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Golden House-Sparrow Book Of The Month

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The Conscious Mind

David Chalmers
(ISBN 0-19 510553-2)

0.1 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 non-reductive 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. The psycho-physical co-habitation arrangement that Chalmers proposes will accurately but misleadingly be described as speculative. The term is unfortunate because it contrives to suggest that one's own theories of consciousness, whatever their nature, are well-confirmed, which they aren't. As a bonus, Chalmers even offers one of the best non-technical accounts of the relative state interpretation of quantum mechanics to date. The omens for debunking Everett, and the terrible googolplexes of hell-branches the RSI entails, are looking bleaker than ever.

0.2 Chalmers, like some of the philosophers' zombies he writes about, promises to take the task of reconciling science and consciousness with the utmost intellectual seriousness. This he does. Yet I'm going to argue that ultimately he doesn't treat consciousness itself seriously enough. Only a strategic but presently taboo extension of the empirical method, namely the use of consciousness-altering psychedelics, even ruffles the surface of its mysteries. Observation alone, whether auto- or [delusively] hetero-, even allied to deep reflective musing, can scarcely hint at the disparate aspects of the phenomenon at issue. The orchestrated exploration of (I'll argue) a defining feature of the world via the experimental manipulation of variant modes of its only accessible instance is a daunting task. It demands a methodological sophistication way beyond anything its subjects - you and me - have even begun to contemplate. Of course, it's easy to allege a priori that extending the empirical methods of science to the varieties of subjectivity itself simply can't be done.

0.3 Perhaps it can't; but that's too lazy and facile a response as it stands. In the physical sciences one can typically abdicate intellectual responsibility and defer to the authority of specialists. Experts can do most of the dirty work on one's behalf. Life is short and the cognitive division of labour exceedingly large. Yet if the quite incredible phenomenon of subjectivity is to be naturalised, scientised and mathematically described - and one's theories about it tested - then a priori rumination and third-person shadow-chasing can only take us so far. A twin-track experimentalism embracing the first- as well as third- person perspective is indispensable. Without both, one is simply shuffling the cognitive tickles of a closed, hunter-gatherer psyche in a single shallow search-space of options. On this front, no breakthrough is presently in sight.