David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?

In this TED talk, David Chalmers gives a summary of the problem whose name he coined, the hard problem of consciousness.

via David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness? – YouTube.

It seems like people who’ve contemplated consciousness fall into two groups, those who are bothered by the hard problem, and those who are not.  In my mind, one of these camps is seeing something the other is missing.

Naturally, since I fall into the second one, I tend to think it’s those of us who are not bothered by the hard problem who are more aware of the fact that our intuitions are not to be trusted in this area.  No matter how much we learn about how the brain works, it will never intuitively feel like we’ve explained the experience of being us.  So, in my mind, the people bothered by the hard problem will never be satisfied, but that will not prevent us from moving forward.

Chalmers talks about three responses to the hard problem.  The first is Daniel Dennett’s view that the hard problem doesn’t really exist, that we will gradually learn more about how the brain works, solving each of the so called “easy problems”, until we’ve achieved a global understanding of the mind.  I have to say that my view is close to Dennett’s on this.

The second response is panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious.  From what I’ve read about panpsychism, it’s a view that comes about by defining consciousness as any system that interacts with the environment, or something similar.  By that measure, even subatomic particles have some glimmer of consciousness.

But this is a definition of consciousness that doesn’t fit the common meaning of the word “consciousness”.  Using such an uncommon definition of a common word allows someone to say something that sounds profound, that everything is conscious, but that when unpacked using their specific definition, is actually a rather mundane statement, that everything interacts with its environment.  My reaction to such verbal jujitsu is to tune out, and that’s what I generally do when talk of panpsychism comes up.

Finally, Chalmers talks about a view of consciousness as it being something fundamental to reality, like maybe a fundamental force such as gravity or electromagnetism.  The idea is that consciousness arises through complex integration (which itself sounds more emergent than fundamental to me) and if we can just measure the degree of complex integration, we have a measure of consciousness.  This is a view that I’ve seen some physicists take.  It’s attractive because it might boil consciousness down to an equation, or a brief set of equations.

Personally, I think consciousness as fundamental or whatever is wishful thinking.  It’s an attempt to boil something complicated and messy down to a simple measurement.  And it still leaves the borderline between conscious and non-conscious entities as some magical dividing line that we can’t understand.

My own view is that consciousness, whatever else it is, is information processing.  The most compelling theories I’ve seen come from neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga and Michael Graziano, who see it as something of a feedback mechanism.  (Just for the record, my sympathy for these guys’ theories have nothing to do with me sharing a first name with them 🙂 )

The brain is not a centrally managed system.  It doesn’t have a central executive command center making decisions.  Rather, it processes information and makes decisions in a decentralized and parallel fashion.  What allows the brain to function somewhat in a unified fashion is a feedback mechanism that we call awareness.

Awareness is the brain assembling information about its current and past states.  It is an information schema that allows the rest of the brain to be aware of what the whole brain is contemplating.  It doesn’t really control what the brain does, but it can affect what the brain will decide to do.

If true, our internal experience is simply this feedback mechanism.  Is this the whole picture?  Almost certainly not.  But it is built on scientific evidence from neuroscience studies.  It will almost certainly have to be revised and expanded as more evidence becomes available.  But I think it is far more promising than talk of fundamental forces and the like.

Of course, even if it is true, it won’t satisfy those who are trouble by the hard problem.  Consciousness as a feedback mechanism and information model, still doesn’t get us to the intuitive feeling of being us.  I’m not sure that anything ever will.

40 thoughts on “David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?

  1. ‘Consciousness as a feedback mechanism and information model, still doesn’t get us to the intuitive feeling of being us. I’m not sure that anything ever will.’

    Is the problem perhaps that we can never escape the functional ‘gearbox’ of our own cognitive mechanisms? Perhaps the question of how we definitively ‘explain consciousness’ must always elude consciousness itself? This is the evidence so far at least i.e. no one’s got a clue, not even much of a clue as to how to approach the matter (see video).

    Maybe it could only be known (‘explained’), by it knowing itself as itself rather than as an idea about itself? Perhaps it will evolve so as to have this capacity?

    I don’t expect much sympathy for suggesting this.


    1. Actually, I’ve heard various philosophers make that suggestion too, that the conscious mind may simply be incapable of understanding itself. I do tend to suspect that’s true for an introspective understanding. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to perceive the mechanics of consciousness from within my own mind.

      But I wouldn’t buy it for us eventually understanding consciousness objectively. Despite Chalmer’s gloominess on this, progress is being made in neuroscience. And that understanding is unlikely to come to anyone who’s concluded it’s unattainable.


  2. He uses the word consciousness pretty much the way I do… I don’t ever remember using it differently. But you can substitute in sentience or experientialism or phenomenological terminology if you prefer. The choice of vocabulary shouldn’t be a plus or minus.

    The feedback mechanism and parallelism really have no bearing on the discussion. Chalmers would not disagree. You are talking about different topics altogether here. A parellel processing feedback systwm is still either emergent or panexperientialist…or a hybrud perhaps.


      1. I don’t – that was the point I was making. The feedback mechanism isn’t an alternative to panpsychism…it’s just something different to talk about. I was confused because you seem to be presenting this as an alternative to the other perspectives when it is essentially unrelated.


        1. Thanks. I see what you mean now, and can see where you’re coming from.

          I guess the relevant question would be not whether or not the feedback mechanism exists. It could exist and be an optional characteristic of consciousness. But if that architecture is necessary for what we commonly call consciousness, then I would think we could safely assume that rocks and photons are not conscious and that panpsychism is false. The problem is that if humans have that feedback mechanism, short of encountering a conscious alien without it, I’m not sure how we could demonstrate that it is optional for consciousness.


          1. OK, I see that being issue if the feedback is a part of your definition. Let’s then say we are talking about something that is not a feedback – awareness or experience or proto-consciousness of some form. (Chalmers coincidentally is the main champion of simply dropping troublesome words to move conversation forward). I would disagree that for this that even a required aspect for humans – not all human experience is reactive. If a human only lived in those seconds (or milliseconds) that were non-reactive I believe he or she would be considered conscious (or experiencing or aware) in a sense that is meaningful to most people.

            Looking over very briefly what I can see of Gazzinaga’s writing he seems to be using the term “control” in exactly the way he is critical of the term “free will”. I agree with him that libertarian free will is an outdated word not worth our breath…and I rarely hear a decent psychologist or philosopher use it. I also very much agree that our explanations of our own thought are artificial (massively paraphrasing). But Gazzinaga seems to want to have it both ways by substituting the idea of control in it’s place in order to make us feel better about the practical measures needed to function as a society. I would argue he needs to go one step further and realize that this, too, is an illusion.

            In looking for some more information on Gazzinaga I stumbled on this comment that seems to be making my point well:

            “If Gazzaniga’s own conception of free will as a magical power is out of line with mainstream conceptions of it, then, in defending the existence of personal responsibility, he may also unwittingly be defending the existence of free will.”



          2. Glad to hear Chalmer is for clear language. If I implied otherwise, it wasn’t intentional. (My comment about definitions was specifically about what I’ve encountered when reading naturalistic panpsychism materials.)

            Gazzaniga’s views on free will and responsibility are complex and hard to summarize. (I do recommend his book.) I wouldn’t put him in the consciousness-in-control camp. He was one of the scientists who conducted the split brain patient experiments, which appear to demonstrate that consciousness is often not in control.

            Of course, a lot depends on how exactly you define “consciousness” and “control”. What he calls the interpreter is not in control, but it can have causal influences. If you define consciousness as that interpreter, than consciousness is not in control. If you broaden the scope of consciousness to include the various modules of the brain accessing the interpreter’s information, then you could argue that consciousness is in control.

            For all of this, the main thing I often point out to people is that “you” are more than just the conscious you, so even when we do things without conscious thought, it’s still “us” doing it. I think Gazzaniga would agree with that.


          3. I’ll take a deeper look if I get a chance, but the control argument seems a bit fishy at first glance, though perhaps I am biased by the fact he engages in pop interviews about “responsibility”. I do agree at least that it makes sense to talk of ourselves as being more than the conscious (in the human self-aware sense) self. But I would argue that it also makes sense to consider that this may be because consciousness is coextensive with matter.


          4. This has been an awesome discussion!

            Gazzaniga does believe in responsibility, but my perception is that he doesn’t mean it in any right wing manner. (I can certainly understand how someone might come to that conclusion however. It was my first impression of him when I saw him interviewed on C-Span.)

            On your final sentence, I guess my question would be, what do we mean by “consciousness” in that context? And is there anything about a rock that would be different if it is or isn’t conscious? In other words, is there any way to test this idea?


          5. I can test the rock’s consciousness as well as I can test yours, or a newborn babies, or my dogs. Either one of you could be unconscious, non perceiving robots is be conscious we mean to include the types of awareness/perceptions/qualia or whatever you choose to call it that you yourself have. In other words – you can’t…at least not by any means we currently know. And yet most, but not all, of us have decided to use it as a working hypothesis.


          6. The problem of other minds. But I can communicate with you and convince you of my consciousness. Even an animal can give us indications of its consciousness, or lack thereof, by its behavior. A machine might someday be able to do it. Granted, all of these tests are subjective, but when it comes to other minds, I totally agree it’s all we have, at least for now. So, I agree with the working hypothesis to that extent.

            But what can a rock do to convince us of its consciousness? Or a subatomic particle? Nothing about them seems to indicate that there’s a mind there. They seem to have no agenda of their own, no agency.


          7. I disagree. I am not convinced beyond what my wishful thinking and tendencies to generalize steer me toward. I’m probably less convinced than you think, but that’s another topic.

            I think a lot of the difference has to do with our definitions of consciousness. As far as I’m concerned an earthworm does nothing to convince me it’s conscious. With a physical correlate to every mental activity, consciousness is superfluous even to human activity if we are just looking at physical manifestations. I’ve seen nothing to believe otherwise.


          8. I agree on the earthworm. I don’t see them as being conscious. Their nervous systems are too simple. I think consciousness requires a certain kind of architecture and see no evidence that earthworms have anything like it.

            Based on your final sentence, I think that probably the real difference between us is that I’m not a substance dualist. (Although I could be described as a kind of informational dualist in that I think the information in the brain both arises from and constrains the brain’s operations.)


          9. Actually, I’m closer to an idealist, nut in truth I think discussions on this front are sort of meaningless. I’m a monist and should probably leave it at that.


          10. Ah sorry, I misinterpreted your comment. That’s what I get for making assumptions 🙂

            I agree that debating between idealism and realism is generally fruitless. If reality is an illusion, it’s an illusion that appears to have unpleasant penalties for not taking it seriously. And there’s no way to prove there is an external world.


  3. I’m with you, but that’s just my intuition talking. BTW why is this called the hard problem? It’s not a monopoly. There’s no shortage of hard problems in the world.


    1. It’s not meant to compare this problem to all other problems in the world, just to the other issues of consciousness, which by comparison are relatively easy (finding brain correlates etc.).


  4. I actually think Dennett’s response and panpsychism are two sides of the same coin. Dennett would say consciousness is simply what it feels like to be an information processing system like us. Panpsychism holds that all information processing systems are conscious.

    The language they use may be different. Dennett is more likely to use such words as “illusion”, whereas panpsychism comes across as something almost mystical, but to me what they say is substantially the same.

    However, I agree with you that the degree of consciousness possessed by a proton is so primitive that it is not usefully described as conscious at all. It’s like calling it big. It really is not big, but that doesn’t mean that the magnitude of its “bigness” is zero. If there is some sort of continuum between systems which are conscious and those which are not, then the threshold where we start calling something conscious is fuzzy and somewhat arbitrary.

    Although I’m also quite open to definitions of consciousness which require some attributes at a minimum, attributes which a proton does not have. But which attributes we choose are just as arbitrary as choosing some threshold of complexity. These exercises are not uncovering anything fundamental about the universe but only trying to pin down a definition for an idea that is inherently imprecise, shifting a threshold around a spectrum. Both Dennett’s response and panpsychism have the virtues of being pretty universal, and avoid the problem of making the definition precise. To me they paint the same picture, the difference being that Dennett’s language effectively positions the threshold at one extreme of the spectrum (so that nothing is really fundamentally conscious) while panpsychism positions it at the other end (so that everything is fundamentally conscious).


    1. I like the bigness analogy. I think you hit on one of my issues with panpsychism and possibly Dennett’s view (it’s been a while now since I read his book), that they’re so universal that they fail to say something interesting about the distinction between patterns we consider conscious and those we don’t.


          1. I guess you could call it conscious, but if you use that term it’s more like everything is conscious but at different levels.


  5. To be an information processing system isn’t enough. A proton doesn’t just have microscopically small self-awareness – it has zero self-awareness. The internet probably has more processing power than an earthworm, but it has zero self-awareness, whereas the worm probably has some kind of consciousness. The architecture of the earthworm’s brain is completely different – it is all wired up for sensing and responding to the environment and enabling the earthworm to meet it’s biological needs.

    Consciousness isn’t simply complexity. Complexity is a necessary but insufficient condition.


    1. Right, but then you have to define self awareness. I think an earthworm has a non-zero amount of concsiousness, but I’m not sure it has self-awareness. I don’t think it has a concept of a self, I don’t think it has an autobiographical memory and I don’t think it has any hopes for the future. This, to me, is not self-awareness. But I think it can experience sensations.

      But then what are sensations but the means by which a system detects and responds to a stimulus? It is not obvious to me that you could not draw analogies here to the way a proton interacts with a magnetic field.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It seems like most people would require some sort of inner experience to regard something as conscious. It seems pretty doubtful that worms have that. (Although there will always be doubt when we can’t communicate with them.) That’s what’s nice about the feedback mechanism / interpreter / attention schema theories. They provide a prospective mechanism for that inner experience.


      2. Well good point about the proton. How does it respond to a magnetic field, etc? Via quantum field theory of course, but like Feynman said, that’s just putting a name to something. How does the proton “know” to behave like that? Oops, maybe that’s a philosophical question.
        Is consciousness the same? Are we just putting a name to something and saying that explains it? Is consciousness the same as self-awareness? Probably not. Definitions, definitions.
        I wouldn’t be surprised if an earthworm had hopes and dreams – at least very short-term ones. I’d be very surprised if a microbe had hopes. And if a proton is ever shown to have hopes I will buy a beer for every follower of SAP.


  6. Being invited by TED, David Chalmers must be a leading researcher on the topic. Yet, this cannot change the fact that his speech on the subject (w do you explain consciousness?) is a total nonsense. All the comments at this blog did better jobs than his.

    Of course, the TED speech could be a public speech, that is, less technical. But, any scientific speech (public or academia) must not deviate from the ‘precise’ definitions of the scientific ‘terms’. For this topic, the following key words must be precisely defined.
    1. Conscious(ness)
    2. Self
    3. Aware(ness)
    4. Information processing (system)
    5. Feedback mechanism

    Chalmers defines that consciousness as ‘brain’-based. There is no right or wrong on any ‘definition’ but has good or bad distinction. A bad definition will often lead to wrong conclusion and simply be useless. For a brain-based consciousness (definition), why is panpsychism discussed? Anything without a brain (such as bacteria, microbe, etc.) is unconscious by definition.

    A bad definition can give a wrong ‘scope’ which can exclude the ‘essence’ of the topic from this wrongly defined scope. Thus, a ‘bad’ definition is destined of not being able to reach the correct answer for the issue. So, before talking about the issue (consciousness), we must clearly and precisely define some key words which are related to the issues.

    First, information processing: what ‘machine’ does this job? Is there more than one type of machine able to do this job? What is the ‘essence’ of this process? Is ‘conscious’ a machine of this job? Is conscious the ‘result’ of this process?

    The ‘essence’ of this process is ‘computing’. Thus, the ‘machine’ should be a computing device (counting straws, abacus, or a Turing computer). The ‘result’ of this process is ‘intelligence’. (Note: if you disagree with these answers, it will be fine; making your own definition.) At this point, we can ask a question. Is ‘intelligence’ = consciousness? Or, is there some overlap between the two? My answer is no. Intelligence can be a ‘supporting’ mechanism for a high level consciousness ‘manifestation’ (such as a brain-based consciousness), but intelligence is not consciousness.

    Then, where is this computing device? This question should be divided into two parts.
    a. Where is the ‘base’ of this computing device?
    b. Where (what) is the ‘manifestation’ of this computing device?

    In this comment, I will only talk about the question [b]. It is in the ‘language’; a computing device is ‘always’ embedded in a (any) language. The simplest (simplest, …, simplest, with only one exception) language is the bio-languages (DNA language and the Protein language). As all microbes have this bio-language, they have the ‘base’ for intelligence (not to say that they have the human-like intelligence).

    Second, feedback mechanism (FM): as all languages are ‘recursively’ defined, FM is an intrinsic part of all languages. Thus, FM is a ‘part’ of intelligence, not about consciousness (while intelligence can support a high-level consciousness manifestation).

    Third, aware(ness): it is a ‘state’ that a piece of ‘information’ (whatever that is) is recognized by a ‘self’. Thus, if a system (such as a self) is able to process information, it by definition has awareness. As my printer has a sensor to sense the human touch, it has a mechanic awareness. For giving printer a mechanic awareness, it will not confuse the word of ‘awareness’ in the discussion of the issue of ‘consciousness’.

    Fourth, self: if an ‘entity’ is able to ‘be’ distinguished from ‘all’ other entities; it is a ‘self’. Is proton a self? It has the same mass, the same charge, the same size, etc. Yet, when we (or happens naturally) bring two randomly selected protons to approach to each other, they will definitely ‘exclude’ (by Pauli’s excluding principle) each other as they have ‘different’ quantum numbers. Yes, every proton has a unique ‘quantum number’, and they are distinguishable not only by us (the observers) but by themselves. Again, giving the ‘self’-status for proton will not confuse the term ‘self’ in the discussion of the issue of consciousness.

    Fifth, consciousness: it is the ‘ability’ (a process or a mechanism) of distinguishing the ‘self’ from the others.

    The above are my definitions. Of course, you can disagree with them totally and come up your own. At least, my definitions make the issue crystal clear and precise; not the tongue in cheek talks. Furthermore, my definitions can do two things.

    One, they can reduce both ‘intelligence’ and ‘consciousness’ to the elementary particle level. See http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/plato-and-the-proper-explanation-of-our-actions/comment-page-1/#comment-1245 and http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/plato-and-the-proper-explanation-of-our-actions/comment-page-1/#comment-1265 .

    Two, they can ‘develop’ into high-level manifestations; the human intelligence and the human consciousness.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts. One caution I would give is on your definition of awareness. If awareness is only sensory input, then lots of things are aware. But you can have your attention focused on something, and away from something else, all the time receiving sensory input, without being aware of it (for common meanings of “aware”). Every magician / illusionist makes use of this distinction.


  7. My my – he thinks he is at the heart of images. .. a movie … .”..at the heart of this movie is you…” This isn’t the present state of development of understanding anything about consciousness. This is a stiff comic presentation. His view isn’t even close to describing consciousness — in fact, I’d guess he has likely very little. Science on consciousness is only possible by awakened energy that flows from other dimensions. He’s describing third dimension awareness.
    I wouldn’t bother with seeking consciousness if what he’s said is how it may be found.
    ~ Eric


    1. Hey Eric. Good to hear from you!

      I totally understand your skepticism of Chalmers views, although I think he expresses the common intuitions about consciousness. However I’m wondering, what leads you to think extra dimensions are needed for consciousness? I ask as someone who’s never seen it necessary to evoke anything but information processing to explain it.


      1. Mike
        The third (or fourth depending on who is presenting) is filled with our positional and time status and not possible branches… this according to physics (not me) – I agree though. The agreement for 5 dimensions dates back to the 1920’s that our observed reality comes from the fifth dimension. Later on it was determined a sixth dimension was storing all of the events that physicists tell us are part of the over-all wave function for our universe. Thus if information is what is required, we must have more than 3 dimensions to process information as I refer to what you describe a consciousness in your reply..
        It really isn’t a discussion I’d enjoy typing about. However I’ll borrow this for a how stuf works source: http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/see-the-fourth-dimension.htm
        In “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” Abbot describes the life of a square in a two-dimensional world. Living in 2-D means that the square is surrounded by circles, triangles and rectangles, but all the square sees are other lines. One day, the square is visited by a sphere. On first glance, the sphere just looks like a circle to the square, and the square can’t comprehend what the sphere means when he explains 3-D objects. Eventually, the sphere takes the square to the 3-D world, and the square understands. He sees not just lines, but entire shapes that have depth. Emboldened, the square asks the sphere what exists beyond the 3-D world; the sphere is appalled. The sphere can’t comprehend a world beyond this, and in this way, stands in for the reader. Our brains aren’t trained to see anything other than our world, and it will likely take something from another dimension to make us understand.
        The information must be stored on the dimension (or in it if you prefer). In three dimensions is stored only the points and lines. In the fourth is time events from beginning to end and then higher for possible branches and so on… if you seek more on why string theory requires more than 3 – 4 dimensions you can find a better description probably. Hope this helped.
        ~ Eric


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