Hard Fact, not Hard Problem

Gaute Einevoll wrote “For me it seems a priori impossible to derive an inside-out perspective (what it feels like to be me) from the outside-in perspective inherent [in] physics-type descriptions.” That sounds a lot like David Chalmers’s “Hard Problem”:

. . .even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience—perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report—there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?


To make the unanswered puzzlement more specific, why is the sight of red accompanied by this experience? Why does a cold surface feel like this? That answer really is, I suspect, impossible to derive from the outside-in perspective inherent in physics descriptions. Let’s work an example (which I wrote about some years ago).

Carol puts her left hand in a bucket of hot water, and lets it acclimate for a few minutes.  Meanwhile her right hand is acclimating to a bucket of ice water.  Then she plunges both hands into a bucket of lukewarm water.  The lukewarm water feels very different to her two hands.  To the left hand, it feels very chilly.  To the right hand, it feels very hot.  When asked to tell the temperature of the lukewarm water without looking at the thermocouple readout, she doesn’t know.  Asked to guess, she’s off by a considerable margin.

Next Carol flips the thermocouple readout to face her (as shown), and practices.  Using different lukewarm water temperatures of 10-35 C, she gets a feel for how hot-adapted and cold-adapted hands respond to the various middling temperatures.  Now she makes a guess – starting with a random hand, then moving the other one and revising the guess if necessary – each time before looking at the thermocouple.  What will happen?  I haven’t done the experiment, but human performance on similar perceptual learning tasks suggests that she will get quite good at it.

We bring Carol a bucket of 20 C water (without telling) and let her adapt her hands first as usual.  “What do you think the temperature is?” we ask.  She moves her cold hand first.  “Feels like about 20,” she says.  Hot hand follows.  “Yup, feels like 20.”

“Wait,” we ask. “You said feels-like-20 for both hands.  Does this mean the bucket no longer feels different to your two different hands, like it did when you started?”

“No!” she replies.  “Are you crazy?  It still feels very different subjectively; I’ve just learned to see past that to identify the actual temperature.”

In addition to reports on the external world, we perceive some internal states that typically (but not invariably) can serve as signals about our environment. Why would evolution build beings that sense their internal states?  Why not just have the organism know the objective facts of survival and reproduction, and be done with it?  One thought is that it is just easier to build a brain that does both, rather than one that focuses relentlessly on objective facts.  But another is that this separation of sense-data into “subjective” and “objective” might help us learn to overcome certain sorts of perceptual illusion – as Carol does, above.  And yet another is that some internal states might be extremely good indicators and promoters of survival or reproduction – like pain, or feelings of erotic love. 

Internal state sensations are often impossible to derive from the outside-in perspective inherent in physics descriptions. Call that the Hard Fact. But don’t call it the Hard Problem, unless you can identify someone whose problem it is. The $64,000 question is: are there any philosophical views that predict that the Hard Fact would be false? (Actually that amount would be wholly inadequate to cover the books and papers dedicated to almost-nobody’s Problem, but never mind.)

I can think of exactly one, relatively minor, philosophical view that stumbles on the Hard Fact, thereby making it a Problem. To wit, analytic functionalism. OK, so all three of those philosophers have a Problem. The rest all respect cognitive science and neuroscience too much. As a result, they will accept the evidence that humans form percepts based on particular sense modalities engaged in various encounters with the world. Percepts and concepts founded in proprioception are radically different from those formed on the basis of hearing, for example. And those founded in looking at a brain scan of someone feeling cold will be radically different from those founded in touching something cold. So of course you can’t derive one viewpoint from the other.

Know what you also can’t do? You can’t refute a hypothesis by pointing to a successful prediction that it makes.

5 thoughts on “Hard Fact, not Hard Problem

  1. I agree that the hard problem isn’t a real problem. But I do think it is possible to derive an inside-out perspective from an outside-in one. So many philosophers have convinced themselves that it isn’t possible, that they seem unwilling to even try. (Thankfully many scientists don’t seem to have these hang ups.) I think it helps to remember that the objective perspective is actually a composite one from the individual perspectives of numerous observers. We routinely reconcile all those perspectives. Singling out one as forever irreconcilable doesn’t strike me as defensible.

    For example, in the case of the hot hand / cold hand scenario, sensitization and habituation in the peripheral nerves of the hand result in different signals being sent to the brain, even when the two hands are then in the same bucket of water.

    These days, when I use the phrase “hard truth”, I’m not referring to there being some unbridgeable barrier between the objective and subjective, but to our intuitions about it. The mapping between the two, even when complete, may never intuitively feel like the answer, at least not to large numbers of people. There’s just too much functionality we don’t have introspective access to. But we don’t expect intuition validation from most scientific theories. I don’t think we should expect it for the mind.

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    1. By “derive” I didn’t mean just “reliably predict”. I meant “close off any other imaginable scenario”. Future neuroscientists might some day be able to look at your fMRI and see that you have a pain in your left foot. But if they know what that feels like, it will be based on feeling their own pains and thoroughly understanding the correlations. Based on bringing two different percept-streams together.

      This is the point that many anti-materialists stake their case on, and it’s absolutely true, and absolutely fails to make the case. Because any physicalism worth paying attention to *also* predicts that we have multiple percept streams that we need to bring together. A prediction that everyone agrees on cannot be used to support one hypothesis over the other.

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  2. Regarding the “why” of internal states, I believe it likely internal states came before (or certainly no worse than at the same time as) awareness of the external world.

    When we look at gut-brain interactions, it might be that the brain evolved primarily as a appendage of the gut to coordinate and regulate it. I’ve thought often that the associations with digestion – hunger, satiety. eating, and the peristaltic actions of the digestive tract – were the original conscious experience.

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