Transcript for David Chalmers, the Hard Problem of Consciousness



Jim Fleming: Spend a little time looking into debates of the nature of consciousness, and real quickly come across the name of David Chalmers. He’s an Australian philosopher, who wrote several paper in 1995, what he called The Hard Problem of Consciousness. Why we have subjective experience, you know thoughts and feelings, the experience of joy, or sorrow, self-awareness. Chalmers believe science will never be able to explain this, but that claim has sparked aloud and often nasty, debate on scientists and philosophers. Steve Paulson recently cut up with David Chalmers.


Steve Paulson:  You are widely regarded as one of the leading philosophers of the mind, why do you keep coming back to the questions about consciousness, a subject I know you’ve been studding for decades?


David Chalmers: Well, for me consciousness supposed just about interesting unsolved problems in the world. I mean, I came in this from the background in science, and mathematics, although physics, and mathematics, just a look exciting today. [Inaudible] more exciting in few hundred years ago, when everything was unknown, and it distract me that the problem right now, [Inaudible], being unknown, unsolved, is problems on the mind; and the particularly the problem of consciousness. How is that, physical processes in a brain, give you conscious experience. It’s just always fascinating me.


Paulson:  So, you saying that science and the mind is perhaps, the last great unanswered questions, In science, maybe in philosophy too?


Chalmers: I mean there is lot of small unanswered questions uneven pretty big one. If you want go to place for we early don’t have a clue, I think it’s is in the problems of the mind. Philosophical problem, the mind body problem, was the relationship between mind, and body? And then, it’s contemporary guides what’s the relationship between the brain, and consciousness. [Inaudible] that one.


Paulson:  Now, if you talk to brain scientist, most will say it’s just a matter of time before the science unlocks the mysteries of the mind. And they usually say neuroscience, is the path to do this. And this is the discipline that would crack the puzzle of consciousness. What do you think?


Chalmers: I think that’s reasonable to think that brain science, or neuroscience is going to be a huge component of whatever the ultimate solution is. But I think it’s also ,if you talk to, you know, some of these brain scientists, maybe late at night, off the record, I think you feel fine that is a about  this bigger diversity of opinion, among brain scientists about the problem of concessions is there is among philosophers. There is almost everyone will recognized least right now, when not even close. It’s just that basic history. How is that all these processing in the brain, is raised to first person, subjective experience. You know, the feeling of seeing, of hearing, this interwoven we have in our minds.


Paulson:  So, why is this hard problem consciousness so hard? I mean, why is it so hard for science, for neuroscience, to cognitive science to explain this subjective experience, as first person experience?


Chalmers: One way to think about that is that science is set up from the start to be objective. We getter our data, we could all make the same measurements, and that works so well in physics, biology, even some areas of science of the mind. Consciousness by its nature is subjective. It’s not something you can directly measure. I don’t even know for sure, but I’m talking to you to your conscious, I believe you are, I take you, what you say as some kind of evidence for it. But I can’t measure it   directly. We can only get out of it indirectly. So I think about this, science is basically all about gathering what we might call third person data, traditionally, data equally accessible to everyone, conciseness really involves what we might think of is first person data. 


Paulson:  Are talking about the limits of materialism, I mean the idea that the mental is nothing more than brain mechanics? Is that part of your critique here?


Chalmers: It is, yes, you know, one of the big issues in the philosophy of the mind is: “ the mind just the brain?”I mean is physical processes enough to explain what’s in your mind and what’s in your conciseness, and I have been somewhat reluctantly lead to conclusion that in fact materialism doesn’t have the resources to fully explain conciseness. I mean the materialist fuse is a basically it’s a few fundamental properties in the world, space and time and mass and charge, and few laws that connect them. Everything can ultimately be explained in terms of that.


Paulson:  Yeah, everything I chemistry, biology ultimately can be reduced to the properties of physics.


Chalmers: Right, but when it comes to conciseness, this reductions program doesn’t succeed. SO my only view is we should take something like conciseness as a primitive element of the world, a fundamental property if you like in the way that physics take space and time and mass and charge.


Paulson:  That’s fascinating; I mean you are suggesting that consciousness may have its own fundamental property of nature sort of speak?


Chalmers: Basically yes, maybe some other veered property, some other veered new properties, proto-conciseness which could somehow produce conciseness, we do need to expand the ontology of fundamental properties, this is my view, you know, physics is meant to be a theory of everything, fundamental properties explains everything, but if it turns up it doesn’t. What we have to do as scientists is to expand our primitives.


Paulson:  So what would that fundamental property of conciseness be?


Chalmers: Well at this point we don’t know. So we are really in the realm of speculation and I get to do speculations because I am a philosopher but I can’t say, we aren’t remotely close, yet, to the point where we have the details of a theory. I mean I will be happy if we have it in 50 years, you know, it could be 200 years. But for the fundamental theory of conciseness what you need is a theory that connects these fundamental physical properties like space, time, charge and so on, to consciousness. We don’t have that theory yet, but if we do maybe that would be the theory of consciousness.


Jim Fleming: David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University, you will find Steve’s full uncut interview with Chalmers on our web site at 

Comments for this interview

Bloviated ontology (Robert Thomas, 07/16/2013 - 7:21pm)

Why do we have consciousness? We have consciousness for the same reason that sharks have electrical sensory apparatus. There was an evolutionary value for the population. How is this a complicated question? What’s to explain? “Problem of consciousness”? What problem?

A loud an nasty debate between scientists and philosophers”? I hardly think so. Sadly, scientists don’t debate philosophers.

There are many remaining questions for scientific enquiry. Whether these amorphous “questions” are particularly great or not is an aesthetic judgment.

Neuroscientists unsurprisingly will say that the proper method of examining brain function will be neuroscience.

“Are physical processes enough to explain what’s in your mind…?” Yes. If what you mean by “explain” is “describe”. If you mean “justify” or any of a number of other words that the word “explain” may be used to signify, then the question can become as abstruse as you like.

“We should take … consciousness as a primitive element in the world, a fundamental property if you like, in the way that physics takes space and time and mass and charge…” aside from the fact that classical physics abandoned space and time as separate “properties” a hundred years ago, how is this prescription distinct from hoary old anthropism?

We need to “expand the ontology of fundamental properties”? I’m afraid this lacks meaning.

“ the realm of speculation…”? I’ll say. In the realm of flapdoodle, more precisely.

Really, this is the sort of thing that set Feynman’s teeth on edge. It’s also the kind of thing that has excluded useful and important exploration of the philosophy of science from practical discussion.

mind and consciousness (juan flores, 11/03/2012 - 5:47am)

listen to this one