Is consciousness as mysterious as suggested by the hard problem?
In a nutshell, the hard problem of consciousness raises the question of why and how consciousness could exist and be real in an otherwise non-conscious world. Sometimes it is erroneous to search directly for answers to the question itself. Instead, it may be more fruitful to question the question: are the basic assumptions of the hard problem viable and plausible?
I deny that the question of the hard problem is sensible, as the presuppositions on which the question rests are not plausible by themselves. I here identify three such implausible presuppositions: first, that consciousness is determined by contents, second that it is cognitive, and third that it can be located in the mind, cognition, brain, body, or world.
If these presuppositions can be replaced by more plausible ones, as I will demonstrate, the question and thus the hard problem itself can be dissolved. In other words, the hard problem is no longer relevant.
We experience the contents of consciousness: the flowers in front of us, the table, and the whole room. What is so special about these contents that they, unlike others, become conscious?
Both philosophers and neuroscientists lead extensive debates concerning this very question. There must be a special add-on, or “extra-ingredient” as David Chalmers says, to conscious contents that is not present in unconscious contents. This special add-on is supposed to be tagged onto contents and thus accompanies the former, but not the latter. Various suggestions have been made about the nature of this special add-on in both philosophy and neuroscience ranging from representation, meta-cognition, self-consciousness, prediction, integration, global workspace, and various others.
Consciousness, however, is not “tagged-on” or “added to” contents and therefore does not come with the contents themselves. Instead, contents are integrated within the ongoing consciousness. Specifically, the flower, the table, and the whole room are connected with and integrated into my ongoing stream of consciousness. The relation of world and consciousness replaces representation of the world in consciousness and integration of world and consciousness replaces their separation.
Such conjoining of relation and integration can be compared to a river. A stone or a ship are related and thereby integrated within the ongoing flow of the river: The better the stone or ship relates to and integrates within the ongoing dynamic of the river, the better they flow within the river’s stream. Analogously, the better the contents of both internal thoughts and external environmental events are related to each other and integrated within the dynamic stream of the brain’s ongoing spontaneous activity, the more likely the respective content becomes conscious.
Accordingly, consciousness is not determined by the representation of contents. Instead, consciousness is characterised by relation and integration within its ongoing stream and, more precisely, the structure and dynamic of that stream which can be traced neuronally to the dynamic of the brain’s spontaneous activity. Therefore, we can now discard the first presupposition, as the determination of consciousness by representation of contents in consciousness can be replaced by structure and dynamic of consciousness itself.
Consciousness is not determined by the representation of contents. Instead, consciousness is characterised by relation.
Consciousness, especially as defined by philosophers, is often conceived as the pinnacle of our cognitive abilities. This conception has continued in neuroscience, where consciousness is determined by specific cognitive functions ranging from prediction, access and meta-cognition.
However, we experience ourselves and the world even when we shut down all our cognitive functions. For example, consider meditation, where we detach ourselves from our cognitions, perceptions, and ultimately even our body.
Throughout all of the various layers of detachment, one feature remains consistent: the experience of one’s inner time and space relative to the outer time and space in the world. Consciousness can still persist even if devoid of the contents associated with perception and cognition.
In contrast, if one’s inner time and space can no longer relate to the world’s outer time and space, consciousness will cease to exist. This is the case in anaesthesia, deep sleep (except during dreams), and coma. I therefore conclude that consciousness is temporo-spatial, rather than cognitive.
In the case of the river, the temporo-spatial dynamic provides the link between the river itself and its various contents like a ship, or stones. So, too, in the case of consciousness: The temporo-spatial dynamic provides the hitherto missing link between neuronal and mental activity, that is, the “common currency” (Northoff et al. 2019).
Consciousness thus exists because there is a temporo-spatial dynamic that constitutes the kind of structure needed for integrating contents which renders them conscious. To sum up: consciousness is temporo-spatial, rather than cognitive. This leads me to discard the second presupposition.
Now to the final presupposition of the hard problem of consciousness. There is a long tradition persisting until now of locating consciousness in the mind, brain, body, or even the whole world. Something can be located in something else, only if it can be isolated as an entity that is distinct from others and thus special.
Taken in this sense, consciousness is supposed to be a special entity that can be isolated and located. Various suggestions have been made in this regard in both philosophy and neuroscience. Consciousness is supposed to be a special mental or physical property, a special neuronal process like integration, access, or globalisation. In the most extreme view, consciousness is supposed to be a special property that permeates the whole world as assumed in panpsychism.
However, any such isolation and location stands counter to the nature of consciousness. We experience the whole world and its various external events in our consciousness which by itself is part of that very same world. Moreover, we experience our own internal thoughts and their contents as part of that wider world. Given such an ecological nature, consciousness cannot be located and isolated at a specific point in time and space in either the brain, body, or world. Instead, it constitutes a relation between all three. Hence, consciousness is relational, rather than isolated and it is ecological, rather than locational: It is based on a world-brain relation, rather than on properties in the mind, brain, body, or world (Northoff 2016, 2018).
Consciousness is based on a world-brain relation, rather than on properties in the mind, brain, body, or world.
Being relational and ecological, consciousness allows us to experience ourselves as part of the whole world—this is lost in states like anaesthesia, coma, or deep sleep. Even brain imaging supports this relational and ecological nature of consciousness when showing how we and our brains are intersubjectively aligned to each other in a temporo-spatial way (i.e. temporo-spatial alignment; Northoff and Huang, 2017). Given such temporo-spatial alignment, the third presupposition of consciousness, its location in mind, body, brain, or world must be discarded and replaced by its relational and ecological nature.
Where does this leave us with the hard problem?
The three crucial presuppositions of the hard problem—that consciousness is defined by content, is cognitive, and is possible to locate—turn out to be implausible (see Northoff, 2018).
If the presuppositions of something are by themselves implausible, that very something (i.e., the question of the hard problem) must be discarded. If, for instance, the fundament of a high-rise is cracked, its risk of collapsing is rather high; therefore, one dissolves the high-rise and replaces it with a smaller building. Analogously so in the case of the hard problem. If its presupposition (i.e., its fundament) is implausible, the problem itself collapses and thus dissolves.
In conclusion, I do not provide an answer to the hard problem. Instead, I question the very question by showing the implausibility of its presuppositions. That, in turn, leads me to discard the question and consequently to dissolve the hard problem itself. Instead of searching desperately for an answer to an implausible if not unsolvable problem, we must identify and advance our future tasks.
We now know what to do: specify the structure of consciousness (rather than searching for its contents), research the temporo-spatial dynamic of consciousness on both neuronal and mental levels (i.e., their “common currency”), and develop an ontology that accounts for the relational and ecological existence and reality of consciousness.
Let us spend our energy and brain power on something more useful than searching for an answer to the hard problem (and also the mind-body problem in the same vein), that is implausibly based from its very outset—namely, in its question.
Georg Northoff (2016) Neurophilosophy and the healthy mind. Learning from the unwell brain. Norton Publisher, New York
Georg Northoff (2018) The spontaneous brain. From the mind-body to the world-brain problem. MIT Press, Cambridge/Mass
Northoff G, Wainio-Theberge S, Evers K. (2019) Is temporo-spatial dynamics the "common currency" of brain and mind? In Quest of "Spatiotemporal Neuroscience". Phys Life Rev. 2019 May 23. pii: S1571-0645(19)30073-9. doi: 10.1016/j.plrev.2019.05.002. [Epub ahead of print]
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