from September 25, 2002 2:00-3:15 PM Eastern
© by International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design
Our guest speaker today is David Chalmers. Dr. Chalmers is professor
of philosophy and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at
the University of Arizona. Dr. Chalmers is also the author of "The
Conscious Mind" and a leading philosopher of mind and consciousness.
Chalmers regularly defends a non-reductive, yet fully naturalistic account
of consciousness (defined as experience or "what's it like").
In doing so, Chalmers argues for both a philosophy and science of consciousness
that takes experience, or the phenomenal, as fundamental.
I am now going to hand the talk over to Dr. Chalmers. You can start
sending in your questions.
hi everyoe, thanks for coming along. i don't have any big statement
to start with. i'm happy to answer any questions that people might have
about the philosophy and the science of consciousness. people who are
new to all this might take a look at my paper at http://consc.net/papers/facing.html.
in a nuthshell, my view is that there's good reason to think that conscoiusness
is irreducible to a physical process, but that we can nevertheless develop
an empirical science of consciousness that integrated third-person data
about brain and behavior with first-person data about conscious experience.
Don't we fail to distinguish between what consciousness "does"
and what it "is?" Don't most of us fail to consistently separate
reasoning based on two different phenomena, and two distinct definitions,
(a) consciousness viewed hazily and from without ("objective"
consciousness), when through our five external senses we view the behavioral
and neural correlates of what our subjects claim is conscious experience,
what our subjects observably say and do, and what our instruments say
is also occurring, and (b) consciousness viewed inarguably and from
within ("subjective" consciousness), when we are experiencing
by means of our five external senses, or remembering or imagining doing
so, at the same time sometimes being aware that we are doing so, logically
by some internal neuronal path from one part of the brain to another?
hi, when i talk about consciousness, i always mean what you're calling
the "subjective": roughly, the way it feels from the inside.
of course people use the term for both. that's hyi find it useful to
distinguish the "easy" problems of consciousness, which concern
behavioral matters and the like, from the "hard" problem,
which concerns the subjective aspect.
How would you characterize first-person data? Can you give some examples?
first-person data concern the introspective knowledge that all of us
have about our conscious experience. e.g., i know that i'm visually
conscious now, that i am having experience of such-and-such colors and
shapes, and so on. of course our knowledge here isn't perfect or infallible,
but then neither is our knowledge of more ordinary third-person data.
Dave, I'm currently reading through C.D. Broad's *Mind and its Place
in Nature* and was wondering if you could comment on how (and how not)
Broad's work is relevant to the current debate in philosophy of mind
hi, broad's 1925 book is one of my favorites -- my recent paper "consciousness
and its place in nature" was partly inspired by it. i think of
it as the first book that takes the modern approach to the mnd-body
problem. he took consciousness very seriously, and a lot of his arguments
have been further developed by recent philosophers -- e.g. hi gives
a precursor of jackson's "mary" argument. and i think he gives
what is still the most sophisticated exposition of the notion of emergence,
and of a picture on which consciousness is emergent (in a strong sense)
from physical processes in the brian. i feel quite sympathetic with
him on many issues.
Hello Dr. Chalmers. It is a pleasure to talk with you. Could you give,
in a nutshell, what your view is on the problem of mental causation.
More specifically, what role does the mental or subjective aspect of
our experience play in the causation of our behavior, if any? Does the
mental do any real work?
hi, i don't have fixed views on this. i see epiphenomenalism -- the
view that consciousess plays no causal role as a live option, and i
think it's not as bad as many people think it is. but i also think that
interactionism -- the view on which non-physical consciousness plays
a causal role in affecting physical processes -- is very much a live
option, especially given the state of quantum mechanics. and there are
some other interesting possibilities for integrating consciousness into
the causal order, some of which i discuss in the paper i mentioned a
Your introduction made the same distinction, between third- and first-person
data. If you are "always" meaning the first-person data, when
does the third-person data (the old behaviorism, plus neurological studies)
i said that by "consciousness" i always mean the first-person
data. but a science of consciousness will be all about connections and
correlations between consciousness and processes in the brain, aspects
of behavior, and so on. the latter are the third-person data. e.g. the
search for the neural correlates of consciousness is a currently very
active project, and an extremely important one on my view. this is all
about connecting physical processes (third-person) with consciousness
You say that consciousness is not reducible to a physical process. Process
suggests simply transforming and translocating. Would you differentiate
between a process and a phenomenon given that process?
i'm not quite sure i grasp the distinction. but i think that consciousness
isn't reducible to a physical process or to a physical phenomenon. i
think of it as a nonphysical phenomenon (not sure if it's a nonphysical
David. Could you clarify your current position wrt the causal nature
of conciousness? Do you think it plays a role and do you think we could
emulate human functional behaviour without it?
hi, see my answer two or three questions up. i suspect that we can almost
certainly emulate human behavior computationally. however, my own view
is that if we do that, the computational process may well itself be
accompanied by consciousness.
There has been some talk of a "lag" between physical commitment
to action by the somatic processes and the consciousness, thus sketching
a scenario in which the conscious mind lags in time behind what the
body is already doing or committed to doing. This would seem to relegate
“mind” or at least consciousness to making sense of or just
reporting on what was going on rather than being an integral part of
decision-making.Do you support this argument, and what thoughts do you
have on it?
ih, i think you're referring to some results of libet's from a couple
of decades ago. these results are quite controversial, especially regarding
their interpretation. i do think that it's like that the neural correlates
of consciousness have precursor neural events that are not themselves
associated with consciousness, though. that fits with libet's view that
there are neural indicators of conscious decisions even before people
are aware of those decisions. i don't think that necessarily makes consciousness
completely irrelevant, though. libet's own view is that this still leaves
consciousness with a kind of veto power -- a sort of "free won't".
my own views about the role of consciousness in action are up in the
air -- it's a very difficult topic.
Do you have any thoughts on the teleological representationalism of
Fred Dretske as laid out in *Naturalizing the Mind*? Are all mental
facts representational facts and all representational facts information-theoretic
facts, as he argues? Where would you differ from him most significantly?
hi, i am sympathetic with the idea that consciousness is representational
through-and-through. i don't think one can wholly explain consciousness
in terms of a prior notion of representation, though, as dretske does.
in that sense i'm a nonreductive representationalist rather than a reductive
representationalism -- it's rather that consciousness and representation
are vey deeply intertwined. if anything if prior, i'd say consiousness
is prior to representation, but i'm not sure whether either is prior.
i'd also reject the teleological view of representation for other reasons.
incidentaly i just directed a six-week NEH institute on consciousness
and intentionality that was all about these things -- there's a bunch
of material from it on my website.
Given your notion of organizational invariance - that the same functional
organization determines the same phenomenal experience - why couldn't
first person feels simply *be* the functional organization at some level,
say, of a sufficiently articulated representational system?
i think there is a systematic correlation between functional organization
and experience. but i think this is just correlation, in the sense that
it would at least be logically possible to have the functional organization
without consciousness; and furthermore, that explaining the functional
organization doesn't explain why the system is conscious.
Have you had a chance to review Bierman's (et al) experiments concerning
"pre-sentiment"? Do you think their findings are genuine and
what implications do you think the ability to anticipate fixed events
in the future would have for consciousness - it would presumably not
be something a conventional computer could do.
bierman presented his work at the tucson conference i organized earlier
this year. for people who don't know it, he examined others' results
in experiments on emotional responses to cards and the like, and detected
what he claims are emotional responses prior to the card being viewed.
obviously this is highly controversial -- a number of people raised
questions about whether there are statistical explanations. i am somewhat
skeptical about parapsychological phenomena in general, but i certainly
can't claim to rule them out entirely. even if they exist, the connection
to consciousness wouldn't be quite clear -- the anecdotal evidence suggests
just as strong a connection to the unconscious!
Do you entertain the notion that there are “unconscious”
levels of consciousness in the same way as Freud proposed, and how do
you explain the results of V.Ramachandran’s experiments showing
that “phantom limb” pain can be relieved by showing visual
effects that the limb exists where the conscious person is quite aware
of the trickery, but seemingly some underlying process is taking the
illusion at face value and updating some kind of body image?
i think there are certain unconscious processes in the brain, and unconscious
representations that drive many aspects of our behavior. i wouldn't
call that an unconscious level of consciousness (oxymoron?), but maybe
that's just terminology. ramachandran's result is an example of a more
widespread phenomenon, the cognitive penetrability of perceptual experience,
i.e. that way that our perceptual experience is sometimes affected by
what we know and believe. i imagine the explanation here involves some
sort of feedback from cognitive systems in the brain to perceptual systems,
but i don't think anyone knows how it works in detail yet.
Why does there have to be anything more to consciousness than the functional
organization? Couldn't the "first person feels" be only illusions?
i don't really know what it means to say that the first-person feels
are illusions. i'm more confident that these exist than that the external
world exists! it seems to be a manifest fact that there's something
it's like to be me, to see, and so on, and this fact is something that
a complete science needs to explain.
You suggest that a theory of consciousness should take experience as
fundamental. Then, (a) would that require a return to pre-literate thought
habits - - so that we would be, for the moment, Navajo (Ref: Abram,
The Spell of the Sensuous.); (b) is that not explicitly an excursion
out of the traditional scientific method, such that the traditional
scientific tools (notably, consensus between different observers) may
be difficult or impossible to apply; and (c) would there be, to a hard-core
scientist, no "hard questions" because "what it is like
to be" anything is a scientifically meaningless question?
hi, i don't see the connection to the navajo. i don't see why taking
experience as fundamental prevents us from treating it rigorously. either
way, we have to gather the data rigorously, and systematize it, ultimately
inferring the underling laws. if there's a problem here, it's not the
fundamentality per se, but the difficulty in measuring the phenomenon.
but here, we all at least have first-person access, and we have access
to the data in others if we rely on the measuring instrument of verbal
report -- which needs to be handled with care, but which still plays
a vital role. there's are some differences with traditional scientific
areas, but nothing that precludes science altogether.
Do you find all forms of substance dualism to be too mysterious to be
useful or obviously false? What is the most compelling reason you find
for rejecting substance dualism and adopting property dualism (if your
view can in fact can be considered a form of property dualism)?
i don't really reject substance dualism, so much as being unsure what
the distinction amounts to, since i don't know what it means to say
that consciousness is a substance. one way of nuderstanding the distinction
is to say that property dualism allows one class of fundamental entities
with two sorts of properties, whereas substance dualism has two classes
of fundamental entities (particles and persons, say). if that's what
is meant, i don't know that substance dualism is false. my attitude
is just that it goes beyond what is forced on us by the arguments --
the extra fundamental properties are all that the conclusion buys there.
Do you have a view on whether conciousness can be reduced to an algorithmic
process within a closed system - could a PC with no sensory links to
the "outside world" experience an inner mental world for example>
my own view is that the environment makes a big difference to our conscious
experience, but isn't required in principle. a brain in a vat could
be conscious like me with just simulated inputs. and i think i'd be
conscious in a sensory deprviation tank, even without perceptual experience.
i don't see why an appropriate system, maybe even a PC, couldn't have
that sort of "internal" experience alone.
Do you think there was an evolutionary stage when the human brain received
i don't know the answer to that question. i have some sympathy with
panpsychism, the view that consciousness has been around all along.
it's also possible that as brains evolved to become appropriate information-processes,
certain basic laws of nature (e.g. connecting information and consciousness)
brought consciousness along as a sort of byproduct. the evolution of
consciousness is a wide-open question that no-one has a good answer
What role do you give to speech and symbolic thinking in creating, or
i think consciousness is more primitive than language, so that non-human
animals can be conscious (e.g. in perceptal experience) without symbolic
representation. but when language is present, it makes a big difference.
not least because it gives us a huge repertoire of concepts, and concepts
play a major role in articulating and structuring the contents of consciousness.
it also greatly facilitates our social consciousness, of course.
I mentioned the Navajo view as opposed to the scientific, where Galilio
convinced people to forget Aristotle and take a look through his telescope,
disbelieving at first and then gradually setting aside their differences
of perception; hence, third-person consensus. But, the very virtue of
third-person consensus is that it excludes first-person experience;
feelings don't count, only objective use of the external senses. This
is why teh scientist is "coldly objective." In contrast, from
Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human
World: "For the Navajo, one's individual psyche could never be
comprehended as being ontologically separate from the surrounding world
of nature and the manifest earth, because the Navajo know themselves
to be intimately linked to nature through the sacred air they both breathe.
In short, the Navajo version of the human psyche is one that is thoroughly
co-extensive with the animate, breathing air and earth. [Which] is curiously
similar to some of
hi, interesting. i'm certainly sympathetic with the navajo idea that
we need to go beyond the "objective". but maybe unlike them,
i think one can still deal with the subjective in a scientifically rigorous
Do you see a link between time's arrow and consciousness - could time
even exist without a mind to experience it? If an executing algorithm
could be conscious why not a static one?
i think time would exist without consciousness. but it may be that the
(apparent) *passage* of time is tied to our conscious experience of
time passing. without consciousness, we could make sense of spacetime
as a sort of "block universe" without passage. with consciousness,
it becomes trickier. i'm inclined to think that some sor of activity
and causal process is part of the crucial basis of consciousness, though,
so it's not clear that a static system could be conscious. certainly
it couldn't process information, which i think is deeply tied to consciousness.
In "Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness" you argue that
the principles of simplicity, elegance, and beauty which fuel the physicis't
search for a fundamental theory will also apply to a true theory of
consciousness. Any thoughts on why, given the truth of naturalism, we
should expect the fundamental furniture of the world, including consciousness,
to be simple, elegant, and beautiful?
that's an excellent question. cetainly we seem to have inductive evidence
that there are simple fundamental laws, from physics. and i think this
functions as a sort of regulative hypothesis in science -- one at least
starts with simple hypotheses, and moves to more complex hypotheses
only when these are rejected. i guess science is all about the idea
htat the universe is a surprisingly simple place -- without that, science
wouldn't really get off the ground. as for elegance and beauty, those
are even tricker -- maybe i'll take a pass for now!
In your (excellent) "The Conscious Mind" you do not seem to
mention Clay's "specious present". Do you think there is such
i don't know clay, but i do think there is some sort of specious present
-- my "current" experience of the world seems to be of matters
that last for some period of time, so that preception gradually transitions
into memory. the length of the specious present is very controversial,
though -- i've heard eveyting from 300 miliseconds to 5 seconds...
re brain in a vat: Isn't a newborn similar? Until a newborn capable
of perception, but "empty" of meaning until repetition of
images and sounds induce meaning(s)?
i suspect that a newborn has perceptual experiences, if pretty chaotic
ones -- james's "blooming, buzzing confusion". i imagine they
gradually become structured, and eventually conceptual structure becomes
overlaid on this structure.
Does truly passive consciousness exist...consciousness without volition?
i think perception is passive to a large extent. of course in most of
us it is accompanied by the experience of volition. but of course the
latter comes in degrees, depending on circumstances. there are times
when we have no control over our actions, though i guess there we mostly
have control over thoughts. some interesting cases to think about in
this regard are dreams, not to mention people under the right sort of
drugs, or even the potion they supposedly give to haitian "zombis".
Hello, concerning the "specious present", would you support
the contention that the purpose of consciousness (at least qualitative
consc.) is to "flag the present moment" so we do not confuse
objects (of danger) presently before us with those in our memory? In
addition, do all conscious states carry with them qualia?
i don't think that's "the" purpose of consciousness, but i
do think that one aspect of the content of perceptual consciousness
is that it indicates that things are *currently* such-and-such. obviously
the consciousness involved in memory and belief is a bit different.
for me, it's true by definition that any conscious state has qualia
-- both are definitionally tied to the notion of there being something
it's like to have a state.
I was never quite sure if your view of the mind and body is a dualist
one. Your principle of functional equivalence suggests something like
an identity theory, but your insistence that there is always 'something
left' over suggests dualism.Any clarification welcome.
hi, i'm a property dualist -- i think consciousness is a property irreducible
to physical properties. i think it correlates lawfully with certain
physical properties, though -- e.g. get a brain in the right state,
it will be conscious. more generally, get the right sort of
functional organization, it will be conscious. but these correlations
are guaranteed by laws that connect two different sorts of properties,
so this is sti;l a sort of dualism.
What role does binding play in consciousness, if any? Does a perception
become conscious by connecting with information in other parts of the
most of our perceptual consciousness seems to involve binding -- or
at least the attentive aspects do. there are some questions about whether
consciousness outside attention involves binding. also, some pathologies
seem to involve a deficit in binding, but people still seem to be conscious.
so i don't think binding is absolutely essential to consciousness.
Do you think that groups of minds produce a meta-consciousness, in a
way that many people interacting brings into being a conscious entity,
does a society thus have a mind?
i don't know. i suspect that inter-mind information-processing is less
rich than intra-mind information processing, so any consciousness thus
produced will be much more primitive than an individual consciousness.
i don't reject the idea in principle, though.
Hello David. How does property dualism, with laws connecting properties,
actually differ from substance dualism, with laws governing the interaction
of substances of different sorts? Isn't property dualism in the end
just a way of finessing what is meant by "physical thing"?
hi, i think i mentioned one way of answering that a few questions ago
-- one relevant distinction is whether there is one class of fundamental
particulars or two. here i'm agnostic as to the answers.
On your view, what constitutes the self that has privileged access to
the first person, phenomenal facts of experience?
tied to the last question -- i don't know the basic nature of the self.
in general i think we have much less introspecive access to the self
than to its properties. it could be that the self is a fundamental particular,
or the self could be somehing complex and derivative on some underlying
entities and processes -- i don't know.
Well, its about time to wrap things up. ISCID would like to thank David
Chalmers for the thought provoking and stimulating discussion. If you
would like to continue chatting after the event, feel free to move over
into the General Discussion room.
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International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design 2002.