The Hard Problem


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2016


The simplest form of the enquiry about the Body and Mind is the question: how does a sensation emerge in response to a physical trigger?  It is interesting to note that the physical trigger is consumed by the body; for example, molecules emitted from a flower get completely ‘swallowed’ by the olfactory nerve, becoming thus part of the makeup of cells of the related sense organ.  The received molecules impact the input of neurons, which release at the output related electrical pulses.  

The question then can be reduced to: how can these electrical pulses lead to experiencing sensation?

It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.  Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?  It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.  (Chalmers 1995)

In other words, our view (or assumption) of the physical giving rise to life clashes with reality.   Dualism leads to a deadlock.  It is reasonable, then, to examine the subject under another light of inspection than Dualism.

The ‘hard problem’ is based on the assumption that ‘distinct aspects are irreconcilable': the physical and mental are distinct and separate.  Nonduality suggests that distinct things are reconcilable, and that the physical and mental are distinct but inseparable.

The Perspective of NonDuality

According to Nonduality both aspects, physical and mental, share in a common indivisible process.    What we see by the senses is the physical aspect only.  The mental aspect, which pertains to information related to the object (meaning and potentials), is not perceivable by the physical organs.

The aspect of information, being a property of the physical aspect, is expressed best by the example of genes, where the genetic information is in the formation of the physical components of the strand.   There is no gap here between the physical and encoded information.  In fact, this is what Chalmers has suggested:

The “hard problem” of consciousness, Chalmers said, might be solved by assuming that information – along with matter and energy – is a fundamental property of reality. (Hogan 2016)

Information (such as memory of past events) is encoded within a neural arrangement.  We do not know how information is encoded, but in the current discussion this knowledge is not a focus; the focus is on the ability of neurons to reveal encoded information upon reception of appropriate triggers in the form of pulses.  Neural Coding, a branch of neuroscience, is the domain of study about how information is released upon electrical triggering of neurons.  (Hogan 2016)  

Physical matter is in constant interaction with the environment.  If a physical substance interacts with a living entity, then it has a potential to alter the mood of the living entity, if the mental aspect (mood) and the physical aspect (substance) share in one application.  Why the mental aspect is tuned to certain physical substances more than others is a different discussion, perhaps related to the concept of non-randomness.  The important thing to establish here is the potential of the physical to possess a dimension of information.

In a dialogue between Professor Guy Bourgeault of Montreal University (research on Bioethics) and Eastern philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, the subject of Nonduality of physical and mental was discussed.   Even a simple metal element, such as iron or lithium, for example, has the potential for interactions with processes regulating or influencing the mental domain.

Bourgeault: Now, we can study and measure brain function or activity according to ordinary physical and chemical rules.  For instance, today we use lithium to treat manic depression by reducing and controlling excessive deviations of enthusiasm and anxiety.  And this brings us back to the manifest continuity – in spite of ruptures – of matter and life, of matter and consciousness.

Ikeda: In the treatment of manic depression, the mind is a unified psychological system.  Lithium physically and chemically influences the brain, the nervous system and the other bodily organs, which comprise a unified physiological system.  Physical and chemical changes in the body influence hormone secretion, thus affecting physical and chemical conditions such as body temperature.  The psychological and physical systems are distinct yet they influence each other, and the Buddhist concept of “two but not two” considers them indivisibly one.  (Ikeda et al 2003:165)

The terms ‘physiological system’ and ‘psychological field’ are conventional expressions produced by our system of classification of roles or functions.  But from the perspective of nature (or impartial observation) there is just one process going on involving both.

If we accept that physical matter has a potential to carry information to the mental aspect, and that – within a system of memory – mental experiences get constantly recorded, then the association between the physical and mental becomes a process of encoding-decoding.  It is reasonable to suggest that the more an experience is related to aiding survival, the deeper it is engraved in the memory, because the memory itself is tuned to aiding survival.



- Chalmers, David (1995) ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’,  Journal of Consciousness Studies 1995

- Hogan, John (2016) ‘The Mind-Body Problem, Scientific Regress and “Woo”', Scientific American, July 2016  

- Ikeda, Daisaku; Simard, René; Bourgeault, Guy (2003) On Being Human, Evolution of Life and Birth of Humanity, Middleway Press