On the Problem of Consciousness and the Nature of Philosophy: An interview with David Chalmers

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David Chalmers is one of the most prolific and influential philosophers of our time1. He is also one of relatively few contemporary (analytic) philosophers well-known outside the philosophical community, in particular within the sciences of mind. His broad influence and authority was demonstrated by the fact that when he visited Oslo this August, he engaged in an hour-long conversation with scientists about foundational issues in the sciences of mind.2 Chalmers has contributed to raise classical debates about the mind – such as the debate of dualism and monism – from their status as quaint scholastic exercises to questions that even contemporary empirical scientists cannot avoid. All the same, he has been very keen to stress that consciousness is not merely mysterious or inexplicable; his aim is to give a theory of consciousness, in interdisciplinary fashion.

Philosophically, Chalmers has been particularly influential in challenging the still-dominant materialist views of the world, rejuvenating dualism and related positions that “take consciousness seriously”. Chalmers insists that a theory of consciousness will be non-reductive, but he opposes materialism without opting out of a scientific world-view.

Chalmers was invited to Oslo to give the CSMN Annual Lecture on August 27.3 By that time he had already stayed for several days. The day before, in the midst of a busy schedule of lectures and workshops,4 he gave a talk at the Norwegian Student Society at Chateau Neuf, entitled “Why Isn’t Philosophy Making More Progress?”,5 a question that has interested him recently. Before the talk, over a hastily devoured meal in Glassbaren, he gave an interview with Filosofisk supplement. The themes were the problem of consciousness and related topics (Part I), progress in philosophy (Part II) and the sociology of philosophy (Part III). We are pleased to present one of today’s foremost philosophers to our readers.

Part I: The problem of consciousness

It is an honor having you here, Professor Chalmers. We would like to start with the beginning: You stirred up the philosophical scene with your first book, The Conscious Mind, in 1996. Why do you think that book got so much attention?

For one thing, it was being in the right place at the right time. It was a time when interest in consciousness was just taking a very big upswing, both in philosophy and in science – in neuroscience and psychology, for instance – and there were several big theories starting to come out. In his new book, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, Roger Penrose had written about consciousness from the point of view of physics. Francis Crick and Christoph Koch had been encouraging neuroscientists to come back and study consciousness. This led to a lot of activity and a lot of optimism, and maybe even some people thought they were about to solve the problems of consciousness. But we all know there are some very difficult problems when it comes to thinking about consciousness and a real explanation of consciousness, so I think the book served, in some people’s eyes, as a counterbalance to the excitement about various overly reductive approaches to the consciousness.

I argued that a theory of consciousness has to take a certain form, and overly reductionist approaches to consciousness don’t really do justice in explaining the phenomenon. Instead, I argued that we can still have a theory but it’s going to have to be of a quite different sort. I suspect that some of the interest in the book came from the way I engaged some of the works that was coming out of the neurosciences, and some of it was because of the upswing of philosophical interests in consciousness. In any case, arguing against materialism is controversial, so that seems to have gotten people interested.

You distinguish the easy problems of consciousness, which are those people presumably were being optimistic about, from what you call the hard problem of consciousness. Could you expand on the relevant distinction?

The easy problems of consciousness are those about explaining the relevant objective functions associated with consciousness, such as perceptual discrimination, control of behavior, verbal report, and so on, whereas the hard problem is that of subjective experience. In the book, I went on to describe my preferred theoretical approach to the hard problem. I always thought of the distinction between the easy problems and the hard problem as just five minutes in the background of saying the obvious. Everybody knew all along what the hard problem was, but at least the terminology seemed to catch on quite fast, especially for scientists. It has proved to be quite a useful heuristic device for isolating the problem of what philosophers call “phenomenal consciousness”, and drawing it to the attention of scientists and so on as a distinctive problem.

Now that we have some background, could you expand on the basic argument in The Conscious Mind that made it go against much of the orthodoxy at that time?

The first half of the book sets out, broadly speaking, negative arguments against certain kinds of reductionist explanations of consciousness and against materialist metaphysics of consciousness. The second half of the book puts forward its own positive program in terms of seeing consciousness as fundamental properties. Studying consciousness then becomes trying to find fundamental laws involving consciousness. My impression is that the first half of the book has ended up getting more of the attention. People are particularly interested in the negative program. The basic idea there is that purely physical explanations of consciousness are not going to work.

There are several different arguments there and maybe the one that got the most attention was the conceivability argument: You could conceive of any physical process you like in the absence of consciousness. Therefore there’s a gap in reductive explanations of consciousness.

I also made arguments connecting conceivability and possibility. There are two different points related to this connection: epistemological arguments against reductive explanations of consciousness and metaphysical arguments against a materialistic metaphysics, or reduction of consciousness. These two points are quite closely linked. The first one is in the third chapter of the book and the second is in the fourth. Perhaps the connection between them was the central point of the first half of the book, although early on in the book I also spent quite a lot of work trying to clarify the relevant notions of consciousness and the different problems that they pose. I also extensively discussed the relevant issues about explanation, possibility, meaning, and so on, which was important background for the argument against materialism.

As we have touched upon, you argue against materialism on the grounds that you do not think it can explain phenomenal consciousness. However, when we leave materialism behind, there are a couple of different views one might accept. How do you view the position you end up defending in The Conscious Mind, and could you also say something about how it relates to classical dualism?

I always thought of the arguments in The Conscious Mind as establishing only property dualism, which is the thesis that consciousness is a fundamental property not reducible to physical properties. That is not to say that it is opposed to substance dualism, it’s just to say that it’s neutral on the further question of substance dualism, which I take roughly to be the question of whether there are not just fundamental properties, but also fundamental entities which have the fundamental properties.

There are roughly two ways you can go here. I have some sympathy with the general approach of panpsychism, where consciousness attaches at the fundamental level – then you don’t need to be a substance dualist. You can be a sort of monist: Consciousness will be a fundamental property at the basic level, but you are a monist in terms of substances. The other approach is to say that consciousness attaches at a higher level. You could still be only a property dualist and say that consciousness attaches to complex physical systems, to non-fundamental physical entities, but it’s attractive to say that if it’s a fundamental property, it should attach to a fundamental object. If you don’t attach consciousness at the level of fundamental physics, then there is some pressure to introduce further fundamental non-physical entities – which I suppose are what people call substances. I prefer to call it “entity dualism” or “particular dualism” rather than “substance dualism”, but basically those are what I see as roughly the two options: panpsychism and some kind of substance dualism. In the book I was interested in both, and I am still to some extent neutral between them. At the panpsychism workshop we had a couple of days ago, I gave a talk looking at the prospects of panpsychism.6 Tomorrow I’ll give a talk that, in effect, looks at the prospects for a form of dualism.7

Let us switch focus to your now famous zombie-argument, which is probably the single argument in the book that has gotten the most attention. The general idea of the argument is that it is conceivable that there are entities just like us, but they have no consciousness?

Yes, entities which are physically identical to us, but do not have any consciousness. I think I can make sense of that. I look at you and I think you are a behaving, functioning system. I think you are probably conscious, but it certainly doesn’t seem forced on me by the physical information about you. It seems I can make sense of the hypothesis that there is someone physically just like you without consciousness. There seems to be no contradiction in the idea, so on the face of it, it seems to be philosophically conceivable.

Many people who would say, “Yes, there are many things that you can conceive of, but of course that doesn’t mean they are possible.” But you reject this line.

People react in different ways to the argument. The argument really has two steps. The first step is that zombies are ideally conceivable in the sense that the hypothesis won’t get undermined even on ideal rational reflection. The second step is that conceivability of this kind implies a certain kind of metaphysical possibility. Some people argue against the first step. They say, “Maybe there’s some hidden contradiction in the very idea of a zombie, so we can’t conceive of them.” Others deny the second step, they say, “It’s conceivable, but not metaphysically possible.” Those two ways of responding are quite different from each other. I suppose that more people, at least within philosophy, have been trying to argue against the conceivability-entails-possibility step than against the conceivability step, although there are certainly people who want to do both.

You have written extensively about two-dimensional semantics. Would you say that your interest in two-dimensional semantics arose from trying to cash out this relationship between conceivability and possibility involved in the zombie argument?

That might be true about why I was originally driven to two-dimensional semantics, though when I read Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, I just thought he suggested a very natural picture of the necessary a posteriori, which I have developed further. The basic idea is that different worlds could turn out to be actual, and that there’s some aspect of the meaning of a term like “water” that fixes reference to something in the world that plays a certain role. That’s what I call the primary intension associated with “water”, the aspect of a term’s meaning that picks out water roughly in terms of its superficial properties and its causal role. In the actual world, H2O turns out to play the relevant role, and that yields what I call the secondary intension of “water”. The secondary intension is fixed empirically and as a matter of fact picks out H2O. This is a two-dimensional analysis of a meaning of a term like “water”, and this picture leads to a certain conception of the connection between conceivability and possibility.

In the book, I try to argue that this general model about the relationship between conceivability and possibility is not suffiecient to save materialism from the zombie argument. In this picture, the usual Kripke-cases – where something is conceivable but not possible, for instance water being XYZ – are analyzed as there being worlds where the primary intension is false, but there not being worlds where the secondary intension is false. However, the case with zombies is not like this; “consciousness” could not pick out anything else, so pointing to these kinds of cases won’t help the materialist.

That being said, the semantic framework is interesting in its own right. Since I wrote the book, I have become very interested in it for the purposes of thinking about the Fregean notion of meaning and different notions of the content of thought, and for many other purposes. So in many ways my interest in two-dimensional semantics has transcended the original purposes, but I think you’re right that that is what led me there.

To return to the zombie-argument: Do you think that if you accept two-dimensional semantics, you have to accept the crucial premise that conceivability entails possibility?

I don’t think you have to. There are two versions of two-dimensional semantics in philosophical space, and the version I always started with, and still often invoke, is a “monist” version where there’s one space of worlds: The primary intensions and the secondary intensions are defined in the same space of possible worlds, but you have different intensions, different functions over those worlds. There’s a small difference in that the primary intensions need centered metaphysically possible world with the marks “I” and “now”, and the secondary intensions don’t, but anyway this “monist” version, with one space of possible worlds, does tend very naturally to support the argument against materialism. But there are also other versions of two-dimensional semantics, where there isn’t such a tight connection between conceivability and possibility: You can have different spaces of worlds with a much more fine grained space of epistemically possible worlds on the first dimension and a smaller space of metaphysically possible worlds on the second dimension, and maybe all kinds of stuff will be possible on the first dimension. If you go that way, then you can have at least a variety of two-dimensional semantics without it supporting the connection between conceivability and possibility. In a way, that is good, since I think the framework has got applications for thinking about meaning, content, and so on that are to some extent independent of those particular projects in metaphysics. This provides a way for people who are skeptical of the applications to metaphysics to still have some of the uses of two-dimensional semantics.

To return to the central theme of consciousness: The Conscious Mind came out almost 20 years ago. How would you say that your views have developed since then?

I haven’t actually changed my mind that much about what was in the book, but certainly my views have developed in further directions on all kinds of questions. In terms of changes of mind the book was fairly sympathetic to epiphenomenalism, the idea that consciousness doesn’t play a casual role, though I wasn’t committed to it. Since then I have been very interested in exploring some alternatives to epiphenomalism, including panpsychism, the view that consciousness is found right down at the fundamental level of physics and playing a role there and in associated views such as Russellian monism, where there’s some kind of proto-consciousness right down at the fundamental level. I have also been exploring interactionism – which I was quite opposed to in the book – which is the idea that consciousness might be non-physical but still play a causal role in physics, and I have become interested in the idea that consciousness might play a role in quantum mechanics and in collapsing wave functions, which in fact is what I’m going to talk about in the talk tomorrow.8 In the book I actually argued against that. I said, “I don’t think this can work and here’s why”, whereas I’m now inclined to think that that was much too hasty. So I’m at least interested in exploring that idea. I don’t know that it’s correct, but it might be. Another direction in which my views have developed is that I have become much more inclined to see deep connections between consciousness and intentionality than I was at the time of writing the book.

In the book you isolated the problem of intentionality, and said that we can probably solve it with the resources of functionalism. But now you think that intentionality is deeply linked to consciousness, and that they cannot be analyzed independently of each other?

Roughly. I did leave this open as a possibility in the book. I said that intentionality has functional aspects and phenomenal aspects, and maybe I put more emphasis on the functional aspects, whereas now I would be inclined to put more of the emphasis on the phenomenal aspects. Maybe the core of intentionality is the kind of intentionality you find in consciousness.

You recently attended a panpsychism conference here in Oslo. Many people are negatively disposed towards panpsychism, maybe even more so than towards dualism. How plausible do you think panpsychism is, especially compared to dualism?

I think panpsychism has many attractions. It offers a very integrated picture of the place of consciousness in the natural order, in a monistic, simple picture. It provides a potential causal role of consciousness in the natural order. I think of it as having many of the advantages of materialism and the advantages of dualism without having the disadvantages associated with the respective positions: too much reductionism for materialism and problems of physics for dualism. The big problem for panpsychism for me is not the counter-intuitiveness; I don’t find it particularly crazy or outlandish. It’s maybe a little counter-intuitive, but I don’t know that our intuitions about consciousness and where it is present count for all that much. After all, it’s not something you can observe. These intuitions are very culturally relative and some cultures have found it very plausible.

I consider the main problem with panpsychism to be the combination problem. How do the little bits of consciousness add up to the kind of consciousness we have? It seems that if you want to avoid epiphenomenalism then you need to get the big bits of consciousness from the little bits, because it’s the little bits that are ultimately playing the casual roles, but it is not at all easy to see how that could happen. William James said: “All these little subjects of experience, how could a hundred of them add up to a hundred and first?»9 There has turned out to be many different aspects of the combination problem, so recently I have actually written two papers on panpsychism, one making the best case I can for panpsychism as having all these attractive features,10 and one trying to make the best case I can against it by trying to develop a combination problem and look at solutions.11 I still think it might be made to work, but I’m gradually becoming slightly more pessimistic because of the combination problem, hence I’m putting a bit more of my focus back on dualism. I think these are still open questions.

Materialism is still not an option, though?

There are forms of panpsychism that you can view as forms of materialism. Whiteheadians call panpsychism “radical materialism”. That’s what the physical properties are: The world is physical, it’s just that the physical properties have a phenomenal nature. Mass and charge and maybe space and time have a phenomenal nature already. In a way, this “re-enchants” the physical world, but you might still see it as a form of physicalism. Likewise for pan-protopsychism, where the material properties end up being proto-conscious properties. Those are the only two main forms of materialism that I’m particularly open to. However, I could be wrong about all of this and maybe the much more reductionist form of materialism is actually correct. But I would be surprised.

In several places, you have criticized the prospects of current science to explain and study consciousness properly, first and foremost because much of contemporary science is a science of correlation and not causation. Could you say something about why you find it so dissatisfactory, and maybe a little bit about how you see it moving forward?

First of all, I’m not negative towards the science of consciousness. I have been very involved in conferences with the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness,12 Toward a Science of Consciousness,13 and so on. What I’m skeptical of are certain reductionist approaches to the problem of consciousness, about developing a theory of consciousness in wholly physical terms. I think that’s probably not going to work out. But I’m very much open to scientific non-reductive approaches to consciousness, which take consciousness to be something fundamental and primitive and develop theoretical principles about it. I think there’s a lot of that happening right now. The talk I’m doing tomorrow can be viewed as a contribution to that project – consciousness collapsing wave functions.14 The work of someone like Tononi is also interesting.15 He very much sees his work as a non-reductive approach. So what we have got out of the science of consciousness in recent years, as I see it, is basically a non-reductive science. It doesn’t try to reduce consciousness to the brain. It’s finding interesting correlations between consciousness and the brain, and ultimately we want to figure out the fundamental principles that align those correlations. It is early days for doing that, but someone like Tononi is putting forward some hypotheses, and maybe there are others. So I suppose the distinctive pessimism I have would be just directed at reductionist approaches. I think one shouldn’t identify science with materialism. Those are two very different things.

Part II: Progress in philosophy

Another topic that has interested you recently is the prospects for convergence on major philosophical questions. This evening, in fact, just after the interview, you will present a talk about philosophical progress at the Norwegian Student Association. What will you be arguing tonight?

In part, I’ll just be pointing out the fairly obvious fact that there’s a lot of disagreement in philosophy and that there’s not a lot of convergence to the truth in philosophy. The simple argument goes like this: There’s not a lot of convergence in philosophy, therefore there’s not a lot of convergence to the truth in philosophy. There’s very widespread, persisting disagreement even among very sophisticated people. As you might know, I conducted a PhilPapers survey with David Bourget about four years ago, and it brought out what everybody already knew, which is that there is massive disagreement on many of the big questions of philosophy. It doesn’t seem to be going away.

In the first part of the talk, I’m making the case that there is all this disagreement and articulating the thesis that there’s less convergence in philosophy than in other disciplines. In the second half of the paper, I’m asking the question why this is so. I don’t really know the answer. It does seem a manifest truth that there is all this disagreement. I try to articulate the phenomenon. It has something to do with us not having a powerful method which has the power to compel agreement that we find in mathematics for the method of truth, or science for the method of experiments, and so on, but I want to answer the question of what the fundamental explanation is. I don’t have a fully satisfying answer to that question.

Do you think there could be such methods?

I’m always hoping. I’m a bit of a method junkie. New things come along: experimental philosophy, formal philosophy, linguistic philosophy and so on. There will always be some people saying, “Ah! Maybe this will be it!” I’m not that optimistic, but I’m very interested in methods, to see where they can get us. I think they are usually fine, but that most new methods that come along in philosophy only get you so far. Formal methods often come with a whopping independent informal premise that just moves the philosophical wick for you, and likewise for empirical methods in philosophy. There are occasional exceptions, I think, but at least so far we haven’t got that method. Is it possible that tomorrow we are going to find the key method? It would be nice, but I’m a little bit skeptical. Well, I oscillate between optimistic and pessimistic. When I’m in my own mode of doing philosophy I become quite optimistic; I think, “Yeah, I’ve made progress. I have the solution. This actually gets us places.” But when you step back and look at philosophy from the outside, so to speak, it’s much easier to be pessimistic.

You have a new paper where you defend the view that philosophers actually use intuitions in philosophy, as opposed to the Norwegian philosopher Herman Cappelen’s recent claim that they simply do not.

I think it is a method that philosophers use. We do make intuitive claims, which I take to be claims that are accepted without arguments; they are taken to be plausible even in the absence of something like an inferential justification. I think it’s fairly manifest that we do use such claims. I suppose there’s not much alternative, since you’re just not going to get that far in philosophy without it. Besides, any discipline needs to start somewhere. If you think of intuitions as the point where arguments start, or the unargued premises, then science will have them as well: Mathematics will have them in the form of axioms, science will have them in the forms of observational claims. So there will be some relatively uncontroversial intuitions. But those “intuitions” don’t seem to get you very far in philosophy: they still seem to leave many of the important questions of philosophy open. To settle those questions, we’re going to need some further input beyond just the axioms of logic and perceptional observation. I think it’s basically going to require some sort of starting point and intuition somewhere. It’s hard to see what else there could be.

But many people would say, “Yeah, people have these conflicting intuitions” – for instance, about zombies – and then you don’t get any further, in contrast to the sciences. And yet you said earlier that you are rather optimistic on behalf of philosophy as a discipline?

Well, there are certainly cases where the intuitions are fairly widely held – for instance, the Gettier intuition is pretty widely held – so I definitely think we have made some progress. I actually think the zombie conceivability intuition is pretty widely held as well. Some people will reject it, partly for theoretical purposes; if they have independent reasons to hold onto materialism they go ahead and reject it. I suppose that’s respectable. But even then the intuition would often have some primary force that they had to ignore, and if you can do that, then at least that’s a start. Then there are people who deny the conceivability-to-possibility premise, but that is a very different intuition – it is rejecting a theoretical framework. But you’re right; the more disagreement there is about an intuition, the less force it’s going to have in argumentation. One point which connects with the point about progress in philosophy is that it’s easy to deny an intuition: You just reject it and say you don’t have the intuition, or that you anyway don’t think that it is true. Once that happens you get a stand-off between intuitions, and it’s often hard to know where to go on from there.

In relation to the question about progress, you said you oscillate between optimism and skepticism. How do you think about this in more political terms? Many people think that, for instance, philosophy is not useful in society. And so there are familiar worries about funding: Why should we let tax money finance philosophy, if there’s no progress?

First of all, we make progress on smaller questions. So my thesis in the talk tonight is that even if we haven’t made that much progress on the big questions of philosophy, we have certainly made progress on smaller questions of philosophy. This actually proves to be very productive. Look at all the disciplines that have spun off from philosophy, starting with physics, psychology, logic, formal semantics and so on. Those disciplines haven’t exactly solved the big questions of philosophy, but they have been incredibly productive in their own right. Besides, I do think philosophy produces certain kinds of understanding, even if not conclusive answers to questions. That’s another form of progress. It’s just that there are other forms of progress that we don’t make. It’s also the case that most funding for philosophy actually comes primarily from paying philosophers to teach other people, and then they get to do some research too. And if you want to get good people to do it… well, that’s how those two things go together.

Part III: Sociology of philosophy

You just mentioned the PhilPaper survey you did four years ago and suggested that it was part of the motivation for this project to research disagreement within philosophy. Could you say something about why you did the survey, and what the goal was?

It was mostly curiosity, to be honest. I’m just very curious about what the majority of philosophers actually think about the big questions. People always make sociological claims about philosophers, such as, “Everyone is a materialist these days!” or, “No one believes in the analytic/synthetic-distinction!” or whatever. Sometimes I think, “Ah, that has to be wrong”, sometimes I think, “Ah, that’s interesting”, and sometimes I just want to find out the facts. David Bourget and I had just set up the PhilPapers site, where we had access to good computational ways of doing this stuff. We tried to come up with fundamental questions from different areas of philosophy – originally, we intended to have 20 questions, but in the end it grew to 30. We surveyed about 2,000 professional philosophers and got very good response, about 50%. So now we can say of these people and a hundred leading philosophy departments around the world, “Here are the dominant views.” For instance, 56% favor physicalism, 28% favor non-physicalism, and then others are agnostic or reject the question, and so on. There were some surprises, at least for me.16

Which answers were most surprising?

Well, for me personally, the most surprising one was a question about aesthetics and aesthetic value: “Aesthetic value: subjective or objective?” I was sure the big majority would go for subjective. In fact a small majority went for objective. The question about Humeanism versus non-Humeanism about the laws of nature was also a surprise. You get the sense from the literature that it’s fairly evenly divided, but in fact it came out 2.5:1 for Non-Humeanism. Just for fun, we also did a metasurvey to quantify what was most surprising for the philosophers themselves. Some other results that ended up being surprising for the profession as a whole were whether there is an analytic/synthetic-distinction and whether there is a priori knowledge: People predicted a roughly 50:50 divide, but in fact it came out about 70:30 in favor of analytic/synthetic-distinction and the a priori. I myself wasn’t so surprised about the last one; I predicted something like that myself, but a lot of people certainly were surprised.

Another thing that is notable is that the specialists in the field disagree with the rest of the philosophical community.

Sometimes their views are more extreme, sometimes the other way. Actually the starkest case of this is philosophy of religion. The great majority of philosophers endorse atheism, 73%, but the big majority of philosophers of religion, 72%, endorse theism. I suppose that’s a selection effect. If you’re a theist you’re going to find philosophy of religion much more interesting than if you are an atheist.

Do such results also undermine our trust in experts within the various philosophical subfields?

I think we are a bit hesitant to trust experts on truth in philosophy anyway. Maybe you trust experts about questions of methodology, or about what the literature say or most philosophers say about a topic. But I would be a bit doubtful about trusting a philosopher of language about the correct theory of meaning, a metaphysician about existence, or a philosopher of religion about God.

But isn’t that also a sign of our lack of progress? In other disciplines you would definitely trust the experts.

That’s true. But expertise has to be qualified. We have authority in certain domains about methods and about philosophical landscapes, but then there is this phenomenon of massive philosophical disagreement. Even among the experts in the field, you usually find about as much disagreement as you find among the non-experts. So there’s just not a consensus expert opinion even to trust.

Right. You might think that philosophy is different from other fields because we are disagreeing about much more big scale stuff.

That’s true. We still agree on some smaller things, and we have made progress on those. That counts for something. For instance, we have proved some things about conditionals, and we have certainly showed the inconsistency of several apparently independent views. That’s something.

So how optimistic are you on behalf of philosophy in the long run? Are we going to get convergence on the big questions?

I go back and forth. I would like to think so, but I have to say that the empirical evidence so far doesn’t really suggest it. Here’s one possibility: Maybe we’re just not quite smart enough, but maybe we’ll be able to develop artificially intelligent systems in the future. Maybe we will get machines that turn out to be much better at philosophy than we are, when we approach the singularity and so on. Maybe they’ll figure out the answers to these questions. So, if we can’t solve the problem of consciousness ourselves maybe our successors at the time of the singularity will instead, and maybe there will be some philosophical progress that way.

Is that your best bet?

No. I’m throwing it out as a possibility. But I suspect there will continue to be serious philosophical disagreement, at least in the short to medium term. In the long term, who knows?

It is an interesting thought, at least. But would the artificial philosophers be able to explain it to us, or might they just move on and we’d be sitting there?

Yeah, that’s interesting. If they are brilliant, if they are smart enough, they will know enough about our brains to know how to explain it to us in a way that it seems really convincing. The trouble is they would probably be able to figure out how to explain the reverse, the negation of their claim, in equally convincing fashion, so that’s not really worth much.

It will probably not be that interesting to talk to us anyway.

Maybe. But it would be nice to think that if there is a truth it could be made comprehensible, convincing, compelling. I would be disappointed if it turns out that the philosophical truth is not comprehensible, convincing and compelling.


[1] This interview was originally published in Filosofisk supplement No. 4 2013

[2] The event was arranged by Forum for bevissthetsforskning (“Forum for consciousness research”) and was named “En samtale med David Chalmers om hjerne og bevissthet” (“A conversation with David Chalmers on brain and consciousness”). See http://bevissthetsforum.com/2013/08/20/en-samtale-med-david-chalmers-om-hjerne-og-bevissthet for details.

[3] The title of the CSMN Annual Lecture 2013 was Consciousness and the collapse of the wave function. More information here: http://www.hf.uio.no/csmn/english/research/news-and-events/events/talks/annual-lecture-2013.html.

[4] Besides the talks mentioned in the introduction, Chalmers also attended a workshop on Narrow Content, see http://www.hf.uio.no/csmn/english/research/news-and-events/events/conferences-and-seminars/narrow-content.html, and a conference on panpsychicm, see note 5.

[5] See https://studentersamfundet.no/arrangement/why-isnt-philosophy-making-more-progress for details.

[6] The conference referred to was Panpsychism, Russellian monism, and the nature of the physical, see http://folk.uio.no/heddahm/panpsychism.htm. Professor Chalmer gave a talk named “The structural mismatch problem”.

[7] Chalmers here refers to the CSMN Annual Lecture, see note 2.

[8] Chalmers here again refers to the CSMN Annual Lecture, see note 2.

[9] This is not a literal quote. James’ arguments can be found in his Principles of Psychology, Chapter 4, in the section called “Self-compounding of mental facts is inadmissible”.

[10] The paper is not yet published, but will probably appear in a volume on panpsychism edited by Ludwig Jaskolla and Godehard Bruntrup. The paper can be accessed from Professor Chalmers’ homepage: http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf [last entered 05.10.2013].

[11] The paper is not yet published, but forthcoming as the Amherst Lecture in Philosophy. The paper can be accessed from Chalmers’ homepage: http://consc.net/papers/panpsychism.pdf [last entered 05.10.2013].

[12] See web page: http://www.theassc.org.

[13] See web page: http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu.

[14] This is the CSMN Annual Lecture on the collapse of the wave function, see note 2.

[15] Guilio Tononi is a very prolific and creative scientist in the field of consciousness. The specific theory referred to is his theory of consciousness as going on with high Φ-information integration in the brain. See Tononi’s homepage for more information: http://tononi.psychiatry.wisc.edu/People/GiulioTononi.php.

[16] The data referred to in this and the following paragraphs can be found here: http://philpapers.org/surveys.


  1. Kjempefint og interessant intervju!

  2. The two entries in the bottom row of the table need to be interchanged

    • Thank you so much for pointing out this mistake!

      Have reworked the whole table for what is (hopefully) a more easily readable presentation.


      PS. To readers of the printed version: Please ignore the table – read the text following it carefully instead!

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