The Natural Kind Approach to the Science of Consciousness
My doctoral work involves defence of the claim that various aspects of consciousness ought to be conceptualised as natural kinds. The thesis aims to unpack the foundational epistemic, metaphysical and semantic commitments of this view - known as the 'natural kind approach' to consciousness (Bayne and Shea 2010, Shea 2012) - and explore its implications for the science of consciousness. In short, I think this view allows us to conceptualise the scientific study of consciousness much like the scientific study of anything else: it follows from this view that many of the foundational problems which arise within this field arise from a view of phenomenal consciousness as a non-natural kind or phenomenon, a view which the natural kind approach rejects.
I am currently developing the core paper from my doctoral research which situates the natural kind approach within the framework of conceptual engineering. This provides the natural kind approach to consciousness science with its own ontological scaffolding. It also paves the way to a new form of physicalism in the philosophy of mind: ameliorative physicalism. Please get in touch if you would like to see a copy of a draft. I have also have a short handout which explains its key ideas.
Global States of Consciousness
Is there such a thing as a level or state of consciousness? If so, what does being in a particular state of consciousness - being awake, dreaming, being in a state in which one has insight into the fact that one is dreaming - consist in? Which mental phenomena, beyond paradigmatic states such as wakefulness and dreaming, can be best explained in terms of changes to a subject's global state of consciousness?
My paper 'Aphantasia, Imagination and Dreaming' published in Philosophical Studies explores the second question with respect to the global state one occupies while dreaming. I argue that the discovery of aphantasia (an imagery disorder in which one lacks the capacity to actively generate visual imagery) raises novel explanatory considerations for the on-going philosophical and empirical debate over the nature of dreams. In particular, I argue this raises a challenge to the view that dreams involve active forms of imagination (Ichikawa 2009). A blog post which explains the key ideas can be found here.
In a new paper 'Depression as a Disorder of Consciousness' forthcoming in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, I extend some of the ideas in this literature to debates on the nature of depression within philosophy of psychiatry. In the paper I put forward and develop a novel hypothesis about the nature of depression according to which depression involves a change to a subject’s global state of consciousness. I draw out two key implications of this hypothesis for the neurobiology of depression and the emerging clinical field of psychedelic psychiatry.
Other Minds and Animal Sentience
Which entities or organisms are conscious? How can we come to know this? How do we come to have knowledge about minds (our own and those of others) more generally? In what ways is the epistemology of mental phenomena sensitive to ontological accounts of mental phenomena - and, even more broadly, different theories about nature of mental categories themselves?
I am currently working on a pair of papers which address these issues. In the first, I argue that a view of mind as being comprised of natural kinds makes way for a naturalistic epistemology of mind -- a comprehensive epistemological framework that leaves no room for 'the problem of other minds' as this is traditionally conceived in philosophy. In the second, I outline how the natural kind approach can be used to get around or dissolve a number of foundational problems in animal sentience research concerning multiple realisation. I am due to give two talks on this topic in the next year. One of these, entitled 'Natural Kinds and Animal Minds: Re-Establishing Optimism in Animal Sentience Research' will be given at the Kinds of Intelligence Conference at the University of Cambridge.
Meta-Philosophy (of Mind)
What is consciousness? How, and in what ways, does (or should) emerging work in the science of consciousness constrain philosophical answers to this question? What would a good philosophical answer to this question look like - and why?
My MPhil thesis at King's College London addresses these questions. You can find a series of short blog posts on the main ideas of this thesis here. The main idea is that the science of consciousness is itself ontologically loaded and constrains philosophical theories of consciousness more than is typically assumed. This follows, I argue, if one views philosophy of mind as a process of inference to the best explanation.
I also have a long-standing interest in the meta-philosophical project developed by Thomas Nagel in The View From Nowhere. In particular, I am keen to develop the central claim defended there - that philosophical problems arise from a tension between subjective and objective forms of understanding -- and examine what, if any, constraints this genealogical claim may place on contemporary philosophical theorising. Nagel's claim is also one which is empirically testable. This is something I plan to work on in the future.
I have broader interests in epistemology, meta-epistemology and the ethics of belief. I currently have a draft paper on meta-epistemology, on which I gave a talk last year at the London Graduate Conference.In this paper, I argue that the claim that knowledge must come first in epistemology is best explained in terms of the claim that knowledge is a natural kind. I explain the key ideas of this in series of blog posts which can be found here. Please get in touch if you would like a copy of a draft.
Within epistemology more generally, I am interested in the prospects for defending externalist accounts of justification within a knowledge-first epistemology. Within the ethics of belief, I am interested in the prospects for defending a weaker form of evidentialism - the thesis that the majority of the time one must, as a matter of personal responsibility, proportion one's beliefs to one's evidence.
I am currently in the process of developing a post-doctoral project which examines the connections between consciousness science and psychiatry and the philosophical foundations of this research. Please get in touch if you're interested. I am keen to chat about this!