Rethinking Consciousness. Fragmented Views
In chapter “Consciousness as a Modem Mystery”, we considered how mysterians see consciousness as an enigma—one we are unlikely to crack. They ponder how consciousness could belong in the physical world: the explanatory gap. It is unthinkable to mysterians how brain processes could give us consciousness. McGinn sees us as cognitively closed off from understanding consciousness. In his view, the universe has many properties—some we can understand, others we cannot. Consciousness is a feature we cannot understand. McGinn and other mysterians see consciousness research as potentially futile. Is it so? Are we stuck?
Correlation and Causation
Research on neural correlates of consciousness aims to further our understanding of key brain processes involved in consciousness. Why couldn’t neuroscience first achieve a detailed correlational understanding of consciousness and then a causal understanding? A neuroscientist, such as Ben in our example in chapter “Consciousness as a Modern Mystery”, might win the Nobel Prize for a causal theory of consciousness, but many mysterians would not accept any causal explanation whatsoever, no matter if Ben could fulfill all standard scientific requirements for a sound and valid causal theory. Any appeal to causally emergent system features remains unconvincing to the mysterians. It may well be that consciousness is a higher-level system feature, but how does that work? The mysterians would still find an explanatory gap between the brain and consciousness.
What form would an adequate explanation of consciousness take, if not a standard causal one? For McGinn, consciousness is a nonspatial phenomenon and the explanation would be nonspatial, beyond human understanding. For Nagel, it would be a general theory of consciousness involving point of view, but we cannot exit our consciousness with its point of view to experience other forms of consciousness. These are two examples of how mysterians point to the limits of human understanding
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as a barrier to solving the problem of consciousness. But suppose the mysterians have misunderstood the problem. Perhaps we are not thinking about consciousness in the right way.
Some skeptical philosophers urge us to rethink consciousness to make progress. These philosophers aim to dissolve the problem of consciousness as conceptual confusion. They claim that traditional research on consciousness is based on false commonsense understandings. Let us examine some results from neuroscience that go against our commonsense understanding of consciousness.