The Hard Problem
We’ve talked about the Hard Problem of consciousness, and all of the ways it might be resolved. The conclusion that is the most consistent with my experience and knowledge is that consciousness is information changing and interacting with itself in certain ways, and that any time information behaves in these ways, be it in brains, computer chips, or large-scale systems, consciousness is there.
But if this is true, it leads to another question: why does each conscious experience have the character that it does? Why doesn’t chocolate taste blue? Why doesn’t a smooth ball feel like the direction left? Or one that is more easy to wrap our minds around: why does our vision fade to black when things get dark, instead of fading to white?
Religions and spiritual gurus have claimed to know the answers to this question since before history began: conscious qualia are what they are because they tap into a realm of existence beyond the physical where objective, transcendent meaning can be found. Materialists deride this claim, citing all the contradictions between religious and spiritual traditions, and how claims of objective meaning have been used to justify oppression. I am sympathetic to both views, and I think it is important to have waited until after we have talked about all the other topics in the consciousness series before tackling this one, to avoid falling into naive answers.
Let’s consider a question: could black and white have been switched? Could we have evolved such that dark things fade away into whiteness instead of blackness?
If physicalism is true, then whiteness and blackness are patterns in our brains. Intuitively, it seems the answer to the question is yes. It just happened in our evolutionary history that darkness is represented by the color black in our minds, but it could have been white instead. Or any other color, for that matter.
We have some evidence for this. An early psychologist, George Stratton, did a famous experiment where he wore glasses that turned his view upside-down. After a few days, he was able to function as if his vision were normal. When he took the glasses off for the last part of the experiment, he felt like his vision was upside-down again.
This suggests that at least the senses of up and down could have been switched, and if they were, we would not be any different from how we are now. This hints at the possibility that we would not be noticeably different if our sense of up were, for example, switched with the color blue, although it is not proof by any stretch of the imagination.
Alternatively, it may be that swapping around our qualia makes living less efficient, and if it is done too much, might mess up our brains in ways they cannot adjust to. It’s well known that we perceive reality symbolically, with concepts representing other concepts, which are connected to other concepts, in a web that encompasses everything we know and experience.
Much of this is arbitrary, a product of upbringing and culture. But some symbols and their connections seem to come pre-loaded into our brain structure. It might be that the archetypal symbols we inherit genetically are inextricably intertwined with one another and the other functions of our brains that swapping them or changing them too much would leave us non-functional.
The question I am trying to ask is this: are the qualia we experience an arbitrary shake of the evolutionary dice, or did they evolve the way they did because the quale patterns themselves help us to survive and thrive? If the former is true, then existentialism is true: the meaning in life is what we make it. If the latter is true, it opens the door to the possibility that there is meaning outside of us, locked up within the possibility-space of conscious experience, brought into being when it is experienced by conscious creatures like us.
This is all idle speculation. I feel hardly more informed on this subject than the Ancient Greeks who proclaimed everything to be made of water. We do not have the tools yet to investigate this question scientifically, though we may someday. All we have is storytelling and armchair philosophy—both of which I am happy to engage in, writing blog posts and novels and filling them with meaning to the best of my ability. Whether I create that meaning or reveal it, I do not know. But what I do know is that this question will bring me a sense of wonder and mystery to the end of my days.