Consciousness Is Nothing but a Word

By Schlinger, Henry D. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Consciousness Is Nothing but a Word


Schlinger, Henry D., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN 1991, DANIEL DENNETT PUBLISHED HIS tome, Consciousness Explained. (1) Yet, ten years later he penned an article titled "Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?" (2) If he had to ask the question, the answer seems obvious. English-speaking philosophers and psychologists have been trying to understand consciousness at least since John Locke introduced the word into the English language in the 17th century. But despite the best efforts of those who've thrown their hats into the ring, we haven't made much progress. Obviously, a different approach is needed.

Why We Aren't Explaining Consciousness Yet

In my view, we aren't explaining consciousness for at least two reasons. First, we are trying to reduce the problem to brain processes. For the past decade or so, many have argued that the brain gives rise to consciousness. Some have set their sights on finding its so-called neural correlates, trying to explain consciousness, as the late Francis Crick described it, in terms of the "interactions of nerve cells ... and the molecules associated with them." Referring to consciousness as "the major unsolved problem in biology," Crick famously observed: "'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." (3)

"No more than"? Your joys, sorrows, memories, ambitions and sense of personal identity and free will are more than the behavior of your nerve cells, just as a Seurat painting is more than the thousands of points of paint on the canvas. They are also your behavior and the activity of your peripheral nervous system all in a rich and fluid context with a long and immensely complex personal history. Crick is obviously not alone in believing that reductionism will solve the problem of consciousness. Philosopher David Chalmers wrote, "The search for neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs) is arguably the cornerstone in the recent resurgence of the science of consciousness." (4) And sophisticated technologies seem to offer hope for such beliefs.

I, for one, am skeptical. Here's why.

Before we search for the neural correlates of consciousness we need to know what consciousness is, including how and why we become conscious. Even then consciousness won't be found in the brain--no behavior will be. We need to be cautious about searching for the location of behavioral traits in the brain, what psychologist William Uttal has called "the new phrenology." (5) In the quest to understand consciousness, the work of neuroscientists will be important, but it will be only a piece of the larger scientific puzzle. Neuroreductionism alone is not the answer to the problem of consciousness, or any behavioral phenomenon.

To put it bluntly, we can understand consciousness at its most important level--that of behavior--without any knowledge of neural correlates. That's not to say that such knowledge won't clarify the brain's role in mediating the behaviors. But the ultimate explanations are to be found in the evolutionary and individual learning histories that shaped the behaviors--not in the brain.

The Consciousness Muddle

A second reason we have not yet explained consciousness is that we continue to reify it and operate in the absence of any scientific definition. Consider the following summary of a recent book on consciousness:

   Through this analysis, the first and most obvious observation is
   that consciousness appears as a volumetric spatial void, containing
   colored objects and surfaces. This reveals that the representation
   in the brain takes the form of an explicit volumetric spatial model
   of external reality. Therefore, the world we see around us is not
   the real world itself, but merely a miniature virtual-reality
   replica of that world in an internal representation. (6)

No wonder Daniel Dennett said, "With consciousness . …

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