What is consciousness? The philosopher David Chalmers distinguishes between the Hard Problem and the Easy Problems of explaining consciousness. The latter are those of discovering mechanisms that can carry out mental functions. So one aspect of consciousness is that it has certain effects and scientists can explain how those effects are physically achieved. But according to many philosophers, we won’t understand everything about what it is to have a subjective point of view even after we’ve mapped all of those causal roles of how an organism categorizes its environment, accesses its internal states, controls its behaviour, and so forth. The Hard Problem, then, is to explain the nature of what are called qualia, which are the facts that mental states feel a certain way—so that the philosopher Thomas Nagel can ask what it’s like to be a bat and we can intuit that that question is meaningful, because even were the mental states of the members of all species to have similar evolutionary functions, the qualitative aspect of those states should differ. Thus, it would be redundant to speculate about aliens from another world, because for millions of years ours has been proliferated with animals that have alien viewpoints.
In short, the relatively Easy Problem is to explain the neural mechanisms that carry out the work done by a conscious being in so far as that being is conscious, whereas the Hard Problem is to understand where consciousness in general fits into the mostly unconscious universe. The former problem takes for granted the scientific context of reducing phenomena to causal relations between sums of material elements. The latter problem requires you to hold in mind the qualitative essence of consciousness itself, not just the physical causes and effects of subjectivity, while simultaneously realizing that the anomaly of consciousness somehow belongs in a manifestly unaware and indifferent cosmos. What consciousness does is different from what it is. The former question is scientific, while the latter one is philosophical since what consciousness seems to be—namely the qualia, the having of a private viewpoint filled with meaningful mental contents that are felt to be such by the mind of a living creature—is in fact an anomaly that calls into question the completeness of the scientist’s world picture. Science explains by quantifying and objectifying, whereas consciousness seems to be the antithesis of anything that could be explained in those ways. Consciousness is perfectly subjective, so an objective account of it would miss the point. Moreover, scientific methods of explanation have the social function of empowering modern societies, since scientific theories are applied by industries to exploit natural processes. Conscious beings, however, seem to have moral rights which any such exploitation would violate. Thus, again, the Hard Problem is suited more to (relatively powerless) philosophy than to science.
The Strangeness of Life and Consciousness
The Hard Problem of understanding consciousness is similar to that of understanding life in general, since the existence of organisms on the outskirts of a lifeless galaxy is likewise bizarre. How consciousness emerges from unconscious processes is currently as baffling as how life emerges from nonlife. In either case there’s a discontinuity that makes for the anomaly’s weirdness. The concept of consciousness or of life is incommensurate with that of physical things as such. Granted, after Darwin and Watson and Crick, biologists understand organisms better than psychologists do consciousness, but even as we come to piece together how biological processes developed, such as by studying viruses and other borderline biological phenomena, life’s rarity, its divergence from almost all of the absurdly vast universe makes it strange and that strangeness makes for a hard problem indeed: even if the organic somehow mechanically or non-miraculously evolved from the inorganic, there remains the question of life’s potential as understood against the backgrounds of that natural origin and that alienated position. What are living things in so far as they’re natural anomalies? One event accidentally followed another, perhaps made probable by certain natural regularities, and so life came on the scene—and with life, the evolution of consciousness. But that’s only the history of how we got here. With that knowledge we can understand the mechanical side of ourselves, which empowers us to change our nature just as we tinker with our technology. Yet that technoscientific knowledge won’t encompass life’s weirdness in this, mostly lifeless universe or dictate what living things should do with themselves in light of that existential mystery.