The hard problem of metaphysics

This is an adjusted paper which I originally wrote in 2014 after coming up with the main argument in 2013 and almost breaking my brain over it. Simply put, if we can only know of consciousness by being conscious, then what else could there be out there that could be hidden in plain sight like consciousness hides in plain sight for the non-conscious? It seems an exhilarating, because it means there might be something very significant and interesting “out there”, yet frustrating because it’s almost per definition inconceivable for us, much like a p-zombie of sorts would have absolutely no clue and hope to know what we speak of when we say we feel pain when we hurt physically.


From a complete description of the universe we seem to be able to exhaustively derive a totality of all facts about the universe, save for one key phenomenon: consciousness. I argue that if consciousness is only knowable through the unique metaphysical relation we bear to it, then it necessarily follows that other significant phenomena may exist in our universe we don’t know about without the necessary metaphysical relation(s). I explore ways of framing this idea and investigating it conceptually. I discuss finding hints in our universe to discover other potentially obscured phenomena.  I then discuss basic objections and offer replies. Finally, I discuss possible implications and avenues of exploring this idea that are beyond the scope of this post.


Introduction

Scientifically and philosophically, it is broadly accepted that humans are conscious in the sense that we have inner phenomenal lives – a what-its-likeness to our existence or at the very least, according to some, an illusion thereof. You get kicked in the shin, it hurts. An extension to this acceptance is, that this what-its-likeness is only knowable through itself – it doesn’t seem like its existence can in principle be derived or known from any description of the universe. To know of experience, one must undergo experience. It is only by this metaphysical relation we bear to consciousness that we know of it.

If consciousness is an exception to the rule that everything is knowable through the description of the universe, then it cannot be ruled out that there may be more exceptions. Stated more broadly, it cannot be easily ruled out that in fact other potentially significant phenomena are entirely obscured from us – entirely unknown, hidden in plain sight, and knowable or accessible through one or more metaphysical relations, which are also entirely unknown to us. 

To continue exploring this, I will describe how consciousness  needs to be framed for the sake of this argument, and how the other parts of the argument come together or apart. I will then question what this argument implies in the metaphysical sense and how we may attempt to say something about a possible unknown of this sort.

The core of the argument

This argument rests on consciousness as a phenomenon only being knowable through being itself – that it cannot be inferred through other means. That if a non-sentient robot, would observe and communicate with us, be able to hold all key facts about us and our behavior in its cognitive system, it would never in principle be able to guess the existence of consciousness. That when we scream in pain there are not just observable signals that travel from A to B in our body triggering behaviors, but that we feel something when this happens. This unique metaphysical relation forms the basis for the premise of the argument put forth in this post.

To make clear the point of this argument, to make it as robust as it can be and to bare exactly the core assumptions minimally required to accept it, I’d like to establish the following:

  1. While the focus is on phenomenal consciousness, that is, the what-its-likeness of consciousness, it is not necessary to accept any particular position in debates on phenomenal consciousness to go along with the core argument. It is therefore best to frame consciousness or at least consider it for the sake of argument, in a bare minimum way, where it is simply the referent or explanandum that fuels the argument. So we treat consciousness not as that which is explained in such and such way, but as that about which there is an ongoing debate. So whether one accepts qualia or not, with whatever qualities, or considers some parts of or all of consciousness an illusion (more on this in the “objections and replies” section), is not the point. That one has an explanandum about which to have such considerations at all, is the point
  2. It may very well be that there are in fact other metaphysical relations by which we may know of or access consciousness. That doesn’t change the fact that we have been contemplating consciousness philosophically for millennia and investigating it scientifically for centuries, without becoming acquainted with other such relations. And that in itself would then still be an ample argument to take very seriously the idea there may be more significant phenomena hidden from us in our universe.

Establishing the above may tempt us to think about other phenomena being only knowable through 1st person experience, or somehow having to be “directly accessible through themselves” – as is the case with consciousness, but that is not the argument nor necessary to make the argument. There may indeed be such phenomena and undoubtedly can be very exciting – novel qualia and beyond – but what we’re after here is grasping the very relation by which we arrive at the notion of consciousness. The relation by which we know of consciousness –  1st person experience, knowing, could itself be differently framed by virtue of acquaintance with other unknown phenomena in our universe.  Just like consciousness seduces us to make conceptual divisions like the first- and third-person perspective,  whatever else might be out there could yield new metaphysical considerations and taxonomies, classifications of a sort we cannot imagine.  But I argue we can at least imagine, is that other such relations might exist. And how we might figure out what is out there I dub the hard problem of metaphysics, which a wink to Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness as well as the meta-problem of consciousness.

So there are two parts to what this argument suggests: a relation by which we know a phenomenon (direct experience in the case of consciousness), and the phenomenon itself (consciousness). The question at this point is: what other phenomena might there be out there and by what relations would they reveal themselves or could we know of them? This may seem like fairly certain and relatively concrete grounds on which we can conduct further investigation – however –  we have to question further whether separating the phenomenon from the relation, would apply across the board for all other phenomena, or whether they would call for entirely different classification of parts and relations, insofar those may apply, and perhaps exist on a spectrum or spectra, whether they would call for a taxonomy to be made. While from our current vantage point it seems intractable to speculate on this, as mentioned previously, I find it still important to make note of it due to the, metaphysically and epistemically speaking, potentially revolutionary nature other “hidden” phenomena and relations we may bear to them. It may very well be that in our universe we have a richly populated space of interesting phenomena and relations, and yet are only acquainted with one.

At this point we can see that it seems very difficult if not impossible to deny the possibility of other significant phenomena unknown to us, yet it is even more difficult and likely impossible to imagine them. What else can be said about it, then? Is it worthy of any speculation? I tend to think that it is, however, difficult it may be.

Firstly, consciousness is an extremely significant part of our existence. This tells us it’s possible for such significant ontological categories to exist in a universe but be unknowable without a relation of “access” to them. Secondly, like biological agency is at least an interesting descriptive case from which we could never infer consciousness as previously established, but at least suspect something interesting is going on when comparing say, a rock to a human. So too may we hope to find similar clues in descriptions of the universe that may indicate there is more to them than their description.

If we want to be bold, we could even say: in any universe where we know of a phenomenon solely through a unique metaphysical relation we have to it, we must consider that more such phenomena may exist in that universe.

Objections and replies

Initially, it may seem there are two main ways to knock down this argument. One way is to deny that consciousness is only knowable through itself and demonstrate it can be indeed knowable through other means, akin to Chalmers’ debunking argument about beliefs about phenomenal consciousness. However, we should stress that if there are other ways of knowing it, we can still posit that it’s difficult to “access” and other interesting, hard-to-access phenomena may be out there, as mentioned earlier. A second way would be to claim and demonstrate consciousness is the only conceivable or possible phenomenon that is the exception to the knowability of facts through description of this universe.

Here are three examples where objections could come from.

(1) Objection: “Consciousness can be known of indirectly or inferred.”

Reply: This is not established and therefore the onus is on the claimant making this objection to demonstrate how consciousness can be known indirectly. Surely a non-sentient intelligence or agent could gather that in terms of entropy, biological life is interesting, and perhaps the a concept of agency could be established – but if like in the philosophical zombie there is “nothing going in there” with regards to the assessing non-sentient, non-conscious agent or intelligence, there seems to be no way, in principle, for it to even guess the existence of consciousness. Such an agent could at most make only an argument akin to the argument this very post puts forth that there may be “more out there”, if and only if it had anything to go on, like I argue we do, thanks to consciousness. In any case, if I could even begin to imagine how this objection would sound, I would not have written this post.

(2) Objection from physics: “Our knowledge of physics suggests other phenomena that may be hidden from us are unlikely or impossible to exist.” 

Reply: An exhaustive and descriptive account of the laws of physics obscures consciousness entirely from us as outsiders, so this argument would require specifying how physics can be used to speculate about the likelihood of other phenomena obscured from us. I think the biggest challenge here is that consciousness is a phenomenon that can be right in front of us, yet we’re blind to it unless we’re actually conscious ourselves. We can try making appeals to dimensions, for example, and speculate about where there is “room” for any phenomena, but the whole issue that the descriptive account doesn’t seem to give or leave any “room” for consciousness, yet here it is.

(3) Objection from philosophy of mind: “This argument relies on a particular position in philosophy of mind, it doesn’t apply if one is an eliminativist about qualia or an illusionist.”

Reply: The main thrust of this idea is agnostic as to one’s position on consciousness in philosophy of mind. Because this argument relies on consciousness, it may be misunderstood as an argument in philosophy of mind, or about mind, or rely on any particular position in philosophy of mind, but is in fact not and it does not. New qualia, different minds, while very fascinating, are also not what this argument is about. The argument is strictly about metaphysical relations of our universe that may exist and be entirely hidden from us – hidden in plain sight even. So if one is illusionist about consciousness, for example, then one could say: if consciousness is only knowable through itself, but illusory, other such relations may exist in our universe, and they too may very well (for all we know) be questioned in the sense illusionism questions what it considers the illusion of what-it’s-like-ness.  

Conclusion and further exploration

The premise that consciousness as a phenomenon is only knowable through the metaphysical relation we bear to it, seems unassailable, and therefore inevitable is the conclusion that other potentially significant phenomena which we may know of through other metaphysical relations may exist.

Further exploration of this idea may fall in roughly the following three categories:

(1) Investigating whether we can speculate at all about the likelihood of other phenomena being present in our universe, based on what we know about our universe and consciousness.

(2) Speculation about  how we might conduct an investigation to look for hints in our universe of other hidden phenomena.

(3) Surveying epistemic frameworks, taxonomizing discoverability of phenomena and arguments that may help frame the aforementioned pursuits.

As to its importance – I believe this is reflected in our ongoing millennia-old debates and investigations into mind and consciousness. There may be fascinating and significant phenomena out there as significant or more significant than consciousness. I hope it is as exciting to my readers as it is to me and that others will care to expand on the argument and explore it further.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank Paul So for valuable insights and comments in discussing the original paper for this idea.

2 thoughts on “The hard problem of metaphysics

  1. This is basically one of my favorite topics: what other phenomena might exist in the universe that we can only know ‘by experience’.

    Ahahaha, yes! This is totally one of my favorite topics :- ). And discussing the topic is difficult.

    I am already triggered by the abstract: “**consciousness is only knowable through the unique metaphysical relation we bear to it**”. What do you mean by this ‘we’ that bear some relation to ‘consciousness’? Yet, these details are mostly orthogonal. Mostly 😋.

    I see why the anti-panpsychism post was a precursor to this for the way you approach this point is easier if we have a clear “conscious and non-conscious” distinction in our running hypothesized model of reality.

    One of the responses to reading Chalmers’ ***The Conscious Mind*** was to conclude that “conceivability” type arguments are really fucking weak. At least, it’s hard to see how particularly strong conclusions can be drawn frem them. “I can conceive of a vague glimpse of this scenario, therefore the there is the possibility that a fully fleshed out coherent world including this vague glimpse exists. And where there is a theoretical possibility, it must be considered!” What if I can’t conceive of p-zombies? Is Chalmers’ deluding himself or am I simply not getting it? Blegh. Before reading TCM, I thought there was some reasonable exposition of it in the literature or something — turns out, so far as I can tell, there isn’t really. It’s just a rhetorical tool (and there are better ways to make the relevant points, but maybe they’re not so catchy ;-p).

    I might propose to start from a phenomenal base (”raw experience)”. The other mind problem is that we don’t know what it’s like to be another sub-system of the cosmos. At the extreme, one has solipsism (and then the emptiness of some traditions where one strips away the onions of one’s own phenomenal experience as “not what they appear”). I like the joke that when someone asks you how they know that you exist, you should just slog them upside the head. How do I know that other humans experience internal lives? People laugh at solipsism as absurd but I think it’s worth going through the steps.

    Phenomenally, I’d ask: do you have solid evidence of anything “non-conscious”? I see talk of “non-conscious” agents but how do you know these exist? Is it a sensible notion? The tired quip is that all my knowledge is within “conscious experience” — thus I have zero direct evidence or datums of “non-conscious X”. Thus this seems to be a purely hypothetical notion with no direct evidence. Can we frame “the hard problem of meta-physics” without relying on specious notions such as “non-conscious agents”?

    Starting from the present culture with many humans, language, and taking it for granted, of course, it’s silly. People say they enjoy and suffer feelings. They’re similar to us. We observe similar patterns on brain imaging devices. They act as we do when they say they feel as we do, roughly, right? — The crux of the argument is then one of similarity? There is phenomenal experience here and this sub-system of the cosmos appears similar to this one and also reports similar phenomenal experience, thus it seems the best hypothesis is that it really does!

    Will thalamic bridges bring about second person science as we gain direct access to the experiences of others? Perhaps? The sub-system Pawel w/o connection to Zar is different from the one w/ connection to Zar, so how do I know its experiences are the same? Maybe the light only comes on when connected to yours truly! Moreover, as ** mentioned, if my identity is preserved, then there’s actually a translation of Pawel’s neural content to Zar’s as a ‘message’, so it still rests on (less lossy) communication. And if my identity is not preserved as we mind-meld, then we’re but a new entity with its own “conscious experience” that has reason to doubt others” >:D. Err, but, yeah, the case is much stronger with this capacity!

    The adage is: “to know what it’s like to be X, you must become X.” Roughly speaking ;-p.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the classic game: where do we draw the red line as to what animals to eat? How some “rationalist skeptics” doubt animal cognitive capacities until they’re shown beyond a doubt. This choice is also mostly made by reference to how similar the entities are to us, right?

    So the argument is that this notion of “non-conscious” is a roundabout way of saying “not like us”. We suspect such entities are missing some phemonena of ours that we find important. Self-reflective sentient consciousness is perhaps more particular and includes some functional elements that allow us to rule out certain subsystems, I think. (I guess that’s my pan-psychist challenge that the onus is on you to demonstrate clear non-consciousness 😈.)

    Hmm, I guess this is how one gets into mysterianism. If I have zero datum aside phenomenal experiences of consciousness, then there is the vacuous truism that there’s no benchmark for comparison and usual methods of denotation via distinction don’t work. The fish in the water stuff. The metaphysical notion of “non-consciousness” is already an enigmatic significant phenomena that we can only indirectly speculate about?

    The idea that “everything is knowable through the description of the universe” except for consciousness is also suspect imo. What is this ‘everything’? An apple? What’s that? The map is not the territory, right? Every abstract description of an apple is derivable from some abstract theoretical core of theory + knowledge? In Constructing the World Chalmers includes the “taste of a succulent apple” as something “knowable”. Rightly so, imo. Separating “everything” and “knowledge items” from “phenomenal qualia” seems somewhat suspicious and I suspect some details are being swept under the rug.

    I suppose I find it easier to begin with baseline sensory exploration and their potential gaps before expanding to the metaphysical relations.

    How do we gain knowledge about the world? Via the sensory apparatuses of our human bodies (and then by extension via physical instruments that we’ve incrementally developed and tested). Our instruments have led to discovering phenomena that we’d have trouble discovering with our primitive senses (although it seems in dark romos human eyes can detect single photons!). How would we know that we were missing ultraviolet light or gamma rays from our sensory “physical relations”? Noticing that bees seem to respond to stimuli that are invisible to us? How do we know when our physical science is complete? We explain all known phenomena (of interest) to a 99.9999% accuracy? Maybe we’re just in a self-consistent bubble! 😛

    To play up the “god of the gaps”, so long as there’s some wiggle room, there could be whole worlds of subtly intriguing phenomena that come into play yet so long as we operate with Earth’s biological sensorimotor apparatuses and their technical extensions, we’ll probably write off those phenomena as “statistical noise” and not notice them.

    To go back to the Other Minds Problem, mystics claim entirely orthogonal modes of experience and knowledge acquisition, right? How do I know whether they’re right or not? I can go back to my trusty “functional alignment” hypothesis: if they exhibit novel behavior, maybe they’re onto something interesting! But if they claim they’re also acting in these orthogonal causal worlds that I have not accessed, well 🤷‍♂️🍄🤷‍♀️. If I can get my brain into the same physical states, the alignment hypothesis would say I should know for myself as the same physical relation is in play :- D.

    And these modes of interaction-with-the-world are all of this consciousness “metaphysical relation”. Would it even be adequate to call other metaphysical relations “modes of experience” or is “experience” already inundated in associations with “consciousness”?

    I’m totally remembering how you said this “nearly broke your brain” — how does one denote the possible existence of “phenomena” “of the cosmos” that bear no relation to consciousness (which pertains to all of this one’s knowledge). I think there’s some mutual information sort of argument that if they truly bear no relation, then Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt. Tough titties. We can’t rule them out nor can we meaningfully do much of anything with their hypothesized existence? If there is some non-zero mutual-information with the hitherto-knowable-of-consciousness universe, then there should be some lever by which to begin exploring? Even “non-conscious” almost seems more like “the unknown” to me but then mystics like utilizing contradictions to try to “catapult oneself” into the proximitiy of novel realms of experience that they thought it hard to reference directly.

    I guess in conclusion, I’m not quite sure how to best phrase the problem either! Mising operators of (expanded?) laws of physics, sure, but with the additional claim that they’re definitively “not of consciousness”…? 🤔. If anything, perhaps, I’d posit that the challenge is more insidious than you frame it (at least if one buys my challenge to the notion of “non-conscious entities”).

    I am mostly responding to point (3): “Surveying epistemic frameworks, taxonomizing discoverability of phenomena and arguments that may help frame the aforementioned pursuits.”

    So far as I can tell, we don’t see eye-to-eye on how to make sense of consciousnes and discuss it, finding each other’s epistemic frameworks mutually hard to follow. And perhaps different epistemic framework seem to suggest at different avenues of exploration! 🤠

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