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Philosopher: I Accept Dualism But Don’t Believe in the Soul

David Chalmers, whose background is in physics, talks to Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth about his struggle to accept that the mind is immaterial

David Chalmers, the New York University philosopher who coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness” was willing to take the risk of openly identifying as a dualist — that is, he believes that, on evidence, the human mind is immaterial. On that view, widely accepted worldwide, the human being has a dual nature: a material body and an immaterial mind.

But Chalmers draws the line at believing in the existence of a soul. Here is his discussion at Closer to Truth with Robert Lawrence Kuhn, “Is the ‘Soul’ Immortal?” (May 4, 2021, 9:06 min):

The claim that human beings have or are an ‘immortal soul’ goes back to the ancient Greeks, if not further. In a pre-scientific world, it would seem absurd for our inner awareness not to continue, irrespective of what happens to our bodies. Today science rejects the soul, yet there are diverse viewpoints around.

A partial transcript and some notes and questions follow:

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Dave, I remember in the mid-1990s I was really excited to read your material talking about your conversion, if you will, to dualism — sort of a view that I had but felt very guilty about it because I was trained in brain science. But you made it acceptable for people who were scientists maybe to entertain dualism in some fashion. Do you still believe the way you did? (0:29)

David Chalmers: I do, yeah… reluctantly. Especially, originally, it was quite reluctantly because I come from a scientific background. I was trained in mathematics and physics and I want everything to be natural, reduced to the simplest possible set of laws and entities. The materialistic view of the world is a beautiful, aesthetically appealing view of the world that promises to explain everything — physics to chemistry to biology to sociology. (0.55)

There’s this problem with consciousness: It just leaves a gap. Every physical theory ever devised leaves a gap to consciousness. So I banged my head against the wall for years trying to come up with a physically based theory of consciousness. Every week I had a different physical theory of consciousness. None of them worked and eventually I came to see this is for systematic reasons. There are reasons why no purely physical theory will ever give you consciousness. It’ll always be an objective theory of objective functions. None of that ever gives you subjective experience. (1:25)

Note: Chalmers is to be commended for his unwillingness to settle for merely bloviating something like “If only we could stop ourselves seeing things through dualist spectacles, we’d no longer feel that there is anything puzzling about consciousness” or “The obvious answer is that it refers to brain processes that feel like something.”

Brain processes “feel like something”? To whom? That’s the problem right there!

Dualism, at its most basic, means that there is someone to whom the processes feel like something. That someone is not the brain processes but the one who experiences them. It’s as if some philosophers (not Chalmers!) take refuge in condemning dualism while slurring over the Hard Problem to which it is a response.

David Chalmers: So then it just seemed to me that on conservative scientific grounds, you know, you don’t postulate entities without necessity. But when you need to, when the existing theory doesn’t explain all the phenomena, you’ve got to expand the theory. And therefore I said, okay we’ve got to add new fundamental properties to our view of the world, not just space, time, mass, charge, but consciousness. (1:47)

Note: Chalmers explains to Kuhn that there was no Eureka! moment; he began to accept dualism over time and his colleagues mostly accepted his views as reasonably founded.

David Chalmers: You could still be naturalistic, you could have laws governing simple entities, and you could do science with it. You could have a science of consciousness. (2:30)

This needn’t lead you to ghosts, to spirits, to demons, or even to God. So I think I was coming to see that. That reconciled me with this dualism (2:39)

You needn’t be going off into cloud cuckoo land by believing that our inventory of the world’s fundamental properties has to be expanded to include consciousness [3:40]

Note: For the record, dualism is part of the worldview of theists but also of Buddhists, whose main emphasis is not on a deity. It is also found among pantheists and among ancient philosophers like Aristotle (384– 322 BC), whose focus was on living an ethically sound human life. It amounts simply to acceptance of the fact that consciousness, while immaterial, is a genuine part of our nature that cannot usefully be explained away.

David Chalmers on the Soul

David Chalmers: Well, I would really love it if there’s an immortal soul because I want to live forever and that’s probably going to be the best way to do it —  by having [an] immortal soul. 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. (4:37)

Yes, there’s consciousness. But that’s just another natural property of us as organisms in a natural world. One way there could be consciousness is [for] it to be attached to these indestructible things — souls that persist forever and exist after life and so on.  I just don’t see the evidence to believe in that. To believe in those things would be to take a massive inference from any evidence that we currently have. So, as a scientist, I just can’t yet go there. (5:03)

You know, it’s a hypothesis but I just don’t see why one should believe it’s true. Clearly you can’t exclude it. No, of course you can’t. As a scientist you’ve got to allow all kinds of possibilities but what do you believe? What do you accept? You accept what the evidence compels you to accept. I don’t think the evidence compels one to believe in souls. (5:21) …

I think you can perfectly well do science with consciousness … This is what’s happening right now actually, in some of the more interesting corners of neuroscience and psychology — people going into labs, they’re measuring properties of people’s consciousness, perhaps by asking them, perhaps by studying their own state. They’re correlating this with states of the brain and they’re coming up with principles, laws that say: When your brain is like this, your consciousness is like this. They study the way that consciousness develops over time. It starts simple; it gets more complex. (6:52)

Nothing there so far seems to be leading anyone to believe in souls. It looks like consciousness starts simple, it grows, it fades out. If it was a soul, I don’t know what kind of picture we’d expect. (7:02)

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: But is your consciousness — let me try this word — immaterial? (7:05)

David Chalmers: It’s not physical, yeah. It’s … I mean there are properties of the world that go beyond atoms in space and time, with mass and charge. We need to add a further property to our inventory of the world’s properties: Consciousness. That doesn’t mean it needs to be located in some wholly different realm up in your…  up in heaven or in the land of ectoplasm and so on. It may be attached to the same stuff right down here. (7:31)

Note: It is worth asking couple of questions here: If we accept that consciousness is immaterial, why need it be located anywhere? The principles of mathematics are also immaterial. They are also quite real; they underlie our universe. Yet they are not located anywhere; they manifest themselves every time a mathematician — or an elementary school student — seeks a sound proof of a proposition.

While we are here, what if immaterial substances are not governed by the same rules as material substances? They may be by nature immortal because they are not subject to decay.

Chalmers raises the question of panpsychism

David Chalmers: It could be that even fundamental particles have consciousness, as among the fundamental properties along with mass and charge. That’s not to say they have souls but– (7:41)

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Are you saying that science must be able to evaluate this stuff? Or is it possible that, according to your definition — where it is not of the current physical thing and it is immaterial — that science is unable to make a judgment ultimately of what they can talk about, correlations or whatever, but it cannot ultimately judge that? Is that a possibility?

Girls eye with paint and earth

David Chalmers: I think it’s always an open question with any phenomenon that science won’t be able to explain it. But as scientists, we should take the attitude of trying to devise the best scientific theory of it we can. In the case of consciousness, there are puzzles, there are unique mysteries. But it seems to me that here is how we can actually make it a tractable scientific problem: Admit consciousness as a fundamental property, try to study the way it correlates with everything else in the world — with brains, with behavior — find the principles connected to physics, and so on. And then say, okay, here is the way the world works. (8:39)

Note: Wait. We know that we ourselves are conscious and we reasonably infer that other human beings are. How did we get to “It could be that even fundamental particles have consciousness” (panpsychism)? Why is it more reasonable to believe that — for which we have no evidence — than to believe that immaterial entities like consciousness might also be immortal?

At any rate, panpsychism is becoming an increasingly popular response on the part of scientists to the dead end of materialism in these matters, so no surprise that Chalmers raises it as a possibility worth considering.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: So no souls, no immortal souls, at least not yet. (8:59)

David Chalmers: No reason to believe in them. Yet, you know, if I’ve got one, fantastic, but someone’s gonna have to convince me.

You may also wish to read: How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism. Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness. To Strawson, it makes more sense to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Philosopher: I Accept Dualism But Don’t Believe in the Soul