Evolution or revolution

What’s the best way forward on consciousness?

Is the hard problem of consciousness as hard as it seems? Can we rely on science to solve it, or must we look elsewhere for satisfactory answers? Philip Goff repsonds to Peter Vickers' recent IAI News piece. Read Bernardo Kastrup's response here

It’s broadly agreed that consciousness poses a profound challenge to contemporary science: a ‘hard problem’ as David Chalmers famously put it. Some theorists, including myself, think we need to radically rethink our scientific picture of the universe in order to solve it. Others think we should plug away with our standard methods of investigating the brain and gradually chip away at the problem until one day we wake up to find the problem’s no longer there.

Peter Vickers, in an interesting recent piece for IAI, takes a nuanced middle way. We should recognize that the hard problem is a philosophical problem and that as such it should be sharply distinguished from problems that can be tackled with scientific methods. In terms of the latter, we can gather hard evidence that may ultimately command consensus; we are sometimes even able to settle matters and thereby add to the body of knowledge we teach to our undergraduates.

But on the philosophical question of whether materialism, dualism, panpsychism or idealism is true, we have to accept that, whilst there may be reasons that point to one or other view, ‘the reasons are ‘philosophical’ and so of limited persuasive power.’ In the absence of strong evidence supporting one or other of these theories, we ought simply to be agnostic as to which is true.

We are not here talking about the science of consciousness, but about the philosophy of consciousness.

It is of course correct that there’s no consensus among philosophers on the correct theory of consciousness. But there is in fact a point of consensus which Vickers doesn’t bring to our attention. Philosophers of consciousness are almost unanimous in thinking the following view is false:

Temporary Hard Problem – There is a hard problem but our current scientific approach will solve it.

This is very significant, as it seems to me that ‘Temporary Hard Problem’ is a very popular view amongst scientists and science enthusiasts. This mismatch is part of the reason I’m pretty confident there’s a revolution on its way.

99% of philosophers working on the hard problem fit into one of the following three camps:

  • The Dennettians – Dennettians think that the only data that a theory of consciousness needs to account for are the data of third-person observation and experiment. There is no ‘hard problem’ accounting for this kind of data; hence, for Dennettians, there is no hard problem of consciousness. Despite Dennett’s (well-deserved) public profile, I’d say this is a fringe view. The survey Vickers refers to has them on 16%, significantly smaller than the group that oppose materialism altogether.
  • The Trinitarians – This is my term for what is probably the most popular view of the hard problem among academic philosophers (although it’s almost totally unknown outside of this context). It’s the view that a theory of consciousness needs to account for first-person data – the subjective qualities we encounter in experience – as well as third-person data, but that there is no deep difficulty in doing so because we can simply posit a brute identity between subjective qualities and patterns of neuronal activity. I call this the ‘Trinitarian’ view because, on the face of it, the proposed identity is as unintelligible as the identity Christians make between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Indeed, this group admit that there is absolutely no conceptual connection between pain – thought of as a subjective feeling – and c-fibre stimulation – thought of as a pattern of neural firings. Nonetheless, they see no good reason not to believe that these seemingly very different things are in fact the same thing, and thus there is no ‘hard problem’ of explaining consciousness.
  • The Revolutionaries – Finally, there is the group I’m in: the theorists who think that subjective qualities are real, and that in order to account for them we need to radically rethink our scientific story of the universe. This camp includes dualists, panpsychists, and idealists. This third group is now a very significant minority: smaller than the Trinitarians but bigger than the Dennettians (which is probably what is making some of the Dennettians a tiny bit cross of late).


None of these groups holds the ‘Temporary Hard Problem’ view. The first two think there isn’t a hard problem; the latter hold that there is a hard problem and radical change is needed to solve it.

This is a very significant respect in which non-expert opinion is out of step with expert opinion. Remember, we are not here talking about the science of consciousness, but about the philosophy of consciousness. Among those who’ve spent their careers studying the hard problem – reading and writing peer-reviewed articles, having their talks critically analysed at conferences – almost all of them have reached the conclusion that ‘Temporary Hard Problem’ just doesn’t make sense. A lot of this comes from thinking hard about the implications of each possible response to Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument (I’ve written this blog post explaining the technicalities in more detail). The more you study this topic, the more you realise that you have to make a choice. Either there is no hard problem – because consciousness doesn’t exist or there is no deep difficulty accounting for it – or there is a hard problem and we need a radically new theory of reality to address it.

Why is there this mismatch? I blame philosophers for not communicating enough.

Why is there this mismatch? I blame philosophers for not communicating enough. This is why I’ve spent the last few years desperately trying to reach out to a broader audience, for example, by writing Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. My aim is to get scientists and the public up to speed with the philosophical consensus on the hard problem. Of course, people might still disagree with the consensus of philosophers on philosophy, just as people disagree with the consensus of climate scientists on climate change. But I’m confident that if people could appreciate the reasons philosophers have almost universally rejected Temporary Hard Problem, they would reach the same conclusion.

What will happen then? Well, of course, I’m hoping there’ll be a revolution. In my experience of talking to scientists and science-enthusiasts, they tend to think the Dennettian and Trinitarian positions are at least as implausible as my own, and I can’t really imagine a consensus building for them outside of academic philosophy. The problem is that most people think there’s another option: Temporary Hard Problem. If they could be persuaded this view doesn’t make sense, then they’d have to make a choice. Would the scientists and science-enthusiasts opt for revolution? Or would they end up as split as philosophy currently is? My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that the revolution is on its way. But time will tell. 

Paperback versions of Philip Goff's book Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness are now available in UK and US. You can follow Philip Goff on twitter, or through his website or blog

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