Monday, 9 July 2018

Book Reviews (1): David Chalmers' *The Conscious Mind*

The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory is an old book by David Chalmers. It dates back to 1996. It was his first book; though he'd published papers before this dating back to 1989/90.

I decided not to tackle any of Chalmers' arguments in this review simply because the book is so dense with arguments. It just wouldn't make sense singling out anything specific. And even if I did, I would have probably turned this review into something else entirely.

Broadly speaking, Chalmers still holds most of the positions he articulated in this book. However, perhaps today he's more committed to some form of panpsychism than he was in 1996.

The Conscious Mind (as stated) is dense with argumentation. And partly because of that, Chalmers' book fluctuates from reading like a paper in a technical philosophical journal to being a “popular philosophy” book. However, to be honest, though Chalmers' writing is very clear, he rarely pulls off stuff that could be sensibly classed as “popular philosophy” - even though this book it said to be meant for a general educated audience. Having said that, in the introduction Chalmers does say that his “notional audience at all times has been [his] undergraduate self of ten years ago”. That's not to say that there are no simple parts (or even simple chapters) in this book – there are. However, on the whole, it's far more technical than most books on philosophical subjects.

For example, the section 'Supervenience and Explanation' (which itself includes five chapters) is highly technical. Indeed one section seems like a convoluted detour into modal logic, possible worlds theory and semantics. I suppose that Chalmers would see all this as being a technical grounding for what comes later. However, in some of these chapters there's still hardly a single mention of consciousness. This is especially true of the long and highly-technical chapter called 'A posteriori necessity' which is ten pages long and doesn't contain a single mention of consciousness or the mind. The following twenty-four pages hardly mention consciousness either.

The most interesting chapters in the book (at least from a 2018 perspective) are 'Naturalist Dualism' and 'Consciousness and Information: Some Speculation' (which deals with panpsychism). That's primarily because this naturalistic dualism is peculiar to Chalmers himself and panpsychism has a lot of contemporary relevance. Many of the other chapters, on the other hand, have been done to death in analytic philosophy; specifically the stuff on qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the nature of reduction, etc. However, since this book was written in 1996, perhaps these subjects hadn't really been done to death at that precise time.

The last chapter, 'The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics', seems rather odd to me. It's a strange add-on at the end of the book. It's very difficult to see how the interpretation of quantum mechanics fits into the rest of the work. Here again consciousness is hardly mentioned. When it is mentioned, it's in relation to how consciousness has been featured in the scientific tradition of quantum mechanics. Thus there's stuff about observation and measurement. Consciousness also features more heavily when Chalmers covers Hugh Everett's interpretation of quantum mechanics in which “superposition is extended all the way to the mind”. The idea of superposed minds is also tackled - and it's very strange!

I suppose that one reason that Chalmers writes twenty-five pages on the interpretation of quantum mechanics is that the quantum mechanics-consciousness connection was becoming very fashionable in the 1990s. However, it seems that Chalmers believed that citations of quantum mechanics - when it came to consciousness - didn't solve what he calls the Hard Problem. And neither was he too sympathetic with the idea of “superposed minds” within the strict context of Everett's supposed “many-worlds” interpretation (which Chalmers believes is a misreading of the physicist's theory).

The chapter 'Consciousness and Information: Some Speculations' is - obviously! - the most speculative. Especially the section on panpsychism. Indeed Chalmers happily admits that. He even says that “[t]he ideas in this chapter” are “most likely to be entirely wrong”. Whether or not Chalmers believe that now – some 22 years later – is hard to say. He's certainly added much to his position on panpsychism; as well to his position on “information theory”.

Perhaps the chapters 'Supervenience and Explanation' and 'The Irreducibility of Consciousness' are the most important in The Conscious Mind. As stated earlier, there are also some highly technical (as well as somewhat tangential) sections in these chapters too. (Having said that, the chapter on qualia is also detailed and technical.) It's in these chapters that Chalmers articulates his most central point about consciousness: that it's not reducible to the physical. It's also here that he also states that “experience is a datum in its own right” and is therefore something that needs to be treated that way.

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