Monday, November 15, 2010

The problem of consciousness

The person who has done the most (in my opinion) to resurrect the problem of consciousness and bring it back to the forefront of analytic philosophy is David Chalmers. Chalmers has two important and highly public achievements.

First, he overpowered Daniel Dennett in a knockdown, take no prisoners metaphorical battle. (This battle was also a generational conflict in that it pitted a boomer against a Gen-X). Two of the very best books on consciousness in the 90s were Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained and David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind. Dennett's book is about the best you can do if you wanted to fit consciousness into the existing scientific framework. In retrospect, Dennett's deconstruction of the self - as a "center of narrative gravity" wherein the one and the many are simply two focal endpoints in perspective - is brilliant in the way it uses deconstruction as a tool to accommodate consciousness. In sharp contrast, Chalmers - after exhaustively searching for a way for scientific materialism to be true - comes to the conclusion that consciousness cannot be explained in the current scientific framework.

Second, Chalmers in the course of showing that consciousness cannot be accommodated in the natural order, also comes to the conclusion that almost all varieties of emergence cannot be sustained either except for a radical emergentist view wherein consciousness 'pops out' at a level of complexity. (All other forms of emergence are shown to be fundamentally inadequate.) Radical emergence becomes rapidly unpalatable when you carefully examine it in this light. For a former emergentist such as myself, it took a very long time to finally accept that Chalmers was right and that one must look elsewhere for a fundamental theory.

Two possible fundamental approaches that survive this treatment are i) panpsychism and ii) dual aspect theories. [Idealism in most forms is not really on the table.] Since dual-aspect theories have to assume that nature has an interior aspect, these two (can and) are often clubbed together. Before you start asking if panpsychism implies that 'rocks have feelings', the kind of panpsychism envisaged these days is one wherein the interior aspect of nature informs the categorical (as opposed to dispositional) bases and that full blown qualia only exist in 'complex' beings such as ourselves.

A deeper, fundamental (or should it be fundaphysical?) approach is to revamp physicalism itself so that it can accommodate consciousness. But, this rests on drawing a distinction between physicalism and materialism which again turns the conversation very esoteric and therefore the topic of a new blog entry.

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