The Hard ProblemPart One
Background of the Controversy at Tucson III
a conference of the Academy on the meaning of human consciousness
By John Bilby
About David Chalmers, Charles T. Tart, and Shaun Gallagher
Tucson, April 14, 1998--David J. Chalmers has only been one of the prime movers of a series of conferences to take place here in Tucson at the University of Arizona: "Towards a Science of Consciousness." Yet Dr. Chalmers has certainly given this ambitious project his *All*. The third such conference, dubbed "Tucson III," opens in less than two weeks, on April 27th.
What is most noteworthy about these distinguished gatherings is that this is the first time that science has attempted to do what they are doing here--through a very broad and interesting *interdisciplinary* approach-- the first such major launching of an effort by "the Academy" to achieve a comprehensive and mutually understandable consensus about the meaning of human consciousness.
There will be psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, biologists, anthropologists, historians, anesthesiologists, neurologists, and neuropsychologists among their veritable "army" of researchers. There will be quantum theorists, specialists in psychotropic substances, memories, and dreams, and nightmares, and danged near everything that you have ever heard of about the human mind.
There will be workshops in which participants can grapple with discussing and even experiencing the meanings of their findings. And there will be philosophers, and more philosophers, representing nearly every ontological point of view that is still regarded as reasonable and sane on the face of Earth today. "What is 'consciousness?'" they will all be asking. "What is 'mind?'"
Almost as amazing as the whole amazing conference itself, is the work that David Chalmers has done in his virtuoso paper--"Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness," (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1995). (See the Library on this site for a link.) He has surveyed and summarized the whole field of interdisciplinary participants involved, broken the main players down into groups that are studied individually, and then analyzed their positions from their papers, one at a time, vis-a-vis *the hard problem* . . . the one central problem of all, that will still divide all of the conferees who are coming to Tucson III into two sharply disagreeing sides. Or, so it would seem. Chalmers, a philosopher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it this way:
"The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. . . . 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. If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one."
Chalmers' pioneering 1996 book, "The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory" covers this subject in even greater detail. In his paper, that will surely have been digested by nearly all of the participants who will be here when Tucson III gets underway, he summarizes further:
"To explain life, we ultimately need to explain how a system can reproduce, adapt to its environment, metabolize, and so on. All of these are questions about the performance of functions, and so are well-suited to reductive explanation. . . . insofar as cognitive science explains these phenomena at all, it does so by explaining the performance of functions. . . . there may remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? . . . Why doesn't all this information-processing go on 'in the dark,' free of any inner feel? . . . We know that conscious experience does arise when these functions are performed, but the very fact that it arises is the central mystery. There is an explanatory gap (...Levine 1983) between the functions and experience, and we need an explanatory bridge to cross it. A mere account of the functions stays on one side of the gap, so the materials for the bridge must be found elsewhere."
Chalmers, who places himself in the arena as a "cognitive scientist," goes on to say he doesn't mean that experience doesn't have any function. In fact, he allows that it may play "an important cognitive role." (We'd like to add here that Mindful Awareness Magazine is about the functions of experience and the important--yet transcendental--"cognitive" role that it can play. However, we would call this role "knowing wordlessly," or "direct experiential knowing," instead, which *slips* the "cognitive" altogether insofar as this term implies words, theories, and explanations. To put this into context, we might be referred to as "experiential scientists.")
The two opposing groups who will be looking at this "hard problem" at Tucson III are the "reductionists" and the "non-reductionists." (Mindful Awareness Magazine is a "non-reductionist" approach.)
I would like to make all this very clear, and I think I will. Reductionists, in the science of the study of the mind, believe that it must be possible to reduce and describe the entire function and meaning of the conscious mind into a clear intellectual description. This would be a brilliant intellectual description, to be sure. In other words, they seek to reduce this knowledge, what is the mind? to a proveable conceptual *theory.*
Non-reductionists, on the other hand, say that no matter what the reductionists think, there is no way to reduce the experience of life and consciousness into words and intellectual concepts. No matter how brilliantly and incisively the reductionists may try, or so the non-reductionists claim, they won't quite be able to get it. Non-reductionists say that the understanding of the meaning of the mind is an *experience*--an experience that may not be reducible to words (perhaps only to metaphors, at best . . . in what Carl Rogers termed "the language of being.").
Now, there are a lot of great minds aligning themselves on both sides of this mid-field stripe. Presenters and attendees alike have distinguished and scholarly careers to back them up. They are "the cream of the crop" in their far-ranging fields.
One of the most head-busting problems that these scientists are going to have to face is that self-reported accounts, which are the common way of reporting experiences, are--by very definition--regarded by science as "unreliable data." But, we non-reductionists have nothing else to go into the field with but our first person accounts of our own direct experiences. So, theoretically, we are automatically disqualified from the "science" game from the start.
But not at the University of Arizona --my alma mater, God bless 'em, where Tucson III will make reductionists and non-reductionists alike both at home and welcome here. The non-reductionists are still in the ball game. The reductionists are in the lead. Yet Coach Chalmers, who's up there calling the game for the fans from the press box high up there in the stands, thinks the non-reductionists may pull this one out of the fire! (A reductionist, himself, by training, he exemplifies the open-mindedness of an "unselfish player," indeed.) Or, at least, he wants some kind of viable "tie."
In our view, Chalmers' important thesis defines the problem facing Tucson III very well. Yet he admits that he is only beginning to attempt to formulate an *answer* to that hard question. (You can go to a link-up from the Library here with Dr. Chalmers' paper. Those who are interested can go right there and see his whole argument on their own--which I found most worthwhile . . . highly interesting reading, too!)
There will be a lot of intelligent thinking going on in this valley, and a lot of conviviality, too--conferees hanging out with colleagues from various parts of the country again, and eatin' good Mexican food, and all. Tucson is a good place to come to for a conference at this time (and many times during the year).
One of the delegates coming here is a man of considerable mystery. He is Charles T. Tart, a teacher of "self-remembering," which is derived from the teachings of a mystic from Russia, G. I. Gurdjieff, who was well-known in the early part of this Century. Gurdjieff, in turn, had learned this mystical practice among the Naqshibandi Order of Sufis. Dr. Tart has brought this transcendental practice to Americans in his classical modern (1994), *down to earth* book, "Living the Mindful Life -- a Handbook for Living in the Present Moment." (See the Library, where you can browse his web site directly if you'd like.) At his pre-conference workshop, on Saturday, April 25th, he will call this approach "skilled means."
"In the last century, psychologists tried to develop a science of the mind using introspective data and failed. A major reason for this failure is that the ordinary mind has little skill at observing itself. The "normal" state of consensus consciousness is like a virtual reality, generating apparently real experiences based on cultural conditioning and often distorting perception to support these scenarios. This workshop will introduce participants to techniques for calming the mind . . .and becoming able to observe deeper mental processes under ordinary life conditions (Gurdjieffian self-remembering). The emphasis is on learning actual skills [that] can make us better scientists [and] improve our ability to attain actual data about consciousness . . ."
Tart has credentials of the most impecable kind. In the Fall of 1997, when the President of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas announced the creation of the Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies at UNLV, and revealed that Charles Tart was to be the first person to fill it, she said: "One of the major puzzles of our time is that while human consciousness, our immediate experience of life, is the thing that most distinguishes humans, consciousness has been almost totally neglected as a topic of study by mainstream science."
President Carol C. Harter went on to say: "UNLV is about to begin developing a program in the fascinating area of consciousness studies, and we are most fortunate to have a scholar of Dr. Tart's considerable experience and reputation in the field to guide our efforts." She pointed out that this inquiry would be carried out "from an evidential, scientific and factual basis and not from a position of religious faith or subjective belief."
Charles Tart is perhaps the logical secret champion of the non-reductionist position, although he hasn't stepped forward about this yet to our knowledge. Seeking reinforcements, perhaps, or merely being generous, he has put out a call for papers on his own--from his other office at the University of California-Davis where he has been a professor of psychology. He will attempt to digest and synthesize these papers for us all during this coming year. We can hardly wait.
(Of special interest at this web site here, Dr. Tart has also written a paper called "Reflections on On-Line Teaching: My First Course." In it, he wrote: "Bottom line: would I like to do it again? . . . Yes." We'd like to hear more from him on that subject, too, since the companion of this *magazine* at this site is the beginning of an interactive mindfulness training school on the Web.)
If there is anyone at Tucson III who might change the minds of the reductionists, it just might be Charles Tart. He is like "a voice in the wilderness" surrounded by a great majority of reductionists there.
A dark-horse in the race for a solution to "the hard problem" is reductionist Shaun Gallagher, Professor of Philosophy at Canisius College, and a contributing Editor with the prestigious Journal of Consciousness Studies (see the Library for both links). Dr. Gallagher has been a specialist in the writings of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and, like Chalmers, is a proponent of the cognitive science approach to the study of consciousness.
He will be chairing the first plenary session at Tucson III, an examination of "The Self"--Monday, April 27th. That afternoon he speaks on the concept of "Isomorphism." (Note that the date and times are unconfirmed at this point.)
If anyone can resolve "the hard problem" from a reductionist point ofview, Gallagher might be the one. His seasoned and authoritative view of Husserl cannot be questioned. I have read many of his papers on this, one day at a time--which is not to say that they aren't interesting, they are. And, Mindful Awareness Magazine is watching the progression of his work with rapt attention.
Gallagher might just represent a viable hero for the reductionist team. For he is in a position where he can see the non-reductionist side, too, and yet he can also see an "Aristotelian" view that goes beyond that, beyond his idol, Husserl!
And Husserl could could be taken either way! (I take Husserl in a *non-reductionist*way! He takes Husserl in a *reductionist* way!) So Professor Gallagher will prove a most confounding adversary for the non-reductionists in this field, and not to be underestimated, by any means.
Yet, David Chalmers does make a bid to stir up some new thinking (for those who'd like to try to predict how this whole thing is going to turn out) with an idea for *pointing the way* that is quite refreshing to us. Treat consciousness as primary, or basic--is what he suggests! We think this is a *wonderful* idea for beginning to sort this whole "hard problem" out!
"It would be wonderful if reductive methods could explain experience, too. (I hoped for a long time that they might.) Unfortunately, there are systematic reasons why these methods must fail. Reductive methods are successful in most domains because what needs explaining in those domains are structure and functions, and these are the kind of thing that a physical account can entail. . . . Experience is not an explanatory posit but an explanandum in its own right . . ."
We think that with insights like this, methods and techniques like Charles Tart's, and the phenomenological-cognitive ability of Shaun Gallagher to look at both sides of this issue, *the hard problem* of human consciousness studies ought to be resolveable at Tucson III.
No problem!!! We're rootin' for a tie.