A Heideggerian Response to David Chalmers

In this post, I want to expose the object-metaphors of analytic philosophy of mind. In this video interview of Chalmers, we can see that for him, consciousness is understood as if it were an entity. He says that “consciousness is a thing” (which we know), as if consciousness is an entity with properties in the way a door is an object with properties which we can come to know. He says that consciousness is “presented” to him, as if consciousness were an object in the visual field which we can come into contact with and manipulate. He says that consciousness “exists”, as if consciousness exists just like a rock exists. He “experiences it” as if consciousness were something we experience in everyday life, such as a couch. He says that physical behavior is always “accompanied” by consciousness, as if consciousness were some extant object which can either accompany us or not.

Moreover, for Chalmers, Zombies “lack” consciousness, as if consciousness were a thing, which we can either possess or not possess. In the same way, God could have created a pure physical universe which “lacks” consciousness. Consciousness is then understood as a thing which exists and has certain properties such as ineffability, privacy, phenomenal feel, etc. The world “contains” consciousness, as if consciousness were an object which can be placed inside of things (such as brains). He says that “there is more to consciousness than physical matter in the brain”. He says that consciousness is an “inner movie”, as if consciousness were analogous to a mind viewing the projections upon a theater. This is an object-metaphor on steroids. It is based on a fundamental spatial analogy which blends a conduit metaphor with a container metaphor. The conduit is the neural sensory system, across which raw sense-data is transferred. The conduit leads into a container (or theater). The dumping of sense-data into the container constitutes the possession of conscious experiences.

If this sounds Cartesian, it’s because it is. Chalmers says that there are basically two types of things: matter and consciousness. This is nothing other than substance dualism wrapped up in the guise of a “respectable” property dualism but I think Chalmers buys into the Cartesian strategy more than he lets on. This is evidenced when he retains the same set of assumptions which lead to Descartes’ strategy of methodical doubt. Like Husserl, I would imagine that Chalmers thinks a universe that only houses a disembodied consciousness is conceptually coherent.

I could multiple Heidegger quotes indefinitely in order to show how he critiqued the presuppositions of analytic philosophy of mind, but I assume readers of Heidegger are familiar with such literature. Needless to say, Heidegger realized that everyday metaphors for consciousness are steeped in the object-discourse we inherit from everyday experience. Analytic philosophers have long treated consciousness as if it were a present-at-hand entity. I hope my analysis of Chalmer’s language has demonstrated that this type of discourse is thoroughly cemented in mainstream analytic philosophy of mind. Very few people have taken seriously the implications of George Lakoff and Mark Johnsons magnum opus Philosophy in the Flesh. This book, more than any other (besides Being and Time), opened my mind to how philosophy always goes astray when it fails to consider the metaphorical nature of philosophical discourse. Chalmers is able to conceive of consciousness as this disembodied inner movie only because he uncritically uses object-metaphors and treats consciousness as a nonphysical thing modeled on our everyday interaction with physical things.

In my opinion, William James was making the same basic point in his famous article “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?“. James’ point was not that thoughts and introspections don’t exist, but rather, that consciousness does not exist in the same way a rock exists, hence, consciousness “does not exist” (as an entity). But thoughts and introspections certainly do. As James says,

To deny plumply that ‘consciousness’ exists seems so absurd on the face of it — for undeniably ‘thoughts’ do exist — that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function.

While this might sound absurd to traditional Heideggerian scholars, I contend that Heidegger would emphatically agree with James on this point. Consciousness is not a present-at-hand thing. But it still exists. How? As an operation. As something we do. This is Alva Noë’s basic point as well, although it always gets misinterpreted as some kind of radical claim. This enactive approach to consciousness does suffer from a flaw however: whereas it critiques the inner theater model for perceptual consciousness, it needlessly abandons it for understanding introspective consciousness, which is a whole other breed of experience. This is another classic mistake of analytic philosophy of mind. By failing to distinguish the consciousness of brute cognition and the consciousness of introspection, many philosophers fail to realize that introspective consciousness is a different explanandum than cognition, which philosophers often call “phenomenal consciousness”. Accordingly, there is a distinction to be made between consciousness proper (self-reflexive introspection structured in term of self-metaphors such as the “I”) and cognition proper (real-time “on-the-fly” sensorimotor reaction).

Chalmers doesn’t make this distinction because for him, animals without introspection still qualify as fully conscious. This is because Chalmers buys into the theater metaphor for perceptual cognition. My beef is not with theater metaphors, but only with their application to low-level perceptual cognition. Theater metaphors are only applicable when we literally analogize a situation in terms of narratively-driven introspection. When we stop to think, we introspect upon a space which is an analog of our understanding of physical space. Philosophers like Chalmers take the spatialization of introspection to suggest that all experience is spatialized by this inner/outer distinction but he unwittingly extends the metaphor too far when he applies it to low-level cognition. This leads to all sorts of strange implications such as Zombies. But if we follow James and Heidegger in denying that consciousness is an entity, we can come to better understand our experience without eliminating or reducing the concept of consciousness.



Filed under Consciousness, Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology

12 responses to “A Heideggerian Response to David Chalmers

  1. Do you think Sartre’s early work on consciousness would also fit well into the James/Heidegger matrix that you plot here? Although he doesn’t claim consciousness is not an entity, in TE he does call consciousness a non-substantial entity; and by this he means that it is a void of outward moving activity, inhering in its intended objects in the World. Thus, pre-reflective consciousness, for Sartre, is separated from reflective consciousness – and the “I” and “me” are merely consequences of the process of the latter which reflects upon pre-reflected conscious activity.

  2. Austin, unfortunately, I am not familiar enough with Sartre to make any kind of claim about his views. But if your representation of Sartre is correct though (his making a distinction between prereflective and reflective consciousness), then I would say that he fits very nicely into the Heideggerian framework. Which is cool, because I have been meaning to read more of Sartre lately but I just haven’t made the time to do it.

    • Right on. I think “Transcendence of the Ego” and his works on the imagination would be right up your alley, although his more “Heideggarian” works are generally noted as being “Being and Nothingness” and “Critique of Dialectical Reason.”

      TE is a rather short book. If you end up getting around to it (or really any of Sartre’s work), I’d love to see some of your thoughts on the blog. I’m really enjoying the development of your work on Heidegger (this may be heresy, but I kind of see similarities with my work on Sartre and Deleuze in it… strange bedfellows perhaps but nevertheless…).

  3. It’s interesting to read what strike me as very similar arguments (yours and mine), yet using different language templates. Yours using the language of philosophy and mine using the language of neuroscience.

  4. Austin I’m no Sartre expert but Sartre’s ideas basically come out of Heidegger misread. But there are still lots of parallels. (Indeed in some ways Sartre is easier to approach than Heidegger since there is less nuance) Both are externalists which I think is the key difference from Chalmers who adopts a basically internalist perspective on mind.

    • Whoops. That came off with a different tone than I intended. Probably no Sartre fan would appreciate the “Heidegger misread” comment. I guess my point was more just to suggest that relative to analytic philosophy both have the same stance which is different (as do the pragmatists like James that Gary mentioned) Externalism is the key. There’s an interesting book Externalism: Putting Mind and World Back Together Again by Mark Rowlands which tries to explain externalism in an analytic framework. He focuses in on Sartre rather than Heidegger for a slew of reasons (the complexity of Heidegger along with his rather poor status among analytic philosophers) but I think does a nice job of presenting externalism and its key challenges to the dominate position in analytic thought. He also does a nice job of breaking out the different sorts of externalism – especially in reaction to Davidson and Putnam who have made variations of the position a topic of discussion in analytic philosophy the past 30 years.

      • haha. no worries about the tone. thanks for the book recommendation. i think you’re probably right about externalism v. internalism. i need to catch up on some analytic stuff… 🙂

      • Gary Williams

        Clark, I think you are absolutely right about the importance of internalism/externalism for these sorts of questions. In my recent paper (What Is It Like to be Nonconscious?), I framed the question of consciousness in terms of internalism vs externalism in order to set the stage for the possibility of consciousness being a social construction. Without an externalist framework for understanding basic perceptual cognition, social constructionism doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I also think the internalism/externalism divide is really useful for separating lineages of intellectual history. All of my “heroes” are externalists, and all the “bad guys” are internalists. One can really do a lot of heavy lifting with this distinction, especially when it comes to the question of representationalism, knowledge, qualia, consciousness, etc.

        I haven’t read that book by Rowlands, but I have read some of his articles. I really like him because he takes a Gibsonian approach to cognition, which is near and dear to my heart. Too bad my library doesn’t have that book!

      • Where I really like Rowlands is in his taking of Heidegger’s notion of background practices and making things present. Rowlands doesn’t discuss Heidegger as such but does discuss representation being a practice of representing.

      • BTW – I think with Chalmers things get a bit trickier, despite your critique, in that Chalmers offers one of the better arguments for Externalism within analytic thought. Although they just limit it to semantic externalism as I recall. (I have to confess it’s been some years since I last looked into analytic conceptions of externalism) Chalmer’s approach to an extended mind is, however, interesting relative to Heidegger’s notion of knowledge and truth in terms of techne that I’ve been discussing at my blog today. The classic (IMO) treatment of this kind of externalism (and its flaws) is Nolan’s film Memento.

  5. Pingback: Science has much better answers than "God did it" - Religion and Philosophy -Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, God, Universe, Science, Spirituality, Faith, Evidence - Page 84 - City-Data Forum

  6. Valde Hougaard

    Can you point me to some of the litterature where Heidegger talks about this, outside of being and time? Is it in some of his lectures?

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