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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 242-243 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/tcm.html
The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory
by David Chalmers
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
Reviewed by H. John Caulfield, Distinguished Research Professor, Fisk University, 1000 17th Ave., N. Nashville, TN 37208, USA.
The cover of David J. Chalmers book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory glows with favorable comments by such luminaries as Steven Pinker, Roger Penrose, and Douglas Hofstadter. Certainly, this is a “must read” book for anyone who hopes to contribute to our understanding of what consciousness is and how it arose. In it, Chalmers lays out in great detail what he considers to be the fundamental challenge to consciousness theory - something he calls the “hard problem.” He then offers his own preliminary solution to the problem - a new science of consciousness operating on top of our old reductive science but not contradicting it.
Prof. Chalmers is a philosopher who has devoted his career to thinking about consciousness. His conclusion is that consciousness is beyond possible understanding by modern science. Rather than propose a new mysterian approach, he proposes a new science that seems to me to assume the answer to the question asked. But, I get ahead of myself. In the remarks made so far, you can see why Penrose liked the book. The conclusions are identical to his, even though the arguments elicited by the two are quite different. I get the feeling that Chalmers embraced the need to go beyond current science far more reluctantly than did Penrose.
As I rather violently disagree with both philosophers, I must in fairness let Chalmers speak for himself in some excerpts that I believe give some of the essence of his argument.
“Trying to define consciousness in terms of more primitive notions is fruitless. One might as well try to define matter or space in terms of something more fundamental.” The physicist in me cannot resist noting that this is precisely what modern physics is doing. My prejudice is that philosophers should help clarify thoughts and work out their implications, but that they often overstep their domain when they announce the setting of a priori limits on future science.
“… consciousness is surprising. If all we knew about were the facts of physics, and even the facts about dynamics and information processing in complex systems, there would be no compelling reason to postulate the existence of conscious experience.” The essence of complex systems is that their results are surprising. Should being surprising be surprising?
“...’To be conscious’ in this sense is synonymous with ‘to have qualia,’ ‘to have subjective experience,’ and so on.” This is really the heart of Chalmers’ argument. Mere stuff - transistors, pulleys, squirrel cages, and the like obviously cannot really experience love or redness or even feeling unsatisfied by an argument. Clearly, something is missing from any reductive argument. We can describe the neural machinery of consciousness, but how does that third person description relate to the first person experiences of a conscious human? As posed, consciousness is something added. “Zombies” that behave like us can be conceived that have no conscious experience at all. Consciousness is something extra, something surprising, something unnecessary, something requiring a new science.
“Once we realize that consciousness is a further nonphysical fact and that there are independent psychophysical laws, …” And on and on goes the description of a new set of nonphysical laws that work on top of the ordinary physical laws -using but not overturning them.
I am one among many nonphilosophers who simply do not accept these arguments. This is not the place for a mock debate with an author who cannot defend himself, so I simply note the essence of a counter view. Chalmers assumes consciousness (even primitive consciousness as probably exists in salamanders and higher chordates) out of the picture from the beginning. Then he discovers that his picture has something missing. As he assumed consciousness off the conventional “reductive” scientific stage, he discovers that a new science must be developed to reinsert it. This highly abbreviated argument is fair neither to me nor to Chalmers, but it does show what direction a real debate might take.
Again, I urge everyone to read this book. The author seriously believes what he says. His supporters and followers are legion. This is an important book.
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© H. John Caulfield.
Caulfield, H. J. (2002). Review of The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David Chalmers. Human Nature Review. 2: 242-243.