Taking Descartes to task

David Chalmers links to an ABC (Australian) radio show, All in the Mind, on which he appeared along with eminent Australian philosophers to discuss the mind-body problem, what Chalmers has rather famously dubbed the Hard Problem. What processes account for the utterly unique first person experiences of each of us? What is it like to be Wayne Hall or Jane Smith or David Chalmers or any one of the billions of individuals alive today? Why is the singular experience of being conscious so hard to decode?

Gerard O'Brien, Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide School of Humanities has this to day early in the All in the Mind transcript:

The problem with dualism is that it is deeply unscientific, and is deeply unscientific in the following way: If you assert that the mind is non-physical then what you're actually doing is you're throwing a kind of a veil around the mind and you're saying it's an arena that we will not be able to explain, that we're always going to have to leave mysterious.

Such criticisms strike me much like those lodged in history by mathematicians against the idea of infinity, which as Cambridge professor John Barrow writes in his book, The Infinite Book, can, in fact, be mathematically approached. And I continue to be struck by the idea that when it comes to knowing, perhaps mathematics now has an edge on what can be empirically demonstrated. Is string theory science? Maybe not, but then again maybe there are more ways to know than first presumed.

The issues are also in my view compounded by the nature of the consciousness as a problem. As Ray Kurzweil pointed out last week Louisville, biology (and math and computation and consciousness studies) is in essence an information problem. If so, the leap from syntax to sense is perhaps the "hardest" of information problems. In ways that we do not yet understand, the human mind creates meaning from information. It fashions the individual experience and the difference is as big and wide as the gulf between the components, like hue and saturation, of the color purple and the film, The Color Purple.

Chalmers does not prove dualism. He is after all a philosopher and perhaps the only thing philosophers dislike more than the questions are the answers - but he does want rationalists, as he puts it, to face up to the issues that make consciousness such a difficult subject. Of course saying that we can't model consciousness now is not the same as saying we never will. But in the absence of a complete description of consciousness as a brain function, Chalmers ably challenges the notion that physical monism is its only possible foundation.

Anyway, much back and forth ensues. Here is the All in the Mind transcript and the audio.


Wikipedia: Qualia, Monism, Type-physicalism, Dualism, Panpsychism, Epiphenomenalism.