The Hard Problem of Consciousness

The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining how and why we have qualia or phenomenal experiences — how sensations acquire characteristics, such as colours and tastes.[1] David Chalmers, who introduced the term “hard problem” of consciousness,[2] contrasts this with the “easy problems” of explaining the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention, etc. Easy problems are easy because all that is required for their solution is to specify a mechanism that can perform the function. That is, their proposed solutions, regardless of how complex or poorly understood they may be, can be entirely consistent with the modern materialistic conception of natural phenomena. Chalmers claims that the problem of experience is distinct from this set, and he argues that the problem of experience will “persist even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained”.[3]

The existence of a “hard problem” is controversial and has been disputed by some philosophers.[4][5] Providing an answer to this question could lie in understanding the roles that physical processes play in creating consciousness and the extent to which these processes create our subjective qualities of experience.[3]

Several questions about consciousness must be resolved in order to acquire a full understanding of it. These questions include, but are not limited to, whether being conscious could be wholly described in physical terms, such as the aggregation of neural processes in the brain. If consciousness cannot be explained exclusively by physical events, it must transcend the capabilities of physical systems and require an explanation of nonphysical means. For philosophers who assert that consciousness is nonphysical in nature, there remains a question about what outside of physical theory is required to explain consciousness.

Formulation of the problem

Chalmers’ formulation

In Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, Chalmers wrote:[3]

Easy problems

Chalmers contrasts the Hard Problem with a number of (relatively) Easy Problems that consciousness presents. (He emphasizes that what the easy problems have in common is that they all represent some ability, or the performance of some function or behavior).

  • the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
  • the integration of information by a cognitive system;
  • the reportability of mental states;
  • the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
  • the focus of attention;
  • the deliberate control of behavior;
  • the difference between wakefulness and sleep.

Other formulations

Various formulations of the “hard problem”:

  • “How is it that some organisms are subjects of experience?”
  • “Why does awareness of sensory information exist at all?”
  • “Why do qualia exist?”
  • “Why is there a subjective component to experience?”
  • “Why aren’t we philosophical zombies?”

James Trefil notes that “it is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.”[6]

Historical predecessors

The hard problem has scholarly antecedents considerably earlier than Chalmers.
Gottfried Leibniz wrote, as an example also known as Leibniz’s gap:

Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.[7]

Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to Henry Oldenburg:

to determine by what modes or actions light produceth in our minds the phantasm of colour is not so easie.[8]

T.H. Huxley remarked:

how it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.[9]


Scientific attempts

There have been scientific attempts to explain subjective aspects of consciousness, which is related to the binding problem in neuroscience. Many eminent theorists, including Francis Crick and Roger Penrose, have worked in this field. Nevertheless, even as sophisticated accounts are given, it is unclear if such theories address the hard problem. Eliminative materialist philosopher Patricia Smith Churchland has famously remarked about Penrose’s theories that “Pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum coherence in the microtubules.”[10]

Consciousness is fundamental or elusive

Some philosophers, including David Chalmers and Alfred North Whitehead, argue that conscious experience is a fundamental constituent of the universe, a form of panpsychism sometimes referred to as panexperientialism. Chalmers argues that a “rich inner life” is not logically reducible to the functional properties of physical processes. He states that consciousness must be described using nonphysical means. This description involves a fundamental ingredient capable of clarifying phenomena that has not been explained using physical means. Use of this fundamental property, Chalmers argues, is necessary to explain certain functions of the world, much like other fundamental features, such as mass and time, and to explain significant principles in nature.

Thomas Nagel has posited that experiences are essentially subjective (accessible only to the individual undergoing them), while physical states are essentially objective (accessible to multiple individuals). So at this stage, we have no idea what it could even mean to claim that an essentially subjective state just is an essentially non-subjective state. In other words, we have no idea of what reductivism really amounts to.[11]
New mysterianism, such as that of Colin McGinn, proposes that the human mind, in its current form, will not be able to explain consciousness.[12]

Deflationary accounts

Some philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett,[4] Stanislas Dehaene,[5] and Peter Hacker,[13] oppose the idea that there is a hard problem. These theorists argue that once we really come to understand what consciousness is, we will realize that the hard problem is unreal. For instance, Dennett asserts that the so-called hard problem will be solved in the process of answering the easy ones.[4] In contrast with Chalmers, he argues that consciousness is not a fundamental feature of the universe and instead will eventually be fully explained by natural phenomena. Instead of involving the nonphysical, he says, consciousness merely plays tricks on people so that it appears nonphysical—in other words, it simply seems like it requires nonphysical features to account for its powers. In this way, Dennett compares consciousness to stage magic and its capability to create extraordinary illusions out of ordinary things.[14]

To show how people might be commonly fooled into overstating the powers of consciousness, Dennett describes a normal phenomenon called change blindness, a visual process that involves failure to detect scenery changes in a series of alternating images.[15] He uses this concept to argue that the overestimation of the brain’s visual processing implies that the conception of our consciousness is likely not as pervasive as we make it out to be. He claims that this error of making consciousness more mysterious than it is could be a misstep in any developments toward an effective explanatory theory. Critics such as Galen Strawson reply that, in the case of consciousness, even a mistaken experience retains the essential face of experience that needs to be explained, contra Dennett.

To address the question of the hard problem, or how and why physical processes give rise to experience, Dennett states that the phenomenon of having experience is nothing more than the performance of functions or the production of behavior, which can also be referred to as the easy problems of consciousness.[4] He states that consciousness itself is driven simply by these functions, and to strip them away would wipe out any ability to identify thoughts, feelings, and consciousness altogether. So, unlike Chalmers and other dualists, Dennett says that the easy problems and the hard problem cannot be separated from each other. To him, the hard problem of experience is included among—not separate from—the easy problems, and therefore they can only be explained together as a cohesive unit.[14]

Dehaene’s argument has similarities with those of Dennett. He says Chalmers’ ‘easy problems of consciousness’ are actually the hard problems and the ‘hard problems’ are based only upon intuitions that, according to Dehaene, are continually shifting as understanding evolves. “Once our intuitions are educated …Chalmers’ hard problem will evaporate” and “qualia…will be viewed as a peculiar idea of the prescientific era, much like vitalism…[Just as science dispatched vitalism] the science of consciousness will eat away at the hard problem of consciousness until it vanishes.”[5]

Like Dennett, Peter Hacker argues that the hard problem is fundamentally incoherent and that “consciousness studies,” as it exists today, is “literally a total waste of time:”[13]

“The whole endeavour of the consciousness studies community is absurd – they are in pursuit of a chimera. They misunderstand the nature of consciousness. The conception of consciousness which they have is incoherent. The questions they are asking don’t make sense. They have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again.”

Critics of Dennett’s approach, such as David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel, argue that Dennett’s argument misses the point of the inquiry by merely re-defining consciousness as an external property and ignoring the subjective aspect completely. This has led detractors to refer to Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained as Consciousness Ignored or Consciousness Explained Away.[4] Dennett discussed this at the end of his book with a section entitled Consciousness Explained or Explained Away?[15]

Glenn Carruthers and Elizabeth Schier argue that the main arguments for the existence of a hard problem — philosophical zombies, Mary’s room, and Nagel’s bats — are only persuasive if one already assumes that “consciousness must be independent of the structure and function of mental states, i.e. that there is a hard problem.” Hence, the arguments beg the question. The authors suggest that “instead of letting our conclusions on the thought experiments guide our theories of consciousness, we should let our theories of consciousness guide our conclusions from the thought experiments.”[16] Contrary to this line of argument, Chalmers says: “Some may be led to deny the possibility [of zombies] in order to make some theory come out right, but the justification of such theories should ride on the question of possibility, rather than the other way round”.[17]:96
A notable deflationary account is the Higher-Order Thought theories of consciousness.[18][19] Peter Carruthers discusses “recognitional concepts of experience”, that is, “a capacity to recognize [a] type of experience when it occurs in one’s own mental life”, and suggests such a capacity does not depend upon qualia.[20] Though the most common arguments against deflationary accounts and eliminative materialism is the argument from qualia, and that conscious experiences are irreducible to physical states – or that current popular definitions of “physical” are incomplete – the objection follows that the one and same reality can appear in different ways, and that the numerical difference of these ways is consistent with a unitary mode of existence of the reality. Critics of the deflationary approach object that qualia are a case where a single reality cannot have multiple appearances. As John Searle points out: “where consciousness is concerned, the existence of the appearance is the reality.”[21]

Massimo Pigliucci distances himself from eliminativism, but he insists that the hard problem is still misguided, resulting from a “category mistake”:[22]

Of course an explanation isn’t the same as an experience, but that’s because the two are completely independent categories, like colors and triangles. It is obvious that I cannot experience what it is like to be you, but I can potentially have a complete explanation of how and why it is possible to be you.


  1. Stevan Harnad (1995). “Why and How We Are Not Zombies”. Journal of Consciousness Studies 1: 164–167.
  2. See Cooney’s foreword to the reprint of Chalmers’ paper: Brian Cooney, ed, ed. (1999). “Chapter=27: Facing up to the problem of consciousness”. The Place of Mind. Cengage Learning. pp. 382 ff. ISBN 0534528252.
  3. David Chalmers (1995). “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (3): 200–219. See also this link
  4. Daniel C. Dennett (2013). “The tuned deck”. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 310 ff. ISBN 0393240681. and also “Commentary on Chalmers”: Dennett, Daniel C. (1996). “Facing backwards on the problem of consciousness”. Journal of Consciousness Studies 3 (1): 4–6.
  5. Stanislas Dehaene (2014). Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. Viking Adult. p. 197. ISBN 0670025437.
  6. James S Trefil (1997). “Chapter 3: Will we ever understand consciousness?”. One hundred and one things you don’t know about science and no one else does either. Mariner Books. p. 15. ISBN 0-395-87740-7.
  7. Leibniz, Monadology, 17, as quoted by Istvan Aranyosi (2004). “Chalmers’s zombie arguments” (draft ed.). Central European University Personal Pages.
  8. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Panpsychism
  9. The Elements of Physiology and Hygiene: A Text-book for Educational Institutions, by T.H. Huxley & W.J. Youmans. Appleton & Co., 1868 p. 178
  10. Churchland, Patricia Smith (2002). Brain-wise: studies in neurophilosophy. MIT Press. p. 197. ISBN 0-262-53200-X.
  11. Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?”. Retrieved 9 December 2013.
  12. Colin McGinn (20 February 2012). “All machine and no ghost?”. New Statesman. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  13. Peter Hacker (2010). “Hacker’s challenge”. The Philosopher’s Magazine 51 (51): 23–32.
  14. Daniel Dennett (2003). “Explaining the “Magic” of Consciousness”. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology 1 (1): 7–19. doi:10.1556/jcep.1.2003.1.2. See also this link.
  15. Daniel Dennett (1993). Consciousness Explained (Paperback ed.). Penguin Group. ISBN 0140128670.
  16. Glenn Carruthers; Elizabeth Schier (2012). “Dissolving the hard problem of consciousness”. Consciousness Online fourth conference. Retrieved 7 July 2014.
  17. David J. Chalmers (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  18. The HOT theory and Antitheories
  19. Carruthers, Peter. “Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  20. Peter Carruthers (2005). “Phenomenal concepts and higher-order experiments”. Consciousness: Essays from a Higher-Order Perspective. Oxford University Press. pp. 79 ff. ISBN 0191535044.
  21. Searle, J.The Mystery of Consciousness, p111
  22. Massimo Pigliucci (2013). “What Hard Problem?”. Philosophy Now (99).

Further reading

External links

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