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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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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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