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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

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.