The Conscious Mind Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Can a relationship between consciousness and science be taken seriously? While such an esoteric topic may be off-putting to the reader untrained in philosophical navigation, David Chalmers has tried to make the waters floating his theory of human consciousness smooth. The book’s crossover question represents an intriguing and ambitious project for a philosopher, whose kind do not often understand or concern themselves with the scientific world. For the nonprofessional reader, asterisks next to the titles of certain sections are included to alert him or her that the starred sections are written especially for those trained in philosophy and dedicated to the pursuit of some of its deeper questions. Reading the designated sections does not yield evidence that they were appreciably more difficult than the rest of the text, however.

In the first section of the book (chapters 1 and 2), the problems of trying to account for consciousness and the framework in which they can be studied are addressed. Although human beings experience consciousness in an intimately familiar way, its nature poses a difficult philosophical question: How can a system of functioning physical realities produce what we know as the experience of experiencing? The author is interested here in exploring the phenomenological dimension of the question rather than consciousness’ psychological aspect. He examines the connections or dependency (supervenience) of consciousness on the natural order of things. He endeavors to go beyond a merely nominal, factual, or even a functional explanation of consciousness. In the early chapters Chalmers sets out to eliminate solutions which he judges inadequate. He notes, “Mere natural supervenience is ontologically expensive.” Therefore he concludes that “it is fortunate that logical supervenience is the rule and natural supervenience the exception.”

The second section of the book (chapters 3-5) asserts that an explanation for consciousness cannot be reduced to a mere scientific or materialistic calculus. Consequently the author selects a dualistic model to explain the phenomenon, tentatively claiming for his model some element of truth. His central insight, explored in chapter 4, designates “property dualism” as the only reasonable option to explain consciousness. He sets up four premises:

1. Conscious experience exists.
2. Conscious experience is not logically supervenient on the physical.
3. If there are phenomena that are not logically supervenient on the physical facts, then
materialism is false.
4. The physical domain is causally closed.

Having set up his premises, he proceeds to dissect them cleanly, disposing of arguments that may be raised against each of them. At the end he has exposed the bones of his own option.

Yet it is clear that his “property dualism” solution to the problem of consciousness is not a totally satisfactory answer for many thinkers, especially for those who favor a reductively materialistic explanation. Yet Chalmers undercuts partisans for materialism with the quip, “You can’t have your materialistic cake and eat your consciousness too.” He dismisses holding a purely scientific worldview by arguing that his position “requires us to give up little that is important [emphasis his]. . . . It merely requires us to give up a dogma.” He replaces such “dogma” with his own “credo”: “If this is dualism, then we should learn to love dualism.” Even in the labored exposition of very difficult material, the author does not forsake a sense of humor.

His thesis that consciousness is not a totally material phenomenon will likely be particularly intriguing to theologians. It appears to take natural law theory seriously. Generally, modern philosophers have dismissed natural law as a rather quaint and archaic relic of philosophical history, kept on life support by a few religious thinkers. Yet it is not altogether persuasive that, in the end, his theory really does go beyond the materialism he eschews.

Chapter 5 takes up the distinction between cognition and consciousness. Cognition is simply sensation, a basic awareness of encountered objects (this is a red book); consciousness is perception about things at a deeper level. In the act of perception the subject is engaged not only in a phenomenological task, but in an activity that stems from his or her psychology. The first order experience of the red book proceeds to a second order judgment about that experience (“I am having an experience or sensation of something red”). Finally, human consciousness has the capacity...

(The entire section is 1884 words.)