More Words on Consciousness

By Listro, Stephen A. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

More Words on Consciousness


Listro, Stephen A., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


A Response to Henry D. Schlinger's "Consciousness Is Nothing But a Word"

In his article "Consciousness Is Nothing But a Word" (Vol. 13, No. 4) Henry D. Schlinger rejects two prominent attempts to solve the problem of consciousness: biological reductionism, which seeks the neural correlates of consciousness; and reification, which assumes consciousness a "thing" amenable to study. For Schlinger, consciousness is not to be found in the firing of neurons; in fact, it can't be found at all because consciousness is not a place. Rather, understanding consciousness, for Schlinger, is best approached by "identify[ing] the behaviors that occur when we use the word 'consciousness'....' (1) Schlinger's claim is, he says, born of his skepticism that consciousness can be "found" because no behavior can be found in the brain.

While I am sympathetic to Schlinger's doubts about the explanatory power of neuroreductionism, his own brand of behavioral reductionism triggers my skepticism no less. In what seems a rather hasty leap, Schlinger reduces consciousness to "talking (or signing or writing) and/or imagining to ourselves about both our external and internal environments, and our own public and private behavior." Consciousness, then, is "evidenced by your ability to talk about [a car ride, for example] both during and after." (2) Schlinger goes on to suggest that we learn to be conscious and then self-conscious as a direct result of language learning, a process he describes in terms that too often hearken to Skinner's discredited Verbal Behavior, a point to which I will return. (3) It is not, however, my intent to argue for one or another theory of language acquisition; instead, I would like to adopt Schlinger's own definition of consciousness and show how he has too narrowly applied it while too broadly applying a few specious assumptions about language.

I agree that consciousness could be characterized as a behavior insofar as anything an animal does can be so characterized. And since it's all in the doing, I prefer Steven Pinker's less behaviorist formulation regarding consciousness: "The mind is what the brain does." (4) Next to this formulation, Schlinger's definition of consciousness--"reacting to one's behavior verbally"--seems woefully narrow. (5) For the conscious brain does much more than react verbally. The psychologist Merlin Donald offers no shortage of mental behaviors that suggest "the presence of consciousness," including but not limited to the following capacities: forming a mental model of the world, perceiving complex objects, solving tricky problems, delaying a response to the environment, adapting flexibly, focusing attention selectively, updating memory, and exhibiting social intelligence, especially as it relates to theory of mind, that is, the ability to presume what a conspecific knows. (6) Many of Donald's criteria for consciousness are variously met by many non-human animals, such as rats and apes, all of which are incapable of verbal reporting, overtly or covertly.

If we disallow rats and apes from joining the "consciousness club," to borrow Donald's term, we must also disallow not only all the higher mammals but preverbal hominids as well. (7) Can Schlinger really be asserting that a dog is not conscious? That it is merely an automaton locked into a stereotyped stimulus-response existence? That early, preverbal hominids were equally mechanistic, despite evidence of their adaptability?

Schlinger puts all his chips on language: It is language that makes us conscious. Certainly, language has fundamentally changed human minds, allowing for, in linguist Derek Bickerton's words, "off-line" thinking, or the capacity to run models of the world without reacting to their constituents as we would to real-world stimulus. (8) However, it is a mistake to assume that language is a requirement of consciousness, and the consequences of making such a mistake can be serious.

Schlinger's first mistake follows from a semantic ambiguity. …

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