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A Dialogue on Consciousness

Torin Alter and Robert J. Howell

Publication Date - January 2009

ISBN: 9780195375299

128 pages

This unique introduction to the debate on consciousness and physicalism employs an accessible and entertaining dialogue between two characters to address the most significant theories and arguments in the field.


In recent years, the problem of consciousness has developed into one of the most important and hotly contested areas in the philosophy of mind. Many philosophers regard consciousness as an entirely physical phenomenon, yet it seems to elude scientific explanation. On the other hand, viewing consciousness as a nonphysical phenomenon brings up even larger issues. If consciousness is not physical, how can it be explained?
Concise, up-to-date, and engaging, A Dialogue on Consciousness explores these issues in depth. It features two main characters, Tollens and Ponens--unemployed graduate students who secretly live in a university library--who bring the debate alive. Tollens and Ponens examine the most significant theories and arguments in the field, quoting key passages from both classic and contemporary texts. Their discussion encompasses an expansive and diverse range of ideas, from those that originated in the Enlightenment up to today's most current perspectives. The dialogue concludes with a consideration of the pros and cons of modern physicalist views and nonphysicalist alternatives. An extensive annotated list of suggested readings directs readers to the most relevant and helpful primary sources.
An accessible and entertaining introduction to this complex issue, A Dialogue on Consciousness ideal for courses in philosophy of mind and consciousness. It also serves as an excellent supplement to introductory philosophy courses.


"Alter and Howell's dialogue starts by making the basic puzzles of consciousness vivid and accessible. By the end it has led readers through a grand tour of many of the most central issues in the area, bringing them close to the leading edge of current thought. Alter and Howell have both made significant contributions to this area themselves, so their discussion is philosophically rich. At the same time, it is a pleasure to read."--David Chalmers, Director, Centre for Consciousness, Australian National University, and author of The Conscious Mind

"A Dialogue on Consciousness is an elegant discussion of the problem of consciousness that would be appropriate for courses in the philosophy of mind and for generic introductions to philosophy. Once I began reading, I was hooked."--John Heil, Washington University in St Louis

"I plan to use A Dialogue on Consciousness in my philosophy of mind course. It will engage the students and provide an excellent overview of the main issues, the main positions on them, and the main lines of argument."--Alfred Mele, William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

Table of Contents

    Monday Night
    Late Night in the Library
    The Subjectivity of Experience
    The Soul and the Mind
    Descartes' Conceivability Argument
    Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman
    Arnauld's Objection to Descartes' Argument
    Hume's Elusive Self
    Souls and the Problem of Mental-Physical Causation
    Tuesday Night
    Computers and Cognition
    Consciousness versus Cognition
    Ignoring Subjectivity
    What Is It Like to Be a Bat?
    The Need for a New Framework
    Mary and the Knowledge Argument against Physicalism
    Spectrum Inversion
    Zombies and the Conceivability Argument against Physicalism
    Wednesday Night
    The Structure of the Anti-Physicalist Arguments: The Epistemic Step and the Metaphysical Step
    Questioning the Epistemic Step
    Afterimages and Mary's Shortcuts to Phenomenal Knowledge
    The Importance of Deduction
    Psycho-Physical Laws
    Hooking Up to the Physical
    The Objectivity Condition on the Physical
    Deduction and Translation
    The Ability Hypothesis
    The Connection between Abilities and Information
    Representationalism and the Transparency of Experience
    Thursday Night
    Questioning the Metaphysical Step
    Superheroes and the Many Disguises of Physical Facts
    Disguise Depends on Ignorance
    The Cognitive Isolation of Phenomenal Concepts
    Martian Mary and the Phenomenal Concept Strategy
    Do Phenomenal Concepts Require Experience?
    The Dilemma for the Phenomenal Concept Strategy
    Descartes Returns, with Zombies
    Friday Night
    Clarifying Property Dualism
    Why Souls Are No Help
    The Causal Inefficacy of Nonphysical Qualia
    Assessing the Costs of Epiphenomenalism
    The Paradox of Phenomenal Judgment
    The Attractions of Monism
    Phenomenal Properties as the Ground of Physical Dispositions
    The Combination Problem
    The Problem of Mental-Physical Causation Redux
    The Significance of Ignorance
    Defining the Physical
    Subjective Physicalism
    Necessitation without Deduction
    The Sun Rises
    Reading Suggestions
    Sources of Quotations