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  • Cecily Whiteley

On the Relation Between the Science and Philosophy of Consciousness



The problem of consciousness functions as something akin to a Highly Addictive Substance to the philosophically inclined mind. Promising rich discussion and reflection on the nature of the fundamental constituents of reality, the limits of contemporary scientific explanation, the extent and distribution of consciousness within biological organisms (and the salient moral implications thereof), the various philosophical problems raised by subjective experience - that which is ‘‘at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our existence’’ - are hard to resist for would-be philosophers. In the present academic climate, one feature of consciousness makes its’ study particularly enticing: the increasing empirical research produced in psychology and cognitive (neuro)sciences on its nature and neural basis.  Prompted by the development of the Neural Correlates of Consciousness research programme by Francis Crick and Christof Koch in early 1990s (the construction of which, it should be noted, relied on much conceptual innovation on behalf of philosophers) the science of consciousness has since exploded into an active research field. There are now many large and well attended conferences, journals, research labs and competing theoretical frameworks addressing the subject, all dedicated to its scientific advancement. Slowly but surely, the scientific study of consciousness has become a respected and established research field in its own right, one whose primary research aim - the provision of a scientific theory of consciousness - is currently considered to be one of the major research objectives for 21st century science.


Emerging fresh from my undergraduate degree (and full from a nutritious diet of naturalistic non-physicalist propaganda) I felt the lure of consciousness as a potential area of philosophical and scientific research. But I also felt puzzled. Scientific journals and popular press sites were abuzz with empirical research findings on the neural basis of consciousness, yet this rich and ever growing body of research was hardly, if ever, reflected in the vast amount of philosophical literature I was reading. In many cases, the empirical research programme was barely acknowledged. That there was a well established position in philosophical circles on the relationship between the neuroscience and metaphysics - which, by and large, amounted to the claim that the former had very little to contribute to the central ontological questions posed by consciousness - was obvious, but where were the arguments justifying it? What  philosophical conception of the science of consciousness allowed for the possibility that two philosophers could ‘take on board’ everything that the empirical sciences are telling us about consciousness and end up with two radically different positions regarding its fundamental place in nature - one endorsing the claim that consciousness is a ubiquitous feature of reality, and the other limiting the presence of consciousness to creatures with higher order representational mental states? How, in other words, are we as naturalistic philosophers of mind supposed to account for the relationship between the metaphysics and science of consciousness when constructing our theories? Given the field's maturity, any philosopher working on the metaphysics and philosophy of consciousness must face up to these issues.


In preparation for my MPhil thesis defence, I’m going to be blogging over the next few days on these questions, the answers to which constitute the central claims of my masters thesis. This will incorporate material from the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of science and meta-metaphysics. In my next post, I’ll set out the main argument for what I call the ‘neutrality view’ (mentioned above) of the relationship between the science and metaphysics of consciousness put forward by David Chalmers (and recently developed by Uriah Kriegel) and offer two objections to it. I’ll argue that the success of this argument relies on an outdated and empirically implausible view of cognitive neuroscience and it’s explanatory aims and practices. After having argued that the current methodological practices of metaphysicians of mind lack adequate justification, in the second post I’ll approach the issue from the perspective of contemporary meta-metaphysics, asking can the metaphysics of consciousness be naturalised? Here I’ll build on this discussion and related work to motivate an alternative ‘neuroscience-first’ methodology for the metaphysics of consciousness. On this account, neuroscientific explanation and its’ ontological commitments play an indispensable role in metaphysical theorising, serving as the mutual starting constraints on an empirically adequate, naturalistic metaphysics of consciousness. In my final post, I’ll consider a possible application of this framework which uses recent arguments in the metaphysics of neuroscience and mechanistic explanation to raise an objection to the view that phenomenally (conscious) properties are identical to neural ones.




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