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Philosophy of Mind: Part 21, The Hard Problem of Consciousness


By Frank Simons

The Meditation Center presents the 24-part Great Courses series Philosophy of Mind: Part 21, “The Hard Problem of Consciousness,” at 5:30pm on Thursday, October 26, 2017, at the Center, Callejon Blanco 4.

Conscious experience is what you’re having right now. But when it comes to understanding what that conscious experience really is and how it really works, nothing could be more mysterious. Consciousness is used in a number of ways. The sense at issue here is what philosophers sometimes call phenomenal consciousness, the qualia of our subjective experience. Nothing could be more familiar than consciousness in this sense. But when it comes to understanding subjective experience, nothing could be more mysterious.

The problem of consciousness is a particularly vivid form of the mind-body problem. Let’s start our exploration with a summary of some of our theoretical work to this point. According to Dualism, the mental and the physical are radically different; mental phenomena do not even occupy space. How, then, could the two interact? Epiphenomenalism, Occasionalism, and Parallelism were attempts to patch over the problem of interaction. The dominant theory today is Functionalism. When we are talking about mental states, we are talking about the functional organization of organisms. This is a program of cognitive science.

If consciousness is beyond the reach of contemporary science, how are we to understand it? One answer, explored in Lecture 22, is that we will have to stretch contemporary science to include it. Another answer, explored in Lecture 23, is that we will not be able to understand it. Is there an alternative? What do Reductive Materialists and Functionalists say in response to the “hard problem” arguments? One response is to “hope for a miracle.” Perhaps we will find a physical structure or process that suddenly makes consciousness understandable. The other reply is a Deflationist response. When we deflate our concept of consciousness, it will become clear that a Functionalist account will be possible and that the hard problem isn’t so hard after all.

What is consciousness for? Evolutionary pressures operate in terms of the functioning of an organism. Nevertheless, not everything in the evolutionary record is a trait that was selected. Evolutionary spandrels are features that just happened to come along for the ride. If consciousness is a spandrel, then this thing we think of as most characteristic of our inner selves is just an evolutionary accident.

Professor Patrick Grim, as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has provided his students with invaluable insights into issues of philosophy, artificial intelligence, theoretical biology, and other fields. Professor Grim was awarded the University’s Presidential and Chancellor’s Awards for teaching excellence and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars.

There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video.

Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


Video Presentation

Philosophy of Mind: Part 21, The Hard Problem of Consciousness

By Frank Simons

Thu, Oct 26, 5:30pm

Meditation Center

Callejon Blanco 4

Free, donations accepted




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