Series – Philosophy – The Riddle of Consciousness – II

The Two Problems of Consciousness

You are nothing but a pack of neurons” – Francis Crick

Continuing from the previous article we divide the problem of consciousness into two parts.

The Easy Problem – Difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts. This was best described by Sigmund Freud, when he posited the realm of consciousness with three compartments – The Conscious, the Preconscious and the Unconscious. The easy problem is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computations, identify its correlates in brain and explain why it evolved. Scientists hope to solve this problem by within this century and it is called the easy problem in the same way as landing on moon is called easy, imagine the difficulty of the hard problem.


The Hard Problem: The hard problem can be addressed like this: why does it feel to have a conscious process going in one’s head = why is there this first person, subjective experience. Not only does a red thing look different from a green thing, it appears so subjectively red that it produces an experience of sheer redness, a qualitative feeling.

Neither of the problems has been resolved but there is an agreement among the scientists on many features:

a) The astonishing hypothesis : coined by Francis Crick– the idea that all our thoughts, sensations, joy and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissue of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

b) The Brains as a machine – Scientists have debunked the myth of a separate you existing in the brain or mind, they say that you are nothing but a pack of neurons. Using functional MRI cognitive scientists can almost read people’s thought fro the blood flow in their brains. They can tell if a person is thinking about his wife or his cat by looking the areas that are lit up by the rush of blood. It has also been observed that consciousness can be altered by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, chemicals like affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD can profoundly alter how people think feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy) spawns two consciousness within the same skull, like your soul has been cleaved into two with a knife.

c) The Illusion of Control – A startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive “I” that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along. This is philosophically nearer to the tenets of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. We expand this view more in the next article.