Chalmers famously argues in Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness:

At the end of the day, the same criticism applies to any purely physical account of consciousness. For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question: Why should this process give rise to experience? Given any such process, it is conceptually coherent that it could be instantiated in the absence of experience. It follows that no mere account of the physical process will tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory.

Given the obvious fact of experience and consciousness, why does Chalmers' argument not entail some form of idealism? (I don't care which one at this point.) Or is he really advocating some form of dualism -- but if so, why even worry about deriving consciousness & experience from the physical?

A side note (or maybe it is crucial) -- what is the meaning of the sentence beginning "It is conceptually coherent..."? If by that he means that it is obvious that physical processes do exist in the absence of experience or consciousness", then what is the evidence for that? If something else, then what?

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    Interesting question, but I have trouble taking Chalmers' arguments seriously given that to my eye his arguments work equally well about life needing some sort of dualism. DNA replication and transcription and translation and metabolism and so on cause life because that is what (biological) life (on Earth) is. Before we knew how life worked, it was so hard to imagine that postulating some sort of vital essence was almost irresistibly tempting. Likewise with qualia in modern times, it seems.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 9:17

1 Answer 1


Why does Chalmers' argument not entail some form of idealism?

I just read the page, and there is certainly no hint of idealism involved. That would imply that Chalmer's idea involves mental ontology, a sort of rejection of physicalism. Rather, his theory is particularly physicalist; you will notice that he politely turns away from any spiritual, supernatural explanations for experience (the focus of his "hard problem of consciousness") and rather tries to develop a physicalist-compatible explanation.

I will try to explain the general ideas involved, and in doing so show that these ideas are very physicalist and empirically oriented. Therefore, they do not address idealism at all but as we shall see, physicalism and a sort of dualism.

Chalmer rejects reductionist attempts at explaining the problem of experience, and rather suggests that we use a non-reductive (but physical) approach; perhaps experience itself is something fundamental. Perhaps it is some property of our physical world that is not explained by anything else because it just is itself.

This is much like our models of the electron and other fundamental particle - we do not seek to explain what makes up an electron (as of yet, it just appears to be a point particle), but just accept it as something that cannot be reduced. This is the gist of Chalmer's theory, and demonstrates that he approaches the problem with a focus on physicalist explanations; this is quite incompatible with idealism, as he is arguing that the world itself has some fundamental property (particle?) called experience, and it is not part of the human mentality.

Is he really advocating some form of dualism?

Yes! In fact, he explicitly admits it:

This position qualifies as a variety of dualism, as it postulates basic properties over and above the properties invoked by physics. But it is an innocent version of dualism, entirely compatible with the scientific view of the world. Nothing in this approach contradicts anything in physical theory; we simply need to add further bridging principles to explain how experience arises from physical processes. There is nothing particularly spiritual or mystical about this theory - its overall shape is like that of a physical theory, with a few fundamental entities connected by fundamental laws. It expands the ontology slightly, to be sure, but Maxwell did the same thing. Indeed, the overall structure of this position is entirely naturalistic, allowing that ultimately the universe comes down to a network of basic entities obeying simple laws, and allowing that there may ultimately be a theory of consciousness cast in terms of such laws. If the position is to have a name, a good choice might be naturalistic dualism.

This "naturalist dualism" is Chalmer's explanation for experience. As explained above, he believes in the physical nature of the world and experience itself. Thus, he is certainly not conveying some form of idealism, nor a "spiritual or mystical" dualism. His version of dualism is quite physicalist, perhaps unlike other more familiar versions.

Since he wants a physicalist explanation, one maybe a little empirical unlike most dualist theories, he seeks to attribute all phenomena - in this case, that of experience - to the physical. This answers your question:

Why even worry about deriving consciousness & experience from the physical?

As to your side note:

What is the meaning of the sentence beginning "It is conceptually coherent..."? If by that he means that it is obvious that physical processes do exist in the absence of experience or consciousness, then what is the evidence for that?

I agree with your interpretation of the line, and I'll offer an example: in the absence of experience or consciousness, would a rock fall? Surely this is a physical process. I think that the statement itself can be interpreted two ways:

  1. An object that has no consciousness or experience (has an absence of them) can experience physical processes. A rock has neither consciousness or experience (at least, we're pretty sure it doesn't) but the physical process of falling is definitely "instantiated" within it.
  2. An object that is not observed by an instance of consciousness or experience can experience physical processes. This seems like another version of "if a tree falls in a forest and there's nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Admittedly, this is by definition not empirically provable (unless it counts if you can record the event and watch later). However, given all we know, it seems very likely that the tree will make a sound, and that even in the absence of our experience, objects will undergo physical processes.
  • Thanks for the clarification of Chalmers argument. But (a) I can't see how his clear rejection of a physical explanation of consciousness in the passage I cited is compatible with the physicalist explanation you say he is seeking; (b) to be continued... Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 3:33
  • (b) I wasn't really talking about his proposal to solve the problem (which I still find incoherent) but an idealist implication implicit in his (I stills say) rejection of physical explanations of consciousness. It just seems to me that the force of Chalmers critical argument points ineluctably to some form of idealism or a clear Cartesian dualism which, on other grounds, is widely rejected these days. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 3:34
  • Also, we agree on his meaning of his "conceptually coherent" sentence, but I just don't grasp the subsequent logic of "It follows...". So I could use some explanation there. As for the substance of that, it's an old bee in my bonnet that I would like to see hashed out. Unless it is crucial to the present question (but maybe it is), I will save it for a subsequent question. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 3:40
  • @DavidLewis I see what you're talking about, but disagree with your interpretation. I think the passage relates to his argument for experience being fundamental. I think Chalmer is saying that no explanation of consciousness as the result of a physical process will be adequate (for reasons given). However, this doesn't mean that consciousness itself cannot be physical, independent of other processes. I think this is his argument; consciousness is physical, but not explicable by our current understanding of physical processes. Rather, it is fundamental. I can expand in my answer if desired.
    – commando
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 3:49
  • Ok, Chalmers is a property dualist. I guess that's what you are saying about this piece. I'm trying to grok the substantial(!) difference between property and substance dualism, but sometimes it all feels like a rampant violation of Ockham's Razor vs. some form of idealism. IAC, this isn't a good venue for dialog. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 23:47

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