David Chalmers at Post Hoc Salons
Jun 7, 2024

The Hard Problem of Consciousness in Science - David Chalmers at PostHoc Salons (video and podcast)

Consciousness is an area of science and philosophy that is fundamental to our understanding of the human experience yet notoriously challenging to study.

By Templeton Staff with PostHoc

"I take consciousness to be a natural fact of the universe. But right now, we don't know how consciousness fits in."

Consciousness is an area of science and philosophy that is fundamental to our understanding of the human experience, yet is notoriously challenging to study. 

“I define consciousness as subjective experience — what it's like to be a conscious thinking being from the first person perspective. I take consciousness to be a natural fact of the universe,” says philosopher David Chalmers in a video clip produced by POSTHOC

“The scientific problem is to integrate that fact into our scientific picture of everything else we know, and ultimately to explain it. But right now we don't know how consciousness fits in. So what we would like is a scientific theory of consciousness that explains why we are conscious, ideally linking this to the science of neuroscience and psychology.”

David Chalmers sits down with POSTHOC to chat about the nature of consciousness in this video.


POSTHOC x Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) invited Chalmers for a conversation with POSTHOC founder, Susan MacTavish Best at a Salon event in New York City.  

Listen to a podcast that captured the evening’s discussion.

University Professor of Philosophy at New York University (NYU), Chalmers serves as co-director, along with Ned Block, of the NYU Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness. The Center takes an interdisciplinary approach to foundational issues in the mind-brain sciences, including philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, and other areas.

In 2018, TWCF launched an initiative dedicated to accelerating research on consciousness by pairing philosophers with neuroscientists in what is known as “adversarial collaboration.” Chalmers was part of these structured adversarial collaboration projects.

As TWCF's Director of Global Advocacy and Communications Karen Sommer Shalett explained during the introduction to Salon conversation, part of Sir John Templeton's charter setting up his foundations was to explore the intersection of spirituality and science. By pairing "adversarial" researchers together, including philosophers and neuroscientists, who seek the same results but don't agree on some aspect of the research methods or hypothesis, more empirical data can be generated by radically different perspectives.

Back in the mid 90’s, Chalmers made what would go on to become an existential bet with neurophysiologist and scientist Christof Koch, who two decades later would become his adversarial collaborator. Koch believed that the part of the brain which generates human consciousness would be identified within 25 years. Chalmers simply disagreed with him and bet a case of fine wine to that effect and in 2023, Chalmers collected that case of wine.

As the conversation began, Chalmers explained what he coined as the 'hard problem of consciousness' in science. "Really the hard problem of consciousness is how can you explain these amazing subjective experiences? It seems to have something to do with the brain, but how is it that physical processes in the brain should give you any subjective experience?" 

"And why is it?" added MacTavish Best, pinning down if only for a moment the most fundamental element of this entire area of research. Chalmers explained how physicists' search for a so-called theory of everything carried with it the hope that physics could explain chemistry,  which would explain biology, and then explain parts of psychology, but that he ultimately arrived at the conclusion that objective explanations of phenomena did not add up to an explanation of subjective consciousness. 

"That doesn't mean you can't have a science of consciousness but you need something more — more fundamental laws and principles that might connect to build a bridge between, for instance, what we know about consciousness in the brain and physical processes," David said. "Physics cannot give us a theory of everything  — we need a theory of consciousness to create laws. Philosophers have been on this for 2000 years and we're not done yet."

Listen to the entire conversation via the POSTHOC Digital PodcasT.

Learn more about TWCF’s Accelerating Research on Consciousness (ARC).

POSTHOC Salons by Susan MacTavish Best celebrate the power of gathering by bringing people together to share ideas, stimulate conversations, spark connections, and build community. The salon series POSTHOC hosts with support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation asks thought-leading experts what it means to flourish.