My mind, my thoughts, my words

The hard problem

Phenomenological Psychology studies how people experience consciousness, the qualitative sensation of mental states and our awareness of the experience. Qualitative states of consciousness bring up a ‘hard’ problem – the mind-body problem. If states arise from a physical basis, how is it that there is a subjective component to sensory experience? Even if all relevant functions can be explained, the problem of experience will persist (Chalmers, 1995).

Nagel (1974) puts it that way: Physical states are objective while experiences are subjective. Pain has a typical input (tissue damage) and typical output behaviour (e.g. moaning), but it is pain because it is experienced as such. Neural mechanisms respond to tissue damage and trigger pain response, but why do we experience pain and not itching? Furthermore, the degree of pain and the way it’s actually perceived will vary from person to person. This uniqueness to experiences, our ability to be aware of it, to think about actions from the outside and express it through language makes us conscious beings. But how can we account for consciousness?

There are four important concepts that exemplify consciousness, i.e. what it means to be me and human and that the quality of my experience differs from everyone else’s. We all may be conscious but my consciousness is qualitatively different to your’s.

  • Intentionality is centralto an experience, as it is about something and directed due to its content or meaning.
  • The way I experience something (noema) is furthermore subjective. I am experiencing for example a dream first-personally – I am not dreaming someone else’s dream. I can look at it from a personal point of view, taking into account my life history and interpreting it in a way that makes sense to me. My dream is unique to me in terms of its content and my experience of it, and it is private in that no-one would know about it unless I told them. Even if someone received all my memories and had the same dream, it would still end up being different due to non-identical brain structures, and it would be their dream, not mine. Subjectivity gives rise to the other-mind problem raised by Descartes, as I only really know about my being, but could never prove that anyone else was conscious too, even if they said so (Ithink therefore I am).
  • This leads to the importance of sense of self: there is something that it is like to be me, my identity. I can understand my Self through reflection and language, and a dream is (for me) exactly that: A reflection on myself and my experiences which make me who I am now.
  • Last but not least, also free will gives me identity. It is what makes me feel autonomous and in control of my life. Even though there are things (other people, society…) that influence and determine certain experiences and decisions, I can still consciously lead my life the way I want it.

Consciousness always seemed obvious to me because of my ability to think about it (which brings to mind Descartes’ quote again: I think therefore I am). It is interesting and challenging to think about what other ‘parts of self’ may make us ‘aware beings’ and it is curious whether we will ever know for sure about our ‘being’,that of non-human animals, plants, or even things….


Chalmers, D. (1995) Facing up the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3), pp. 200-219.

Nagel, T. (1974) What it is Like to be a Bat. Philosophical Review 83(4), pp. 435-450.


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