Zombie blues and the hard problem of consciousness

Explaining consciousness is ‘last great challenge for science’, says philosopher David Chalmers

The Walking Dead: inspiration for philosopher David Chalmers when tackling the issue of consciousness

The Walking Dead: inspiration for philosopher David Chalmers when tackling the issue of consciousness

Fri, May 9, 2014, 01:00

With his leather jacket and biker’s haircut, David Chalmers is about the closest thing philosophy has to a rock star these days. The Australian even has his own barroom party piece, The Zombie Blues, which he is known to perform raucously – accompanied by electric guitar – at cognitive-science conventions.

“I act like you act, I do what you do/ But I don’t know, what it’s like to be you/ What consciousness is, I ain’t got a clue/ I got the zombie blues.”

It’s not the sort of tune likely to be included in a Michael Bublé Christmas compilation but it is worthy of mention for acting as an entrée to one of the biggest questions of contemporary science and philosophy: What is consciousness?

Chalmers, who was in Dublin this week for Trinity College Dublin’s Donnellan Lecture series, provides a rough answer with today’s idea: Any purely physical explanation of consciousness is going
to fail.

Consciousness was once thought to reside in the soul, but today many scientists argue that what we call consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. How do we settle this issue?
David Chalmers: “It’s quite commonly regarded as the last great challenge for science. We are getting a pretty good grip from neuroscience on explaining aspects of our behaviour, our responses to the things we do, walking, talking and so on – but those we can call the easy problems, in a certain sense. The hard problem of consciousness is explaining why all that stuff that our brain does is accompanied by subjective experience, why it feels like something from the inside.

“[The American philosopher] Daniel Dennett takes the fairly extreme view that there’s nothing to explain here, that it’s really an illusion: we just need to explain our behaviour. My own view is on the other end of the spectrum to Dennett, which is that there are systematic reasons to think that any purely physical explanation of consciousness is going to fail. Neuroscience is going to give us great explanations of the easy problems, and the behaviours, but it’s always going to take an extra ingredient somehow to get to consciousness.

“So I’ve proposed that we have to ultimately regard consciousness as something like a fundamental element in nature and look for the fundamental principles, analogous to fundamental laws in physics that connect consciousness to everything else.”

Does that mean consciousness exists after death?
“My own view is that there is a strong correlation between consciousness and physical processes, so it’s not as if consciousness can be disassociated from them in the way that someone who believes in a soul might go for.

“All the evidence is that, wherever you find consciousness, you find correspondent processes in something like a brain, and if you affect the brain you affect consciousness. In that sense, there are views way further out on the spectrum than mine.”

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