|Subject||Philosophy of mind|
|Publisher||Oxford University Press|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory was published in 1996, and is the first book written by David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher specialising in philosophy of mind. Although the book has been greatly influential, Chalmers maintains that it is "far from perfect", as most of it was written as part of his PhD dissertation after "studying philosophy for only four years".
In The Conscious Mind Chalmers argues that (1) the physical does not exhaust the actual, so materialism is false; (2) consciousness is a fundamental fact of nature; (3) science and philosophy should strive towards discovering a fundamental law of consciousness.
Every mental state can be described in psychological terms, phenomenological terms, or both.
Psychological and phenomenal consciousness are often conflated. Thinkers may purport to have solved consciousness (in the phenomenological sense) when really all they have solved are certain aspects of psychological consciousness. To use Chalmers words: they claim to have solved the "hard problem of consciousness", when really all they have solved are certain "easy problems of consciousness".[note 2]
Further information: explanatory gap
Chalmers believes that an adequate theory of consciousness can only come by solving both the hard and easy problems. On top of discovering brain states associated with conscious experience, science must also discover why and how certain brain states are accompanied by experience. This is what Chalmers attempts to do in The Conscious Mind.
The hard problem is hard, by Chalmers account, because conscious experience is irreducible to lower order physical facts.[note 3] He supports this conclusion with three main lines of argument, which are summarised below.
The conclusion of all these arguments is the same: consciousness is irreducible to physical facts alone.
The only things that are irreducible to lower level facts are fundamental laws of nature (e.g., space and time). Since consciousness is irreducible, Chalmers believes that it, too, is fundamental.[note 6]
Further information: property dualism
Chalmers accepts that people may be reluctant to accept this conclusion, but notes that people were initially reluctant to accept the fundamental nature of electromagnetism as well. He also accepts that his conclusion sound jarring, but notes that the brute nature of consciousness poses no more a mystery than the brute nature of electromagnetism, gravity, or any other fundamental law.
So, just as scientists of the past have sought fundamental laws of gravity and electromagnetism, so too should scientists of the present seek fundamental laws of consciousness. So, after providing the disclaimer that he is "most likely to be entirely wrong", Chalmers puts forward possible ways in which the search for a theory may be constrained:
Similarly, Chalmers puts forward a number of "open questions" that a fundamental theory must answer:
Good contenders for a fundamental theory of consciousness would be one that (a) fits the above criteria; (b) is compatible with the data; (c) has predicative power; and (c) is elegant. Though, of course, there will likely be further considerations that arise as science progresses.
Chalmers explores a number of possibilities. Chalmers believes that information[note 10] will invariably play a central role in any theory of consciousness. However, Chalmers is unsure whether or not information will ultimately play a conceptual role or an ontological one. Chalmers further constraints the role of information by concluding that it must only be phenomenally realised it is physically realised; in other words, the information system must be active (otherwise a computer that's turned off may qualia). So causation may also play a role.
Interestingly, this account of consciousness has predictive power within the realm of quantum theory. Namely, it addresses objections made by the physicist Roger Penrose regarding the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics:
I do not see why a conscious being need be aware of only "one" of the alternatives in a linear superposition. What is it about consciousnesses that says that consciousness must not be "aware" of that tantalising linear combination of both a dead and a live cat? It seems to me that a theory of consciousness would be needed for one to square the many world view with what one actually observes.
Chalmers' earlier account of consciousness is such a theory. This leaves the many-world view undoubtedly the most elegant of all interpretations of quantum mechanics (from a mathematical standpoint), albeit a counterintuitive one.
The Conscious Mind has had significant influence on philosophy of mind and the scientific study of consciousness, as is evidenced by Chalmers easy/hard problem distinction having become standard terminology within relevant philosophical and scientific fields. Chalmers has expressed bewilderment at the book's success, writing that it has "received far more attention than I reasonably could have expected."
David Lewis is a proponent of materialism whose views are criticised numerous times throughout The Conscious Mind. Despite this, Lewis praises Chalmers for his understanding of the issue and for leaving his critics with "few points to make" that Chalmers "hasn't made already". Lewis has characterised The Conscious Mind as "exceptionally ambitious and exceptionally successful", considering it "the best book in philosophy of mind for many years."
Steven Pinker has hailed The Conscious Mind as an "outstanding contribution" to consciousness studies, stating that Chalmers argued his thesis "with impeccable clarity and rigor".
Patricia and Paul Churchland have criticised Chalmers claim that everything but consciousness logically supervenes on the physical, and that such failures of supervenience mean that materialism must be false. Heat and luminescence, for instance, are both physical properties that logically supervene on the physical. Others have questioned the premise that a priori entailment is required for logical supervenience.
Daniel Dennett has labelled Chalmers a "reactionary", and calls the invocation of philosophical zombies "an embarrassment". By his account, the thought experiment hinges on a "hunch" and begs the question. He argues that the mysterious nature of consciousness amounts to nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and that philosophers ought to drop "the zombie like a hot potato".
Chalmers responds to critics in his 2010 book The Character of Consciousness and on his website.
The Conscious Mind has been reviewed in journals such as Foundations of Physics, Psychological Medicine, Mind, The Journal of Mind and Behavior, and Australian Review of Books. The book was described by The Sunday Times as "one of the best science books of the year."