The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory is the best book I’ve read on a single philosophical subject. Of course I may believe that simply because David Chalmers tackles subjects that I’m interested in and he does so in a way I appreciate. Nonetheless, there’s a fairly substantial consensus on this book — at least among those people who care about this issue and who’re part of the “analytic tradition”.
For example, in 1996 the well-known American philosopher David Lewis wrote (some five years before he died in 2001) that The Conscious Mind “is exceptionally ambitious and exceptionally successful — the best book in philosophy of mind for many years”. Similarly, the British philosopher Colin McGinn said that the book is “one of the best discussions in existence, both as an advanced text and as an introduction to the issues”. And then Steven Pinker said that “The Conscious Mind is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of consciousness”.
My view is that The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory has insights on virtually every page, is dense with argumentation and is clearly written; despite sometimes being technical.
I just said that I believe it’s the best book on a philosophical subject for a long time. I say that even though I don’t agree with everything David Chalmers argues. Indeed I don’t even agree with most of what he argues. For example, I have serious problems with Chalmers’ very strong and frequent emphasis on logical possibility, zombies and intuition (which are all connected together by Chalmers). Still, Chalmers argues his case in a very strong manner; though obviously not strongly enough to convince me.
The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory dates back to 1996. It was Chalmers’ first book; though he’d published academic papers before this (some of which date back to 1990).
“I have advocated some counterintuitive views in this work. I resisted mind-body dualism for a long time, but I have now come to the point where I accept it… I can comfortably say that I think dualism is very likely true. I have raised the possibility of a kind of panpsychism. Like mind-body dualism, this is initially counterintuitive, but the counterintuitiveness disappears with time… on reflection it is not too crazy to be acceptable… If God forced me to bet my life on the truth or falsity of the doctrines I have advocated, I would be fairly confidently that experience is fundamental, and weakly that experience is ubiquitous.” — David Chalmers
I decided not to tackle any of David Chalmers’ topics in this review simply because the book is so dense with arguments. It just didn’t make sense to single out anything specific. And even if I had done, it would probably have turned this review into something else entirely.
Broadly speaking, Chalmers still holds most of the positions he articulated in this book. The Conscious Mind (as stated) is dense with argumentation. And partly because of that, Chalmers’ book fluctuates between reading like a paper in a technical philosophical journal (even if he steers away from soulless academese) and being a “popular philosophy” book. However, to be honest, though Chalmers’ writing is very clear, he rarely pulls off stuff that could be sensibly classed as “popular philosophy”. Indeed in the introduction Chalmers says that his “notional audience at all times has been [his] undergraduate self of ten years ago”. That’s not to say that there are no simple parts (or even simple chapters) in this book — there are. However, on the whole, it’s more technical than most “introductory” or popular books on philosophical subjects.
For example, the section ‘Supervenience and Explanation’ (which itself includes five chapters) is highly technical. Indeed one section seems like a convoluted detour into modal logic, possible-worlds theory and semantics. I suppose that Chalmers would see all this as being a necessary technical grounding for what comes later. Indeed in some of these chapters there’s hardly any discussion of consciousness. This is especially true of the long and technical chapter called ‘A posteriori necessity’ which is ten pages long and doesn’t contain a single mention of consciousness or the mind. The following twenty-four pages hardly mention consciousness either.
The most interesting chapters in the book (at least from a 2020 perspective) are ‘Naturalist Dualism’ and ‘Consciousness and Information: Some Speculation’ (which deals with panpsychism). That’s primarily because naturalistic dualism is peculiar to Chalmers himself and panpsychism has a lot of contemporary relevance. Many of the other chapters, on the other hand, have been done to death in analytic philosophy; specifically the stuff on qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the nature of reduction, etc. Having said that, since this book was written in 1996, perhaps these subjects hadn’t really been done to death at that precise moment in philosophical history.
The last chapter, ‘The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’, seems rather odd to me. It’s a strange add-on. It’s very difficult to see how Chalmers’ take on the various interpretations of quantum mechanics fits into the rest of the work. Here again consciousness is hardly mentioned. When it is mentioned, it’s in relation to how consciousness has been featured in the scientific tradition of quantum mechanics. Thus there’s stuff about observation and measurement. Consciousness also features more heavily when Chalmers covers Hugh Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics in which “superposition is extended all the way to the mind”. The idea of superposed minds is also tackled — and it’s all very strange! I suppose that one reason that Chalmers writes twenty-five pages on the various interpretations of quantum mechanics is that the quantum mechanics/consciousness connection was becoming fashionable in the 1990s. However, it seems that Chalmers believed that most citations of quantum mechanics — when it came to consciousness — didn’t solve what he calls “the hard problem of consciousness”. And neither was he too sympathetic with the idea of “superposed minds” within the strict context of Hugh Everett’s “many-worlds interpretation” (which Chalmers believes is a misreading of the physicist’s theory).
The chapter ‘Consciousness and Information: Some Speculations’ is — obviously! — the most speculative. Especially the section on panpsychism. Indeed Chalmers happily admits that. He even says that “[t]he ideas in this chapter” are “most likely to be entirely wrong”. Whether or not Chalmers believe that now — some 25 years later — is hard to say. He’s certainly added much to his position on panpsychism; as well to his position on information theory.
Perhaps the chapters ‘Supervenience and Explanation’ and ‘The Irreducibility of Consciousness’ are the most important in The Conscious Mind. As stated earlier, there are also some technical (as well as somewhat tangential) sections in these chapters too. (The chapter on qualia is also detailed and technical.) It’s in these chapters that Chalmers articulates his most central and important point about consciousness: that it’s not reducible to the physical. It’s also here that he states that “experience is a datum in its own right”. Therefore experience (or consciousness) needs to be treated that way.