The Exchange: Tunng and David Chalmers discuss consciousness and song writing.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together Sam Genders from the band Tunng and David Chalmers.

Tunng are an English indie band with discernible influences ranging from folk to electronica. In other words, it’s hard to pigeon-hole them and that is a very good thing in this day and age of MOR creative conservatism. A 2020 endeavor consists of an eight-part podcast titled, The Dead Club. It explores death and dying by interviewing artists and philosophers about the subject. The accompanying music forms the basis for their 7th studio album, Tunng presents… DEAD CLUB. In April 2021, the band dropped their latest album, Mother’s Daughter and Other Songs.

David Chalmers is a philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. He is a Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University, as well as co-director of NYU’s Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness (along with Ned Block). In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is also Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University and co-director of the PhilPapers Foundation.

He has published extensively on the philosophy of mind (especially consciousness) and the foundations of cognitive science, as well the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Sam Genders (CREDIT: Tunng)

Sam Genders: Our latest project was an album and podcast series exploring our culture’s relationship to death and dying. It was fascinating and my involvement led me, perhaps paradoxically, perhaps not surprisingly, to focus on life. 

I’ve become more grateful for my life, for the lives of those I love, and for how precious this experience of consciousness is. Consciousness is something I’m intrigued by. I’ve read that many scientists believe consciousness is a kind of illusion, Dan Dennet perhaps being the best known.

Whilst I can follow the logical thread of some of their arguments, I get stuck when I compare their theories to my own lived experience. By which I mean that from the point of view of whatever I am, consciousness seems to be the only element of my existence that I know to be real. 

The entire content of my experience could be an illusion, but the fact that I am aware, and aware of being aware seems undeniable.

Of course I’m a lay person, but can you help me understand this?

Do the consciousness-as-an-illusion researchers have an insight that can flip my thinking on this? Or are there new discoveries to be made in the near or distant future?

David Chalmers: I don’t think consciousness is an illusion, but I’ll have a stab at speaking for the illusionists like Dan Dennett, who think that it is.

They think our brain has evolved to produce many illusions. We see an external world of color and solid objects, when mostly it’s light and empty space. These illusions are a sort of model of the world that helps us to make sense of the world.

In the same way, our brain has evolved to tell us we have these amazing conscious experiences of joy and sadness, of music, of color, of pain, and so much else. this is a model of our minds that helps make sense of it. But in reality we just have an ultra-complex brain with no intrinsic consciousness — just a complicated model of itself.

Now, I find this impossible to believe. Like you, I think that consciousness is the one thing I’m absolutely sure of. But the illusionist can come back and say, of course you’ll say that! Evolution has made the illusion of consciousness completely irresistable.

So illusionism predicts that we’ll find illusionism unbelievable!

For my part, I go in a different direction, trying to understand consciousness as a fundamental component of the universe. But I do respect the illusionists project of trying at least to explain the things we think and say about consciousness, even if that doesn’t explain consciousness itself, it may be part of the story.

Prof. David Chalmers (Image courtesy of Claudia Passos)

David Chalmers: I listened to your album on death and loved it. I wondered about doing the same thing for consciousness. If you were to put together an album on the topic of consciousness, how would you approach it? And more generally, what has being a musician taught you about consciousness?

Sam Genders: I find consciousness to be an endlessly fascinating subject. The idea of building a music project around it is very appealing. I’d start out by learning as much as I could about the subject from a scientific point of view and I’d be keen to interview yourself, Dan Dennet and other key researchers. I’d also like to know what science currently understands about consciousness from a neurological point of view. 

I’d also be interested in interviewing people who explore consciousness experientially. Experienced meditators for example. I’ve spent some time (in 10 day stretches) on silent retreat, practising meditation. At times during those retreats I found there was a marked shift in my experience of my own consciousness.

I think there’s already a sizeable body of research linking altered states of consciousness during meditation to brain states but for someone who isn’t a scientist it can require diligent research to separate the hard science from the wishful thinking.

I’d love to speak to Sam Harris about that side of things as he’s a neuroscientist, an atheist and an experienced meditator.

In terms of writing the songs, what we found with Dead Club was that once we were immersed in the subject matter, the songs pretty much wrote themselves. Lyrics especially. I think you could have some fun with this project by getting inside a scanner of some kind or using brain-computer interfaces to trigger musical patterns by changes in one’s own conscious states and then using the resulting musical ideas as starting points for songs. I’d be happy to be a guinea pig for any consciousness researchers out there who want to wire me up and get testing…as long as I can write a song about it afterwards!

In reply to your second question… I think music has taught me most about the state that is often referred to as ‘flow’. I’m very analytical and think deeply about things. That has its benefits but also its downsides. I’m a worrier and switching myself off is a challenge (hence the meditation). 

When I’m in the flow of writing a song my experience of consciousness is quite different to that worried state. I’m in the moment, time doesn’t really exist, I’m less aware of my problems or even of myself. It’s a release akin to having a few beers but without the groggy morning after. Just to know that I’m capable of functioning in that more adaptive way gives me comfort and encouragement when my worries threaten to overwhelm me.

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