Can We Create A Science of Consciousness?

Monday, July 14, 2014


In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness" — the quest to explain our subjective experience.

Our consciousness is a fundamental aspect of our existence, says philosopher David Chalmers: "There's nothing we know about more directly.... but at the same time it's the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe." In a recent TED Talk, he shares some ways to think about the movie playing in our heads.

"Why is it that all that physical processing in our brain be accompanied by consciousness at all?" asks Chalmers.

"Why is it that all that physical processing in our brain be accompanied by consciousness at all?"

For Chalmers, the questions answered so far — mainly, about what parts of the brain do which bits of processing — are the “easy” (in comparison) problems. The hard problem is why is it that all that processing should be accompanied by this movie at all.

Many say that in a few years it will turn out that consciousness is just another emergent phenomenon, “like traffic jams or hurricanes or life, and we’ll figure it out.” But Chalmers believes there are limitations to this picture. Classic cases of emergence are all about behavior, about objective functioning. “You can apply that to the brain — how we walk, how we talk, how we play chess. But why is it that all this behavior is accompanied by subjective experience?”

According to Chalmers, consciousness is fundamental. “Physicists sometimes take parts of the universe as fundamental building blocks — space or time, or mass.” These are taken as primitive and the rest is built up from there. Sometimes the list of fundamentals expands, such as when James Clerk Maxwell realized that electromagnetism couldn’t be explained from other known laws of physics, and so he postulated electric charge as a new fundamental idea. Chalmers thinks that’s where we are with consciousness.

David Chalmers

“This doesn’t mean you suddenly can’t do science with it. This opens up the way to do science with it,” he says,  Chalmers thinks we need to connect this fundamental with the other fundamentals.

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Chalmer’s also states every system might be conscious at some level. Consciousness might be universal, an idea called panpsychism. The idea is not that photons are intelligent or thinking, or wracked with angst. Rather, it’s that “Photons have some element of raw subjective feeling, a precursor to consciousness. This might seem crazy to us,” he says, “but not to people from other cultures.”

“I used to think I shouldn’t eat anything that’s conscious. If you’re a panpsychist, you’ll be pretty hungry,” he jokes.  It’s also natural to ask about other systems, like computers. If consciousness is integrated information, and computers do integrate information, that raises ethical issues about developing intelligent computer systems, and turning them off.

Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he's especially known for his theories on consciousness, he's also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers placed the "hard problem" of consciousness firmly on the philosophical map. He famously challenges materialist conceptions of mind, arguing for an "explanatory gap" between our brains’ physical properties and our minds’ qualia. Elsewhere he has championed the notion of the "extended mind," which argues that the mind is not confined to skin or skull, but plausibly may extend beyond them.

By the way, nice haircut David!


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