Why do so many scientists and philosophers shy away from the idea of consciousness? The question occurred to me after reading a recent interview of the philosopher David Chalmers by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Chalmers, since the nineties, is known for arguing that consciousness is a “hard problem,” and concludes that consciousness, being irreducible to anything physical, implies dualism, and thereby falsifies materialism. Chalmers is commendable for his courage in a mainstream culture that swears by scientific materialism.
But why does it require courage to argue for the fundamental reality of mental life, which humans are all normally acquainted with? When Kuhn asks whether Chalmers still holds to his view of dualism, the reply was affirmative but “reluctantly.” Reluctant, he says, because he was trained in science and mathematics, and thinks materialism is a beautiful philosophy because it explains everything so neatly, but there remains this gaping hole—unexplained consciousness, without which there would be no experience, no beauty, no science, nothing at all!
When questioned about the soul, Chalmers throws up his hands in perplexity. There’s no evidence for soul or its immortality, insists Chalmers, which he regrets because the idea of living forever delights him. “But, as a scientist, I have to step back and say, what’s the evidence, what’s the reason to believe in this? And so far, I don’t see any scientific evidence that forces one to believe in a soul.” My first reaction to this: he hasn’t seen because he never looked.
There is, in fact, a mountain of different kinds of evidence for the conscious survival of once living persons. Evidence, of course, is not proof. But Chalmers has shut his mind to the evidence. Why is a mystery to me. Evidence for life after death is consistent with and confirms dualism. Chalmers, like countless others that should know better, has not done his homework. He ignores a vast literature, easily accessible. Begin with current near-death and reincarnation research and work your way through physical and mental mediumship, veridical apparitions, ghost encounters, haunted houses, poltergeists, on to phenomena of mysticism and shamanism, always laced with survival elements.
Do your homework. You have a lot to learn. What could the soul be made of? Chalmers asks. The answer should be obvious to him: consciousness. When we say that the soul survives death all we minimally claim is that our conscious selves survive the death of our bodies. Soul sends Chalmers on a wild goose chase, ignoring the fact that his consciousness is his soul.
Kuhn, in a note, says this: “If we accept that consciousness is immaterial, (as Chalmers assumes in the discussion) why need it be located anywhere?” This of course is the view of some Eastern and philosophical theories of mind or spirit as being one, pervasive, omnipresent, so that mystic poets like Kabir keep saying that any thing or any person is a possible door to transcendence, beginning with ourselves to ourselves.
What’s lacking is a certain kind of courage. Chalmers displays it in holding to the presumed heresy of dualism. But dualism is only an abstract step toward a rendez-vous with what we really need. So by all means, Let ‘heresy’ thrive! (From a word that means choose.) What’s lacking is the courage to think beyond our conventional styles and habits of thought.
As the evolving climate crisis unfolds and the great countries keep arming themselves for war, I’m reminded of the poet, W. H. Auden, who wrote, “We who are about to die demand a miracle.“