With ‘The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory’ David Chalmers introduced a radical new element into the debate about consciousness when it was perhaps in danger of subsiding into unproductive trench warfare. Many found some force in his arguments; others have questioned whether they are particularly new or effective, but even if you don’t agree with him, the energising effect of his intervention can still be welcomed. Chalmers believes (and of course he’s not alone in this respect) that there are two problems of consciousness. One is to do with how sensory inputs get processed and turned into appropriate action; the other is the problem of qualia – why is all that processing accompanied by sensations, and what are these vivid sensations, anyway? He calls the first the ‘easy’ problem and the second, which is the real focus of his attention, the ‘hard’ problem. Chalmers is careful to explain that he doesn’t mean the ‘easy’ problem is trivial, just nothing like as mind-boggling as qualia, the redness of red, the ineffably subjective aspect of experience.
The real point, in any case, is his view of the ‘hard’ problem, and here the unusual thing about Chalmers’ theory is the extent to which he wants to take on two views which are normally seen as opposed. He wants behaviour to be explainable in terms of a materialist, functionalist theory, operating within the normal laws of physics: in fact, he ends up seeing no particular barrier to the successful creation of consciousness in a computer. But he also wants qualia which remain mysterious in some respects and which appear to be have no causal effects. He doesn’t quite commit himself on this last point: the causal question remains open (qualia might over-determine events, for example, having a causal influence which is always in the shadow of similar influences from straightforward physical causes) and he does not sign up explicitly to epiphenomenalism (the view that our thoughts actually have no influence on our actions) – but he thinks the current arguments for the opposite views are faulty. All the words in the mental vocabulary, on his view, acquire two senses: there is psychological pain, for example, which plays a full normal part in the chain of cause and effect, and affects our behaviour: and then there is phenomenal pain, which does not determine our actions, but which actually, you know, hurts .
Chalmers is surely a dualist, because he believes in two kinds of fundamental stuff, and he is an epiphenomenalist, because he believes our thoughts and feelings have no real influence on the world. Neither of these positions makes sense. The book pulls its punches in these kinds of areas. He says he does not describe his view as epiphenomenalism, but that the alternatives to epiphenomenalism are wrong. Now if you believe the negation of a view is wrong, you have to believe the view is right, don’t you? And what is this ‘causal over-determination’ business? So an event is caused by some physical prior event, and also caused by the qualia – but it would have happened just the same way if the qualia weren’t there? Chalmers says there’s no proof this is true, but no real argument to disprove it, either. How about Occam’s Razor? A causal force which makes no difference to events is a redundant entity which ought to be excised from the theory. Otherwise we might as well add undetectable angels to the theory – hey, you can’t prove they don’t exist, because they wouldn’t make any difference to anything anyway.
This aggressive attitude is out of place. I think you have to take on board that Chalmers is quite honest about not presenting a final answer to everything. What he’s about is taking the problems seriously. This has a certain resonance with many people. There was a gung-ho era of artificial intelligence when many people just ignored the philosophical problems, but by the time Chalmers published “The Conscious Mind” I think more were prepared to admit that maybe the problem of qualia was more substantial than they thought. Chalmers seemed to be speaking their language. Of course, this may be irritating to philosophers who may feel they had been going on about qualia for years without getting much attention. It irritates some of the philosophers even more (not necessarily a bad thing) when Chalmers adopts (or fails definitely to reject, anyway) views like epiphenomenalism, which they mostly regard as naive. But you really can’t say Chalmers is philosophically naive – he has an impressibve command of technical philosophical issues and handles them with great aplomb.
Oh, yes. All those pages of stuff about supervenience, for example. That’s exactly what I hate about philosophy – the gratuitous elaboration of pointless technical issues. I mean, even if we got all that stuff straight, it wouldn’t help one iota. We could spend years discussing whether, say, the driving of a car down the road supervenes under the laws of physics on the spark in the cylinder at time t, or under some conjunction of laws of modal counterfactuals, yet to be specified, with second-order laws of pragmatic engineering theory. Or some load of old tripe like that. It wouldn’t tell us how the engine works – but that’s what we want to know, and the same goes for the mind.
Well, I’m sorry but you have to be prepared to take on some new and slightly demanding concepts if we’re going to get anywhere. We can’t get very far with naive ideas of cause and effect: the notion of supervenience gives us a way to unravel the issues and tackle them separately. I know this is difficult stuff to get to grips with, but we’re talking about difficult issues here. You just want the answer to be easy.
Easy! It’s Chalmers who ignores the real problems. Look at dualism. It’s only worth accepting a second kind of stuff if it makes things easier to explain. If we could solve the problem of qualia by assuming they live in a different world, there might be some point. But we can’t: they’re just as hard to explain in a dualist world as they were in a monist, materialist one, and on top of that you have to explain how the two worlds relate to each other. Chalmers ends up with ‘bridging principles’, which specify that phenomenal states always correspond with psychological ones. This sounds like Leibniz’s pre-established harmony between the spirit and body, but at least Leibniz had God to arrange things for him! Chalmers actually has no way of knowing whether psychological and phenomenal states correspond, because he only ever experiences one of them (which one depends on whether it’s Phenomenal Chalmers or Psychological Chalmers we’re talking about, I suppose). The final irony is that it’s Psychological Chalmers who writes the books, because that’s a physical, cause-and-effect matter: but his reasons for writing about qualia can’t be anything to do with qualia themselves, because he never experiences them – only Phenomenal Chalmers does that… And we haven’t even touched on the stuff about how thermostats feel, and the mysterious appeal of panpsychism. But really, the worst of it is that the problem he’s inviting people to ‘take seriously’ is the wrong one. The whole ‘problem of qualia’ is a delusion.
On the contrary, it’s the whole point. You should read less Dennett and more by other people. Incidentally, it must be in Chalmers’ favour that neither Dennett nor his arch-enemy Searle has any time at all for Chalmers. He must be doing something right to attract opposition like that from both extremes, don’t you think?
Two points, though. First, if we want to make any progress at all, it’s going to involve contemplating some weird-looking ideas. All the mainstream ones have been done already. Chalmers is all about opening up possibilities, not presenting a cast-iron finished theory. Second, you’re talking as if Chalmers took up dualism for no reason, but in fact he gives a whole series of arguments which explain why we’re forced to that conclusion.
Argument 1: The logical possibility of zombies, people exactly like us but with no qualia. This is the main one, which puts in its simplest form Chalmers’ underlying point of view that qualia are separable from the normal physical account of the world, and so just must be something different..
Argument 2: The Inverted Spectrum. An old classic, which relies on the same basic insight as the first argument, ie that you could change the qualia without changing anything else. Arguments along these lines have been elaborated to the nth degree elsewhere, but Chalmers’ version is pretty clear.
Argument 3: From epistemological asymmetry. Qualia just don’t look the same from the inside. When we examine the biology of our leg, it isn’t essentially different from examining someone else’s: but when we examine our own sensations, it bears no resemblance to observing the sensations of others.
Argument 4: The knowledge argument. Our old friend Mary the colour scientist .
Argument 5: The absence of analysis. This is simply a matter of putting the onus on the opposition to give an account of how qualia could possibly be physical.
The main point of the main argument, very briefly, is that we can easily imagine a ‘zombie’: a person who has all the psychological stuff going on, but no subjective experience. At the very least, it’s logically possible that there should be such people. As a result, you cannot just identify the physical workings of the brain, the psychological aspect, with the subjective experience, the phenomenal aspect. I have to say I think this is essentially correct.
There’s no way we can know whether something is logically possible unless we understand what we’re talking about. We need to know what phenomenal consciousness is before we can decide whether zombies without it are possible. Chalmers assumes it’s obvious that phenomenal experience isn’t physical, and hence it’s obvious we could have zombies. But this just begs the question. I assume phenomenal experience is a physical process, so it’s obvious to me that there couldn’t, logically, be a person who was physically identical to me without them having my experiences. Look at it this way. If Chalmers didn’t understand physics, he would probably find it easy to imagine that the molecules inside him could move around faster without his temperature going up. But when he understands what temperature really is, he can see that it was logically impossible after all.
Chalmers is really presenting intuitions disguised as arguments – alright, he’s not alone in that, but they’re dodgy intuitions, too. Look at that stuff about information. According to Chalmers, anything with a shape or marks on it, in fact anything at all, is covered in information – information about itself and how it got the way it is. We can speculate that any kind of information might give rise to consciousness: maybe even thermostats have a dim phenomenal life similar to just seeing different shades of grey. Since, on Chalmers’ interpretation of information, everything is covered in it, it follows that everything is in some degree conscious. The result? Panpsychism, a third untenable position…
Chalmers does not actually endorse panpsychism, he just speculates about it. Do you think the idea is uninteresting ? Can you not accept that if philosophers aren’t allowed to speculate, they’re not going to achieve very much?
And then, a chapter about the correct interpretation of quantum physics! What’s that about, then?
Chalmers sees a kind of harmony between his views and one of the possible interpretations of quantum theory. I have no idea whether he’s on to anything, but this sort of linkage is potentially valuable, especially to philosophy,which has tended to cut itself off from contemporary science. But the point is, all these latter speculations are just that – interesting, stimulating speculations. Chalmers never pretends they’re anything else. The point of the book is to get people to take qualia seriously. That’s a good, well-founded project and I think even you would have to admit that the book has succeeded to a remarkable degree.
If you ask me, Chalmers basically gives the whole thing away early on, when he says that another way of looking at the psychological/phenomenal distinction is to see them as the third-person and first-person views. Wouldn’t common sense suggest that this is just a case of a single phenomenon looked at from two different points of view? It seems the obvious conclusion to me.
But if the mind-body problem has taught us anything, it is that nothing about consciousness is obvious, and that one person’s obvious truth is another person’s absurdity…