Hankins On Chalmers

I haven’t written much about philosophy of mind lately, which used to be a frequent topic around here. The reason, mostly, is that the subject is so intractable, and progress so difficult, that I just got tired of writing about it. But these ancient questions still fascinate me, and I still return to them now and then.

David Chalmers, who made quite a splash with his book 1997 The Conscious Mind, has a new one out, called The Character of Consciousness. Peter Hankins, the marvelous writer who manages the outstanding philosophy-of-mind blog Conscious Entities, has posted a review, which is well worth reading if you are interested in this addictively engaging and infinitely frustrating subject.

An excerpt from Peter’s review:

In Chalmers’ view, the epistemic gap, the fact that knowledge about the physics does not entail knowledge of the phenomenal, is a sign that that there is a real, ontological gap, too. Materialism is not enough: phenomenal experience shows that there’s more. He now gives us a fuller account of the arguments in favour of qualia, the items of phenomenal experience, being a real problem for materialism, and categorises the positions typically taken (other views are of course possible).

  • Type A Materialism denies the epistemic gap: all this stuff about phenomenal experience is so much nonsense.
  • Type B Materialism accepts the epistemic gap, but thinks it can be dealt with within a materialist framework.
  • Type C Materialism sees the epistemic gap as a grave problem, but holds that in the limit, when we understand things better, we’ll understand how it can be reconciled with materialism.

In the other camp we have non-materialist views.

  • Type D dualism puts phenomenal experience outside the physical world, but gives it the power to influence material things,
  • Type E Dualism, epiphenomenalism, also puts phenomenal experience outside the physical world, but denies that it can affect material things: it is a kind of passenger.

Finally we have the option that Chalmers appears to prefer:

  • Type F monism (not labelled as a materialism, you notice, though arguably it is). This is the view that consciousness is constituted by the intrinsic properties of physical entities: Chalmers suggests it might be called Russellian monism.

The point, as I understand it, is that we normally only deal with the external, ‘visible’ aspects of physical things: perhaps phenomenal experience is what they are intrinsically like in themselves – inside, as it were. I like this idea, though I suspect I come at it from the opposite direction: to Chalmers, it seems to mean something like those experiences you’re having – well, they’re the kind of thing that constitutes reality whereas to me it’s more you know reality – well that’s what you’re actually experiencing. Chalmers’ way of looking at it has the advantage of leaving him positioned to investigate consciousness by proxy, whereas I must admit that my point of view tends to leave me with no way into the question of what intrinsic reality is and makes mysterian scepticism (which I don’t like any more than Chalmers) look regrettably plausible.

Type A has always struck me as obvious nonsense; Type B as wishful thinking. Type D suffers, I think, from two major weaknesses: the difficulties of the interaction problem, and the obvious extent to which the mind appears to be entirely supervenient upon the physical brain. Type E, epiphenomenalism, is a dead end, I think (see our discussion of Titus Rivas’s convincing argument to that effect here). That leaves C and F, and I’m not sure I see quite what the difference is between them. I’ve always thought that consciousness is somehow the way certain material systems “look” from the inside; that it is a reflexive feature of the material world that emerges in suitably configured arrangements of matter.

Anyway, the book is no doubt interesting, and the review certainly is. Read it here.


  1. bob koepp says

    HI Malcolm –
    Not having read either the book or the review, I’m probably just venting gas, but for me, what distinguishes Russellian “neutral” monism from the more familiar forms of monism (i.e., materialism and idealism) is that it treats both matter an mind as aspects or modes under which the sole substance is presented. Neither matter nor mind is treated as a substance in it’s own right. So, if ‘material’ and ‘physical’ are taken to be synonyms, Type F ain’t Russellian monism, and you are right to question whether it is distinct from Type C.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  2. I am by no means as steeped in this subject matter, Malcolm, as you appear to be. But I know you discussed Antonio Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain” in your post “Stumbling Block”, published on NOVEMBER 30, 2010 – 12:35 AM, and I just wanted to mention that I am currently reading it on my Kindle (where I am also reading about half a dozen other books).

    Damasio is not only a highly respected neuroscientist but he is also a wonderful writer. It is a fascinating read.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Peter Hankins also takes up Damasio’s book, here.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

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