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Pathways to Philosophy

Interview with David Chalmers

by Seher Yekenkurul


David Chalmers is Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, Director of the Centre for Consciousness, and ARC Federation Fellow. He works predominantly in the philosophy of mind and is primarily interested in consciousness, but also artificial intelligence and computation, philosophical issues about meaning and possibility, and the foundations of cognitive science and physics. He is the author of The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, keynote writer in Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem edited by Jonathan Shear, and editor of Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Other books include Toward a Science of Consciousness III: The Third Tucson Discussions and Debates: Complex Adaptive Systems, The Character of Consciousness and A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World.


Seher: It has been claimed that you are a contemporary dualist, which is that you hold the view that human beings are made up of two radically distinct constituents: body and an immaterial mind. Could you briefly explain the major schools of thought that attempt to understand the nature of the mind, and why you allege dualism as better for enhancing our understanding of Consciousness?

David: The basic question in the philosophy of mind is the mind/ body problem. What is the relationship between the mind and the body, between the mental and the physical? I suppose there are two or three basic schools of thought. Perhaps traditionally, the most popular is dualism which says there is the mental and the physical and they are separate, the mind is not physical and the body is not mental. In more recent years, the more popular has been materialism, the thesis that the mind is wholly physical, and mental states and properties are all physical states and properties. To complete the set, I guess you will also need the other natural view that everything is mental, that would be idealism. That is the thesis associated with Berkeley, popular one hundred to two hundred years ago, but not so popular today.

So these days, most people are materialists. They would like to think that consciousness is reducible to physical processes, that maybe the mind is somehow the brain. I started off this way myself coming in from the sciences, thinking that surely we must find a theory by which consciousness is physical, but I have come to the view that actually consciousness can't be wholly explained in physical terms, and therefore there is something which is non-physical about it.

Rene Descartes thought that there were two substances, there is the brain in your head and the mental substance somewhere else made of some kind of different stuff, and these interact with each other. I am not as radical as that; I think there are different properties, physical properties of our brain and mental properties of consciousness, and those properties cannot be explained in terms of each other. They both have to be taken as irreducible.

Now you want to ask, what are the reasons for this view, why do I hold this view? Well that is complicated. The basic intuition that gets it all going is that there seems to be an explanatory gap between an explanation of, say, the brain processes, and an explanation of consciousness. We like the idea that in science we are going to get a chain of explanations that goes all the way up from physics to chemistry to biology to whatever. But there still is this problem of consciousness. Putting together any amount of information on, say, neurons and the connections within the brain and so on, always leaves this gap. Why is it that there feels like there is something in the inside, that consciousness is a first person phenomenon whereby one may have an experience of the world or oneself from the first person point of view. And no physical explanation anyone has ever given to date tells one why there should be such a thing at all, the first person point of view. What I try to argue in my work is that there cannot be any such explanation.

Seher: The notion of hard problem of consciousness has been popularized by you. Could you explain more about it?

David: This is the problem about explanation that I mentioned a second ago. There has been a whole lot of work on consciousness, not just from philosophy, but from psychology, from neuroscience, medicine, and physics, whatever. But different people mean different things by consciousness. One person gives a theory of consciousness, but it may not mean what the other person means by consciousness. So here I find it useful to separate the problems.

In some sense when someone says, 'I want to talk about consciousness,' they might be talking about, say, some aspect of our behaviour or something we can do. I am conscious as opposed to asleep, I am standing up and I am responsive as opposed to being completely unresponsive. Here is something I can do, I can point to something over there and I can talk about it, those are all aspects of my being conscious of it. Those are interesting problems of consciousness but those are not the central thing. There doesn't seem to be such a huge problem of how science can explain how I can point to a thing, or talk about it or stand up as opposed to being awake, or being awake as opposed to being asleep. So those are among the quote 'easy' problems of consciousness, tied to behaviour and things that we do.

The 'hard' problem of consciousness is the problem of subjective experience, what it feels like from the inside. So when I look at you, or when I look around this room, I have visual experiences of the world and it feels like something from the first person point of view. Sounds sound like something, emotions feel like something from the inside, you are happy or sad, and thinking has a certain subjective quality. The hard problem of consciousness is to explain why we have that first person experience of the mind and of the world and how you can get that on a physical basis.

Seher: Are you optimistic that these hard problems will ever be solved?

David: See, my view is that there is no way to solve the hard problem of consciousness purely in physical terms. There is no way to give a purely physical explanation of why there is subjective experience. I think with the easy problems, we may well end up with a purely physical explanation of being responsive and being unresponsive, pointing to things, talking and so on. I don't think there is going to be a purely physical explanation of why we feel a certain way inside, and that is the hard problem.

It does not mean that there will be no theory of this phenomenon at all; it means that it will have to go purely beyond the reductive, physicalist explanations of consciousness that many people have sought, and to bring in a non-reductive element into the picture too. We need to add some further elements, some extra ingredients through our theory beyond the physical, to bring consciousness in.

Seher: What role does Neuroscience and Cognitive science play in the philosophical study of Consciousness?

David: There is no difference between the philosophy and the science, because we are all in this together, trying to figure out the nature of consciousness. The science has a lot to do with experiments, going to the lab, put the brain under the scanner. Just because I am a dualist, it does not mean that I will reject neuroscience. Neuroscience is very important in our understanding of consciousness.

The science is primarily about doing experiments, studying the brain to discover what areas of the brain are active when you are having a certain kind of conscious experience. Or psychologists studying your behaviour, how it is that people sometimes respond consciously or respond unconsciously. These experimental results tell us something about consciousness, but they leave a lot of the harder questions somewhat untouched. What neuroscience is telling us is neutral on the question of whether consciousness is physical or whether it is something extra that goes along with the physical, and I think this is one place where philosophy comes in.

I think it is very important to do philosophy in light of all the results coming out of neuroscience and psychology and so on. So I spent a lot of time going to those conferences, and reading those books and talking to those people, and the experimental results can tell you a lot about consciousness. At the same time one thing you will find in the study of consciousness is that it can take a huge amount of theoretical work to figure out just what it is that these results tell you, and that is something where the philosopher plays a role.

Seher: Panpsychism is a term that, 'applies views according to which a mental element is present in everything that exists'. Leibniz, Schelling, A. N. Whitehead have all agreed to this theory, and it has been claimed that you yourself are sympathetic to it. How does panpsychism relate to the study of consciousness?

David: Panpsychism is the view that basically everything has some consciousness in it. So, humans can be conscious, but what about animals, what about monkeys, about dogs, cats, mouse, and flies?

Panpsychism is the view that it goes all the way down. I am sympathetic to panpsychism, but I don't know that it is true. It might be true, it might be false. The trouble with consciousness is that you cannot measure it from the outside, you cannot measure it in another person, you cannot measure it in a dog, and you cannot measure it in a fly. It is an idea that goes back to all kinds of Eastern traditions that there is some consciousness that may be present in all matter.

I think this is an idea that philosophy ought to take seriously. You get a certain attractively unified picture of the world from saying that there is consciousness all the way down there in matter, and our level of consciousness just emerges out of it. It makes for a nice metaphysical system. Philosophers tend to be conservative and say, 'well, that seems way out. ' It is certainly a speculative, metaphysical view, but I think we have learnt from contemporary science that the world is a strange and interesting place.

Seher: You state in your book The Conscious Mind: 'We can say that a mental state is conscious if it has a qualitative feel - an associated quality of experience. ' Could you describe qualia and the p-zombie theory?

David: Qualia are what I was talking about before, the subjective qualities of experience, what it feels like from the inside. Now, one of the ways you can make an argument against materialism is by the philosophical idea of the zombie. A zombie is a hypothetical creature that is physically identical to you or to me, but lacks consciousness.

Now, I know that I am not a zombie, I can tell you that. I believe that you are not a zombie. Probably there are no zombies out there in this world, but still, the intrinsic idea makes sense. There is no contradiction in the idea of a zombie, it is conceivable. I can suppose that you are sitting there talking to me now like a complete zombie, no consciousness at all. It is probably not that way, but the idea is not something I can rule out with certainty

As a philosopher, I put this idea by saying that maybe there are no zombies in this world, but it would have been within God's power to create a zombie if he had so chosen. I don't believe in God, but this is a useful metaphor. You have the idea that God created the world, and if he had so chosen, created a purely physical world just like this, but with no consciousness, that would have been a world of zombies. But that is not the world we got. We got a world of consciousness in it, we are not zombies. So that suggests that God has done some extra work after making the world physical by adding consciousness in too. And you can think of that as an argument against materialism.

Seher: Thomas Metzinger, Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz, participated in the Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul at UC Berkeley. In his lecture, Being No One: Consciousness, the Phenomenal Self, and the First Person Perspective, Metzinger claimed that if it is true that the self is not a thing but a process, then it is also true that the tragedy of the ego dissolves, because strictly speaking nobody is ever born and nobody ever dies. What is your opinion of this?

David: This is a question related to consciousness, but it is a somewhat different question, it is a question related to the self, the person, is there such a thing. So, I talked about consciousness, but what about the person who is conscious? I guess I might be inclined to think, yes I do exist, and so in that sense we have selves.

Selves are no big deal, they are just people, but they are things that actually have those conscious experiences which I have been talking about. Probably there was a time I did not exist; probably will be a time where I will fail to exist again. I guess some people, starting from the Buddhist traditions, believe that somehow there is something illusory about the soul, and that we are not so distinct from the world around us and others; that maybe this would makes us more continuous with the rest of the world, which will somehow alleviate the pain and suffering of our existence. I guess I am a conservative on this matter. I am inclined to think that we do exist, and you are just going to have to get used to all that pain and suffering.

Seher: Sigmund Freud composed the idea of several different levels of consciousness, namely the preconscious, waking consciousness and the unconscious. The unconscious mind is a reservoir of psychological repression and whether or not it exists has been heavily disputed. When you look at the neurological illness Conversion Disorder, you will find that the individual can temporarily paralyse themselves, induce short-term blindness or deafness or attacks that appear like epilepsy that are not intentionally produced and yet without any medical explanation. What is your opinion of the psychoanalytic unconscious mind?

David: The psychoanalytic unconscious mind, as you say, is very controversial in contemporary science and in contemporary philosophy. Freud was a brilliant guy, and his development of the idea of the unconscious is extremely influential, in philosophy and science as well as in psychoanalysis.

A lot of people accept his main premise that there are extremely powerful unconscious processes in the mind, and consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. I think that is orthodoxy now; Freud is widely taken to be right about that. Still, the question is whether the unconscious works the way that Freud thought it worked, all these extremely complicated dynamics that is highly effective, and highly emotional subconscious goals and beliefs and desires.

A lot of people think there is the unconscious, but maybe not as rich as Freud thought it was. For example, mainstream contemporary linguistics posits unconscious processing of language. There is such a thing as unconscious perception and unconscious memory, but maybe it is not quite as exciting or smart as Freud thought. The unconscious is very complicated and there is a lot of stuff going on, but certainly Freud's specific theory about extraordinary dynamic nature of what is going on under the surface of the conscious has not been substantiated.

Seher: You studied undergraduate mathematics at the University of Adelaide before changing to philosophy. What brought about this change? Why did the study of consciousness appeal to you?

David: My background was in mathematics and it always seemed to me that now in mathematics and physics and so on, we understand a lot of the basics and the foundations, filling in the holes and filling in details, and you do get a bit of a sense of that. In studying mathematics, I had this yearning to study questions where we really did not understand, where we would have been five hundred years ago in say physics. And it struck me that those questions were in the study of the mind and consciousness.

I started becoming obsessed about these questions on consciousness. It started in Adelaide first, and I went to Oxford to study mathematics, but I spent my whole time there thinking about consciousness and it became an obsession for me. So I had to give away the mathematics. I went into philosophy because that was the best way to get the bigger picture on these questions on consciousness, as opposed to sitting in a lab and slaving away on a little piece of the puzzle. The nice thing about being a philosopher is that you can come up with these things all at once, for you can pay attention to neuroscience and psychology and the big metaphysical questions all at the same time.

Seher: And finally, who is your favourite philosopher and why?

David: I am not sure I have a favourite philosopher! I am a big admirer of Rudolf Carnap, actually. He is a logical empiricist from the early to mid twentieth century. There are certain standards of clarity that went into Carnap's work, and certain things that he pursued in a technical way. I really admire how he pulled philosophical questions down to their fundamentals, and also his sense of optimism of philosophical progress, that philosophical problems are here to be solved, that we can get to the end, we can get to the bottom of things.

Seher: Thank you, David.

© Seher Yekenkurul 2006

E-mail: s3yekenkurul@students.latrobe.edu.au