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A hard problem for soft brains: is there a Hard Problem?

Daniel Dennett wants to convince Tom Stoppard that there is no Hard Problem.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the philosopher Daniel Dennett chatted with Tom Stoppard. The conversation took place after a performance of Stoppard’s new play about consciousness, The Hard Problem. A few days earlier, Dennett had told an audience at the Royal Institution (RI) that there is no “Hard Problem”.

The play’s name comes from the label that the Australian cognitive scientist David Chalmers gives to the task of understanding consciousness. This is hard, he says, because no physical phenomena will ever be found to account for the emergence of conscious experience. It is a statement of faith but one that has garnered plenty of support and clearly caught Stoppard’s attention.

Consciousness is a tough nut to crack. Scientists aren’t sure how to define it and they don’t know how it – whatever “it” is – emerges from the squidgy, biological matter of the brain. Somehow, billions of neurons connect and give us the ability to sense the outside world and have what we describe as “feelings” about our experience.

To Stoppard, consciousness is an almost supernatural phenomenon – something beyond the reach of science. His play suggests that those who indulge in spiritual beliefs might be more successful in hunting down the root of consciousness, as if consciousness inhabited some realm beyond physics, chemistry and biology.

Dennett, on the other hand, thinks that we may have already solved the problem of consciousness with a coterie of small-scale, rather banal explanations. The non-mysterious ways in which the brain creates our sensory experience might be the only ingredients we need to explain how it is that we are aware of feeling something.

He expands on this possibility in his contribution to a new collection of essays at edge.org that asks the question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” He chooses the Hard Problem (even though, he says, it isn’t actually a scientific idea) and suggests we should approach all of its difficulties in the same way as scientists approach extrasensory perception and telekinesis: as “figments of the imagination”.

The central issue concerns our trouble with believing in the physicality of things we cannot see or touch. Software, Dennett suggested at the RI, provides a good example. Everyone agrees that software exists and performs tasks that are far from mysterious. But what is it made of? Lines of code written on a piece of paper do nothing. When written into a computer, they become abstract information encoded in the electronic state of silicon chips – we know that they are there but they are transformed. However hard that is to grasp, it doesn’t
make software spiritual or take it beyond analysis.

A word of caution: there is always a danger of interpreting our scientific struggles within a familiar paradigm. Newton discovered his “clockwork heavens” in an age when accurate means of measuring time were the central goal of many scientifically minded colleagues. Einstein’s special relativity, which defines the fundamentals of the universe in terms that reference light and signals, was birthed in the era of the electric telegraph. Neither was the final word.

These days, much of physics and biology focuses on issues of information transfer, probably because computing now plays such a significant role. So it is possible that Dennett’s software analogy is an innocent sleight of hand. It may be that we haven’t yet encountered the paradigm that will allow us to frame a good understanding of consciousness.

That would certainly make consciousness a hard problem to solve right now – but still not the Hard Problem.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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Facebook official: the rise and fall of the relationship status

In the Noughties, it was a relationship milestone. Now, it's just another dead feature. What happened? 

In the 1950s, couples on US campuses took out ads in college newspapers to announce that their relationship was getting serious. 

In the Noughties, we had Facebook official. One of the social media site's first features, rolled out while the network was still primarily used by students at US universities, was the "relationship status". And at first, it was a successful one: a way for users to broadcast their personal lives to friends and ex-lovers, and another way to show off online.

It was so successful, in fact, that it began to invade very culture and lexicon of dating. "It's Complicated" was first entered onto Urban Dictionary in 2007, and fast became an iconic phrase to describe the rocky dating lives of teens and twentysomethings. (Whether anyone actually used it on their profile without a hint of irony is another question.)

The press treated Facebook and its investment in your relationships much as it's treating dating apps now: with suspicion. News and comment pieces were littered with first-person horror stories of "likes" and passive aggressive comments on break-up statuses, or people mercilessly dumping their partners by declaring themselves "single". 

But these criticisms actually show how influential the statuses were - enough to be seen as a threat to the social fabric. As Samuel Axon wrote for Mashable in 2010 in an article titled "5 Ways Facebook Changed Dating (For the Worse)": 

"Changing Facebook relationship status has, for better or worse, joined first date, first kiss, first night together, exclusivity talk, and first "I love you" on the list of important relationship milestones."

Breaking up  

In 2016, we can pretty much declare the relationship status dead - at least among the twenty-something generation who grew up on Facebook. In November, BuzzFeed ran a reader poll and concluded: “No One Wants To Admit They’re In A Relationship On Facebook Anymore”. Forty per cent of polled twenty-somethings said they wouldn’t put a relationship status on Facebok. 

Among twentysomethings I spoke to anecdotally, the percentage was even higher: I couldn't find a single person who would list themselves as "in a relationship" with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The situation changed a little when it came to engagements or marriage: these are worth listing alongside other big milestones like graduations so friends know what you're up to. But what turned us off listing our squeezes in real-time?

One obvious answer is that everyone tries it once, in the first flush of romance, then never forgets the crushing social embarrassment of living out your break-up online. Izzy, 23, tells me that she once saw "Facebook official" as a necessary stage in relationships, but now, "I'd probably only change it now for something big like an engagement or marriage", since watching break-up become "public property" on Facebook. 

In “Why I will never (again) put my relationship status on Facebook” at XO Jane, Sofia Barrett-Ibarria recounts that colleagues and friends would approach her following a a break-up and subsequent status change: “Thanks to Facebook, everyone I knew knew about the breakup. This was my nightmare.” 

In the essay, and among those I talk to, there's a real sense that a social media airing of a break-up actually makes it worse. It's no wonder we're keen to avoid repeating the experience. 

Instead, it's far more common among my generation to list a joke partner online - as much to protect yourself from the risky business of online relationship declarations as to make fun of the feature itself. Amy, 24, says her Facebook friendship with a friend “became quiet useful as a means to avoid needing to put other relationships on here”. It's a joke, but it's also a signal that you won't be game for a po-faced "in a relationship" further down the line. 

Even the phrase "relationship status" has become a meme to mock your own singledom, rather than a serious phrase about your commitment to someone:

It's not you, it's me 

Marking the slow decline of the relationship statuses are various desperate attempts by Facebook to bring it back to life. In May 2014, it introduced an option to "ask" your friends about their relationship status, or other details like Hometown or School. Show me a single person who actually did this, and I'll show you a person with one less Facebook friend.

In November 2015, Facebook US introduced tools which would make a social media break-up less painful. If you break up (and change your relationship status), the site now allows you to "take a break" from an ex-partner, untag them from pictures, and generally stop them haunting your page without unfriending or blocking them. 

The move is a sensible one, especially as Facebook has come under fire for "On This Day", another feature which throws up old pictures and posts and has been depressing users the world over with pictures of their now-dead relatives or relics of past relationships. In the press release for the new relationship tools, the company says:

“This work is part of our ongoing effort to develop resources for people who may be going through difficult moments in their lives. We hope these tools will help people end relationships on Facebook with greater ease, comfort and sense of control.”

Never, ever getting back together 

Somehow, I don't think any of this will convince users to once again share the minutiae of our dating lives on social media. You could argue that my generation's rejection of relationship statuses is to do with a fear of commitment - after all, none of us have pensions or can afford houses. Research has shown that social media interaction, like a shared relationship status or photos taken together, are an indicator of "greater relationship commitment". Perhaps twenty-somethings just aren't keen to stamp Facebook-endorsed "commitment" all over their dating lives.

But it could also be that we're moving away from relationship statuses because we've realised there's a type of online sharing that can be damaging in its honesty. It's increasingly clear that even bloggers and Instagrammers who post online constantly keep their personal lives locked carefully away from their smoothie and interior decor feeds, sometimes to the detriment of their alleged "authenticity". 

We want social media to be privy to our highs, not our lows. Research has also suggested that while relationship statuses indicate commitment, they were reflective of this commitment, not participating in it. While asking someone to be your boyfriend and girlfriend is an action that actually changes the fabric of a relationship, going Facebook official isn't - unless you're a 13-year-old who still thinks this is a good way to ask. 

As such, relationship statuses are a communication of status, not a creation of one. They were never meant as a milestone for the couples themselves: they're to satisfy the sort of people who bark "BUT IS SHE ACTUALLY YOUR GIRLFRIEND?" at you, in the pub, while she's two feet away. Maybe we've just decided that our online presence should benefit us, not those who want a two-click rundown of our personal lives. 

And since you ask, I've been in a Facebook-only civil partnership with a university friend for four years now. It isn't complicated at all. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.