What If Consciousness Comes First?


Sharon Hewitt Rawlette, 2019



This explanatory gap is what is now commonly referred to as the “hard problem” of consciousness, thanks to a paper and book written by philosopher of mind David Chalmers some 20 years ago (1995, 1996). The decades since Chalmers’ statement of the problem have seen plenty of solutions proposed (Weisberg n.d.), but none of them has dealt satisfactorily with the core issue outlined above: that no physical property or set of properties can explain what it’s like to be conscious.


There is, however, one elegant solution to the riddle of how to explain the relationship between consciousness and physical properties. Many illustrious philosophers throughout history have held to this view, and if it is rarely considered today, this is likely because it requires such a radical shift in perspective. Nevertheless, if we are ever going to understand consciousness and its relationship to the physical world, I believe this is a shift we are going to have to make.


The key to resolving the hard problem of consciousness lies in the following observation. While physical properties cannot explain consciousness, consciousness is needed to explain physical properties.


As previously noted, physical properties are purely relational/dispositional. They don’t tell us what physical things are in themselves, only how they are related to other things (and how they are disposed to be related to them in the future). However, if all we ever have is relational/dispositional properties—that is, if everything is only defined in terms of other things—then, ultimately, we have defined nothing at all.


It’s as though someone created a very elaborate spreadsheet and carefully defined how the values in every cell would be related to the values in all of the other cells. However, if no one enters a definite value for at least one of these cells, then none of the cells will have values.


In the same way, if the universe is to actually exist, its properties can’t be exclusively relational/dispositional. Something in the universe has to have some kind of quality in and of itself to give all the other relational/dispositional properties any meaning. Something has to get the ball rolling.


That something (at least in our universe) is consciousness.


To read the full article, see the PsychologyToday website where the article is originally published.