The Meta-Problem of Consciousness with David Chalmers


The hard problem of consciousness

Why and how physical processes give rise to consciousness. This often refers to phenomenal consciousness or “what it’s like to be a subject”.

Phenomenally conscious:

  • For a system, if there something it’s like to be it.
  • For a mental state, if there something it’s like to be in that state.

This includes, visual and other sensory experiences, bodily sensations, mental imagery, emotions

The hard problem is by contrast with the “easy” one of explaining behavioral/cognitive functions like the integration of information in the brain, etc. To explain them we find a neural or computational mechanism that do it.

However, for all of these explainable functions there are open questions: why do we experience them? why does this processing not happen in the background? There is a gap between physical processes and experiences.

Approaches to the hard problem

  • Consciousness is irreducible. Dualism, panpsychism, idealism.
  • Consciousness is reducible. Functionalism, biological or quantum materialism.

Third approach, go meta

Instead of trying to solve the problem: why do we think that consciousness poses a problem?

Phenomenal reports of consciousness

We often make verbal reports of conscious experiences: e.g. “I am conscious”. In principle, these could be easily explained with cognitive functions.

Problem reports

When we express our sense that it is a problem: “There is a hard problem of consciousness”, “It seems nonphysical”.

Those problem reports have no obvious explanation: the meta problem of consciousness is explaining those reports.

The meta-problem

Seems easier than the hard problem, with close ties that could inform us about the hard problem itself if we solve it.


Consciousness is an illusion. We believe that we have that special property that poses problem but we don’t really explain why we have those beliefs. Therefore solving the meta problem could dissolve the problem.

This has been a successful view adopted by several philosophers.


Consciousness isn’t an illusion and solving the meta-problem won’t dissolve the hard problem. But the meta-problem is interesting in its own right.

Interdisciplinary research program

Are the intuitions about the problem of consciousness universal or cultural/local? Empirical work needs to be done but there is already a lot regarding in particular:

  • Belief (e.g. false beliefs in infants)
  • Self
  • Distribution of consciousness (e.g. in robots)

Possible solutions to the meta-problem

  1. Introspective models of self
  2. Phenomenal concepts
  3. Introspective opacity
  4. Primitive quality attribution
  5. Primitive relation attribution
  6. The sense of acquaintance

Some possible summary with a bit of all:

We have introspective models deploying introspective concepts of our internal states that are largely independent of our physical concepts. These concepts are introspectively opaque, not revealing any of the underlying mechanisms. Our perceptual models perceptually attribute primitive perceptual qualities to the world, and our introspective models attribute primitive mental relations to those qualities. These models produce the sense of acquaintance both with those qualities and with our awareness of those qualities.

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