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Ivory Tower: The Hard Puzzle

By May 14, 2019 No Comments

There are two types of questions: Easy Questions and Hard Questions. Easy Questions arise when you encounter a problem that you don’t know how to answer, but for which you would recognize the solution if it were given to you. Hard Questions arise when you don’t know how to answer a question, and you don’t know whether you, or anyone else, would recognize an answer as such if one were presented. 

Easy Questions motivate scientific research. For instance, I am currently studying how symptoms of mental disorders interact to produce stable states of symptom activation. When I use mathematical simulations to study this, I usually assume that causal effects between symptoms are instantaneous. This is incorrect (e.g. effects of fear on avoidance behavior play out in minutes, while the effect of insomnia on concentration problems involves a time scale in the order of days). I don’t know exactly what happens to my models when different interactions run on different time scales and I also don’t really know how to study this question adequately. However, I am certain that, if I were given a set of clear answers, I would recognize these as being the answers to my questions. 

Easy Questions can be hard, but they are not remotely as hard as Hard Questions, which are typically delegated to philosophy rather than to science. The question of meaning is a good example of a Hard Question. Whenever we talk, follow traffic signs, or read the newspaper, we engage in symbolic communication that depends on the meaning of arbitrary pictorial forms (e.g. written language) or sound waves (e.g. speech). There are a lot of Easy Questions that you can ask about how this works. Science is making good headway on these questions: we have learned a lot about categorization learning, neural underpinnings of symbolic representation, relations between syntax and semantics, and many more issues. But there is also a Hard Question about meaning, namely: why do symbols have meanings at all? How do we project our mental life on inanimate materials like traffic signs and printed text in the first place? Here, the problem is not that I don’t know the answer – the problem is that I have no idea whether I would recognize an answer as such, if it were put before me.

Am I too dumb to understand the answers to Hard Questions? It’s definitely possible, but it may not be just me. In one of my favorite essays, the philosopher Colin McGinn argues that human beings in general lack the cognitive capacities to solve the problem of how the body relates to the mind. Fellow philosopher David Chalmers later argues that this is due to what he calls the Hard Problem of consciousness: Why do we have subjective experience? McGinn suggests that, just like a dog can’t understand Pythagoras’ theorem, we wouldn’t understand a solution to the mind-body problem even if it were handed to us on a plate. 

When Hard Problems meet Hard Questions, that spells trouble. The Hard Question of meaning is clearly related to the Hard Problem of consciousness, and to similar philosophical troublemakers like the problems of truth and free will. Perhaps all of them are conspiring together to create a Hard Puzzle: A set of Hard Questions that cannot be answered independently.

There are two types of questions: Easy Questions and Hard Questions. Easy Questions arise when you encounter a problem that you don’t know how to answer, but for which you would recognize the solution if it were given to you. Hard Questions arise when you don’t know how to answer a question, and you don’t know whether you, or anyone else, would recognize an answer as such if one were presented. 

Easy Questions motivate scientific research. For instance, I am currently studying how symptoms of mental disorders interact to produce stable states of symptom activation. When I use mathematical simulations to study this, I usually assume that causal effects between symptoms are instantaneous. This is incorrect (e.g. effects of fear on avoidance behavior play out in minutes, while the effect of insomnia on concentration problems involves a time scale in the order of days). I don’t know exactly what happens to my models when different interactions run on different time scales and I also don’t really know how to study this question adequately. However, I am certain that, if I were given a set of clear answers, I would recognize these as being the answers to my questions. 

Easy Questions can be hard, but they are not remotely as hard as Hard Questions, which are typically delegated to philosophy rather than to science. The question of meaning is a good example of a Hard Question. Whenever we talk, follow traffic signs, or read the newspaper, we engage in symbolic communication that depends on the meaning of arbitrary pictorial forms (e.g. written language) or sound waves (e.g. speech). There are a lot of Easy Questions that you can ask about how this works. Science is making good headway on these questions: we have learned a lot about categorization learning, neural underpinnings of symbolic representation, relations between syntax and semantics, and many more issues. But there is also a Hard Question about meaning, namely: why do symbols have meanings at all? How do we project our mental life on inanimate materials like traffic signs and printed text in the first place? Here, the problem is not that I don’t know the answer – the problem is that I have no idea whether I would recognize an answer as such, if it were put before me.

Am I too dumb to understand the answers to Hard Questions? It’s definitely possible, but it may not be just me. In one of my favorite essays, the philosopher Colin McGinn argues that human beings in general lack the cognitive capacities to solve the problem of how the body relates to the mind. Fellow philosopher David Chalmers later argues that this is due to what he calls the Hard Problem of consciousness: Why do we have subjective experience? McGinn suggests that, just like a dog can’t understand Pythagoras’ theorem, we wouldn’t understand a solution to the mind-body problem even if it were handed to us on a plate. 

When Hard Problems meet Hard Questions, that spells trouble. The Hard Question of meaning is clearly related to the Hard Problem of consciousness, and to similar philosophical troublemakers like the problems of truth and free will. Perhaps all of them are conspiring together to create a Hard Puzzle: A set of Hard Questions that cannot be answered independently. 

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