Is There Room for the Soul?
New challenges to our most cherished beliefs about self and the human spirit
Chalmers created a stir at Tucson I by trying to clarify the "hard problem" of consciousness: the problem, as he put it, of experience itself. "When we think and perceive there is a whir of information-processing," Chalmers declared, "but there is also a subjective aspect." This aspect, he continued, "is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field .... Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience."
The easier questions for Chalmers were things like the ability to discriminate among assorted stimuli or to report upon mental states. But subjectivity arising out of matter: that to Chalmers was a mystery so seemingly insoluble that he wrote a whole book (The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory) arguing that consciousness had to be considered a fundamental category like space, time, or gravity-explicable only by special, psychophysical laws.
Some cognitive theorists, including Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, have accused Chalmers of making many difficult but surmountable problems into one mighty, insurmountable one. Explain all the little problems, Dennett insists, and you solve the big one-or dissolve it. Dennett is a genial figure, but he can be a bulldog of physical reductivism, quick to sniff out and attack anyone he thinks might be sneaking back to Cartesian dualism. He also enjoys a certain enfant terrible status for his most recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, which enrages many believers with its Darwinian dissection of the religious impulse.
Dennett exudes confidence in his own position: that consciousness is about "fame in the brain," to use his now famous phrase. At any one moment, Dennett argues, there are many potential conscious states, many contending neuronal assemblies, vying for celebrity, their big moment under the lights. But only one of these "multiple drafts" wins the competition, perhaps selected by the kind of Darwinian survival-enhancing mechanisms that Salk's Sejnowski and others study. The big mistake, according to Dennett, is to think that there is some homunculus of a self sitting in the theater of the brain and observing, or even directing, the ongoing show. "This is our old nemesis, the Audience in the Cartesian Theater," Dennett wrote in his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained.
When I ask Dennett if he feels that his ideas have been vindicated by research during the past 15 years, he answers in the unwavering affirmative: "The idea of fame in the brain and parallel competition seems to be an idea that works pretty well," he says. "Now we can begin to talk about what the conditions of the competition are, where they occur, why and how they occur."
The more you talk to Dennett, though, the more you sense that what he is really interested in, once all the neurophysiological conditions of the competition have been worked out and explained, is higher-order consciousness. "Language changes everything," Dennett says, sounding a lot like Edelman. But when I ask whether that means that meaning is created by symbol-wielding consciousness, Dennett insists that it does not. "This is what I've meant over the years when I've said that the brain is a syntactic engine mimicking a semantic engine." By that, Dennett presumably means that consciousness produces orderly, grammatical representations of something out there in the world that is meaningful, but it does not create meaning. It is not necessary to meaning.