The “Hard Problem,” Physicalism, and Theism

The discussion on “The X that created the universe” raised some interesting points, especially the exchange between Ted Drange and Dianelos Georgoudis on consciousness. There were two points of disagreement: (1) Whether, and in what way, consciousness is a problem for physicalism and (2) whether theism has a problem explaining consciousness. Dianelos and other advocates of the “hard problem” of consciousness assert that science has made, and perhaps in principle cannot make, progress on the question of why there should be consciousness at all. The argument is that even if we solve the “easy” problem of learning all the neurological correlates of conscious experience, i.e., even when we come to know precisely what the brain is doing when we have conscious experience, we are not put one bit closer to understanding why such processes issue in conscious experience.
When anyone erects a priori barriers to the expansion of scientific explanation into some domain, there is a deeply entrenched idée fixe at work. This conviction can be an item of religious dogma, or it can be a deeply entrenched intuition. With the hard problem, though religious agendas are certainly waiting in the wings, I think the idée fixe is a deep intuition. The intuition seems to be the same for David Chalmers that it was for Descartes: Consciousness just seems to be so very different a type of thing that physical stuff that we just feel, very deeply, that matter, however intricately arranged, cannot underlie consciousness. Consciousness seems truly sui generis, something uniquely unique that surely must be ontologically distinct from matter.
However, as Gilbert Ryle showed long ago—a lesson that has yet to sink in—the mind is not any kind of a thing at all. There are no minds. There is thinking, feeling, sensing, imagining, emoting, etc., but there are no minds. Sensing, feeling, introspecting, and all of the phenomena we group under “consciousness” are functions of brains, or, if you prefer, they are activities we perform with our brains. Thinking is like digesting, it is a series of functions that could probably be carried out in any number of ways with a considerable diversity of mechanisms, but which we happen to do with certain protoplasmic hardware. It is misleading even to speak of “sensations” or “perceptions” since this makes of think of these as things. It would be better, if less elegant, to use a gerundive form and speak of “sensings” or “perceivings.” The gerundive form would remind us that what we have here are processes or happenings, not stuff. Qualia are therefore adverbial modifications of a sensory process. I do not sense yellow; I sense yellowy. Sounds funny, but, as we all know, ordinary language often masks philosophical and scientific truth.
Is there an a priori objection to the claim that sensing, thinking, emoting, etc. are things that we do with our brains? It would have to be a very strong a priori reason since prima facie, if I see material beings thinking, which I do all the time, the obvious conclusion to draw is that material beings can think. Well, maybe the argument is not that matter, in principle, cannot think, but that science can never explain why it does. But why think this? Robert Merrihew Adams argues that science cannot explain consciousness because there seems to be no prospect of ever discovering a covering law that tells us that such-and-such types of material organization will always result in the production of consciousness. Adams is almost certainly right that no such covering law will be found. It is probably the case that there are just too many ways to produce consciousness, and each is so complex, that no useful covering generalization can be found. This is entirely to be expected, though. Laws are used to explain at simple and general levels. When things get complex, scientific explanation is generally not of the covering law sort, but in terms of detailed causal accounts. Why do are the Alps shaped in the remarkable and dramatic ways that they are? Geologists explain the alpine orogeny in terms of thrusting and faulting, which were caused by the collision of the European and African tectonic plates. There is no reference to laws, though, of course, at a considerable explanatory distance, it is assumed that the laws of chemistry and physics are ultimately the cause.
The upshot is that, as William Lyons notes, when we are dealing with explanations of complex things, “why” questions and “how” questions tend to run together. You explain why the Alps have their particular shape by showing how it got that way. You explain why train tracks do not buckle when summer heat causes the metal rails to expand by showing how they are constructed to allow the expansion in hot weather. Lyons continues:
It seems likely that scientists could explain how, neurophysiologically and biochemically, the parts of our brain causally relevant to consciousness are put together and function in relation to one another, then ipso facto the scientists will have explained how the parts function together so as to generate consciousness. In David Chalmers’ terminology, it seems likely that if scientists can solve all the easy problems about the conscious brain then, ipso facto they will also have solved at least part of the hard problem (Lyons, Matters of the Mind, p. 206).
I think Lyons is right. If and when the “easy” problem is solved, then the “hard” problem will simply wither away. This is because the “hard” problem is not really a scientific or philosophical problem; it is a psychological one. Because our first person world is so different from the third person world we know through science, it just feels like the former cannot be explained in terms of the latter, but once we have the explanation, the feeling will eventually fade. The brain causing (or, I prefer, realizing) thought will be like what Hume said about the way all causal relations would look to the newly created Adam. At first to Adam everything would look like a miracle. After a while, though, you get used to the way things operate and are no longer astonished when things happen the way they regularly do.

What about point (2)? Is explaining consciousness a problem for theism? Dianelos and other theists say it is not because theism postulates consciousness as a primitive or ultimate term of their theory. This, of course, makes consciousness not just unexplained but inexplicable. Actually, such a maneuver is theism’s stock-in-trade. If your basic postulation is the existence of a conscious, all-powerful being, you relieve yourself of vast labors of explanatory work. Why are there birds? The poor naturalist has to give a long, laborious, and very incomplete story about the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs in the late Jurassic. The Creationist just says that on the fifth day God said “Let there be birds!” and POOF! The air was full of birds! Why is there human consciousness? Again, the naturalist has to give a long, laborious, and inevitably incomplete story. The theist just says “God is already conscious, and he just makes humans that way. End of story.” That is how theism explains anything God supposedly does. You explain human consciousness, birds, or anything by postulating an Occult Effect Explaining Entity that is given the power to produce whatever it is that needs producing. Neat trick. I just cannot help thinking that it gives theism an advantage over naturalism that is the same kind of advantage that theft has over honest toil.