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August 07, 2005


Ming Tan

This is great stuff, Dave - I think that interviews of this calibre do your work justice and also perform a valuable service for the profession.

Amy Kind

The relevant sentence from the New Yorker article: "I read David Chalmers, who thinks that consciousness is the ghost in the machine, the secret irreducible presence in the mind that distinguishes us from computers and goldfish and other creatures who provide only a zombie-like imitation of our self-knowledge."

Gopnik goes on: "I read those philosophers who think that what we call consciousness is just an illusion, and bears the same relation to the workings of our real minds that the White House press spokesman bears to the workings of the Bush White House: it is there to find rationalizations and systematic reasons for feelings and decisions made by dim, hidden powers of whose pettish and irrational purposes it is aware only long after the fact. Of all the theories that I came across, the most impressive was Daniel Dennett's. He argues that consciousness is a by-product, not a point--that it is just the sound that all those patallel processors inside our heads make as they run alongside one another, each doing its small robotic task. There is no 'consciousness' apart from the working of all our mental states. Consciousness is not the ghost in the machine; it is the hum of the machinery. The louder the hum, the more conscious you feel."

Gopnik was reading stuff on consciousness to answer his son's questions about the family pet fish Bluie: "Does Bluie know he's Bluie?" etc.

Tom Clark


I have to say I thought Craig Hamilton's What Is Enlightenment (WIE) article, "Is God All in Your Head?," was for the most part an apologia for dualistic new age pseudo-science, driven by fear of mechanism and materialism. But it's nice that consciousness studies is getting more non-academic press.

Here's a letter that appears in the current issue of WIE:

In “Is God All in Your Head?” Craig Hamilton writes: “The great specter of brain science is that it will demonstrate that we are merely conscious organic machines, that all our experience and behavior originate in the brain.” To escape the threat of mechanism, Hamilton argues that the reductionist explanations of mainstream science are inherently flawed, since they deny the mystical intuition that higher consciousness exists beyond the material realm.

But any good scientific explanation of experience and behavior will show precisely how higher-level capacities for consciousness, choice, and the sense of self emerge from lower-level, materially-instantiated mechanisms. That such capacities are built entirely on insensate matter doesn’t threaten their existence or worth. Rather, it shows that matter isn’t so “mere” after all: properly organized, it’s all we need for consciousness, amazingly enough.

The New Age “frontier science” that Hamilton cites in defense of psi phenomena can never specify how the brain’s supposedly paranormal powers work, for if it did, it would show the trans-cranial mechanisms involved. This would inevitably reveal the brain and universe to be parts of a single system, not divided up into categorically material and spiritual realms. Since the driving motive behind New Age philosophy is to protect the mysteries of mind from the “specter” of mechanism, it can never succeed as science, which connects, never divides.

Ironically, it is the mainstream science that Hamilton attacks which best grounds the spiritual quest, conceived non-dualistically. By showing we are of a single, physical nature, it heals the ontological split between matter and mind, and reveals our full organic connection with the universe. The mystical intuition of unity is an empirical fact. And by showing how consciousness, choice, and self arise from the complex organization of purely physical processes, science demonstrates that we are indeed magnificently material creatures.

Tom Clark
Center for Naturalism

Peli Grietzer

Every time I read a popular-media discussion of consciousness, no matter how highbrow, I'm filled with gratitude for Chalmers' work for teaching me to shudder to my bones whenever seeing a conflation of Hard Problem and Easy Problem.

Eray Ozkural

I am sad that there is so much superstition abound in press coverage of phil. of mind. When I read Jaegwon Kim's textbook, I never had the impression that philosophers of today would (seriously) posit supernatural powers. It's almost always the popular media that does it...

Aidan Maconachy

I don't see how it is "superstitious" to allow for the possibility of powers over and above basic function. Obviously contemporary science doesn't allow for this, but other systems do. There is a danger that an academic straight jacket may restrict our knowledge by virtue of its own limited frame of reference. For example in the areas of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience some are showing an active interest in the cosmological teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Way.

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