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Consciousness. Background to the Current Debate


What can the sciences of the mind—the so-called cognitive sciences—tell us about ourselves? This question is as important to researchers and students of the cognitive sciences as it is to all of us. The cognitive sciences have affected modern society tremendously. Over the past 50 years, they have painted a new picture of ourselves, based on principles of information processing. This picture is the scientific background against which psychologists diagnose and treat patients, educational programs are designed, children are reared, decisions are made in politics and economics, and we view ourselves as humans.

Before cognitive science, there was the science of behaviorism and humans were understood through principles of behavioral conditioning, as were all other animals. Conscious mental life was largely ignored. Founding behaviorist John B. Watson (1878-1958) claimed he could not find consciousness in the test tube of his science (Watson and McDougall 1928, p. 27). He saw no scientific evidence for consciousness.

As consciousness was ignored, so were humans. Behavioral psychologists told parents to ignore their crying children to not reinforce unwanted behavior. Homosexuals were ignored and told they exhibited “deviant behavior,” substitutable with “normal behavior” through aversion therapy using either electroconvulsive shocks, insulin injections, or both. Those with spiritual inclinations were often ignored as being irrational—as irrational as those who believed there actually was such a thing as consciousness.

A devastating effect of behaviorism was the gray picture conveyed of human- ity—as devoid of inner creativity, freedom, higher consciousness, and spirituality. The science of behaviorism held humans to be conditioned environmental products. This is how Watson viewed developmental psychology:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them

up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of © Springer International Publishing AG 2017

A. Hedman, Consciousness from a Broad Perspective, Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality 6, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52975-2_1

specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (Watson 1924, p. 82)

Watson argued everyone could eventually be conditioned into being well- behaved citizens. There was as little room for freedom and creativity in Watson’s test tube as there was for consciousness. Throughout the 1950s, behaviorist psychology continued with the so-called radical behaviorism of Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990), who, like Watson, saw the behavior of humans as, for all practical purposes, a product of environmental conditioning.

Despite Skinner’s continued influence, a cognitive revolution emerged in the 1960s. Researchers urged us to take minds seriously again. Some had paid lip service to behaviorism to survive academically. It became clear that behaviorism had failed, and the computer revolution of the 1960s suggested the brain was more than a switching station, as behaviorists had suggested. It looked as if the brain operated on the same information-processing principles as the emerging “electronic brains.” The computer’s very existence refuted behaviorism. Behaviorists had argued there could be no objective study of mental life. Now mental life (cognition) was deemed to be information processing in the computational biology of the brain or other information-processing machines. Minds could now be thought of analogously to computer programs and studied objectively as such. With time, increasingly complex and novel versions of information processing emerged. However, since the launch of the information-processing model, puzzling questions for cognitive science have remained.

One question is that regarding the nature of consciousness. While the cognitive sciences have embraced this question, many believe we are far from a solution to the problem of consciousness. This begs the more general question regarding the state of the cognitive sciences. Are they doing as well as we think? After all, consciousness is not just an important feature of our minds—it is the feature without which nothing matters. Without consciousness, we are zombies.

For now, let us forget about cognitive science and make an initial naive inquiry into consciousness. What was it like at time zero of your consciousness—the time when it emerged? Was there such a moment, or was it a gradual awakening? I cannot recall how or when it happened. We had no strong identities; our life stories had just begun. I had a name, but I didn’t know it or any other labels. Supposedly, my conscious awareness had a brain-dictated structure, but I had little or no cultural background for shaping perception. Imagine such a state of minimal preconception.

Consciousness was no mystery; it was reality, what we were, our existence— there was no separation between us and the rest of the universe, between the per- ceiver and the perceived. We lacked the conceptual sophistication to formulate the notion of a mystery. With time, most of us have pondered the mystery of consciousness. Fundamentally, our concepts make it possible for us to perceive consciousness as a mystery. Concepts allow us to make sense of the world. It takes a conceptual mind to see consciousness as a mystery—a mind trying to understand how the world works and how we fit in.

Our conceptual mind has demystified many previous enigmas, such as what living organisms are composed of, how their characteristics are transmitted from one generation to the next, and what matter is made of. Looking at the history of science, the list of mystery-shattering breakthroughs is long. Science has demystified—and continues to demystify—our world. Yet, to many, the mystery of consciousness remains untouched.

Can the conceptual mind understand consciousness? To answer this question, we first examine how the Western tradition has characterized the mind. Western thinking at large, with its conceptual apparatus, has traditionally viewed the mind as utterly different from matter—a view called dualism, dating back at least to the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) and precisely formulated by the French mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). According to Descartes, mind and matter occupy separate planes of existence. However, dualism makes unintelligible how mind and matter could interact. There can be no interaction between utterly different entities because there is no articulated common ground or medium through which such interaction can transpire. A dualist cannot say brains cause consciousness or mental life.

Some researchers believe consciousness is part of physical reality, but we lack the ability to understand how. Researchers holding this view are referred to as mys- terians. Why should we expect answers to all questions? In the big scheme of the universe, we are goldfish in bowls with limited views. We are not omniscient gods. Others believe consciousness is subject to scientific analysis, like other biological phenomena, such as genetic inheritance, photosynthesis, and metabolism.

How much is known about consciousness from a scientific perspective? Subjectively, we know what being conscious means. You and I know what it is like to have breakfast, watch a beautiful sunset, or move through the events of an ordinary day. There is nothing we have more intimate knowledge of than our consciousness. However, in the cognitive sciences, there is no agreed upon definition of consciousness. Anesthesiologists and other medical specialists have no surefire way of telling conscious brains from those that are comatose or otherwise unconscious. There have been cases when patients on life support have heard doctors discussing whether to “pull the plug” or not, and others when patients have been conscious during operations—nobody knew about it until afterward.

Although the field of consciousness research is full of question marks, neuroscience has made progress on understanding the brain. Here are some things neuroscience tells us:

  • • There are two types of common brain cells: glia and neurons.
  • • The brain has roughly 100 billion neurons.
  • • For each neuron, there are several glial cells.
  • • A neuron typically has thousands of connections.
  • • Neurons communicate using molecules called neurotransmitters and/or electricity.
  • • Glia communicate using neurotransmitters and other means such as calcium waves.
  • • There are hundreds of kinds of neurotransmitters.
  • • The brain has a functional organization with partly localized areas for—among other capacities—attention, language, memory, and emotions.
  • • The brain also works holistically beyond localized areas.
  • • The brain is plastic and generates new neurons (in certain areas) and new connections throughout our lives. Connections can move, and their properties change dynamically. If brain damage occurs, the brain typically adapts to compensate for the damage.
  • • Neural plasticity and generation make the capacities of learning and memory possible.

Brain science has come a long way since Aristotle claimed the brain was for cooling blood. The fact, however, that neuroscience hasn’t solved the mystery of consciousness has led philosophers to develop alternative perspectives on mind and consciousness. Philosopher Alva Noe suggests neuroscientists are lost:

It is sometimes said that the neuroscience of consciousness is in its infancy. But that’s not quite right, as it suggests that progress will take care of itself: it’s just a matter of time and the normal process of maturation. A better image might be that of inexperienced hikers out on the trails without any clear idea where they are: they are lost and don’t even know it! (Noe 2009, p. xii)

In this book, we critically examine philosophical views on consciousness research to see what modern brain science could learn from philosophy and vice versa. Let us begin by tracing the history of the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and examining neuroscience fundamentals to help us gain a better understanding of key issues in the research on consciousness.

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