Buddhist philosophers often argue that the self is just an illusion, and this has recently been backed up by neuroscientists. Yet one of the world’s most influential philosophers of consciousness has responded with a contrarian perspective.
David Chalmers is an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist best known for formulating the notion of a “hard problem in consciousness” in his 1996 book, Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.
He’s one of the world’s most cited scholars focusing on consciousness, so his perspective on what consciousness means for ideas of the self is worth considering.
Before sharing his perspective, it’s worth giving a brief overview of what he says about consciousness.
Chalmers makes a distinction between “easy” problems of consciousness, such as explaining object discrimination or verbal reports, and the single hard problem, which could be stated “why does the feeling which accompanies awareness of sensory information exist at all?”
Many found some force in his arguments; others have questioned whether they are particularly new or effective, but even if you don’t agree with him, the energising effect of his intervention can still be welcomed.
The easy problem is to do with how sensory inputs get processed and turned into appropriate action; the hard problem is the problem of qualia – why is all that processing accompanied by sensations, and what are these vivid sensations, anyway?
The easy problem isn’t “trivial”. It’s just not anywhere near as mind-boggling as qualia, the redness of red, the ineffably subjective aspect of experience.
What is David Chalmer’s perspective on religion?
In an interview in Scientific American, Chalmers was asked many questions such as his family background, whether philosophy impacts his behaviors and how the hard problem was born.
Interestingly, he was also asked whether he was religious.
Chalmers is not religious:
“I can’t take seriously the idea that there is any being in the universe worthy of worship.”
He has resisted jumping on the Buddhism bandwagon. He has “never had the patience” for meditation, and he has doubts about basic Buddhist claims, such as anatta, the doctrine that the self does not really exist.
“Deep down,” he says, “I’m a Cartesian,” who believes “there is a self.” On the other hand, belief in anatta can perhaps help us become less selfish and more compassionate toward others. “As a moral view, I find a certain appeal in that.”
In the same way, Chalmers suggested that consciousness is the key to our sense of meaning. “What gives life even the potential for meaning in the first place is, I guess, consciousness. It takes somehow all this activity in the brain or body and turns it into meaning, like water into wine.”