DAVID CHALMERS' ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY ANNUAL LECTURE
ON THE LIMITS OF PHILOSOPHICAL PROGRESS
An Introduction by Ted Honderich
David Chalmers came from Australia to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, furthered his education in neuroscience and philosophy in several American universities, and is now professor of philosophy at New York University and also director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University. He has also been the moving spirit of the principal international conference on consciousness, at the University of Arizona. He has the distinction of insisting, to science in particular, on 'the hard problem' with respect to consciousness, which term he put into the contemporary philosophical vernacular. His response to the problem, principally in his book The Conscious Mind, recognizes the relevant science while espousing not only what he calls a naturalistic dualism of brain and mind rather than a philosophically ordinary physicalism, but also a version of panpsychism, the idea that everything whatever has an inner conscious aspect.
His lecture below is one of the two or three in this volume that are least in need of introduction -- anyway least in need of a helping hand for readers on account of assumptions made and language used. It is as clear as a bell. The headings of its seven parts tell all.
(1) The central thesis of the lecture is that there has not been an extent of consensus in philosophy, of convergence on truth rather than any other kind of consensus, with respect to about ten big problems, including mind and body, consciousness in particular, knowledge of the external world, right and wrong, god, and free will. There has not been as much consensus or convergence as in in hard science about its big problems.
(2) The argument for the central thesis rests mainly on an empirical premise and what is called a bridging premise. The empirical premise is a matter of a poll carried out of philosophers in leading departments and their extents of disagreement on 30 important questions. These included the big problems but also questions about political commitments, aesthetic value, truth, laws of nature, time, personal identity, proper names, and so on. The argument for the central thesis also includes responses to objections to it.
(3) Admittedly, there are varieties of progress in philosophy, kinds of agreement -- as much as is consistent with the central thesis of comparison with science.
(4) That philosophy is a matter of argument as distinct from proof in mathematics or scientific method in the hard sciences is an initial explanation of the disagreement in philosophy. As a result, philosophy typically issues not in agreements but in sophisticated disagreements.
(5) New philosophical methods such as those in empirical philosophy and feminist philosophy have indeed been added to those of the past. But the new methods have not changed the general situation, in particular the possibility of the denial of other people's premises in philosophy.
(6) The possible further and deeper explanation of the apparent relative lack of philosophical progress includes problems dealt with but moved from philosophy into science. The further explanation also includes some big problems in philosophy not being about truth, the existence of verbal disputes, greater distance from the data, and what are called sociological and psychological effects,
(7) The prospects for more progress in philosophy at least bring up the question of whether such problems as that of consciousness are mysteries beyond our human minds. But since that has not been shown, we don't have to give up, we can keep at philosophy.
That this lecture of exemplary good order leaves your introducer to it with less to do also leaves him more free to think about questions. One is that of how close what you have heard is to the proposition that philosophy is harder than science -- maybe the question of whether science's being less hard is to be regarded as a shortcoming of philosophy. I don't think so. And does disagreement in science need more recognition than is given to it? That is is brought to mind by something mentioned in passing, what without deference to science is called by me the mess that is the applying of fundamental physics to the world, the interpretation of the mathematics of quantum mechanics.
And would it be fair to suppose that the lecture itself, being an instance of metaphilosophy, philosophy about philosophy, applies to itself? Is it not quite up to snuff? And can there be conceivably be any inferiority in philosophy's asking questions which include right and wrong, democracy, and the general fact of being conscious? Could they, so to speak, be avoidable, a matter of choice? And what is to be said of the bearing of this lecture on the one before it? And vice versa?