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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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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times