Consciousness Made ‘Easy’: The Perspective of a Lay Enthusiast
As David Chalmers discovered in searching for a fundamental theory of consciousness, taking as starting point the assumption that conscious experience resides in a domain of the mind separate from that of cognitive functioning creates an explanatory ‘hard’ problem, in that no matter how much progress one makes in elucidating the mechanisms underlying cognitive functioning, the question always remains why does conscious experience accompany all that cognitive functioning.
Chalmers was inspired by that problem to postulate an extension of physical reality in which the apparent explanatory gap becomes bridged by laws of a ‘psychophysical’ nature.
A similar ‘hard’ problem of consciousness does not emerge, however, if one starts with the assumption that only one domain of the mind exists: cognitive functioning. In that case, one could only find conscious experience in the cognitive domain, and therefore the activity of a particular kind of cognitive process renders conscious experience as much subject to functional analysis as such cognitive functions as perception and learning. One can then understand consciousness-constituting cognitive functioning at the same level of understanding as that which one understand other cognitive functions.
Progress in that approach, however, requires a conception of conscious experience in terms of cognitive functioning, a conception that accords with our intimate acquaintance with conscious experience, yet does not leave open the question why conscious experience should accompany the cognitive functioning. We can derive such a conception from the postulation that whenever experiences an object consciously, the cognizing system concurrently cognizes two different realities: (1) the reality of the object itself, and, (2) the reality of the activity of cognizing the object. Just as the external object qualifies as a reality that serves as the object of cognitive functioning by the cognizing system, the activity of that cognitive functioning itself qualifies as a reality that may serve as the object of cognitive processing. In the absence of this additional information processing, the perception of object presumably occurs non-consciously—-in the dark—-since by our starting assumption no separate domain of conscious experience exists for it to reside in.
Extra work in the cognitive domain needs doing for the system to experience the object consciously. That extra work: cognitive processing of the information consisting of perceiving and reacting to that object. In cognitive terms, a system that consciously experiences an external object does so in virtue of its concurrently cognizing object and cognition of object: co-cognition of object and cognition of object. The object not only gets perceptually cognized, but at the same time cognized as getting perceived. The system not only reacts to the object but to it as an object.
The project of understanding conscious experience then becomes the admittedly nontrivial but Chalmerian 'easy' one of understanding how the experiencer applies cognitive processing of information to the real activity of cognitive processing of information about the realities of our potentially consciously experienceable world.