental assumptions and rigorously test an alternative (non-naive realist and non-materialist) scientific theory of the nature of reality that may turn out to have profound ramification in all areas of knowledge.

If you think you have a coherent rational argument for or against the theory then please email me and we can put it to the test.

More information on the theory can be found at: (blog with latest material) (website with more detailed material)

In particular, see the article Unification of Science.