Why did Chalmers shift from idealism to dualism? And Russell from materialism to neutral monism?

Edit: The particulars of Russell is recounted in A.C. Grayling's 'Russell: A Very Short Introduction' (1996/2002). I reread the section and gather Russell was dealing with how entities are related to percepts by means of interfaces or interfacing through separate laws expressing physical conditions or mental ones.

I can't exactly locate where Chalmers made the shift, but he now consistently emphasises that matter and mind may both be fundamental properties of nature in his interviews and moved from the propostion of things possibly having experiences (his famous thermostat example) to things possessing experiences about them.

I'd like to know the motivation and import behind the shifts coming from either direction, that of materialism and of idealism. Are these converse positions trying to resolve a general problem about the constitution of reality and how can that central problem be described?

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    Can you tell us which sources you have already consulted, and what parts of the explanations you found there to be unsatisfactory? Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 12:40
  • Additional information given in post edit. Commented Jan 19, 2012 at 8:44
  • Welcome! This is definitely interesting but perhaps you could provide a little more in terms of context and motivation? What else might you be reading or studying that has made this "turn" in these thinkers' work interesting or important to you? How familiar might you be with academic philosophy in general? I would encourage you to give us a bit more about your "use case" to make it easier for potential answerers to frame their responses
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 17:05
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    I have a layman interest in philosophical consciousness studies and realise that the problem of interaction or transduction between states that has been prominent since Descartes may be a general one. In this context, I wish to know whether the evident impasse faced by Russell and Chalmers is representative of a central problem that affects all mind/matter theories. Is the objective simply about arriving at the right configuration or mechanism like the hunt for DNA? Or is the issue more fundamental, about the means of information and energy exchange (Hume in disguise)? Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 19:53

1 Answer 1


I don't know about Russell, but with Chalmers, I think his position as a dualist arises from his thinking about consciousness.

Purely physicalist accounts of existence don't seem able to account for "qualia" - the subjective feeling that accompanies consciousness. Wikipedia tells me it was in a paper titled "Facing up to the problem of consciousness", and that his formulation came to be known as the Hard problem of consciousness.

But that alone I don't think is sufficient for a modern philosopher to 'come out', so to speak, as a dualist. Quantum mechanics I think is the other factor.

According to the theory, and contrary to common misunderstandings, quantum states (wave functions) evolve in a deterministic way, described by the Schrodinger equation. These are superposed states and not "states" in the usual sense of the word - they're not observables. The transition to an observable involves a measurement event, and that produces a probabilistic outcome of observables from the superposed state.

Chalmers has said of this that there's no consensus on what a measurement event is. A purely physical interaction with a measuring device is problematic, as that evolves as just another superposed state. What seems sufficient (but perhaps not necessary) is observation by a conscious observer. He adds:

In fact, one might argue that if one were to design elegant laws of physics that allow a role for the conscious mind, one could not do much better than the bipartite dynamics of standard quantum mechanics: one principle governing deterministic evolution in normal cases, and one principle governing non-deterministic evolution in special situations that have a prima facie link to the mental.

Quote from: Chalmers, David J (2003) "Consciousness and its Place in Nature" in Stephen P. Stich and Ted A. Warfield (eds.), The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind, Blackwell Pubishing, Malden, pp. 102-142

  • The two positions are positivistically equivalent. Dualism and non-dualism are the same.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 15:56

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