David Chalmers Interview

Linked from David’s own Fragments of Consciousness blog is this Interview on Bloggingheads he did with John Horgan.

A full hour and wide-ranging … from David’s roots in the Woodstock of Consciousness, via the “hard problem”, free will, pure (non-objective) concsiousness, blurring the science / philosophy boundary, to rational mysticism and peyote and LSD induced states of mind, and modern research into psychedelics.

Interesting to see David downplay “the hard problem” as just his statement of the obvious that, when it comes to consciousness, any theory which ignores explanation of the subjective experience of it would seem to miss the point. He sees many physionomic approaches as doomed to making progress on the behavioural aspects (the easy problem) only. It seems he too sees a lot of mileage in the “fundamental information” angle providing not just the basis for the physical aspects, but also the phenomenal aspects. Excellent.

John loses his way a little bit on the nihilistic downside of the “illusory reality” worldview, but David reminds us illusion or not, reality is reality – like life and consciousness too. A point I’ve made before. Illusion means it may not be what we believe it is, it doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Interesting that John found David’s work refreshing and intelligible compared to others in the field – I have to say hearing him talk I would agree – but I also have to say I found his book “The Conscious Mind” deeply technical and jargon-laden on many issues – like “supervenience”.

35 thoughts on “David Chalmers Interview”

  1. A couple of points:

    – On ‘he too sees a lot of mileage in…’ Does one really get closer to solving the “hard problem” by believing that information is the basis of reality instead of believing that matter is the basis of reality? I don’t see how.

    – On Horgan ‘losing his way…’ His argument is that 1) some people who believe reality is an illusion or simulation do lose their morality, and 2) this belief is an adolescent conjecture with no empirical evidence. Why then believe it?

  2. Hi Glenn

    On the first point yes … because Chalmers mis-characterises the hard-problem (I think, that’s why I’d like to understand his “supervenience”) The subjective self-consciousness simply arises from lower levels of intelligence and consciousness … sufficiently complex and recursive … I’m with Dennett on this. Information theory doesn’t add to this directly, but just says stop looking for fundamental atoms of self-consciousness – psybertrons – just look for “significant differences”.&

    On losing his way … he gets in to the nihilistic take .. that therefore there would be no “reality” – all illusion. The “grow-up” response is one of the many catch-22’s. An ad hominem argument … only a juvenile would believe it, etc. But that’s not the problem either … it’s just a description of the “illusory” nature of the fundaments … a problem with the “hole” in any metaphysics … there can never be emprical evidence of the fundaments. I don’t believe the “Matrix” theories … there can never be emprical evidence – by defintion – but that’s not the reason for not believing … it’s just unnecessary – reality is reality, however illusory. Another Catch-22.


  3. What’s being discussed here is not “just a description of the illusory nature of the fundaments”, but the illusory nature of every day reality. What we think of as reality isn’t reality if it’s illusory.

  4. Glenn, I think you’re / we’re mixing up the different points … many things are being discussed …

    At any level, an illusion is “real” … ie it “really is” the illusion you actually perceive. (ie It’s just not what you think it is, but that’s true at all levels too.)

    The Matrix / Zombie stuff are really just thought experiments to show how far you can push the idea … and still not prove anything beyond doubt one way or the other … but it’s a red-herring (Dennett) to worry about it (Chalmers), because what ever it really is, it is – real.

  5. Perhaps I should explain on the illusion / matrix point … yes the question arises at the everyday level … what if we were simply in the matrix or similar, etc ..

    When you analyse what you experience (the phenomenology) you eventually drill down to what’s behind what you experience, eventually you get to some fundamental level where you have to conclude you couldn’t prove we were or were not in the matrix, one way or another. Which is why I dived straight to the “fundaments” – sorry about that.

    The point is, whether you believe the matrix illusion or not, you have to choose your preferred illusion to explain what we experience … that the 99.99% space we encounter (or maybe you believe in quarks, or multi-dimensional strings ?) looks and feels like tangible, substantial stuff. Most people prefer this “democritan” or “newtonian” illusion – of hard billiard-ball atomic building blocks – but it’s no less an illusion. It’s just the illusion we have grown used to culturally.

    It’s a side issue, but the information / hologram explanation kinda fits both of these illusions … “real” billiard balls or “illusory” matrix … so it takes the “my view of reality is less illusory than your view” argument out of the equation, which is why I like it … both views (of reality)could share the same metaphorical (illusory)basis. But it’s a choice we make, like any ontology.

  6. I understand what you are saying. That’s fine for you. There’s also Chalmer’s, “Yes, but you don’t have to look at it that way…” response. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t undermine Horgan’s argument, you see.

    I’ll just repeat myself. Horgan has met people who don’t take moral responsibility for their actions as a direct consequence of their belief that reality is an illusion. Now, Horgan doesn’t insist that a belief in the illusory nature of reality necessarily leads to nihilism, just that it can and does. Coupled by it being a juvenile thought experiment with no empirical basis, I think Horgan is implying that there is no redeeming value to such a way of thinking. Thus the quibble about him “losing his way”. Was it just his ad hominem that prompted that?

  7. Ah I see … I commented as to his losing his way, because it is a red-herring to worry about people who use it as an excuse for nihilism, or other irresponsible behaviour. That behaviour needs fixing.

    It’s no more “juvenile” a thought experiment than any other metaphor – it just appeals to a certain group in popular culture – not including me.

    The redeeming feature is (could be) its more complete explantory value for more of reality … the neurotic focus on empirical evidence is the red herring (this is the real issue).

    I commented “lost his way” because in fact he stumbled in the conversation, physically losing his own way as to what point he was making – he may have eventualy made a valid point …. just not relevant to anything being said by David (or of interest to me in explaining consciousness) … a total side issue, an aside comment I made …. I said “a little bit” (no big deal) … to lead into “but David reminds us” (the bigger deal).

    It’s no argument to say that’s a bad explanation of consciousness because some irresponsible people may do irresponsible things – is it ? It would force us to lowest common denominator world-views that even irresponsible morons could buy, rather than “good” ones ?

  8. I thought we were talking of bad ways to view reality, but now you’ve morphed it into bad ways to explain consciousness?? And the real issue is the neurotic focus on empirical reality?? He physically stumbled in the conversation?? Holy Smokes!! You’re so far ahead of me that I confess not knowing where to begin! 🙂

  9. Huh ? Chalmers’ subject, the subject of the interview is consciousness – and explanations through its science and its philosophy.

    As I said we (in the interview) were talking about many aspects of the above, and phenomeology, consciousness of what we perceive as “real” is an unavoidable part – the easy part. Horgan’s stumble into a not very relevant area was a minor observation. I only mentioned it because David also pointed it it was not necessary to the debate. He could have said “grass is green”. I could have made the same comment.

    You ignored all the positive things I said, and went straight for an argument … sorry, dialectic 😉 As I said **that** is the main issue (in this blog), the world’s neurotic obsession with the falsifiabilty of objectivity, of empirical reality.

    Let’s start with one simple assertion … Illusions are real, so it’s an irrelevent distinction to make in discussing (any aspect of) reality. Discuss for about 5 minutes, then let’s move on to something interesting 😉

    If you want to debate the Matrix … we can start another thread. I don’t have much time for it, I find it harmless and uninteresting (unlikely to ever lead to any new cnclusions) but like free speech I’ll defend it against anyone who accuses it of being juvenile or adolescent – I dismissed the “grow-up” argument earlier.

  10. No thanks. And no, I did not go straight for an argument, and my follow-ups were just to clarify my original points. I can see that arguing with you further would simply be an exercise in frustration.

  11. No thanks! I think debating you further would only lead to frustration. And no, I did not go straight for an argument, and my follow-ups were mainly to clarify my original points.

    Also, this blog of yours seems to be blocking all comments when the website tag is


    Kind of makes you wonder about your stance on free speech when you do things like this, not to mention the annoyance of having to type everything over.

  12. OK, sorted .. it was just the spam filter … the number of posts from the same comcast address in a given short period …. I’ve un-spammed those that got caught. (No special interest in the brloggins tag.) I get 1500 spam comments per week at the moment … the filter is essential.

    Perhaps you might withdraw the free-speech comment 😉

    I can see it’s frustrating – but lighten-up. My frustration is that you questioned (over and over again) the one passing comment about John Horgan losing his way on one particular line of question … but ignore the positive things I’d said about Chalmers PoM.

  13. My bad, Ian. I’ll withdraw my comment and add an apology.

    As I said above, I was only ever interested in clarifying my original point after you attempted to diffuse it. I questioned why you said ‘losing his way’ exactly once. You in turn explained what you meant by it in several different ways, in several different comments. I accept what you say, especially the “[Horgan] may have eventualy made a valid point…”. I’m happy to leave it at that.

    I’m not that interested in talking about the positive things you have to say about Chalmers. Must I be? I’m also not keen on chasing down any of the other provocative nonsense you’ve tossed in. It would be too frustrating. Really.

  14. Must you be ?
    Well clearly not, it’s a free country innit ?

    But it is a key point in my blog, that people ought to look for constructive synthesis rather than destructive analysis (nit-picking I might say pejoratively, looking for a fight, looking exclusively for dialectic arguments)

    I’m disappointed that my “valid point” comment made you happy, not because I want you to be unhappy, but because I said an equally valid point would have been “grass is green”. Valid, but not adding anything.

    I’d enjoy your company more (which is an important consideration, no ?) if you built on something I said. If you think it’s all nonsense, then it begs several questions …

    Thanks for your interest anyway.

  15. Please re-read my first post in this thread. Can you honestly say I was pejorative, gave destructive analysis, and was picking a fight? You’re simply assuming that’s what I’m doing because of our history. If anyone else had written that you wouldn’t have given it a second thought. You need to settle down.

  16. Sorry Glenn, but that’s just not true …

    I didn’t suggest you were being pejorative, but that you were naturally picking up on points of disagreement – everybody does it. Your first comment in this thread makes two points and they each conclude (and I quote)
    “I don’t see how” and “why then believe it”.

    Perhaps I should take those two negative points to say implicitly “but I agree with everything else you say” ? But I doubt it because later you do refer to “the other provocative nonsense I tossed in”.

    Do I say anything you agree with ? Or is it all a combination of nonsense and things you don’t agree with. I’m just saying gimme something constructive to build on.

  17. Huh, I did indeed use the word pejorative, but not about you. I used it about a remark I might make, not about any remark you made.

    quote “… rather than destructive analysis (nit-picking I might say pejoratively …”

    ie language I “might” use “if” I wanted to be pejorative, something I try hard to avoid, depite the temptation, which as I keep saying is psybertron’s main point. the technical (non pejorative) term is “dialectic” as I explained 2 or 3 times now. The idea that an argument should progess by each party refuting his opponents position.

    Anyway, you proved my point, by responding again with a point of disagreement only, and missed your opportunty again to point out anything at all you agree with 😉

    In my original post I made two negative points, one about Horgan “losing his way” one about “Chalmers intelligibility”, both as subsidiary clauses leading into positive remarks as the main points of each sentence.

    You appreciate the subject has moved on to psybertron’s agenda, about what makes a constructive “argument”, otherwise I wouldn’t labour the point.

  18. Disingenuous backpedaling. You already accused me of ‘going straight for an argument’ in comment #9 and in several comments impressed on me that Horgan’s point was an irrelevant side issue which leads nicely into an accusation of me ‘nitpicking’.

    Who are you kidding with your ‘ie language’ lesson? Your use of pejoratively describes how I nitpicked. “I might say” is a figure of speech for what you strongly suspect to be the case.

  19. Not being at all disingenuous Glenn, yes I said going straight for an argument …. a dialectic, I clarified several times now … where you say something that disagrees with something I’ve said, and vice versa. Culturally – that’s situation normal, expected.

    Yes it was a figure of speech to suggest there are many more pejorative ways of saying you’re engaging in dialectic … looking for a fight, etc … and I honestly suggested what these were … that was my point.

    It’s not a language lesson, more the opposite, the point is independent of the language I use, whether technical (dialectic) or casual / deliberately pejorative (nit-picking, argumentative, looking for a fight, etc.) it is negative … I illustrated it by saying I might (even) use such pejorative language … implicitly / rhetorically using said pejorative language, clearly “guilty” there …. but nowhere did I accuse you of being pejorative.

    I simply accused you of finding (only) points you could disagree with.

    You appreciate you have still not said one positive thing about anything positive I said in my post 😉 Which is your perogative, but true nevertheless, and most significant to me in the context of this psybertron blog, where you chose to interact.

  20. I’m asking “is there anything I said positively about Chalmers views, that you could (even partially) agree with, and add some re-inforcing / modifying words of your own …. in your own words. So .. suggestions ?

    Hmm, I guess the fact that you have to ask really proves my point about the depth of this engrained cultural problem with dialectics 😉

    Anyway how about,

    (1) I said I agree with David that any theory of consciousness that fails or doesn’t intend to address the issue of subjectivity, is barely worth the name “theory of consciousness” – ie it addresses only the easy part, not the hard part.


    (2) Whether talking about “reality” or “consciousness”, it is a red-herring – an irrelevance that doesn’t add anything to the argument – to argue that something is “illusory”. ie You may believe there is an absolute reality beyond our experience, but our experience of it is always phenomenal. The phenomenon we experience always invloves some construct of our conscious or subconscious “senses” and “imagination” – the detail of what we perceive always involves some element of “illusion” on top of the whatever may be out there ?

    The first point is significant – because previously I would have disagreed with David about the hard / easy problem distinction – but I think I get his point now.

    The second point is not so significant – it’s just a linguistic problem I have with people who describe certain phenomena as illusory – you’ll see many earlier references to this.

    Anyway (1) or (2) or one of your own ?

    The subtext here – ie what this comment thread turned into is – if I say nothing you agree with – why do you bother ? Do you have any constructive objectives ?


  21. I think I could agree partially to both statements. What’s going on in neuroscience where different parts of the brain are found to effect different behaviors and so on, could be argued not to be solving the problems of consciousness Chalmers calls the hard problem. Still, so little is known even about the “easy” problems that these are all worth investigating. Perhaps the best contribution Chalmers is making is to keep everyone involved in consciousness studies and neuroscience honest when a claim is made that the problem of consciousness is solved.

    As for #2, I can see that for someone who believes that reality lies at some level that we can not perceive (like the atomic level), then everything we do perceive is an illusion of sorts. Like a chair. But like you, I don’t think this is useful. I might even go further and argue that it is not even correct. We perceive reality just fine for objects on our scale that are important to our being. It’s just that much of reality is not available to our senses.

    There are plenty of good reasons to participate where there is disagreement. For one thing, it is more stimulating. For another, there is an opportunity to pick up on something you might have missed and to learn from it. If you can get past the idea that I’m only here to be hostile or make fun of you and instead take what I say as constructive criticism, then our discussions would go better. As you said, it is fairly natural for people to remark on things they don’t agree with and leave the agreeable things alone. I’m like that.

    I can see that I’m coming at this from a completely different angle than you. If I agreed with most of the things on your blog, I would find it uninteresting and move on.

  22. Hi Glenn,

    Where you say …
    “If you can get past the idea that I’m only here to be hostile or make fun of you and instead take what I say as constructive criticism, then our discussions would go better.”

    I think I’ve made enough of the point already … simply, it’s easier not to get that impression if the dialogue contains a mix of positive and negative, perhaps with a few “buts” and “althoughs”. It’s hard to believe criticism is “constructive” if that’s all you get, without some existing basis of substantial agreement. Exclusively either extreme is equally boring as far as I’m concerned, no argument there.

    Anyway as you say it’s a matter of our styles – maybe UK and US cultural differences too 😉

  23. Huh, I was agreeing with you … about the need to get past that impression … no argument there … anyway, as you say, etc …

  24. Well yeah, duh, but how to go about it is what’s important, it is what is central to your comment, and it is what you continue to disagree about.

    Said another way, I don’t see any genuine attempt at positive resolution or synthesis or whatever you call it in #26, just a rehash of your prior complaint even after I had just made a concerted effort to comply to your wishes! Silly swipes at US culture aside, I had hoped to see something a little better considering the standards you expect from visitors of psybertron.

    Now before you go into your usual “I deny that” or “That’s just not true” mode, consider that that probably won’t change the way I feel. It hasn’t before.

  25. Jeez … what is it I “continue to disagree about” ?

    What is it about “how I go about it” that irks you ?

  26. It seems to me more a matter of style, boys.

    I remember years ago when I made a sarcastic comment to Georgia on your blog and you, Ian said “Now, now, girls, don’t fight”

    Some people just enjoy the argument and no harm is meant or caused. It’s sort of an intellectual arm wrestle.

    Personally, (now I’m really making myself vulnerable)….sometimes (often) I have found your lack of response or coldness of response, while not “dialectic” not partcularly suited to furthering the discussion or level of understanding.

    But we certainly cannot force others to respond the way we would like. That’s just unrealistic. (if there is such a thing as reality).

  27. Hi Alice, nice to hear from you …

    I did try to suggest that ultimately it’s a matter of style, and I wouldn’t want to force a style change on anyone.

    The way I look at it, we all like an argument (a dialectic style discussion), I’m no different but I tire of “all argument and nothing else” without any positive base of broad trust and partial agreement. (That opinion is of course quite closely related to my whole psybertron agenda – which is why I admit I’m particularly sensitive to it – and dared to make the alternative suggestion.)

    Unlike you, Glenn starts with a “pain in the ass” reputation, from other debating environments – but I’m trying hard not to hold it against him 😉

    Point fully taken about my style inhibiting people’s expectations as to how discussion will be furthered – it’s kinda deliberate – but I guess I’m being more “uncompromising” here on my own personal blog than in other discussion forums.

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