Chalmers on consciousness

Based on David Chalmers TED talk, March 2014

Summary and review of the above talk

Chalmers presenting at recent conferenceChalmers asks why it is that we are conscious, and argues that a radical idea is required if we are to arrive at an explanation. Recent research has concentrated on searching for correlates of consciousness, such as brain regions that are active when consciousness is reported. However, such correlates are just things that coincide with consciousness rather than explanations. Emergence has also been seen as an explanation of consciousness, in the sense that hurricanes emerge from particular weather systems, and by analogy, consciousness emerges from neural systems and possibly also computer systems. However, Chalmers sees this as only explaining structure and behaviour rather than consciousness as such.

Denial of the datum

Consciousness is a datum, in the sense that we all experience and know about it. However, at the same time, it has not so far been possible to accommodate it into science. It stands out as an anomaly that needs to be integrated into science, but may require a radical idea to achieve this. One radical idea comes from the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, to the effect that consciousness doesn’t exist, but is instead some form of illusion. However, Chalmers rejects this because it is a denial of the datum that scientists and philosophers have been called on to explain.

A fundamental of physics

Another radical suggestion is that consciousness is a fundamental of physics. Physicists accept the existence of fundamental properties such an electromagnetism and of a physical law that governs such properties. Thus in the 19th century, Maxwell introduced electromagnetism as a new fundamental to explain his observations. Physics is constructed by using these basic building blocks. Chalmers suggests that we might see a similar situation with consciousness as a new fundamental, as a logical consequence of the absence of consciousness from the rest of physics. It might as a result be possible to devise fundamental laws governing consciousness and its relation to the other fundamentals of physics.


An further radical idea is panpsychism, or the idea that everything is to some degree conscious, or has some element of raw feeling. Thus rather than consciousness as a fundamental, this idea proposes consciousness as a universal. This may be more acceptable to non-western cultures where there is a greater familiarity with the notion of the continuity of mind and nature.

The neuroscientist, Giulio Tononi, supports a form of panpsychism, in which integration of information results in consciousness, so that the massive integration of information in the human brain produces more consciousness, but is different in scale rather than type from the consciousness of small objects or even quanta. This might also allow artificial information systems such as computers to be conscious. On balance, Chalmers appears to favour a fundamental over a universal, mainly because of the ancient problem of how to build up from the consciousness of small things to the consciousness level of brains.

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