Have you contemplated the “Hard Problem” yet?

When I was 21 I got a scholarship to study philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I arrived with my mountain bike and a passion for German existentialism, lived with five lesbians and their eight cats and convinced the university to let me do their graduate course instead of the undergraduate stream. They relented and I signed up for Philosophy of the Universe with an Australian mathematician, David Chalmers.

Image via A Well Travelled Woman

That was 1995.

I’ve now just learned that the year prior Chalmers, a lecturer who supported me through a bunch of things at the time, had shaken up philosophy – existential and beyond – by presenting the world with what is known as The Hard Problem. This article by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian tells the story and dives in deeply to the dilemma Chalmers posed and the controversy that’s pivoted from it since.

Chalmers presented the idea that there are many quandaries to do with the human brain and experience, but most are easy problems and, with time, we’ll no doubt solve them, much as we did the true surface of the earth.

The hard problem – what makes us conscious, or what is consciousness – is possibly one we will never “solve” as our brains might just not be capable of it. Actually, my memory of things was that he didn’t declare the unsolveability of consciousness, more that he posed an extraordinary claim – that everything is conscious – and then counters the outrage by saying, well, how would we not know?

It was in 1995, in Chalmers’ class, that I was first exposed to the notion of universal consciousness. Of the Oneness.

We had one exercise for the semester: to come up with an alternative theory for time. I’m sad to say I was unable to finish the class for reasons that can wait for…an alternative time. But the insight gleaned from contemplating this Hard Problem, and from plunging to some dark depths as I grappled with my own hard problems, set me up with a platform for considering all manner of things in a new light.

Anyway, if all this kind of stuff interests, give the article a mindful read.

I like Burkeman’s closing remark:

An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.

Do you “believe” that we are all expressions of the one consciousness, even if your brain can’t quite know it? As they say, discuss…

Share this post