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Sunday, May 29, 2016


The main problem of consciousness is the many possible perspectives that can be taken on the consciousness question and the assumption by proponents of each of those perspectives that their perspective is the valid one and other views are either flawed or are variations of the perspective that they or their discipline takes. This attitude is pervasive and is the main obstacle frustrating progress in consciousness studies.
By arraying the main perspectives at the most general level we can gain some understanding of where the division lies. In particular, it is instructive to note why many of the scientific models of consciousness prefer as a starting point functions which are not actually subjectively conscious and proceed to study that function, in many cases never even breaking into the level where a person would actually experience the studied function consciously.
The assumption of the scientific perspectives (there are quite a few) is that consciousness evolved from simpler functions and/or forms. The alternative view that an ability to think abstractly evolved as a function and became conscious is not considered. Further, ‘consciousness’ is not distinct from the function considered to be the root of consciousness, such as perception, perception binding, problem solving, information processing and so on. If any of these or other candidates is consider to be the root of consciousness then the words become interchangeable, for instance ‘problem solving’ and ‘consciousness’.
At the other extreme are some philosophical, religious and folk models that do not require any brain functions at all.
The between world that tries to bridge these two perspectives considers such things as the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’, ‘focal’ and ‘peripheral’ consciousness, conscious and subconscious processing and so on.
But why are these perspectives so different and what is it that is actually being called ‘conscious’ and/or ‘consciousness’?
The answer becomes clearer when we consider the perspectives by which consciousness can be viewed and then relate the full set of possible perspectives back to the various disciplines that study it. It is better this way because no discipline adheres purely to one perspective or another. For instance the more rigid neuroscientific view still acknowledges subjective consciousness, the ‘Hard Problems’ or higher consciousness but assumes that basic consciousness should be described first with the more ethereal properties appended after the foundations are established. Likewise, the more subjective treatments variously acknowledge the subconscious or the role of the brain.
There are two lineages for the concept of consciousness and they are quite separate and distinct. One stems from our subjective experience of the world: that we are personally conscious, that we are aware of this fact, that we have an inner world, an imagination, a thinking ability and the curious ability to experience all of this as if ‘we’ are resident in the brain. The other stems from the observation that animals appear to be cognisant of their environment and are capable of intelligent behaviour, that is, to utilise the current environment as it presents to the senses and past experience to make informed behavioural decisions for the benefit of the organism. We consider the whole animal or human to be conscious or not conscious and not just a subset of neural processes relating to inner experiences.
If we consider where an animal is most conscious we would point to where the animal is interacting with the environment. But for the subjective case it is when the individual is sitting quietly and being undisturbed with the eyes closed.
In other words the two views are not just different but intrinsically opposite in nature.
In my book I call this basic division ‘Objective’ and ‘Subjective’ perspectives. These labels easily become tangled, for instance even though we may view an animal objectively we may still conclude that it has a subjective experience (objectively considering an animal or human’s subjective experience) and even though we are thinking about consciousness from our own experience we may deduce that other people have a similar experience (subjectively objectifying other’s subjectivity). Maybe there is a better pair of labels?
There are a number of classic philosophical analogies that liberally crossover between these basic perspectives, though it is done so implicitly (the perspectives are not explicitly declared). The philosophical zombie presents a problem as follows: if there are two identically behaving individuals, a zombie (could be an android) and a human, how can we decide, by interacting with or observing these two, if the zombie has consciousness?
This analogy makes no sense to the objective view as the zombie is interacting with the environment, is apparently thinking about its behaviour, perceiving and so on and so it must be behaving consciously. The Subjective camp notes that, ultimately, we can not even be sure that anyone else in the world has consciousness, but we assume that they do. We can not, however, trivially assume that the zombie has consciousness or even that it has a capacity for consciousness at all. In other words we do not know whether it has an inner life, whether it actually feels pain or simply responds to a pain stimulus and so on.
Once we realise these two distinct perspectives we can go on to look at the two distinct lineages and a range of other perspectives associated with each of the objective and subjective perspectives. I also note that the champions of both the objective and subjective views each try to show that the other perspective is appended to their own. This is unproductive, especially as they typically do this without ever acknowledging the existence of the other perspective.
In conclusion, by acknowledging the two perspectives and recognising that if either of these major divisions could run through to completion they would solve all there was to know about consciousness we can proceed in a more productive and less confusing manner with less misunderstanding of each others perspective.