Friday, April 25, 2008

David Chalmers -- The Big Conundrum: Consciousness

Speaking of David Chalmers, here is an interview with him from All in the Mind. The show's host, Natasha Mitchell, posted links to various shows she has done on the topic of consciousness (in response to a listener's question), so it seemed like a good opportunity to get the links and share them with you.

Past All in the Mind shows I've done exploring consciousness include:

This interview was done in 2003, so I don't feel bad posting a big chunk of the transcript. Here is David Chalmers on the Big Conundrum: Consciousness. Oh yeah, he's no longer at the U of A -- he's down in Australia someplace.
What is consciousness? How do physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective life the conscious mind? These compelling questions have well and truly taken over the expansive mind of Dave Chalmers. Still in his thirties, Chalmers is recognised as one of the world's big names in philosophy. He's Professor at the University of Arizona, where he directs the Center for Consciousness Studies. But he started out as a kid in Adelaide with a passion for big questions with complicated answers. Dave Chalmers joins Natasha Mitchell this week on All In the Mind for a meander through the crevices of the final frontier: the mind.

* * * * *

Natasha Mitchell: And welcome to All in the Mind, Natasha Mitchell with you, great to have your company today. My guest on the show this week is Australian born philosopher Dave Chalmers who's become one of the world's great notables for his dalliances with the Big C, the question of 'human consciousness.

He became a professor at the tender age of 32, and today, still a young'n, he heads up the Centre for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona.

In 1996 his book "The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory" (there's no doubt he's ambitious) hit the bookshelves with gusto and sparked a debate that hasn't dimmed in intensity in the slightest since. About questions like: What is human consciousness? how do physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective life of the conscious mind? Could machines experience consciousness in the way that we do? And are we living a dream anyway?

David Chalmers is on the Board of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness and he regularly brings big thinkers from around the world together on his desert campus on Tuscon, Arizona to discuss and debate his great passion for big ideas with difficult, or even impossible, answers.

On a lighter side he's recently contributed to the philosophy section of the official Matrix movie website with his essay The Matrix as Metaphysics and he's a recent inductee into the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists - yes, I'm serious, it does exist. So it seems like all good philosophers he's clearly preoccupied with keeping his cranium warm.

I caught up with David Chalmers at the recent International Congress on Cognitive Science held here in Australia...

Well you've become really one of the big names in Consciousness Studies around the world, one of the big names in philosophy. We don't climb out of the womb knowing that we want to take the big mama on in philosophy, so where did it begin for you?

Dave Chalmers: My interests started about in science and in mathematics, I always thought I was going to be a mathematician. But gradually as I studied mathematics I got the sense that I was no longer studying things that were as fundamental as it once had.

I had the idea that it would be wonderful to be a physicist or a mathematician maybe 500 years ago around the time of Newton when there were really fundamental things just lying around to be discovered. So at this point you start asking yourself OK where are the really fundamental questions, the things that right now we don't understand? The things where the landscape is as wide open as it was for Newton 500 years ago? And the answer's obvious - it was the science of the mind and consciousness. The fact that we are conscious beings - how does these states of consciousness relate to states of the brain? This is the question absolutely fundamental to our existence and absolutely mysterious. And thinking about that question just inexorably drove me in that direction.

Natasha Mitchell: Who were some of the key early thinkers in this area of consciousness studies that got you intrigued?

Dave Chalmers: Well I read a lot of stuff as a kid but one book which really influenced me strongly was a Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach. In the late 1970s this was a very important and fairly widely read book tying together things from a philosophy, mathematics, science, physics, art, the nature of thought, the nature of mind, the nature of experience that drew me in. I ended up actually, it's a long story, but I ended up working with Douglas Hofstadter for my PhD in philosophy and cognitive science much later so in that way I came full circle.

Natasha Mitchell: That's extraordinary, what a coincidence, or not perhaps as the case may be. Few people in Adelaide in the 70s would have read a book and then somewhere down the track become the author's student.

Dave Chalmers: I went through in mathematics at Adelaide and I got part way through a graduate degree at Oxford working on mathematics but around this time I was getting obsessed by consciousness and the mind, I was developing my own new theory every week, how could I think about this stuff. And I started to think OK, I need to work on this properly full time and then I thought, where do I start, do I need to go back to square one? And the one person I knew about was Hofstadter whose books I'd read and loved so I wrote to him and he wrote back saying "hey, why don't you come across and work with me and in Indiana"? And I said "where on earth is Indiana!?" I looked at a map of the US and there it was somewhere in the middle... but I ended up going there and it was a great experience.

Natasha Mitchell: Was it?

Dave Chalmers: Doug had interests in everything from the study of language to the study of creativity, to humour, to mathematics, we'd have a workshop one weekend on jokes and how you analyse the structure of a joke. A workshop on another weekend on consciousness and we'd talk about how to computationally model the mind... So any question you could think of when it comes to thinking about the human mind was fair game. That was just incredibly stimulating.

Natasha Mitchell: Yes, because traditionally we've boxed the disciplines somewhat so philosophers haven't always talked certainly in modern times anyway, haven't talked to the neuroscientists and vice a versa. And you've said somewhere that you're truly committed to developing an inter-disciplinary study of consciousness. It seems to be that inter-disciplinarity that really turns you on.

Dave Chalmers: Yeah, well I am a philosopher but I didn't come into this saying what I want to study is philosophy. To ask the questions that I wanted to ask and to be able to get a job and so on you had to do that in a philosophy department. But still I think the science of consciousness is very much a group enterprise where the psychologists, the neuroscientist, the philosophers, the physicists even all have something to contribute. One great thing about being a philosopher is you get to kind of stand back from it all and do your best to integrate and synthesise.

Natasha Mitchell: And you're now on the Board of Directors of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Now, traditionally, science and consciousness would have been somewhat of an anathema...

Dave Chalmers: Well a lot of people think this, they think that science has got to be objective. Now consciousness by its very nature is subjective, when we study consciousness we're studying subjective experience. So some people think OK therefore science can't study consciousness, consciousness has to be left to one side. And I think this is just an overly constrained view of what science is. You know, subjective experience is just one other natural phenomena that each of us has as biological beings. We can study this, we can listen to other people's reports of their experience and we can study the connections between our states of subjective experience and the underlying say, states of the brain.

So this is in many ways where psychology got started doing this about 150 years ago and then got diverted by turning into the study of behaviour and the study of everything objective. Only recently has science been returning to it but there's one very exciting thing in just the 10 or 15 years has been the setting up of groups like this association, and a whole bunch of researchers from many different fields are turning their attention very strongly to consciousness.

Read the rest of this fascinating interview.

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