Reviews and such for The Conscious Mind
Excerpts from a bunch of reviews and the like arranged chronologically from 1996 to 1998 (when I stopped updating this page). I chose the excerpts, so take all this with a grain of salt. also included a few non-review articles focusing on the book.
"The book is very well argued, thorough, sophisticated, honest, stimulating - and almost plausible. It is certainly one of the best discussions of consciousness in existence, both as an advanced text and as an introduction to the issues. One feels that Chalmers has done about as good a job as could be done on this most intractable of problems. That said, I do not think the position he defends ultimately works, and for reasons that are not surprising. Still, there is much to be gained by following his arguments: checkmate, yet again, but an impressive game nonetheless."
[McGinn likes some of the arguments, but doesn't like the threat that consciousness is causally irrelevant. He opts for his own brand of "opaque logical supervenience", on which consciousness is conceptually entailed by the physical facts in a way that we can't grasp because we lack the crucial concept. (I think this doesn't work, for reasons I discuss here.) A number of reviews have said that I embrace epiphenomenalism (the view that consciousness is causally irrelevant). In fact I am well disposed to a non-epiphenomenalist view, on which experience or proto-experience constitutes the inner nature of the physical, but obviously the sections where I discuss this matter (especially pp. 150-56 and 301-308) are too deep in the heart of the book. More on this issue here.]
"Chalmers is a philosopher of distinction who has thought long and hard on these matters and is well-versed in most of the fundamental issues underlying present-day physical theories. I therefore started with high hopes that his own insights could shed important clarifying light on these central issues. In this, I felt somewhat disappointed. However, I believe that there are valuable arguments given here which may contribute importantly to our final understanding of the puzzle, although perhaps not in the way that Chalmers intended."
[Penrose is impatient with philosophical distinctions, such as that between logical and natural necessity or between consciousness and awareness. Not surprisingly, he doesn't buy the arguments for strong AI: he does accept the fading/dancing qualia arguments, in a sense, but he thinks that their moral is that neural function is uncomputable! The reasoning goes as follows: If neural function were computable, the argument would apply and Chinese nations, etc, could be conscious; but Chinese nations, etc, can't be conscious (obviously!); so neural function is uncomputable.]
"The most famous twentieth-century philosophical treatise ends with the enigmatic invocation `Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen' (`Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'). David Chalmers has obviously taken these words as a challenge and has written a 400-page book dealing with a topic that the young Ludwig Wittgenstein felt should be left unspoken." ... "This book should be widely read by anybody trying to fathom the physical basis of consciousness."
[Koch gives a nice open-minded summary. He likes the bridging principles, but raises a couple of worries about zombies (couldn't one do the same for a heatless universe?) and the threat of panpsychism (metaphysical speculation?).]
"Chalmers is undoubtedly right to observe that reductive theories do not address his `hard' problem of consciousness. Whether they ought to is another question." ... "If we take materialism seriously, as we should, then we should stop thinking of consciousness as a distinct phenomenon, a special kind of inner illumination. Once we do this, I suspect that the whole vogue for theories of consciousness will come to seem like a curious fad."
[As you might infer, Papineau didn't like the book very much. His position is that there is no problem of consciousness: we don't need to explain the connection between brain states and conscious states, as it's an identity, and identities don't need explaining. He implicitly embraces a version of the "strong metaphysical necessity" view in response to my argument, suggesting that we refer to conscious states without modes of presentation. I responded and corrected a few misrepresentations in a letter published in the August 2 issue.]
"David Chalmers has run up his colors with a startling first book ... This has won widespread notice both because it offers an outstandingly competent survey of the field and because its author, a mathematician versed in computer science, rejects materialism in favour of a surprisingly old-fashioned form of dualism."
[This is a general review article on consciousness, but it spends a page or so on my book. Like quite a few others, the author seems sympathetic with many of the arguments but not quite ready to accept the conclusion. Actually, I got the impression that he/she (no bylines in the Economist) hadn't read the book, as most of the material attributed to the book was in fact from my JCS article.]
"For any reader interested in understanding the structure of nature from a contemporary naturalistic scientific point of view I think this book is probably a must." ... " In view of its serious philosophical intent, and the depth and complexity of opposing arguments, one might expect to find the book turgid and impenetrable. But Chalmers has a very lively and readable style. The book is a pleasure to read. Things are explained in ways that get quickly to the point, yet are detailed enough to be readily understandable. "
[Stapp gives a nice overview of the book, mostly sympathetic, with an eye to physics readers. Toward the end he suggests that my framework might be most compatible with the Wigner-style "collapse" interpretations of quantum mechanics, rather than with the Everett-style interpretations that I discuss in the last chapter.]
"The best, clearest, and most thorough defense of dualism I have seen. ... I would recommend his book to anyone who wants to get a handle on the state of the art in consciousness studies. I just would not recommend it as gospel."
[Hardcastle disagrees with just about everything in the book. She discusses more of the technical details than most of the reviewers above, though I was not quite persuaded.]
"David Chalmers offers an in-depth critique of the story so far. His rather rarefied style may well deter dilettantes, but the lay consciousness enthusiast will find the summary and insights into the respective problems clearly set out, and indeed very helpful. When he switches to his own possible solutions, however, Chalmers is less likely to attract a following."
"Initially, Chalmers does an excellent hatchet job on the dominant view among many scientists and philosophers that consciousness must be tied to information-processing functions, such as working memory. [...] But then, after 100 pages of dense philosophical argument, Chalmers concludes that `we have good reason to believe that functional organization fully determines conscious experience. [...] This may be a very important philosophical distinction, but as a guide to scientific inquiry?"
[Greenfield and Gray take similar lines. Both are sympathetic with the negative arguments but neither likes the "dancing qualia" arguments; Greenfield because she thinks that neural replacement is impossible, and Gray because he thinks that it gives up the game to the functionalism which was previously refuted.]
"Churchland would have us believe that there are only wise monists like himself and Cartesian fools like the rest of us. The picture is immensely more complex and interesting. A token of how interesting is the recent publication of David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind. Chalmers is by no means a "spooky-stuff" dualist nor is he unacquainted with or unimpressed by the huge circuit of work in cognitive science, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. What gives him special prominence is his clarification of what he calls the "hard problem" of consciousness. ... This has led Chalmers to recast the mind-body divide in a version he calls `naturalistic dualism'. "
[A sympathetic, nicely-done treatment of the book that captures the intended spirit and is generally accurate - though the part about my being an "idol" with "big hair down to his waist" is a terrible exaggeration on both counts, alas!]
"Scientists have traditionally ignored the greatest mystery of all - the origin and nature of our own conscious awareness. However, in his landmark book The Conscious Mind, David Chalmers isn't afraid to explore this sticky terrain. " ... "Chalmers offers a fresh integrative perspective and a seductively clear-headed approach that sheds some new light onto this ancient problem."
[Another nice one.]
"According to the 1989 International Dictionary of Psychology: `Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.' Well, The Conscious Mind is worth reading." ... "The Conscious Mind is an original, comprehensive (and handsomely produced) book. There is much to interest anyone attracted by this most fundamental of subjects."
[A good short review for the general reader.]
[This guy didn't like it at all. Almost comical in its over-the-top negativity. My response is here.]
"Chalmers has done the field of consciousness studies a great service by taking its subject matter so seriously. Doing so has resulted in a work that reads like the swan song of reductionism, yet simultaneously offers a glimpse of its replacement."
[Jordan says the arguments are largely successful, although he thinks that it might be best to abandon the physical/phenomenal distinction altogether. He particularly likes the double-aspect theory of information.]
"The Conscious Mind is a stimulating, provocative and agenda-setting demolition job on the ideology of scientific materialism. It is also an erudite, urbane and surprisingly readable plea for a nonreductive functionalist account of mind. It poses some formidable challenges to the tenets of mainstream materialism and its cognitivist offshoots. I can't see how they can be met." ... "Analytical philosophy at its rip-roaring best."
[A thoughtful, provocative, and extraordinarily long review. Pearce is particularly drawn to the ontology of panpsychist monism and lucidly develops a number of interesting ideas related to it. He takes me to task, though, for not doing enough empirical phenomenology by the experimental (pharamaceutical) method! Highly recommended.]
"Two problems provide the focus for this exhilarating book: `Why should there be conscious experience at all' and `Why do individual experiences have their specific character'." ... "It is good to have these horrors (as I regard them) so illuminatingly explored. But the book is valuable for a great deal more than that. It is a penetrating, challenging contribution to the ongoing debate."
[Kirk used to be a zombie fan himself, two decades ago, but has since become a hard-line functionalist. So he suspects that zombie arguments rely on a "Cartesian theatre" model of consciousness, which Ryle "demolished", and he is particularly bothered by the paradox of phenomenal judgment. But he has some interesting things to say.]
"A profound analysis of the challenges posed to science by consciousness."
[Josephson likes the book, but advocates a more "symmetrical" view of mind and matter, and has some interesting comments on the "X-factor" argument of Chapter 6.]
"The reader prepares for a leap into mysticism, but Mr. Chalmers instead produces a more startling assertion, that the extra ingredient needed to explain consciousness is a new scientific principle, one based on properties of information. But why posit some insurmountable obstacle to understanding the brain when no obstacle at all has yet been found and cognitive scientists are at last beginning to make progress?"
[An insubstantial joint review of my book and Dennett's Kinds of Minds. Wade sees things in terms of scientists vs. philosophers - a great oversimplication, in my experience -and comes down on the "scientists'" side, declaring consciousness an "illusion".]
"Each of these two works is a fine protagonist for one of the most important among contemporary philosophies of mind. Both reflect the naturalistic stance which is characteristic of contemporary philosophy. Dennett speaks for the complexity optimists, Chalmers for the naturalistic dualists. The contest is not decided, not because it is a draw, but because the game is not yet over."
[Another joint review of my book and Dennett's. Campbell's review is mostly descriptive, but he says nice things about both books. He particularly likes the discussion of thermostats and dual-aspect ontologies.]
"It is one thing to bite the occasional bullet here and there, but this book consumes an entire arsenal."
[Searle thinks the book is crazy: he finds all three of property dualism, functionalism, and panpsychism deeply absurd. It's written in Searle's usual vigorous style, but the actual counterarguments are very thin (he makes a basic mistake about supervenience, and gets the fading/dancing qualia arguments all wrong). I'm told that the drawing of me doesn't bear much of a resembance, either. My response appears in the May 15 NYRB, along with Searle's reply; my more detailed second response is on the web.]
"Chalmers has written an exciting and fascinating book. I hope that because of it, consciousness in all its paradoxical glory will once more hold center stage in a robust philosophy of mind and metaphysics." ... "While Chalmers' book will be a source of great philosophy and provoke dozens of papers, I think at the end of the day his contribution will be to have shown us the problem of consciousness in all its profundity, yet consciousness will remain an unsolved problem."
[A substantial and interesting critical notice. Dietrich is taken by the arguments but doesn't like the conclusion (in particular, the paradox of phenomenal judgment), so seeks to find a way out via an interesting argument about "what it would be like if consciousness logically supervened".]
"This is a clever, rich, and interesting book. Chalmers' development of dualism is wildly speculative, and equally counterintuitive. But he provides an inventive defence of the doctrine, discusses the many objections to it, and argues that its avowedly counterintuitive consequences are neither absurd nor incompatible with science." ... "A rich and rewarding book full of interesting detail and cogent argumentation that is quite enjoyable to read."
[A lengthy joint review of my book, Dretske's Naturalizing the Mind, and Tye's Ten Problems of Consciousness. Levin is a materialist who has a very strong grasp of the issues. In the end she argues that the "strong metaphysical necessity" position is viable despite my counterarguments. She thinks that the view that phenomenal concepts "directly" pick out physical properties explains strong metaphysical necessity; I think it presupposes it.]
"In this book Chalmers seeks to accomplish two goals: to defend a version of property dualism and to show how a genuinely scientific approach to consciousness can be erected on that foundation. While I'm quite sympathetic to a lot of what he says to say in the book, I don't think he succeeds in either of his two goals. But success is not the criterion for good philosophy, and the book certainly merits close reading."
[A meaty review. Levine's position is that there is an explanatory gap but no ontological gap. He responds to my arguments against this position by noting that I assume that a posteriori identities require a difference in primary intensions, which requires in turn that primary intensions are always a priori accessible; Levine denies this claim. I respond here.]
"The Conscious Mind is engagingly written, well informed, and clearly argued (though a trifle overlong)."
[O'Brien isn't very sympathetic, finding the book largely unconvincing. There's not much meaty counterargument: he suggests that it relies on a "particularly strong connection between the conceptual and the metaphysical", but he doesn't discuss the two-dimensional account of metaphysical necessity, which was meant as a response to just this sort of worry. He also suggests that the problems may arise from taking modal notions too seriously in the first place.]
"Chalmers' book is the most systematic and thoroughly argued philosophical work on these topics in recent years, and seems to reflect, in many ways, a contemporary philosophical consensus. It is fairly positive about science, while arguing that scientific explanations cannot ultimately account for what it conceives as the core problem of consciousness."
[Baars doesn't talk much about the book (when he does discuss my work, it is largely based on my JCS article), preferring to argue directly that science can handle consciousness. I've never said that science can't handle consciousness, and indeed most of Baars' suggestions are compatible with my framework, so the locus of any substantive disagreement remains unclear. Baars argues that the "hard" and "easy" phenomena are empirically associated, not dissociated, but of course this is also something that I agree with (and in fact rely on). Consciousness is closely correlated with reportability, for example,but correlation isn't explanation. Baars' strategy for a theory is to find detailed and systematic associations between consciousness and various processes; I'm very much in sympathy with this, but think that the final piece will be a theory of what underpins those very associations.]
"David Chalmers is at the eye of a storm stirred up by his formidable new book. The Conscious Mind is much more strenuous territory than the other two, but luckily, Chalmers marks those especially bristly sections meant for experts in modal logic, allowing lay readers to slip past them." ... "To me, perhaps the most startling aspect of this stoush is that Chalmers isn't a desiccated Jesuit or a bald pipe-smoker in a tweed jacket, but a strikingly good-looking youth with flowing, heavy-metal hair."
[Ah, the misleading power of photographs! This is a joint review of my book with Dennett's and William Calvin's. Broderick says some nice things while also finding the book hard going and expressing some skepticism about zombies. A later issue of the Weekend Australian (December 13-14, 1997) named the book one of the five best science books of the year. Nice of them.]
"David Chalmers' book on consciousness has a number of admirable qualities - it is bold, imaginative, articulate, and in a number of places, enormously illuminating. It is also true, however, that several passages in the book have significant flaws. I discuss two of these passages in the present note."
[Hill holds that zombies are conceivable but not metaphysically possible (even God couldn't have created them). He criticizes what he takes to be my argument in Chapter 2 that we have a priori access to logical possibility. I think he misunderstands these passages and the structure of the argument, though. I respond here.]
"This is the first book on consciousness I have read where I did not feel that I was biting into a delicious apple only to find my mouth filled with plastic. Admittedly things get a bit wild from about two-thirds of the way through, but a kind of innocent charm combined with technical virtuosity carries us through." ... "The dividing line between the conscious and the non-conscious, brilliantly and lucidly explored in this book, is not crucial. It is of sociophysical laws that we must dream when we dream of a final theory."
[Collins is a sociologist of science with an interest in AI and cognition. He finds the prospect of panpsychism a bit hard to take, suggesting that the moral is that consciousness doesn't provide a boundary between persons and non-persons ("it divides the world up in the wrong place to be interesting"). He suggests that for the latter project, we need to focus on "performance" questions and especially the role of the social.]
"One does not have to agree with the main conclusions of David Chalmers' book in order to find it stimulating, instructive, and frequently brilliant. If Chalmers' arguments succed, his achievement will of course be enormous; he will have overthrown the materialist orthodoxy that has reigned in philosophy of mind and cognition for the last half century. If, as I think, they fail, his achievement is nevertheless considerable. For his arguments draw on, and give forceful and eloquent expression to, widely held intuitions; seeing how they go astray, if they do, cannot help but deepen our understanding of the issues he is addressing."
[Shoemaker makes a few distinct points. He uses his own view, that qualitative similarity is functionally definable but individual qualia are not, to suggest that psychophysical laws can be necessary even though they aren't a priori, and that inverted spectra but not zombies may be conceivable. He is troubled by the paradox of phenomenal judgment: he thinks that even a weakened causal theory of reference gives me problems, and he finds it odd that a zombie should be unjustified but not rationally culpable. Finally, he argues that dancing qualia are not absurd, if one recognizes that qualia-dependent beliefs and memory change along with qualia. I discuss all this in my response to the four papers in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.]
"The Conscious Mind is a hugely likeable book. Perceptive, candid, and instructive page by page, the work as a whole sets out a large and uplifting vision with distinctly un-Dover-Beach-ish implications for `our place in the universe.'A book that you can't helping wanting to believe as much as you can't help wanting to believe this one doesn't come along every day. It is with real regret that I proceed to the story of why belief would not come. "
[A substantial and interesting commentary. Yablo argues that the two-dimensional framework can't explain all conceivability/possibility gaps (he gives an argument based on the conceivability of a necessarily existing being). And he argues that conceivability intuitions needn't be "verified" by a world (de dicto possibility doesn't imply de re possibility, as he puts it), by considering ways in which such verification might work. So he thinks that deep down, zombie worlds may be impossible. Again, see my response.]
[Goldsworthy (a well-known Australian novelist)gives an
entertaining tour of some key thought experiments, stressing the science-fiction
aspects, and provides some thoughtful reflections.]
"If the book is correct you are more than a bunch of atoms! David Chalmers has put forth a very interesting philosophical framework for a consistent analysis of the brain-mind problem. I have read his book a couple of times and found nothing wrong with his thesis that consciousness is something over and above the physical. In fact, he has convinced me that a real theory of mind needs a theoretical structure that relates consciousness to physics, and that this structure cannot be deduced from physics itself. This is a most outstanding conclusion! Read the book, and see for yourself! "
"An interesting take on the mind/body problem. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the philosophy of mind or even for anyone who has ever puzzled over the phenomenon of consciousness. Chalmers argues that consciousness is a fact over and above any physical/functional brain processes. His position has the feel of cogency. After all, prima facie it is difficult to conceive of two more different states of affairs than (say) the smelling of a rose and some neural/chemical brain activity. The problem is that when Chalmers delineates the implications of his view one can't avoid the impression that he has reduced himself to absurdity. For example, he ends up with an epiphenomenalism of sorts according to which our consciousness states don't affect our behavior. On this point, I, at least, had to ask myself whether I had more faith in Chalmers' arguments or more faith in mental causality. Nonetheless, I really liked the book. It is (with the exception of chapter 2) easy and fun to read, and Chalmers has a wealth of really cool ideas. I enjoyed it more than just about anything else on the philosophy of mind that has crossed my path."
[The first two Amazon reviews, by general readers. That's the spirit!]