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February 05, 2007


Vadim Vasilyev

It's really interesting to see how Steven Pinker follows your Easy problems - Hard problem distinction, and plays your role, in fact. Except, of course, that he is devoted to McGinn's solution of the hard problem.


I thought it was disgraceful that Time allowed Pinker to monopolize the conversation like that and proffer his philosophical biases as scientific truth.


Monism seems to be the popular view in the media. Wired Magazine recently ran an issue concerning the top scientific questions. One question was not "What is conciousness?", but rather: "How does the brain create conciousness?"


It seems to me that Pinker does what is often done by the popular media: raises a tantalizing issue and then dismisses it by collapsing it into the dominant paradigm.

One could say that this is all the better for reinforcing the status-quo. On balance I tend to favor the interpretation that at least the issue was raised, and if some smart highschool kid reads it and is thereby motivated to search out the original papers, and then inspired to go into the field, perhaps some good will have come of it. Slow, steady progress.

Re. Adam above: Monism in the media, and primitive dualism (by way of religious fundamentalism) in the public policy arena, while popular opinion grows more polarized and the respective paradigms become allied with ideologies.

I have to wonder what difference (if any) it would make for individuals engaged in consciousness studies to attempt to educate our elected officials and policy makers on the present status of the field and on interactionist theories.


I'm sort of a monist myself. It's all consciousness. . .

mitchell porter

There are several forms of monism: idealism, materialism, "neutral monism" (whatever that is)... Also, one should distinguish between monisms of the forms, "there is only one thing" and "there is only one type of thing".

Torin Alter

I thought the NYer article was pretty good, despite some imprecision. One slip surprised me a bit: MacFarquhar seemed to attribute an identity theory to the Churchlands. Or rather, she attributed the identity theory and eliminative materialism but didn’t distinguish them.

Another slip annoyed me a bit: many readers may well get the impression that there are exactly two ways to do philosophy of mind. One is to waste time worrying about ordinary language. The other is to speculate about the future of neuroscience. That’s a false dilemma. At least there was a brief discussion of Dave’s approach.

I was surprised to read that the Churchlands seriously considered trying to avoid using folk-psychological terms while raising their children. I had heard that once but just assumed that it was a bad joke. I still suspect that it might be (if it is, then kudos to the Churchlands for pulling it off).

Paul Martin

Is George Bush actually conscious? I think our major news periodicals should examine that one...


Could anyone please upload the NYer article for the benefit of us Europeans?



Good point, Mitchell. I tend to think Chalmers himself is in his heart of hearts a monist... though he is always coy on the subject, being the sometimes-reluctant poster boy of dualism.

Joseph Bernard, Ph.D.

Consciousness is more then in the scientific realm. In Eastern philosophy it has been an intergral part of the understanding of how human expand their awareness, compassion and higher wisdom. The Buddha is one of the most recognized of those on the path of higher consciousness but there have been many others who have explored and shed light on human consciousness. Consciousness is so much more then an intellectual understanding. It represents the highest realization of the human potential, the deepest knowing, the highest wisdom and the most expansive compassion we humans are capable of realizing. This is true freedom to walk in the light of consciousness.

Shankar R

A shallow article written for the philosophically challenged layman. I can perhaps think of many shortcomings, but I will point out just two.

The first is his personal bias against a quantum mechanical explanation. To pooh-pooh it away as "this amounts to the feeling that quantum mechanics sure is weird, and consciousness sure is weird, so maybe quantum mechanics can explain consciousness" is totally uncalled for.

The second is the point he makes on the last page: "the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul."

This is utter nonsense. If a human being is equivalent of a machine, where is the question of empathy? Sure, you don't shed tears destroying an old computer!

The next para starts with "nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous."

This again is incorrect, on two counts. First the second one- People inflict cruelty only under the assumption that the other person is capable of conscious perception of pain. Otherwise those who torture would consider their activity to be a waste of time!

But the more (philosophically) contentious point is the assumption that our own consciousnesses has to do with our own brain. This becomes a circular argument since the perception of our own brain is tied to processes in our brain itself, hence this claim cannot be validated independently. For example, in my dreams, I will make the same argument, that the brain of me in my dreams is responsible for my consciousness, but the moment I wake up I know it isn't true - my body in the dream wasn't real and didn't even belong to the same universe as me in the waking state. Definitely THAT brain wasn't the cause of my consciousness, even in the dream. And in theory we cannot refute the argument that there is a higher "plane" which is responsible for our consciousness, not the brain we are endowed with in the present.

Well, I can understand the attempt to "humanize" this field of philosophy, in a popular journal like Time magazine or Readers Digest. But the attempt to do that has very misleading ramifications, especially for a subject like this.

Vadim Vasilyev

I think the problem of other minds is even more difficult than many philosophers tend to believe. If we admit that qualia are causally impotent there would be no reasons to believe other people have them. The fact they have brains like my own is not the reason I need because the origin of my qualia could lay in properties that distinguish my brain from others. And simplicity considerations don't work here as it is hardly possible to say that the world where only myself is conscious due to such properties would be more complex than the world where consciousness originates from the general properties of the brains and where there are a vast number of conscious brains. Indeed, in such a world there would be much more amount of useless mental stuff than in the world where such a stuff is restricted to my own mind. In other words, to believe reasonably others have qualia we have to be interactionists, have to admit that our qualia are not causally impotent (the identity theory explanation of causal efficacy of qualia is useless here: it doesn't really explain the need for qualia). Interactionism, however, is poorly understood these days, and its old versions are simply wrong, it seems.

Kosta Calfas

"long with brief sidebar articles on consciousness by Bernard Baars, Dan Dennett, Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazzaniga, Colin McGinn."

Yet not one by Chalmers? pfft, now we know where Times' editor's philosophical commitments lie! As for the Pinker-bashing, yes, the man is clearly in love with platitudes and hyperbole, but lest we forget; this is written for a popular audience. Frankly, I find myself more inclined root for a solution to the hard problem should it be the case that:

"Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices--not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come. In his millennial essay "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died," Tom Wolfe worried that when science has killed the soul, "the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase 'the total eclipse of all values' seem tame."

But before you book tickets for the debauchery of the "lurid carnival" do be aware that the idea that "we are free agents responsible for our choices" is not new and has appeared in Plato, Kant, James, Bergson etc.; Sartre and Camus a good run of soul-killing in the 40's and 50's, etc. and yet, alas, no lurid carnivals followed their groundbreaking revelation (unless you count the 60's, but I think that had more to do with Quine's Word and Object).

Ein Dhoven

You can read the MacFarquhar New Yorker piece online for free at

You need to enter an e-mail address and the ZIP code and name of your local public library to read the entire article.

Paul Raymont

Here's another mention of you, Prof. Chalmers, in connection with the consciousness debate. Most of the emphasis, though, is on physicists and some early modern philosophers. It's in an article in the American Scholar, on-line at:

It's discussed in USA Today at:

M. Pengo

Just one question in regards to Dan Dennett's views on consciousness.

If he argues that there is no hard problem of consciousness - that the problem is thoroughly type-A material and there's nothing to really talk about other than mechanism - doesn't he effectively become an advocate of the panpsychical view by default? Nothing but the material exists, consciousness as anything other than a material phenomenon doesn't exist, intention is meaningless, etc. But if absolutely everything is both material and determined, it seems equally true that there's no longer any real line between the various 'processes to explain'. A stormcloud has every bit as much intention as a brain. Every bit as much consciousness too. Maybe 'degree' and 'type' can be argued, but panpsychicists have to consider the same anyway.


The most fundamental fault underlying the mind-body problem is the acceptance of traditional Cartesian vocabulary that narrowly--and wrongly--defines mental and physical qualities and distinguishes the two.
Since existence--all that exists--is irrefutable and has to be accepted in any of its denial, one also arrives at another irrefutable axiom that consciousness also exists, without which no such identification can occur. Thus, existence exists and consciousness is part of existence, i.e., part of all that exists. If this premise is accepted then there is no need nor any justification to dissect existence into two realms of the mental and the physical. What consciousness is, is infact a naturally developed constituent of existence, as such, it belongs properly in the realm of the rest of the "physical" entities. This is not monism or a collapse into materialism because Consciousness is still upheld as an individual, subjective, first-person quality; however, consciousness exists *objectively* and irrefutably. What we describe as consciousness is a higher level description of physical processes; however, the physical cannot be emphasized over the mental nor can the mental be selected in exclusion of the physical. Consciousness is an attribute of the physical brain; it is the way in which brain system process manifest.


Jerry - *which* "attribute of the physical brain" is consciousness? If the physical brain consists of a large number of elementary physical entities engaged in causal interaction, then the *attributes* of the brain should also be enumerable, as there is nothing else to work with but the intrinsic attributes of those elementary entities which are its constituents, and whatever further attributes arise when they are considered in combination.


Mitchell, I use the word "attribute" in the sense of property, or characteristic. For example, if I say that a glass has the quality of breaking, then its "breakingness" or fragility is an attribute of glass. Thus, when I say that consciousness is an attribute of brain system processes, I am saying that brain system process exhibit a certain quality, i.e., a quality that we term "consciousness."

The traditional vocabulary surrounding this issue has almost made it impossible to discuss the mental and the physical without giving some implication that they are either antagonistic to each other and that they denote two, separate, distinct realms, or that they collapse into the other--that all is mental or that all is material/physical.

We have to first reject these bad premises and realize that all of existence--the totality of all that exists--is made of the same "stuff"--including consciousness, which is fully a constituent of all that exists. Whatever is the ultimate nature of this "stuff"--be it atoms, quarks, strings, etc. is a matter best left to scientists to discover and validate, not for philosophers to blindly speculate about. As philosophers, we can only set the metaphysical boundaries by recognizing the primacy of existence and rejecting the dichotomy of the "mental" and the "physical" but at the same time, acknowledging the unique attributes of mental and physical states. By that I mean, even though all solid are made of atoms that are spaced incredibly far apart from each other, on one level of description we see atoms and empty space, on another level of description we see a complete solid object. Both are appropriate descriptions for their respective contexts. Let's not drop the context.


If I say that a pane of glass is fragmented, and you ask me what physical property constitutes fragmentation, I could say it's the state of affairs that where there was previously one contiguous block of atoms, there are now two or more. I could equally define fragility in terms of a tendency to exhibit fragmentation. Which physical property of the brain is consciousness? That's my question.



If I substitute "brain" and "consciousness" to the comment you posted, this is what we get:

"If I say that a brain is conscious, and you ask me what physical property constitutes consciousness, I could say it's the state of affairs that where there was previously one contiguous block of atoms, there are now two or more."

As you can see, your analogy is functioning on two premises: one, that as philosophers we are within our duties to speculate upon the ultimate physical "stuff" or constituents of existence (atoms/blocks of atoms/molecules, etc.) just like scientists do; and second, that the cartesian vocabulary still holds--that consciousness is something separate or different (mental) from the "physical"--physical as traditional cartesianism defines it.

As John Searle puts it: "once you revise the traditional categories [of what characterizes "mental" and what characterizes "physical"] to fit the facts, there is no problem in recognizing that the mental qua mental is the physical qua physical."

Further, since all of existence is a closed system and all the constituents of existence are real existents--given the existence of the "mental", i.e., consciousness, one should also then concede that consciousness is undeniably, irrefutably a real constituent of existence, and is therefore also at the same time "physical." Now, what is the "physical properties" or constituents of consciousness? That is a question that should properly be left brain scientists to figure out, just like physicists were the ones responsible to inform the world about the ultimate constituents of matter--atoms and energy.

In fact, Cartesianism has so polluted the vocabulary pertaining to this area of philosophy, it is best to simply reject the distinctions between mental and physical. For purely methodological purposes, we can dissect reality into the mental and the physical to study it separately, but we must always keep in mind that such a dichotomy does not exist in reality.

Therefore, I reinterate from my earlier comment: We have to first reject these bad premises and realize that all of existence--the totality of all that exists--is made of the same "stuff"--including consciousness, which is fully a constituent of all that exists. Whatever is the ultimate nature of this "stuff"--be it atoms, quarks, strings, etc. is a matter best left to scientists to discover and validate, not for philosophers to blindly speculate about.


You seem to be saying that anything that exists, by definition, is "physical", and therefore consciousness is too. Of course, that would be no argument at all, but I do not see anything more to what you have said. This discussion is pointless unless one engages with a particular notion of the physical - and that does not have to mean wrestling with mathematical arcana, at least not at first. Consider the notion that the physical world consists fundamentally of colorless particles distributed in space. For all the innovations of recent centuries (fields instead of particles, space-time instead of space), that notion is not too removed from contemporary physics (insofar as one can actually extract a conceptual theory from contemporary physics, and not just procedures of prediction and calculation), and it already meets an insuperable problem in the existence of phenomenal color. No amount of piling up of colorless fundamental objects is going to give you something that is actually colored. It may be hard to get a contemporary person to recognize or admit this, because they are conditioned to equate colors with wavelengths, but in fact this is an association and not an identity, even if people habitually treat it as an identity.

It is the specific impossibility of identifying the actual attributes of consciousness with any combination of the entities countenanced by contemporary physical ontology which defines the "hard problem of consciousness". It has nothing to do with any unnecessary a-priori distinction between mental and physical.



Have been a fan of your work on consciousness for a while, and usually recommend The Conscious Mind as the best starting point for people exploring the subject for the first time. At some point, I'd like to see you frame the debates in a way that goes beyond the academy and the debates with strong AI. While engaging the increased popular interest in the subject is a useful activity, there are other dimensions of expansion that might be useful.

I've started exploring the theme in my own blog. You might like my first stab at framing the debates in a non-academic, but non-populist/sound-byteish way: Framing the Consciousness Debates. I have a bunch of drafts lined up to roll out over the next few weeks, and hopefully I'll be able to walk a tasteful line between rigor and disruptive exploration!


I am social psychologist working on a naive theory of action and inaction. We have evidence that people still use the mind-body distinction when evaluating daily activites/verbs. We have a couple of different scales that assess either 1. where the activity falls on an inaction (-3) to action (+ 3) continuum, or 2. the degree of agreement (strongly disagree to strongly agree) to statements of the form "X is an action." We get significantly different ratings on activities that fall into 3 main categories (factors): rest/receptive activites (e.g., sleeping, listening to a lecture), mental activities (e.g., thinking about a problem, remembering) and physical activities (e.g., running, building).
I am looking for current discussions that might help guide my thinking about our results. Any sources would be appreciated.

Arcos Plage

Does Pandeism solve the hard problem of consciousness? See Intriguing Metaphysical Parallels between the Consciousness Debate and Pandeism for a discussion.


The article could be better but it is still better than nothing.

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