Is there a Hard Problem? Photo: Flickr/A Health Blog
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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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How the Night Tube could give London’s mice that Friday feeling

London Underground’s smaller inhabitants might be affected by the off-squeak service – and learn when the weekend’s coming up.

What will the mice who live in the Tube network make of the new all-night service? Half a million of them are thought to have made the London Underground their home – and will be in for a surprise when the Victoria and Central lines keep running this weekend.

The Londonist is concerned the mice “are unlikely to get any sleep” with the new Night Tube, and may move to the District line instead. Yet a number of scientists point out to the New Statesman that mice are nocturnal creatures, most likely to sleep while the lights are on and the trains are running.

So will they get on board with the change – or make a run for different platforms on other lines?

The bad news:

“When the Tube’s away, the mice will play,” is how the rhyme (almost) goes. 

Many have come to know  and even love  the mischiefs of the mice who stream off the tracks and out of the tunnels as the stations close at night, in search of discarded morsels of Maccy D. And until now, they’ve had a good few hours to conduct such galavanting in peace. But the new system means they will have to re-structure their sleep and foraging cycles, or “circadian rhythms”. 

“The presence of night trains should upset several of these entrainment factors (or zeitgebers = time givers) leading to disturbances in their behaviours,” explains Professor Patrick Nolan, from MRC Harwell, an international centre for mouse genetics. 

“When you fly across the Atlantic, for example, it takes a few days to adapt, you feel a bit groggy, don't perform as well as you usually do, don't eat well, etc. You soon adapt to the change. But if there are constant disruptions like this, the effect may be more severe and long-lasting. And this is how the schedule changes in the Underground might affect the resident mice.” 

So it's the constant switching between the week and weekend schedules that could leave the mice  and Tube drivers  most cheesed off. Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and photophobia (sensitivity to light) are two possible effects of the resulting anxiety, and their mating patterns and liver functions are also likely to be disturbed.

The good news:

Yet it is unlikely mice will be leaving the Night Tubes for good. 

The more time we humans have to drop our dinners, the larger the menu becomes for the mice (researchers tell me that strawberry milk and Wheetos are particularly favoured fare).

“Mice are active most of the time – so more trains at night hours will not make such a difference to them,” say the RSPCA’s wildlife officers. “In fact, it may help as it may provide more foraging opportunities.”

They’ve also faced worse before. The London Transport Museum reminds us that, during the Second World War, cats were employed to counter vermin on the network (spot the cat in the 1940s TfL workers' canteen below).


Credit: London Transport Museum

For Dr Samuel Solomon at UCL, there is plenty to suggest the mice will successfully adapt. His study of mouse reflexes shows how they respond to various visual stimuli – and can start running within one-tenth of a second. “There might be cues they pick up – if people clean the station differently on Fridays, for instance.”

The tracks’ electric current may no longer be entirely switched off (if it ever was), but their whiskers’ sensitivity to vibrations could help them juggle their escapades to fit around the Night Tube’s less frequent service.

What Dr Soloman can’t yet predict is whether the mice will start to anticipate that Friday feeling: “It will be interesting to see whether they can learn that Friday is Friday”.

All in all, the Tube mice seem well set for the Night Tube’s new challenge. Who knows, they may soon gain the confidence of their 24/7 brothers in New York – and start ordering take-out...

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.