Epistemology and the Problem of Consciousness

Epistemology is a part of the study of Philosophy dealing with how we use our senses to know something about the world. For example, when we see a tree, how do we know it's really there? We can go up to it and feel it with our fingers, hear the wind whistling through its leaves, and even ask other people if they see it, too. Yet we know that we can be deceived by our senses. We have dreams and hallucinations, and magicians are very clever at making us believe that something is there when it is not, or the reverse. So we cannot always trust our senses. If we cannot always trust our senses, how can we ever know anything for certain about the world? Philosophers of epistemology try to determine if we can ever really know anything for certain about the world, and if so, how.

A branch of epistemology that has come into vogue in the last 10-15 years is the problem of consciousness. What is the nature of our consciousness? What relationship is there between our conscious experience and the true nature of the physical world? For example, why does a particular wavelength of light stimulate us to experience seeing red and not blue? And why does a shorter wavelength stimulate the experience of seeing blue and not red?

A traditional way of explaining consciousness is the religious concept of the soul. In this theory, there is an entity that exists separate from the body but within it (during one's natural life) in which or through which we live our sensory and conscious lives. In some religions, when we die, only the body dies, and the soul lives on, either in a special place (e.g., the Christian Heaven) or reincarnated as another being here on Earth.

Among those philosophers dealing with consciousness, modern theories tend to fall into two camps. One says that consciousness can be explained in terms of biology, chemistry, and modern physics. Many universities are investing millions of dollars individually (hundreds of millions or billions of dollars collectively) in brain physiology institutes to study how the brain works. Brain physiology as a field is expanding at the same rate that particle physics was expanding in the 1960's (those considering the field now might look at what happened to the particle physics field in the 1970's). Several famous physicists, including Robert Penrose and Nobel Laureate Leon Cooper, have forsaken their careers in physics to become consciousness epistemologists.

The other major school of thought says that modern science cannot yet explain consciousness adequately. A major proponent of this view is David J. Chalmers of the University of Arizona. In a seminal paper from 1995 entitled "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness", Prof. Chalmers argues that deciphering brain function is really the "easy problem" (only relatively speaking; he admits that the "easy problem" is a real challenge, but one that will probably be solved in a few decades, given all the current interest). The "hard problem" is the "problem of experience" to use his words. It is providing adequate answers to the questions I posed earlier - for example, why certain wavelengths of light cause us to have certain kinds of experience (red instead of blue), that is, of connecting experience to the physical world. To find more information on David Chalmers's theories and to obtain copies of his papers and many other papers on consciousness, visit his Web site at http://consc.net/chalmers.

Here are some of my thoughts on consciousness, expressed in letters to Prof. Chalmers:

Page last updated on: December 6, 2013