On the “Structural qualia: a solution to the hard problem of consciousness” by Kristjan Loorits

The hard problem of consciousness, the question of how conscious experiences (qualia) arise out of brain activity, is haunting neuroscientific community so much, because there doesn’t seem to be any plan, any idea on how to even tackle this issue. Kristjan Loorits in his new article Structural qualia: a solution to the hard problem of consciousness, building on work done by Francis Crick and Christoff Koch, proposes that the best way to proceed is to analyze the structure of qualia (what they are composed of, how do they relate to themselves and to brain activity), so that they will be much easier for science to explain them, by linking them (by causal relations or other) to already known facts.

Scientific scrutiny has not yet devour conscious experience as it has for many phenomena knows to us. Consciousness has these peculiar characteristics that deem it immune – or so it seems – to any attempts at empirical analysis. These characteristics are: indivisibility (a particular conscious experience doesn’t seem to be composed of anything more fundamental), private nature (one cannot observe other people’s experiences), quality (each experience is unique, unlike any other, for example a sound of a duck is completely different than how a duck appears visually).

The hard problem of consciousness, introduced into the philosophical and scientific discourse by David Chalmers, is the question about how does public (one could say publicly visible, even if by a sophisticated brain imaging technique) neural activity gives rise to the very richness of our conscious lives – how does the activity of bundles of neurons “generate” the feeling of looking at the sky or the specific painfulness of hitting one’s elbow? The hard problem of consciousness is about the link between the visible neuronal activity and conscious experiences that are not visible “from outside”, that is by other people other than the subject actually having them.

We would like to have a theory of consciousness that would help us describe, explain, understand specific features of consciousness. A good theory of consciousness would allow us to tell why a particular pattern of neuronal activity leads to a particular quale. That is, we would like to know why this pattern leads to this quale and not that quale, and why this pattern leads to a quale but a different pattern is not associated with any conscious experience. A good theory would also tell us how is it done – how does the neuronal activity “generate” consciousness. That would be helpful, if we would want to create a conscious machine. Such a theory could also suggest ways to categorize qualia based only on patterns of neuronal activity. We could, in principle, know what color a person is seeing based only on readings of this person’s brain activity.

Is there something that a theory of consciousness would not be able to do, even if we wanted to? In the literature one can find a thought experiment called “Marry the neuroscientist”. Marry is a neuroscientist, who has been brought up in a black and white environment. She has never experienced any colors (red, green, blue…) except for shades of gray. Marry is given all knowledge about the working of the brain, the visual system, and she is given a theory explaining how an experience of seeing color red arises. Will Marry be able to use this knowledge to really see red? Most likely not, as knowing is not the same thing as doing. Loorits aptly states that if the experience is “generated” by a specific neuronal pattern of activity, then for someone to actually experience a given quale such a pattern must take place in her brain. Knowledge about neurobiology will not excite Marry’s brain in the way that looking at a rose would, therefore she will not see colors.

Loorits founds his arguments on Crick and Koch’s work on consciousness. The idea is that the structure of a quale is a network of nodes (neurons) in the brain. That is the structure of a quale is a network of (mostly unconscious) associations between the particular experience (for example, quale of seeing red) and most of the experiences in one’s life, when the quale has occurred. Thus, the meaning of a quale is this network of associations between other experiences.

On this account a person experiences a particular quale, when a given ensemble of neurons reaches certain threshold. Then associated nodes are not excited enough to also reach this threshold, but enough to influenced by the ensemble. The “attitude” of the person is slightly shifted towards the ensemble that has reached the threshold, thus making the person consciously aware of its structure, i.e. experiencing a given quale. The person understands the quale, because the activity of the associated (but largely unconscious) network has also changed slightly.

Loorits mentions an eliminativist position of Daniel Dennet (1991) that uses an example of learning to hear fine details of a guitar sound. Guitar sound can be decomposed into overtones, or constituent parts of the sound. Doing this, we are told, enables us to see that we have many misconceptions about our own perceptions – if we had thought that a specific guitar sound is a coherent whole, undecomposable, and then heard the components of this sound, essentially deconstructed a quale, then it is very likely that all experiences can be decomposed into something else, and the problem of consciousness becomes just a misconception. However, Loorits disagrees. Dennet’s example can be used to see that we can bring to consciousness some part of the unconscious association network, so that we can identify that the original experience of a sound has a rich internal structure. This example is very important actually. Loorits’ position is that it shows why qualia are so different from each other. Each quale is a completely different activation of some association network, and this network as a whole determines that a quale is of seeing red or hearing a guitar. Loorits calls this qualitative, differentiating aspect of conscious experiences “suchness”.

What about the hard problem of consciousness then?

Loorits, in his own words, writes:

[A fully structural account of consciousness] answers the question of how phenomenal consciousness could possible “rise” from neural activity: if the hypothesis is correct, then the phenomenal consciousness simply is a certain complex pattern of neural activity: a pattern of patterns of patterns etc. of some simple neural events.

Here, phenomenal experiences, or qualia, are identical to patterns of neuronal activity. Why then can’t we see them on a brain scan? As mentioned above, seeing someone else’s experiences would require having the same (or sufficiently similar) patterns to arise in one’s brain, and that is just not possible just by looking at a picture or a movie of a brain activity.

[A fully structural account of consciousness] answers the question of why is there something “it is like to be” conscious: if “qualia are simply those properties that characterize conscious states according to what it is like to have them,” as Chalmers (2003, p. 135) puts it, then neuroscientifically intelligible structural account of qualia is also neuroscientifically intelligible structural account of why there is something it is like to be conscious. In other words, the question of why is there something it is like to be conscious is, according to Chalmers, the question of why qualia exist. And the main reason why we are scientifically more puzzled by the existence of qualia than, for example, by the existence of hydrogen atoms, chairs or neural processes, is that in the case of the latter we could easily understand how they are analyzable in fully structural terms (even though we might not have such an analysis ready at hand), but in the case of qualia we cannot. But once we succeed in analyzing qualia in fully structural terms and identifying those structures with certain neural activity patterns, the question of why qualia exist can be seen as a question of why those neural activity patterns exist.

We can characterize phenomena by analyzing their structure, behavior, causal properties, function, and so on. Attempts at doing this with qualia are now beyond our reach. However as the technology progresses maybe we’ll be able to capture a pattern of brain activity in a network, identify its structure, and possibly use this knowledge to characterize, analyze and explain conscious experiences.

In essence, finding out the structure of conscious experiences will enable us to decompose them, relate their components to already known facts of neurobiology and phenomenology, and thus expose qualia to scientific analysis.

The proposal is appealing. I am very sympathetic towards the approach. However I’m not sure that I can so easily jump from threshold activations of neuronal ensembles to weird feelings that I experience when looking at the text that I’m typing right now. Black letters, almost white background, a slight discomfort in the wrists…

The article under scrutiny in this post:

Loorits K (2014) Structural qualia: a solution to the hard problem of consciousness. Front. Psychol. 5:237. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00237

Relevant references in Loorits’ article:

Crick, F., and Koch, C. (1998). Consciousness and neuroscience. Cereb. Cortex 8, 97–107. doi: 10.1093/cercor/8.2.97

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Koch, C. (2004). The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Englewood: Roberts and Co.

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