Consciousness Studies

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Consciousness Studies

Consciousness studies is a new, rapidly evolving, highly interdisciplinary field that includes psychology, philosophy, physics, sociology, religion, dynamic systems, mathematics, computer science, neuroscience, art, biology, cognitive science, anthropology, and linguistics. In the early 1990s, most scientists considered consciousness taboo, but by the early 2000s many considered it the most important unsolved problem in science. Consciousness is also a key issue in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion. The dominant view of consciousness in the hard sciences is materialist and reductionist. This view has had important successes, but it also faces important unresolved problems. For example, biologist Francis Crick to wrote of his audience, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons" in parody of Lewis Carroll. But most people, including those in consciousness studies, and even in neuroscience, think there is much more to human life than can be seen at the level of neurons.

Notions of consciousness are important in many religions. The term God consciousness figures in the Protestant theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher and his followers, and Christ consciousness is used in some Christian and New Age religions, sometimes in a dubious way. Cosmic consciousness is important in Hinduism, especially Vedanta, and pure consciousness is important in the Buddhist school called Dzogchen in Tibetan and Maha Ati or Mahasandhi in Sanskrit. Consciousness is also a common theme in the Tantric traditions. Reports of meditation experience are taken more seriously in consciousness studies than in the hard sciences, where researchers often dismiss such data as mere subjective experience. On the other hand, due to close connections with various religions, some writers on consciousness have hidden (or not so hidden) agendas, so that caution is called for when approaching some literature on consciousness studies.

In general, the hard sciences tend to reduce consciousness to the material, while religions are more concerned with mental or spiritual aspects. This reflects the heritage of mind-body separation associated with the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes. Although there is no single dominant view of consciousness, nor even any generally accepted definition, consciousness studies has made significant progress.

Shape of the field

At of the turn of the twenty-first century, consciousness studies has a professional society, the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC); one highly interdisciplinary journal, the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS ); and three journals devoted mainly to scientific and philosophical studies, Consciousness and Cognition, Consciousness and Emotion, and Psyche, the latter being an electronic journal. JCS sponsors a popular online discussion group. Many other journals, such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences and Mind, publish articles on consciousness. The University of Arizona in Tucson hosts a research center on consciousness studies and has organized an important biannual conference series since 1994. Consciousness and Cognition and Psyche are official journals of ASSC, which also organizes a biannual conference. Well known universities offering courses on consciousness include New York University in New York City, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the University of Colorado in Boulder, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and the University of Arizona in Tuscon. Advanced degrees in consciousness studies are offered by the University of Skoevde in Sweden, Greenwich University in Australia, and Birla Institute of Technology and Science in India, among others. John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California, has a Department of Consciousness Studies, and Brunel University in London offers an MSc degree in Cognition and Consciousness. In addition, there are many specialized conferences, and the emergence of the specialized journal Consciousness and Emotion in 2000 is a sign that the field is maturing.

Issues, paradigms, and results

It is difficult to single out any small set of key issues, not only because of the rapid growth of the field, but also because each of its many paradigms defines different sets of issues as central, secondary, marginal, and meaningless. Nonetheless, the following are some issues, paradigms, and results that seem most important in the literature.

The most obvious issue is how to study consciousness. Despite the fact that the advocates of various approaches are in constant, sometimes acrimonious, dialogue, no approach has been completely discredited, except perhaps that of mediums, spiritualists, and the like. This is why the editorial policy of JCS calls for a wide diversity of views, and aims to promote dialogue among them, and why the Tucson conference follows a similarly liberal policy. As the distinguished philosopher John Searle famously noted: At our present state of the investigation of consciousness, we don't know how it works, and we need to try all kinds of different ideas. Nevertheless, journals and conferences devoted to specific aspects of consciousness studies can be valuable.

Mind and body relation. The relation between mind and body is another major issue. Are mind and body the same kind of thing, or are they different? Or perhaps the same thing but differently perceived? Monism says there is just one kind of thing, and material monism (also called physicalism) says that all things are material, while mental monism (also called idealism) says that all things are mental. The dualism associated with Descartes says that both material and mental things exist. There are many variants of these and many other positions. Philosophical interpretations of consciousness wedded to reductionist scientific approaches like neuroscience and experimental psychology tend to be material monist. The philosopher David Chalmers is a kind of dualist, who argues that in addition to matter, information is a second fundamental world constituent. The philosopher Paul Churchland is an "eliminative materialist" monist, who argues that there is really no such thing as consciousness. Searle is an "emergent materialist" monist, who argues that consciousness is a distinct level of phenomena, emerging out of lower level brain activity, which only exists when it is experienced.

It is difficult to find adherents of either dualism or mental monism among eminent scientists. The most prominent acception is the Nobel Prize winning physiologist John Eccles, who advocated a form of interaction dualism similar to that of Descartes. Bishop George Berkeley (16851753) was the last major Western philosopher to advocate mental monism. On the other hand, dualism is the most common position in Christianity, as is mental monism in South and East Asian religions. For example, the Buddhist school of Yogacara posits a form of mental monism and is considered foundational for Buddhist Tantra. Traditions in Hinduism and Taoism can also be considered mental monist.

In "Conversations with Zombies," Todd Moddy investigates an amusing development in the debate among these positions: The possibility (or impossibility) of "philosophical zombies," creatures having exactly the same physical structure as ordinary humans, but without consciousness. Metaphysical debates about basic world substances seem to contribute little to the understanding of consciousness. Reconceptualizing the two main views as the scientific and phenomenological methods, instead of reifying them as world substances, leads to more fruitful projects such as the refinement of these views and their combination in productive syntheses.

Cognitivism. A once dominant approach in decline well before the end of the twentieth century is that of early cognitive science and artificial intelligence, often called cognitivism. This paradigm's model of the mind identifies cognition with computation, and the brain as the hardware on which it runs. The lineage of cognitivism traces back to pioneering work of Norbert Wiener on cybernetics, and to the Macy Conferences, organized since 1947 by anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and others, introducing systems theory to a key cross-disciplinary group. But cognitivists often ignore these antecedents and instead cite linguist Noam Chomsky's scalding review of psychologist B. F. Skinner's 1957 book Verbal Behavior. Skinner advocated behaviorism, a psychological theory that tried to ignore internal mental states. Chomsky argued that such states are needed to process even simple syntax. Another seminal cognitivist work, Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960) by George Miller, Eugene Galanter, and Karl Pribram, proposed that human plans have the same structure as a certain simple kind of computer program. This tradition generally relies on formal logical representations of knowledge about the world. The cognitivist paradigm flourished beginning in the 1960s, partly fueled by large military funding for artificial intelligence.

Cognitivism has been much criticized. A famous early attack was Searle's Chinese room argument, which challenged the idea that a program running on a machine could be conscious. Another serious challenge came from James Gibson's work on affordances, showing that many cognitive tasks are greatly simplified by relying on information already in the world, instead of complex internal representations. Work in cognitive linguistics, as represented by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980), showed that many basic metaphors rely on innate sensory-motor schemas. The sociologist Lucy Suchman showed that human plans as actually used can have structure and execution very different from that postulated by Miller, Galanter, and Pribram.

Biologist Francisco Varela, philosopher Evan Thompson, and psychologist Eleanor Rosch (all Buddhists) used empirical evidence in The Embodied Mind (1991) to argue that cognition is necessarily embodied, rather than disembodied like a computer. They also drew on Buddhist philosophy to show how cognition is possible without a "self." This book is a brilliant synthesis of cognitive science and religion. Rodney Brooks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has built robots which demonstrate that logical representation of knowledge is not necessary for the embodied action of locomotion. The anthropologist Edwin Hutchins argued that real world cognition is often distributed over individuals, rather than localized in a single individual, one example being navigation on large ships. There is also a growing body of work, such as that by Jaak Panskeep, showing that cognition is not entirely rational and disembodied because emotion plays a central role. All these developments are deeply inconsistent with cognitivism, though the significance of the work done before 1900 was not then generally appreciated.

Phenomenology. Phenomenology is an area of philosophy with important implications for consciousness. Phenomenology seeks to ground everything in the actual experience of human beings; in other words it takes a "first person" experiential perspective, rather than "third person" scientific perspective. Important exponents include Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger considered implications of embodiment, including finitude and temporality, noting that humans are historical beings, bounded in time, space, and ability. Many of these themes also appear in the anti-cognitivist movement. Another such theme, with origins in Heidegger and especially Merleau-Ponty, but developed by Hubert Dreyfus, is the phenomenological critique of representation, which draws on human experience with routine activities to argue that representations are not necessary for embodied action. The work of Merleau-Ponty predates Gibson and Brooks, but is non-empirical, while Dreyfus makes compelling use of work by Walter Freeman connecting brain dynamics with chaos theory.

Neuroscience. The decline of cognitivism has inspired a return to naturalism, the study of cognition as it actually occurs in living human beings and, in particular, a shift towards neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Neuro-reductionism is perhaps the dominant position at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Certainly one can find neural correlates of consciousness or patterns of neural activity that correlate with various conscious experiences, such as visual perception. But it remains unclear whether such correlates can ever explain the nature of consciousness. A narrower version of this challenge is to explicate qualia, which are the qualitative aspects of consciousness, such as "how it feels" when one is angry or when one sees the blue of the sky. David Chalmers has introduced an influential distinction between the "easy" and the "hard" problems of consciousness studies:

The easy problems are those of finding neural mechanisms and explaining cognitive functions: the ability to discriminate and categorize environmental stimuli, the capacity to verbally report mental states, the difference between waking and sleeping. The hard problem is that of experience : why does all this processing give rise to an experienced inner life at all? While progress is being made on the easy problems, the hard problem remains perplexing. (p. 200)

One approach to bridging this gap is to postulate that consciousness is some form of emergent activity of the brain. A familiar example of an emergent property is the liquidity of water, which arises from a sufficiently large collection of water molecules at an appropriate temperature.

Another problem facing neuroscience is the binding problem, which is to determine how the brain integrates sensory input from different times and/or different modalities to create a coherent seeming whole. Few doubt that this problem is solvable within the neuro-reductionist paradigm, though the complete answer will likely be complex. Neuro-reductionism has been especially successful in studying perception and this success has inspired interesting speculations on consciousness. In Art and the Brain (2000), Joseph Goguen demonstrates the intriguing possibility that such research can help people understand art. Critics have complained, however, that the cultural aspects of art get short changed by neuro-reductionist analyses.

Another problem is to determine the modularity and plasticity of the brain and the mind. Studies have found brain locations associated with many mental functions, but other functions have been shown to be non-local. Recent work has demonstrated physical brain change associated with learning, even relatively late in life. There is strong support for the modularity of many unconscious perceptual processes, and for the non-modularity of many higher level conscious processes. Whether there is a language module, as claimed by Noam Chomsky, remains contentious. A growing consensus is against his anti-evolutionary view of the origin of language, in which he claims that "there is no substance to the view that human language is simply a more complex instance of something to be found elsewhere is the animal world" (1972, p. 70).

On the interface between neurophysiology and computer science is the issue of modeling neurons, networks of neurons, and ultimately, brains. In 1943 Warren McCullough and Walter Pitts introduced the first such model, in which neurons were either "on" or "off," firing or not firing. These neurons are similar to the logic gates of computers, but are far simpler than real neurons. Some key ideas introduced by psychologist Donald Hebb include the following: connections between neurons become tighter the more they are used; neurons act in groups called cell assemblies ; and cell assemblies are the basis of short term memory, but not long term memory. Although these only a rough approximation to the complex functioning of real neurons (involving numerous chemical reactions), they inspired a new generation of models having important engineering applications, such as character recognition. But because of its approximate character, many researchers prefer to call their work parallel distributed processing or connectionism, rather than neural net modeling.

Meanwhile, experimental neuroscience has uncovered even more complexities, some of which may have profound implications for consciousness. Benjamin Libet found that voluntary acts are preceded by a readiness potential (a gradual negative shift in electrical potential, as recorded at the scalp) about 550 milliseconds before the action occurs, and about 200 milliseconds before subjects recorded a conscious intent to act. This research has generated some controversy, including arguments that it implies that consciousness is constructed well after the fact, and even that consciousness may be unimportant. Mirror neurons are another significant discovery. The Italian neurophysiologist Giacomma Rizolatti found that certain cells in monkey frontal lobes respond to specific actions, not only in the subject, but also when the subject observes another monkey perform that same action. It has been suggested that this phenomenon may help explain many puzzles, such as how people learn by imitation, or how they can put themselves in the place of another in order to outsmart them should be added to this list the capacity for compassion, the ability to empathize with others. Blind sight is another intriguing phenomenon, in which, for example, a subject reports inability to see an object, but can still guess its location with reasonable accuracy (Weiskrantz). This dissociation between perception and awareness raises questions about the relation between conscious and unconscious processes.

Quantum mechanics. Physicists have not been shy to speculate about the relevance of quantum mechanics to consciousness. This is unsurprising, since the two have long been linked by the "Copenhagen interpretation" of Niels Bohr (and as augmented by John von Neumann), which says that, when an experiment is performed, the consciousness of an observer is needed to "collapse" the state probability distribution associated to the wave function down to a single state. This was always controversial, but it remains respectable despite difficulties with quantum coherence. Physicist Roger Penrose, instead of explaining quantum mechanics with consciousness, seeks to explain consciousness with quantum mechanics. The results seem stimulating but disappointing because his major conclusion is that some as yet nonexistent physics (quantum gravity) is needed. Penrose also argues against cognitivism, though he relies on a Platonist philosophy of mathematics, in which abstract mathematical objects are as real as chairs, trees, and people. David Bohm is another physicist who has written about consciousness, particularly in relation to the non-sectarian spiritual teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurthy, which helped inspire novel versions of quantum mechanics having philosophical interpretations that involve information and consciousness.

God and consciousness. Attempts to prove the objective existence of God have a long and important history. Although every such attempt has failed, the dialectic of refutation and refinement has been surprisingly productive, especially in certain areas of formal logic. This is relevant to consciousness studies because if the traditional Christian God exists in a separate realm of spirit, intervening in the material world, then dualism is true, the mind-body problem is solved, and the hard problem of consciousness takes on a very different, more theological, character. Using modern tools from information theory, William Dembski has attempted a sophisticated revival of an ancient proof that an intelligent designer is needed to account for the regularities of the universe. Dembski's work has been greeted with skepticism, and even hostility, by the scientific community, in part because his an anti-Darwinism has been embraced by fundamentalist Christians, who advocate teaching creation science in the schools, and in part because of technical difficulties in his argument.

A very different God is discussed by Anthony Freeman, motivated by the idea of treating conscious states as emergent properties of brain states. Freeman views both God and the soul as emergent from individuals and communities, claiming that this view is neutral between dualism and reductive materialist monism. He draws on work of Schleiermacher, Searle, and recent advocates of a more social approach to biology, such as Raphael Nuñez. A simpler approach than that of Dembski or Freeman may be to avoid ontological questions by placing the existence of God in the category of first person experience, rather than third person fact; one often sees this in contemporary expositions of the Buddhist tantra.

Emerging trends

Biologists are applying sociobiology and evolution to consciousness, though most results are rather speculativee.g., work about the possible co-evolution of language and consciousness. Some less speculative work is being done in ethics, as illustrated in a brilliant series of essays edited by Leonard Katz and published in 2000 in JCS.

There have been proposals to merge phenomenology and science (such as the neurophenomenology of Francisco Varela), and even proposals to reformulate science based on phenomenology. More such proposals can be expected, in part because experience provides phenomena that demand explanation, including the following aspects of consciousness: it is ineffable, open, fluid, non-local, temporally thick, and involves qualia and a sense of self. Can it be mere coincidence that similar properties are often attributed to God? Reports from experienced meditators suggest additional phenomena, such as certain states of consciousness in which there are no thoughts. Moreover, the emphasis on time in phenomenology resonates well with many issues and results in neuroscience.

Another approach, sometimes called second person, is to relate consciousness to society rather than to individuals. One example is the cultural-historical approach, in the tradition of philosophers Giambattista Vico, Wilhelm Dilthey (who built on Schleiermacher), and John Stuart Mill, and of the Russian activity theory of Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria, and others. The second person approach is also related to distributed cognition and to the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour and others. The area of sociology called ethnomethodology also seems promising. The hope of second person approaches is to transcend the problematic relationship between mind and body; debates here often parallel those in consciousness studies and emerging syntheses like the cultural psychology of Michael Cole could likely illuminate several issues in consciousness.

Moving away from the social sciences, PET and fMRI techniques will certainly continue to yield provocative results about brain function. Also, dynamical systems and chaos theories seem promising. Perhaps semiotics can also make a contribution. Ideas from ecology, feminism, and literature should also play a role. Definitely, there will be more fermentation, discussion, and progress.

See also Artificial Intelligence; Behaviorism; Copenhagen Interpretation; Emergence; Experience, Religious: Cognitive and
Neurophysiological Aspects; Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects; Mind-body Theories; Mind-brain Interaction; Monism; Neurosciences; Physicalism, Reductive and Nonreductive; Physics, Quantum


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joseph a. goguen