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Conclusions. How to Move Forward on the Problem of Consciousness

Most approaches to consciousness we have examined can be reconceptualized within the following four formats:

  • 1. Neurofunctionalism
  • 2. Envirofunctionalism
  • 3. Radicalism
  • 4. Dualism

Unfortunately, none of them succeed in accounting for consciousness. Let us examine them to see why.


As we have seen, many philosophers give functionalist accounts of consciousness. In the most general sense of functionalism, the mind is a web of entities standing in causal relations to each other. Any mental entity (e.g., belief or desire) is defined relationally—mental entities are zilch besides systems relations. Functionalists with internalist views see the relational system as being head internal, while externalists see it as also head external.

Partial functionalists, such as Chalmers and Block, recognize that functionalist accounts are only partly viable for explaining consciousness. They redefine consciousness into experiential and nonexperiential parts. Then they declare that functionalism cannot explain the experiential part. This has been received as philosophical sophistication, but consciousness without experience is as much consciousness as an emperor without clothes is dressed. Others—such as the Churchlands, Dennett, Baars, Hurley and Noe—give essentially functionalist explanations, apparently geared to explain consciousness as a full-blown phenomenon.

© 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_9

On the whole, functionalism is a popular theory of the mind. However, functionalism lacks reference to biology or any other physics. The functionalist’s causal relations are systemically fettered while being physically unfettered. But if functionalism is physically unfettered, then how does it fit in with modern neuroscience—a science about real physical biology? Neurons are commonly assumed to be relevant for explaining mind and consciousness. Brain science has been equated with neuroscience. It is part of our world picture that we think, feel, and do everything mental with neurons—our mental life and who we are is not only related to our neural universe but also contained within it. Francis Crick puts it like this: “You are nothing but a pack of neurons (Crick 1994, p. 3).” It is also part of this picture that neurons process information. These assumptions fit into an argument that seems to limit scientific understanding of consciousness to that of the functionalist:

  • (a) Brain science explanations of consciousness are neural.
  • (b) Neurons are essentially information-processing entities.
  • (c) Information processing is a functionalist notion—a systems notion that stipulates no essential physics.
  • (d) It follows that proper neural explanations are functionalist.
  • (e) Therefore, proper brain science explanations of mind and consciousness must be functionalist.

Let us call the view arrived at in point (e) neurofunctionalism. A mysterian might use neurofunctionalist explication to vindicate mysterianism in the following way:

We can discover how the brain processes information by studying neurobiology. Cognitive science and our understanding of human psychology will develop dramatically in the future as a result of such research. However, learning about neural information processing does not help us solve the mystery of consciousness. It can help us understand cognition—how we remember, plan, think, and represent the world—but not why our cognition should be steeped with experiences. If we look inside the brain, all we find are neurons standing in causal relations to each other, and it is inconceivable how such a functionalist system could explain consciousness.

The problem with this analysis is that it remains at a vague and abstract system level without acceptable biological investigation. Nevertheless, materialists and mysterians typically support neurofunctionalism. They suppose the neural brain has functional properties supporting mental life and human behavior. The difference is in how they see the potential for a neurofunctionalist to adequately explain consciousness. The materialist is usually OK with this prospect, while the mysterian sees a perplexing explanatory gap. Levine notes that if we think of C-fiber firings from a functionalist perspective, then the experience of pain is mysterious:

Unlike its functional role, the identification of the qualitative side of pain with C-fiber firing (or some property of C-fiber firing) leaves the connection between it and what we identify it with completely mysterious. (Levine 1983, p. 357)[1]

The assumption is that neurons function causally, as the functionalist holds, but that this cannot explain pain or any other experience. Consistently with neurofunctionalism, when analyzing the subjectivity inherent to having a point of view, Nagel implies that biological explanations of consciousness are neural:

It is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. (Nagel 1974, p. 439)

Nagel assumes that consciousness and point of view are neural phenomena, and he conveys the gist of his view by contraposition to functionalism:

We may call this the subjective character of experience . . . It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons. I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis. (Nagel 1974, p. 436)

Nagel wants no squabbles over neurofunctionalism as a viable approach to illuminating certain aspects of the mind. He rejects neurofunctionalism only as an adequate approach for explaining experience.

Jackson’s thought experiment in “Epiphenomenal Qualia” gains foothold in neurofunctionalism as well. In a later publication, Jackson describes what happens when Mary the scientist is let out:

The trouble for physicalism is that, after Mary sees her first ripe tomato, she will realize how impoverished her conception of the mental life of others has been ah along. She will realize that there was, all the time she was carrying out her laborious investigations into the neurophysiologies of others and into the functional roles of their internal states, something about these people she was quite unaware of. (Jackson 1986, p. 292)

Any neurofunctionalist understanding, no matter how accurate and comprehensive, will be hopeless for explaining Mary’s experience. Yet again, neurofunctionalism is seen as the unstated explanatory footing that brain science has on consciousness, and mysterianism follows on the trail of its rejection.

When McGinn tries to understand consciousness neurally in The Mysterious Flame, he finds a deep problem:

The kind of neural complexity that lies behind a conscious experience does not show up in its phenomenological character. Neurons are not the atoms from which consciousness is composed by means of lawlike combinations. If they were, there would be no serious mind- body problem, just as there is no deep problem of how parts of a chair compose a whole chair. (McGinn 1999, p. 59)

What is more, a neurofunctionalist seeking to explain consciousness in terms of a complex system of neurons standing in causal relations could not solve his deep problem:

The trouble is that neural complexity is the wrong kind of thing to explain consciousness; it is merely a matter of how many cells a given cell can causally interact with. (McGinn 1999, p. 11)

The seeming inevitability of neurofunctionalism as the explanatory mode of brain science is not a driving force only for mysterianism but also for dualism. Chalmers wonders how consciousness could arise from neural processes:

There is nothing we know about more directly than consciousness, but it is extraordinarily hard to reconcile it with everything else we know . . . How could it possibly arise from neural processes in the brain? (Chalmers 1995, p. 80)

His tacit acceptance of neurofunctionalism motivates his declaration of the hard problem:

Where the easy problems are concerned, it suffices to explain how a function is performed, and to do this it suffices to specify an appropriate neural or computational mechanism. But where the hard problem is concerned, explaining cognitive and behavioral functions always leaves a further open question: why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? (Chalmers 2010, p. xiv)

Unable to answer this last question, Chalmers adopts dualism: consciousness is not a neurobiological phenomenon—not even a physical phenomenon.

Mysterians and dualists might be right: consciousness may not be neurally explicable. In any event, consciousness is incomprehensible in the model of neurofunctionalism, but that science cannot explain consciousness hardly follows. We live in an age of failing neurofunctionalism, and one may wonder how we got here. The problem is not merely with functionalism but also with biological scope.

  • [1] For our purposes, we can replace “C-fiber firing” with “neural processes.
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