More Debates on the
Meta-Problem of Consciousness
The meta-problem of consciousness, according to David Chalmers, is (roughly) the problem of explaining why we think there is a hard problem of consciousness. In his paper titled ‘The Meta-Problem of Consciousness’ published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 2018, Chalmers presented this meta-problem, examined various potential solutions to it, and started a discussion on whether or not solving this meta-problem could shed light on the hard problem — and then, on consciousness itself.
This volume constitutes the second part of a symposium dedicated to debates on the meta-problem. The first part of the symposium, published in the September–October 2019 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, featured 22 responses to Chalmers’ meta-problem article. This volume features 17 more response pieces, as well as Chalmers’ reply to the 39 contributions of the symposium.
The 17 responses included in this volume constitute a rich set of objections, remarks, and suggestions. I will now try to give a brief presentation (as well as a rough classification) of these pieces, even if it is, of course, impossible to fully do justice to these contributions in just a few pages. I will then quickly present Chalmers’ reply.
1. The Meta-Problem of Consciousness
Symposium, Second Part: Contributions
1.1. The meta-problem of consciousness: Explanandum and general constraints on solutions
A number of pieces are devoted to discussing the explanandum of the meta-problem or to commenting on the general kind of theory that might adequately solve the meta-problem. Zed Adams and Jacob Browning argue that the correct solution to the meta-problem might lie in cultural history and the history of ideas: indeed, they think that the intuition that consciousness is hard to explain is much more historically and culturally determined than what Chalmers supposes. They focus on the case of the inverted spectrum thought experiment. They argue that the kinds of inverted spectrum possibilities that could motivate the hard problem (inverted colour experiences without physical differences) were only considered rather recently in the history of philosophy — not before the middle of the nineteenth century, and only after the first extensive studies of the phenomenon of colour blindness. Adam Balmer claims that Chalmers’ framing of the meta-problem tends to give too much attention to the view that problem intuitions are generated by culture-free, innate, and ‘hard-wired’ neurophysiological factors. He argues that this view is not very plausible and that more attention should be dedicated to the view that problem intuitions result from some cultural and theoretical innovation that happened at some point in history. He points out that illusionists should be particularly welcoming of such ideas, as the resulting ‘soft-wired illusionism’ gives them some strategic advantage over phenomenal realists. Katalin Balog questions the view that there is an interesting topic-neutral conception of the explanandum of the meta-problem. She argues that any genuinely topic-neutral characterization of problem intuitions will lead to an unsatisfying explanation of these intuitions, which will lack specificity. Contra Chalmers, she also defends the phenomenal concept strategy, as well as type-B materialism regarding consciousness — which she sees as the best form of physicalism, preferable to strong illusionism. Graham Peebles attacks non-inferentialist views of the meta-problem: views (favoured by Chalmers in his meta-problem article) according to which problem intuitions are generated in a non-inferential manner. He gives two arguments against such views and concludes that we should favour an inferentialist take on the meta-problem, according to which we reach the intuitive judgments that consciousness is hard to explain via some kind of inferential process.
1.2. The meta-problem of consciousness: Solutions
Most pieces focus on a particular solution to the meta-problem. Some of them notably aim at defending a candidate solution against objections raised by Chalmers in his target paper. Joe Dewhurst and Krzysztof Dołęga defend Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory against criticisms raised by Chalmers in his meta-problem article. They argue that Graziano’s view can answer these criticisms (and can generally be made stronger and more convincing) if it is supplemented using tools and insights from the predictive processing framework. Esa Díaz-León defends the phenomenal concept strategy (which she has endorsed and developed in previous work) against the criticisms raised by Chalmers in his meta-problem article. She argues that theories of phenomenal concepts put forward by defenders of the phenomenal concept strategy can naturally explain all of the widely shared problem intuitions. She stresses that the intuitions that might resist such an explanation (namely, metaphysical intuitions) are not as clearly shared, or are not as robust — and should then perhaps not feature in the explanandum of the meta-problem. Haoying Liu defends the ‘use-mention fallacy’ approach to solving the meta-problem against the criticisms raised by Chalmers in his meta-problem article. He argues that Chalmers’ description of this strategy mischaracterizes its spirit. He also shows how a new, revised version of ‘use-mention fallacy’ theories can answer the criticisms made by Chalmers, and avoid the counter-examples to these theories that have been previously presented and discussed in the literature. Tom McClelland puts forward the idea that our intuition that consciousness is hard to explain in physical terms is constituted both by intuitions regarding consciousness and by intuitions regarding the physical: they correspond to ‘hybrid’ intuitive judgments. He argues that, once we acknowledge this fact, the ‘ignorance hypothesis’, according to which there seems to be a hard problem of consciousness only because we have an inadequate conception of the physical, becomes more convincing and more promising than what Chalmers states in his meta-problem article. Kenneth Williford defends weak illusionism (which can also be seen as a form of modest phenomenal realism), against Chalmers’ claim that illusionists should embrace strong illusionism over its weak variant. His strategy relies on defending a ‘quasi-Armstrongian’ solution to the meta-problem, crucially supplementing the ‘headless woman illusion’ model with the view that some questions (whether consciousness seems non-physical, or whether it does not seem physical) are phenomenologically undecidable.
Among the papers focusing on particular solutions to the meta-problem, some pieces attempt to explore new candidate solutions to the meta-problem or new ways of approaching solutions to the meta-problem. Hedda Hassel Mørch focuses on the phenomenal powers view, which is the view that phenomenal properties have genuine and intelligible non-Humean causal powers in virtue of their phenomenal character. She argues that this view can help solve the meta-problem of consciousness, while giving an account of the crucial role consciousness itself plays in generating our intuitions about consciousness — which would make the correctness of such intuitions non-coincidental. She claims that this view offers one of the few approaches to the meta-problem that is able to lend robust support to strong phenomenal realism, against various forms of illusionism. Colin Klein and Andrew Barron take inspiration from the interventionist conception of explanation to tackle the meta-problem of consciousness. They suggest that our intuition that consciousness is hard to explain might stem from our (contingent) lack of capacity to intervene precisely on our own conscious experiences (as well as on coupling relations between our brain states and our conscious experiences). They also claim that the technological development of such interventions could suppress our sense that consciousness is hard to explain and give us a genuine interventionist explanation of consciousness — thus solving the hard problem itself. Roger Christan Schriner focuses on the relation between illusionism and realism regarding consciousness. He argues that various proposals regarding the explanation of problem intuitions, originally put forth from the point of view of illusionism, can actually be used by the modest physicalist realist (who also accepts a dose of weak illusionism) in order to successfully tackle both the meta-problem and the hard problem itself. Johan Storm hypothesizes that our difficulty to think of consciousness in physical terms might stem from the fact that evolution has provided us with two distinct specialized cognitive systems to deal with physical phenomena and mental phenomena (the distinction of which echoes the distinction between sensory modalities). In order to deal with the conflict between these two systems (which indicates nothing about a putative non-physical nature of consciousness), we should accept a principle of ‘neuro-complementarity’ similar to the complementarity principle sometimes put forward when discussing the nature of the entities described by quantum physics.
Some papers also focus on partial solutions to the meta-problem, presenting explanations of some particular problem intuitions. Michelle Liu focuses on the explanation of the intuition of revelation. She claims that realists about consciousness, who endorse the revelation thesis, are in a good position to explain this intuition. On the other hand, she argues that illusionist attempts at explaining this intuition of revelation face very serious problems. Giovanni Merlo focuses on explaining our strong realist (i.e. anti-illusionist) intuitions regarding consciousness: why do we tend to think that strong illusionism is obviously false? The answer, he claims, lies in the fact that we endorse certain intuitive principles regarding justification and phenomenality, which taken together rule out illusionism. Reflecting on these principles, he also builds an argument against illusionism, based on the idea that illusionists (but not realists) face an infinite regress when it comes to matters of epistemic justification.
1.3. Reactions to the meta-problem of consciousness
Finally, some pieces mainly discuss possible reactions to the meta-problem. Asger Kirkeby-Hinrup expresses doubts about the idea that a solution to the meta-problem of consciousness and a solution to the hard problem of consciousness would necessarily shed light on each other. For example, certain legitimate solutions to the hard problem could very well say nothing about how our intuitions regarding consciousness are generated. Moreover, requiring that a theory about a certain entity also explains why we have certain intuitions about this entity seems like a disputable requirement. Adam Pautz tackles the coincidence problem, which corresponds to the idea that the fact that our intuitive judgments about consciousness are indeed accompanied by consciousness is a lucky coincidence. Pautz criticizes Chalmers’ approach to the problem, but thinks that a genuine problem arises in the vicinity, which he calls the ‘normative harmony problem’ (roughly, the problem of understanding what makes it so that the causal profile of neural correlates of experiences is harmonious with the normative profile of these experiences). He then examines the capacity of various views (identity theory, strong illusionism) to solve this problem.
2. Response Pieces by David Chalmers
This volume also features Chalmers’ reply to the 39 contributions of the symposium (the 17 contributions featuring in this volume, as well as the 22 contributions of the previous volume). Chalmers divides his reply into three articles. In ‘How Can We Solve the Meta-Problem of Consciousness?’, Chalmers comments on the numerous candidate solutions to the meta-problem of consciousness that have been presented and defended by contributors to the symposium. In ‘Is the Hard Problem of Consciousness Universal?’, he focuses on a question that has attracted the attention of many commentators, regarding the explanandum of the meta-problem of consciousness: how widely shared are the ‘problem intuitions’, which we have to explain in order to solve the meta-problem? Finally, in ‘Debunking Arguments for Illusionism about Consciousness’, he focuses on reactions to the meta-problem, and notably on the debate between illusionism and realism, which stems from the existence of potential solutions to the meta-problem.
I want to thank Valerie Hardcastle (Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consciousness Studies) and Graham Horswell (Managing Editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies) for their invitation to edit this symposium, as well as for their support and their help. I want to thank David Chalmers for his incredibly valuable help in editing this volume. I received very useful input and advice regarding editorial work from Keith Frankish, as well as beneficial comments on this introduction from Ismahan Wayah. I want to thank them all here. Finally, I am very thankful to all the authors participating in the symposium, as well as to the reviewers who helped the authors improve their papers.