The Naturalisation of Consciousness
Updated: Feb 8, 2019
Lot’s of contemporary metaphysics must go, it seems, but is consciousness here to stay?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 10 years - or, in the analytic metaphysicians case, an underground bunker - you’ll have heard that contemporary analytic metaphysics has come under sustained attack from a certain set of naturalistically-inclined philosophers of science. EVERYTHING MUST GO [read the entirety of analytic metaphysics] is their orwellian-sounding rallying cry. Their charge? Methodological and epistemic inadequacy. Analytic metaphysics, according to these philosophers, attempts to ‘‘do the hard work of science from the ease of the armchair’’. Where science has rigorous processes of verification and confirmation to warrant acceptance of their theories, metaphysics - as it is standardly practiced in western philosophy departments - has appeals to intuitions, folk concepts, and empty aesthetic criteria (simplicity, consistency and so on), which are altogether inadequate for metaphysics’ - post-conceptual and linguistic - self confessed purpose: the discovery of systematic and general truths about the nature of the world. Accordingly, these authors maintain, the contemporary study of metaphysics should be abandoned - consigned to the intellectual waste bin along with other well meaning (but fundamentally misguided) projects - in favour of a naturalistic programme of Serious Scientific Metaphysics.
In the years since it’s launch by James Ladyman and Don Ross, much philosophical attention has been paid to the campaign against contemporary metaphysics, both in the elaboration and elucidation of it’s negative arguments (see here and here) and the extent to which, having taken these on board, the field requires replacement or naturalisation (or in more simple terms, the nature of the philosophical programme which is to replace it - see here). There is now some general agreement - although there are, of course, dissenters - that the problems raised by scientific metaphysicians are best solved via the pursuit of a ‘‘moderately naturalised’’ programme of metaphysics. Characterised by rich and constant engagement with scientific theories and contemporary empirical findings, this moderate programme purports to offer the perfect compromise: off-setting a number of the more severe epistemically-based criticisms put against traditional metaphysics (which criticise and target its lack of scientific engagement) whilst recommending an ecnumenical metaphysical programme which examines a large variety of ontological issues as they arise from and within a broad range of scientific theorising.
From my philosophy-of-mind-loving viewpoint, all of this discussion begs the following question: in the context of this debate, what is the status of metaphysical theorising about consciousness? Does this have the sort of naturalistic credentials lauded by naturalistic metaphysicians to warrant it’s viability, or is there no place for a metaphysics of mind in the era of naturalistic metaphysics? This is an important question. Apart from a recent exception, the heated discussions on naturalised metaphysics typically center around traditional (hardcore) metaphysical issues and topics - for example, those of causation, mereology and persistence - whereas the prospect of naturalising so-called ‘‘applied’’ areas of metaphysics have yet to be considered. If we take the view that the epistemological critiscms raised by Ladyman et al. constitute serious philosophical challenges to metaphysics - and I think there are good reasons for thinking that we ought to do so - they can’t be dismissed out of hand; all philosophers working on metaphysical issues - those of mind included - need to face up to them. In the immortal words of The Clash (sorry not sorry), we therefore need to ask: should consciousness stay in our naturalistic research programme - so to speak - or does it also need to go?
In the second chapter of my MPhil thesis, I propose a methodological framework for conducting research in the metaphysics of mind which is congruent with a moderately naturalistic programme of metaphysics. (Consciousness can, in my view, stay - if metaphysicians of mind are willing to undergo some methodological changes). This provides a natural progression from my previous discussion on the relationship between the philosophy and science of consciousness. There, I argued that the default - neutrality - view of the relationship between the metaphysics and science of consciousness (and the resultant methodological independence of the metaphysics of consciousness that this warrants) is not adequately justified. This framework can thus be seen as offering an alternative methodology for the metaphysics of mind which is demanded by the failure of the Neutrality Thesis, and moreover, which is harmonious with the objections I raised to the argument which supports it (namely, that this fails to account for the various ontological commitments inherent to specific scientific theories of consciousness and neuroscientific explanation).
The resultant ‘neuroscience-first’ framework I put forward builds on and combines two ideas from recent literature in the field of meta-metaphysics:
(i) the claim that metaphysics (and philosophy) is best understood in terms of Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE).
(ii) the thesis (alluded to in my previous post) that neuroscience, and science more generally, is ontologically loaded - the acceptance of which comes with a set of specific metaphysical commitments.
Let’s start with (i). According to Laurie Paul, the naturalistic challenge to analytic metaphysics made by naturalistic philosophers of science can be offset by the appeal to the methodological continuity of science and metaphysics. On Paul’s view, James Ladyman and the SM crew have it all wrong. Rather than trying to satisfy the same intellectual and explanatory aims using wildly different (and epistemically inadequate) a priori methods, metaphysicians are in fact trying to discover an altogether different set out truths about the nature of the world (those which are more general, systematic, and ontologically fundamental) using the same methodology employed when make theory choices in the fundamental sciences, namely, inference to the best explanation. There’s a lot to say here, but Paul’s view boils down to the claim that in metaphysics, as in science, theory choice proceeds via a two step methodology:
1.A posteriori step: The construction of coherent and logically consistent metaphysical theories of features of the world which fit the available data.
2.A priori step: Theory choice between competing empirically equivalent theories is made via an assessment of a theory’s overall explanatory power - that is, a cost-benefit analysis of the theoretical virtues that different theories exhibit.
How is this supposed to help the metaphysician of mind?
The proposal is as follows: if we view the metaphysics of mind as employing the methodology which Paul describes (think back to the empirically-motivated acceptance of causal closure and the subsequent a priori debate over physicalism as evidence for this claim) we now have a method for explicating the demands on metaphysical theories of consciousness with respect to science. In other words, if this view is correct, ontological theories of consciousness must meet the demands placed on metaphysical theories by undertaking step (1) of an IBE methodology. Our metaphysical theories of consciousness must be empirically equivalent**.
What is it for two theories to be empirically equivalent?
Contemporary philosophy of science provides the following answer:
A set of rival theories are empirically equivalent at time t iff they have the same class of observational consequences at t (or the same class of empirical models at t).
Such a criterion is surely necessary for establishing the empirical equivalence of competing scientific theories, but is it sufficient for securing the empirical equivalence of competing metaphysical ones? Here is where (ii) comes in. We know from extensive work in the metaphysics of science over the past twenty years that scientific theorising and explanation comes with all sorts of ontological commitments (see, here and here and here). Furthermore, in the context of the neuroscience and metaphysics of consciousness, we saw in the last post that this criterion alone (evident in the Kriegel/Chalmers discussion) wasn’t sufficient to determine equivalence with the relevant science. This brings me to my next claim: that the emergence of the field of scientific metaphysics provides us with a new means of interpreting the empirical equivalence demand on competing metaphysical theories. This can be stated as follows:
A set of rival metaphysical theories are empirically equivalent with respect to domain y at t iff (i) they are observationally equivalent at t (as above) and (ii) they are consistent, or equally compatible, with our best account of the metaphysical commitments of y at t.
Despite not discussing the metaphysics of science explicitly, Paul makes a comment which foreshadows the spirit of my suggestion:
‘‘There are places where sophisticated scientific theses will cut directly against metaphysical ones, especially if the scientific thesis in question fits with established theory or enjoys indirect empirical support. Here there is danger for the scientifically näıve metaphysician, and metaphysically informed work in general philosophy of science plays an important role in the refinement and development of metaphysical theories that involve such assumptions’’.(2012;9).
In light of the foregoing discussion, we can now set out the alternative ‘Neuroscience-First’ framework for metaphysics of mind. Simply stated, this proceeds by asking the following consecutive questions:
(1) What are the unified set of metaphysical claims or commitments emerging from careful philosophical examination of the neuroscience of consciousness?
(2) Which leading metaphysical theories of consciousness (physicalist, non-physicalist, panpsychist, identity theorist etc.) are consistent or compatible with this set of claims? (or are these instead suggestive of a single ontological picture?).
You should now (hopefully) be in a position to appreciate two things. First, why pressing standard a priori arguments - the explanatory gap, conceivability and knowledge arguments - against neuroscientific explanations isn’t going to help much here, and misses the point of my argument. To be clear: the claim is not that attention to these empirically informed metaphysical commitments will necessarily solve the hard problem (and/or provide compelling answers to its related argumentative formulations) but rather, that the scientific framework for answering the easy problems of consciousness along with the rapidly expanding empirical scientific research programme collectively place empirically motivated, epistemically prior constraints on the metaphysical space of its potential a priori solutions (see below). If metaphysics of mind is best understood in terms of IBE - and I think that most metaphysicians are mind are certainly committed to this view - completion of step (1) and satisfaction of empirical equivalence needs to come prior to and not after, the sort of step (2) a priori cost-benefit considerations of which explanatory gaps and the like are indicative of.
Second, it should also now be obvious how this alternative methodology fits naturally into (pun not intended), and meets the standard criteria of, a moderately naturalised metaphysics. Along with promising a sustained engagement with the science of consciousness and philosophy of neuroscience, it allows for the provision of a set of robust constraints (question 1) on the space of possible on ontological theories of consciousness, constraints which will change as the science progresses. In my next and final post, I’ll provide an example of how these constraints might be filled out, and show how this naturalistically kosher framework can be put into action in the metaphysics of mind.
**Skeptical of the use of IBE in science? Constructive empiricist? Praising the almighty Carnap? *ahem*. Do you think that cases of IBE in science and metaphysics are relevantly disanalogous? I’m sympathetic with some of these worries - but for now you can view the following argument conditionally: if we can justify the IBE methodology for metaphysics, what does it mean for the relation between the science and metaphysics of consciousness?