Accelerating research on consciousness?

Back in December, psychologist and author Christian Jarrett got in touch to ask what I thought about the new project “Accelerating Research on Consciousness” organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. See this news story for more information about the project. Christian incorporated some of my comments into an article for BBC Focus magazine (which I recommend) but I thought I’d post my full reply here, in case anyone is interested. Here it is.

I have mixed feelings about the project. I’m delighted to see more funding for experimental work on consciousness. The data collected will undoubtedly be useful. I have worries, however. It looks like the project will focus on explaining consciousness in the phenomenal sense. That is, the organizers and participants conceive of conscious states as essentially subjective ones, involving awareness of phenomenal properties or qualia (the private mental ‘feel’ or ‘what-it-likeness’ of experience). If that’s right, then I am dubious of the chances of making decisive progress.

To begin with, it’s hard to see how one could explain phenomenal properties in terms of brain processes. The two things are just too different. (This is the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.) The most we can hope to do is to find correlations between brain processes and phenomenal properties. And even then there’s a methodological problem. For there can be no objective test for the presence of essentially subjective properties. The best we can do is to test for objective indications of their presence, such as the subject’s reports and reactions. And this means that tests of correlation hypotheses can never be decisive. Suppose theory A says that conscious state C occurs when brain region N1 is active, whereas theory B says that N1 isn’t sufficient on its own and that brain region N2 needs to be active as well. And suppose we run some experiments and find that participants report C when both N1 and N2 are active but not when only N1 is. Does this prove that theory A is wrong and theory B right? No. It might be that N1 is sufficient for C, but that N2 is needed to enable us to report it. The same problem will arise if we try to test for nonverbal indications of C. Again, how do we tell which brain states are necessary for the conscious state itself and which are necessary for producing the behavioural indications of it? Since there is no way of directly testing for subjective properties, we can never definitively rule out any theory.

In short, so long as we focus on phenomenal consciousness, we’re never going to have decisive tests of our theories. The moral I draw is that shouldn’t focus on phenomenal consciousness. In fact, I believe that we do not have phenomenal consciousness; it’s a kind of introspective illusion, which reflects the limited access we have to our own mental processes. (I call this view ‘illusionism.’) The real task is to explain our intuitions about phenomenal consciousness — why we think we possess it.

As regards the theories currently being tested, I am very sceptical of IIT. It is intended as a theory of phenomenal consciousness, so the worries I’ve just mentioned apply, but even as theory of that, IIT is implausible. All kinds of things can have a rich informational structure in the relevant sense, so the theory has the consequence that inanimate objects can be phenomenally conscious. Even a blank wall could be.

I am much more sympathetic to Global Workspace theory, though I think it should be construed as a theory of access consciousness — of the awareness of information in a functional sense — rather than phenomenal consciousness. Moreover, it needs to be supplemented with some account of why we think we have phenomenal consciousness.

As for what I’d like to see next: Unsurprisingly, I’d like to see the project test illusionist theories of consciousness, which focus on explaining our intuitions about phenomenal consciousness. These do not face the problems I’ve mentioned, and they offer a promising line of research. It’s early days yet, but such theories are being developed. A good example is the Action Schema Theory proposed by the Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano and his colleagues.

The bottom line, then, is that the funding for experimental work is welcome and the data gathered will be useful, but the project is unlikely to settle anything until we have a better conception of exactly what it is we are trying to explain.

Posted in Blog, Consciousness, Mind.

One Comment

  1. I think you’re underappreciating the type of information that current and future tools in neuroscience can provide. Through interventions these tools give us casual information, not merely correlation. By Casually manipulating some brain area x it might be possible to produce specific sensations in subjects.

    There is actually some evidence gained by interventions on human patients during brain surgery. They poke that, you feel this, they poke this you feel that. Seems like a promising start.

    You’re right that functional imaging, the workhorse of cognitive neuroscience, provides mostly correlational information by showing which brain areas are activated during reports about conscious states. But that does not mean that nothing more than correlation could be attained using other tools.

    I agree with you also about the challenging problem of dissociating between the brain areas responsible for one’s conscious state versus one’s behavioral response. But two thoughts here. First, why are we not applying the same line of thought to other people reports about their own conscious state? Everyone to himself has a “private” feeling but the concept of qualia seems to be built from report about conscious states not from these ineffable feelings. This might support your view (I guess) because it suggests that qualia might be the result of the mechanism underlying behavioral report.

    Second, I might be dead-wrong here, but I don’t think we can be in a conscious state without information about that state being, at least partially, accessible to the agent for a behavioral report about that state. So I wonder to what extent it makes methodological sense to examine sensations independently of behavioral reports.

    Anyway love the blog!

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