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Externalism and Consciousness. Where Is Consciousness?

Where is consciousness? In the brain, of course! Where else? This has not always been the received opinion. Aristotle thought the brain was a cooling device. He saw the brain’s folds and blood vessels, and thought blood circulated there to cool off. But modern science tells us that those blood vessels sustain mental life. Externalist philosophers, however, question that the mind is internal to the brain as internalists maintain. Externalists suggest that the mind and the world are inseparable.

Internalism Challenged

If we ask why a creature is conscious, we expect certain kinds of answers. In the case of humans, we expect answers that have to do with brains. We are conscious because of the brain, and if someone falls into a coma, we assume something must be amiss with this organ. It is routine practice in hospitals to interfere with brain processes to render brains unconscious during surgery. It is assumed that consciousness is caused by the brain.

But it is unclear where consciousness is located. I can point to my coffee cup, but how do I point to my consciousness? Unlike my coffee cup, consciousness doesn’t seem to have a precise location. When I look out over the city of San Francisco, I don’t know how to point to my conscious experience. The best I can do is point to San Francisco and say, “there!” Philosopher Paul Grice (1913-1988) noted that our perceptual experiences are diaphanous to us (Grice 1989, p. 259): phenomenologically speaking, there’s nothing between world and consciousness.

Suppose I think, “that is the Golden Gate Bridge.” Where is this thought? It is in my conscious experience, caused by brain processes, so the thought is in my brain. But again, the thought doesn’t seem to have a location, size, or shape as do the Golden Gate Bridge or coffee cups. My coffee cup is small and cylindrical with a red exterior and white interior, but my thoughts aren’t cylindrical, and they’re not red or white. My thoughts are supposedly shapeless, colorless, and locationless.

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017 173

A. Hedman, Consciousness from a Broad Perspective, Studies in Neuroscience,

Consciousness and Spirituality 6, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52975-2_8

I don’t know what they are or where they come from; I know only what they are about.

Suppose consciousness is somehow contained within the brain. Is consciousness, then, in turn, a container? As Hume noted, the conscious mind is revealed to us not as a container but only as fleeting perceptions. When we look for the conscious mind, we simply find perceptions. Suppose someone, in contrast to Hume, claimed to have an oval consciousness, bigger than a lemon but smaller than a basketball. What would we make of it? The problem with locating consciousness in the brain seems to be—as Hume, Descartes, and later McGinn suggested—that consciousness and mental phenomena are nonspatial. Consciousness allows for experience of spatial phenomena but is not itself one.

Apart from McGinn, most contemporary philosophers have resisted a nonspatial view of consciousness. They attempt to explain consciousness and mental life as part of our spatial world. Are we victims of Cartesianism if we think consciousness is nonspatial? Descartes thought of consciousness as a separate, nonextended substance, but thinking about consciousness that way seems to put it outside the domain of science. If consciousness is not extended in space, how could it fit in with a naturalist scientific world view? Is not natural science about things that exist in space and time? Descartes’s thinking about the conscious mind led to dualism. He could not adequately fit the mind into a material universe. Is there a way out of the Cartesian dilemma?

Searle insists that conscious beliefs ought to be localized in the brain. If we knew more about the brain, perhaps we could say that when I look at the Golden Gate Bridge now and think, “that is the Golden Gate Bridge,” this thought is identical to a brain structure or process with a precise location. It might happen in the future that we could use brain scanners to read minds in terms of brain structures. In Searle’s internalist view, what makes talk about the location of consciousness and mental states seem puzzling is ignorance of how the brain works.

For internalists, consciousness and our selves are in the brain. Future doctors might save the brain of a car accident victim and put it into a new host body or keep it alive and conscious in a vat. If we think these scenarios are possible, it is because we think the brain is what causes consciousness and mental life at large. As Searle notes, we are “brains in vats” (Searle 1983, p. 230); the brain floats in cerebrospinal fluid and is fed electrochemical impulses through the “wires” of our perceptual and somatosensory systems.

Externalists are skeptical about brain transplants and brains in vats. They have an exploded view of minds as extending beyond the brain and into the world. In this chapter, we explore how externalists might approach the question of consciousness. Let us first examine how externalism evolved to make better sense of externalist theories of consciousness.

Externalism has its roots in the philosophy of language and the problem of meaning. How can we make meaningful statements about the world? How do our words refer to things in the world? Philosophers tried to tackle these questions as philosophy took a linguistic turn around the beginning of the twentieth century. German logician, mathematician, and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) developed an early and much-discussed theory of linguistic meaning.

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