David Chalmers:
Untangling the knot of consciousness

How do we explain this rich ineffable experience
we have of the world--the way we feel when we see
deep red or hear the melancholy sound of a far-off oboe?

Over the millennia scientists have concluded that there are a handful of elemental, irreducible ingredients in the universe--space, time, and mass, among them. At a national conference in 1994, philosopher David Chalmers proposed that consciousness also belongs on the list.

Chalmers adroitly described a view that an increasing number of scientists, philosophers, psychologists, computer scientists, and others have pondered in recent years--to understand consciousness we must look beyond the physical processes of the brain. His arguments galvanized the audience and, as word rippled out, the international scientific community as well.

Until recently most researchers have assumed that the answers to consciousness will eventually be found through cognitive science and neuroscience. Neuroscientists have already developed devices such as the nuclear magnetic resonance imager that can map the action of a brain as it meanders through the world, piecing together a puzzle, smelling cinnamon, or hearing a wolf howl.

In his 1995 book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Chalmers argues that, despite such extraordinary advances, existing sciences only address what he calls the "easy problems" of consciousness--how the brain processes information and controls behavior.

Chalmers readily acknowledges that these problems are quite complex and may take a century or more to resolve. But to unlock the central mystery of consciousness, he contends, researchers must look at what he calls the "hard problem"--how the activity of the brain gives rise to a subjective inner life.

"How do we explain this rich ineffable experience we have of the world--the way we feel when we see deep red or hear the melancholy sound of a far-off oboe," Chalmers asks, speaking
in his rapid Australian accent.

The Conscious Mind has provoked a spirited debate among eminent scientists. At the forefront are such figures as Francis Crick (who discovered DNA) and Pulitzer Prize­winning cognitive and computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who describes Chalmers's book as "a grand exploration of the topic, brilliantly argued." Media across the globe have chronicled both the debate and the book itself, which was hailed as one of the best science books of 1996 by the London Times.

Even among his critics, there is widespread respect for Chalmers's views, which offer the most substantive framework so far for exploring what he calls "the greatest scientific puzzle of our time."

A former Rhodes Scholar and McDonnell Fellow in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, Chalmers turned to philosophy in graduate school after years of intensive work in mathematics and physics. "I was always interested in getting to the bottom of things," he says. "You get drawn to fundamental questions and before you know it you're doing philosophy."

In fact, he can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by consciousness. "It's the combination of absolute familiarity and absolute mystery that makes consciousness so fascinating. We know far more about atoms and distant stars in many ways than we know about our own minds."

Barbara McKenna