Materialism must be defended

Dualism is the problem, not consciousness

I’ve never viewed the so-called “hard problem” as any problem at all. According to David Chalmers, who coined the term, the hard problem is supposed to be the problem of figuring out what our idea of consciousness refers to in the real world. The obvious answer is that it refers to brain processes that feel like something. What’s so hard about that?

The only reason that many people feel there’s a problem is that they can’t stop thinking in dualist terms. They have a strong intuition that the brain is one thing, and that the conscious feelings are something extra, some kind of spooky force field that floats above the physical matter of the brain. And then of course they do have a problem, indeed a slew of problems.

What special feature of the brain allows it to generate the extra feelings? Why does it generate those feelings rather than other ones? Why, for that matter, does it generate any feelings at all?

If only we could stop ourselves seeing things through dualist spectacles, we’d no longer feel that there is anything puzzling about consciousness.

Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that all philosophical problems are due to nothing but conceptual confusion. As he saw it, the aim of philosophy is solely to “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”. I find this a deeply dispiriting view of philosophy in general. Still, when it comes to consciousness, I’d say Wittgenstein had things exactly right. If only we could stop ourselves seeing things through dualist spectacles, we’d no longer feel that there is anything puzzling about consciousness.

Certain brain states are like something for the subjects that have them. What’s so puzzling about that? How would you expect them to feel? Like nothing? Why? That’s how they feel when you have them.

As long as we remain within the grip of dualist intuitions, we can’t help but think that consciousness involves some mysterious light that attaches itself to certain physical processes. And then we wonder what turns this light on, and where in nature it is to be found. But in reality there’s no such light. There are just physical processes, all of which have the potential to become conscious by coming to play a role in intelligent reasoning systems.

Conscious states are just ordinary physical states that happen to have been co-opted by reasoning systems.

Consciousness doesn’t depend on some extra shining light, but only on the emergence of subjects, complex organisms that distinguish themselves from the rest of the world and use internal neural processes to guide their behaviour. Once these neural processes are so present for these subjects, they are like something for them. Supposing that this involves some extra light is like thinking televised events attract the cameras by displaying a special lustre. In truth, of course, they are just ordinary events that happen to get pointed at by the cameras. So too with conscious states. They are just ordinary physical states that happen to have been co-opted by reasoning systems.

If I am right, and the so-called “hard problem” is nothing but a by-product of misbegotten dualist intuitions, then the next question is why all of us—and I don’t except dyed-in-the-wool materialists like myself—find it so difficult to shake off these intuitions. This is a very good question, and deserves more attention than it has received up till now, though a number of developmental psychologists and cognitive anthropologists have already made some interesting suggestions.

In this connection, it’s noteworthy in that David Chalmers himself has recently turned away from the “hard problem” and urged that we shift our focus to what he calls the “meta-problem of consciousness”, which turns out to be precisely the socio-psychological question of why so many humans intuitively feel that consciousness transcends the physical realm. Quite so. We’ll make much better progress with consciousness if we forget about the “hard problem” and start asking the right questions instead.


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ida sanka 2 September 2021

Great! didnt know about this before, I had doubts but thanks for clarifying.    custom closets

jeffrey baumann 5 July 2021

If the self is a fabrication that "we" experience, then who or what is experiencing or having the experience? Is it the transcendental self? and does this add a different dimension to the question? The cogito of Descartes and the consequent mind/body dualism was flawed from the outset (as were similar speculations of Hobbes).

John Humbach 16 May 2020

I’m sure there are many would testify that their feelings of what it’s “like” to see an apple, taste a cherry, or otherwise experience qualia, is not quite the same as the physical processes that co-occur with those feelings, any more than an image of Paris in a painting is the same as the blobs of pigment and canvas that physically embody it. To be sure, if someone says there really isn’t anything “over and above” the physical, that qualia and the brain processes are really just the “same thing,” others are in no position to take issue. No one can detect or second-guess another’s subjective phenomenology (or lack thereof), and therefore when someone denies having conscious experiences, it may well be (in their case) true. None of this bears, however, on the “hard” question of consciousness that matters, and to think that it does is to overlook an important distinction.

There are, in fact, two aspects of the so-called hard problem. First, there is the “hard” but largely academic problem, namely, how physical brain activity can produce or affect the content of mental states. There is, however, little or nothing of practical import that flows from how this problem is resolved. Then there is the “hard” and enormously practical question of whether and how the content of mental states (qualia or the like) can produce or affect brain activity and, hence, behavior. For on the answer to this second question rests our main justification for visiting hardship and deprivation, as punishment, on tens of millions of people—on the ground that they “deserve” what they get due to their bad intentions, desires and the like.

Since, however, there is no real evidence that the contents of mental states actually do produce or affect brain activity, or behavior,, this latter problem is not really so “hard” after all. It is not even a problem.

James Lakatosh 9 April 2020

In response to Dan Jacob's question; I believe that feeling is the brain's mechanism of evaluating outcomes. The brain possesses, through learned experience or instinct, the ability to predict outcomes given the brain's possible output behavior. Output behavior is the result of the electrical signals sent to the motor system, and it manifests as inhaling, exhaling, moving your lips, jaw, arms, legs, etc. If the brain must make a choice between various behaviors to output, then it must:

1) Predict the outcome of each behavior
2) Evaluate each outcome

The prediction can be done through pattern recognition and logic, but evaluation requires a subjective ranking function of each outcome. That's what I believe the brain uses feeling for. I theorize that the reason the evaluation is so prominently felt, or manifests as feeling, is so that the evaluation may be consciously registered rather than the evaluation being completely hidden from your conscious mind. Conscious registration of the evaluation your brain uses for predicting outcomes may improve the quality of decision making.

Dan Jacob 2 April 2020

Saying consciousness refers to brain processes that feel like something is begging the question. Why is the feeling separate from the correlating brain processes?
Feelings are a subset of qualia, and the "hard problem" is why qualia? If pain simply a brain process, why do we feel it? It's the brain that's creating the pain, but the pain isn't a brain process.

Andrew Guthrie 29 March 2020

We're conscious because we have sensory perception, sight, hearing, smell and so on. If we didn't have any sensory input it's difficult to see how we could be conscious of anything. You might say, "you could still be thinking and self-aware, even if there's no new information coming in", but I would counter that by saying you could only be thinking if there had been some prior information for you to be thinking about. If you had never obtained any external knowledge how found you even know that there was a 'you' to be aware of?

As far as free will is concerned, if it exists at all - and I can't believe it does because I generally obey the laws of physics - then it is a really strange thing. Can I lift my coffee cup using free will? No I can't. I've tried, but however much I concentrate I can't make it elevate and move to my lips. But can I choose to take a drink and reach out (if I'm lucky enough to have arms and hands with grasping fingers) to grab the cup? Well, I'm not moving my hand using free will either, I'm moving it using muscles, through electrical activity and by way of chemical energy. So it all goes back to neurons firing in the brain. The total extent of your free will is to make neurons fire inside the confines of your skull. And this is not something you're even aware of when you decide to reach for the coffee, you just 'feel' as though you're moving your arm.

I think it's that free will is so ridiculously limited and obscure that convinces me that we're not supernatural beings able to control the universe. I think that evolution can explain every facet of human behaviour in the same way it explains every minute detail of the human body. Look hard enough in evolutionary history and you'll find intermediate stages of all our behaviour just as you can find every stage of the development of the eye, and that it is wholly autonomous. After all, some theists use anatomical complexity to argue for a supernatural creator, why use the same argument applied to behaviour to say humans must be supernatural themselves? Occam's razor says to me that it's not necessary.

silentum excubitor 16 March 2020

It's Monday, March 16, 2020, ~10:30am, EST, here in small town New Hampshire, USA, where I was born. BE HERE NOW. *YOU* are HERE NOW, but I don't know where your here is, or when your when is. That's why I told you where my here is, and when my when is. So, I am HERE NOW, and YOU are HERE NOW, but your "here now", and my "here now", are 2 completely different times and places. And, given the wonders of the internet, and modern technology, there could be MANY different "here nows"! So, when I tell you BE HERE NOW, because I AM HERE NOW, where are you, and what time is it? Well, for you, it's your now, and your here. Your now and here are completely different from my now and here. But HOW DIFFERENT? Well, I can't say. Only you can say that. But, we can begin to explore our mutual meeting and exchange of information. Are you my enemy or my friend? I have no enemies. Do you? I have many friends. Do you? Well, you now have at least one more friend. I am your new friend. I am here with you now, and you are here with me now. I have not met you yet. And you have not met me yet? Yes you have! It's me, your new friend, who is here now, and who is "speaking" to you! (Actually, I am typing letter & symbol character keys on the keyboard in my lap, while I look at my computer screen connected to the Global World Internet. I can't voice-phone call you on the computer device that I'm using, but I **COULD**, if I happened to have that kind of design of device now. Such devices DO EXIST! And you could even think of such devices as a kind of "third person" between you and I, through whom we have met, and are speaking with each other! Can you here my voice in your head? In your mind? Inn your ear? Yes, this is my voice,. Yes, that is my voice. I am here now, and at the same time, I am THERE, THEN, WITH YOU! WE ARE TOGETHER IN SPACE and TIME. BE HERE NOW. NOW BE HERE. I AM HERE NOW. And I am THERE THEN. YOU ARE HERE NOW, (because , yes, I am thinking of you! And the thought of you makes me smile! You are my friend, and I am your friend.) and YOU ARE HERE NOW. (Well, where ever and whenever you are, for you, it is that you are "Here Now", correct?....) OK, that's enough for now, my friend! I must thank Mr. Roger Cain, who wrote his comment citing Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, below on Friday, March 13, 2020. Also, Mr. Chogyam Trungpa, Mr. Tenzin Gyatso-H.H.The Dalai Lama of Tibet. I'm not sure who this "Gampopa" guy Roger Cain mentions is? But I'm the King of Keene, and the Dalai Lama of America. Who are YOU, my friend....????....

Joao Pizarro 13 March 2020

"The obvious answer is that it refers to brain processes that feel like something."
Does this answer given to the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness implies that, that specific brain process that feels like something is "fixed"? What I mean is, you have the conscious experience of an apple, let's say, so you have a brain process happening that underlies the feeling of the apple. Is that brain process for the apple always the same from a neurophysiological point of view? Or does your hypothesis allows degeneracy to occur in brain processes?

Edward Scheiderer 13 March 2020

"Consciousness", or "awareness", is simply _our own experiencing_ of our own neural processes in action.
The brain processes occur - and since they are _our_ proccesses - our own process_ing_ - we "have" consciousness, awareness.
And the difficult fact to grasp is that this means "consciousness" is _axiomatic_.
You can't get behind, above or around it because it's _yours_ and it just plain _exists_. It is a fact.
Any further characterization is both irrelevant and wrong.
It is _from that fact_ that we can observe, identify - be "conscious" of - and characterize anything else about our - or anyone's - physical brain processes, or _mental_ processes.

Jeff Wunder 13 March 2020

Thats right. Deny pain, the taste of chocolate, and the fact that reality is being experienced from the perspective of your body instead of a lizard or an alien in another galaxy. I'm sorry, Mr Papineau, consciousness is everything, and without it there might as well be nothing. Good luck with your materialism. The only why you can hang onto it is by denying the most important thing there is.

Roger Cain 13 March 2020

The Buddhist teachings have the clearest explanation of the problem of 'dualistic clinging'. We feel very insecure. And rightly so; every aspect of our lives is very contingent, including our very existence! And in fact, we will surely die. Or as the Buddhist teachers put it, with their typical wit, ' At least everyone has died so far'.

In our insecurity, we cling to whatever we can. We are here, we are an individual person. We have our individual body and mind, distinct from everyone else, and distinct from everything else. We build up ideas of who and what we are as an individual person, or whatever you like to call it.

Semiconsciously we fall for the idea of ourselves as a self-existing substance, or whatever you like to call it. As if we, in our being really here, wherever this is, existed independently from everything else. That is a superstition. In reality, everything that is is interconnected. There is no independent, self-existing self.

From the idea of ourselves as a self-existing being, it is a simple step to the further superstition that we are an eternally existing being.

The teaching of 'no-self' can be difficult to wrap one's mind around. We could get lost in wayward philosophical speculations. As Gampopa put it, 'It is very stupid to believe that you exist. It is even more stupid to believe that you do not exist. Such thoughts do not lead to enlightenment.'

The teaching of 'no-self' makes more sense when we catch ourselves believing some story about who and what we are. I am an athlete, or I am smart, or I am a fool, etc, with endless elaborations. Such elaborations obscure the fact that we are in effect believing in our being as some kind of self-existing substance. Through meditation practice, we may catch ourselves sort of believing in some such superstition.

But, at the same time, of course, we are here, wherever this is. So, to ease our natural feeling of bewilderment and dis-ease, the Mahayana Buddhist teachers developed the Middle Way philosophy. In the conventional sense, we are here as we are typically known. At the same time, we have no substantial being in the superstitious sense that we are vulnerable to believing in, in our insecurity.

So, I think the main point is that we are fundamentally insecure, and rightly so. We should develop our natural feelings of compassion for everyone who suffers as we do. And that includes everyone.

That's enough or as my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa would say, 'That's enough of this Buddhist bullshit.'

We should work to help human cultures wake up from superstition and learn to work together to make a more secure and honest human world. Waking up is always possible. Hopefully, people working together to overcome the coronavirus crisis will lead to people working together to overcome the climate crisis, and to end wars as a way to settle disputes.