The State of the Study of Consciousness


What’s the current state of the philosophical study of consciousness? In The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks (Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan) and Riccardo Manzotti (Associate Professor in Theoretical Philosophy, IULM University, Milan) continue their series of public philosophy and science of mind conversations in “The Hardening of Consciousness.”

Parks asks Manzotti:

In our last conversation, you accused the status quo of being an orthodoxy that does not bear examination and that borders on a religious faith upheld by a collective act of wishful thinking. Can you justify these accusations?

Manzotti, as part of his answer, points to David Chalmers (NYU), “the man who more than any other has determined the way in which we think about consciousness for the last twenty years.” He complains:

Chalmers laid out the terms of the consciousness debate in a way that simultaneously excited everyone while more or less guaranteeing that no progress would be made.

Manzotti says three assumptions underlie the current “stalemate”:

1) Consciousness is invisible to scientific instrumentation; hence,
2) Consciousness is a special phenomenon governed by its own special laws; hence,
3) It will take a great deal of time and money to fathom these special laws, but if you trust us scientists we will get there in the end.

He adds:

The idea that conditions everything else is that we can and must distinguish between consciousness and the physical world… Cartesianism in modern terms.

Manzotti thinks neuroscience doesn’t help with this particular program:

No one has more admiration than myself for the extraordinary research done to explore the brain and its immensely complex activities. Extremely sophisticated tools have been developed and used with great ingenuity and patience. However, the essential underlying idea here is simply that neurons produce consciousness. It’s as crude as that. We are simply asking the brain to do what the soul once did.

Of course, what neuroscience has actually shown is how neurons consume chemicals, absorb other chemicals and release them, produce and fire off electrical charges, and so on. In many situations such activities occur in strict relation to certain experiences we have. But then, so do the activities of many other cells in the body. And so do the external things we experience.

As for what is at stake in this debate, Manzotti seems to be saying that it is fundamentally unscientific, and the way it is unscientific also explains its appeal:

Man has always liked to think of himself as being at the center of the universe, a special being. Any science that suggests he isn’t has always been resisted, from Copernicus’s demonstration that the earth moved around the sun, and on through all those discoveries that eroded Man’s claim to special status: evolution, genetics, and so on. In declaring consciousness the “hard problem,” something extraordinary, and separating it from the rest of the physical world, Chalmers and others cast the debate in an anti-Copernican frame, preserving the notion that human consciousness exists in a special and, it is always implied, superior realm. The collective hubris that derives from this is all too evident and damaging. We should get it straight once for all: there are no hard problems in nature, only natural problems. And we are part of nature.

Philosophers of mind and others who study consciousness: have Manzotti and Parks done a fair job of presenting the current state of the debate over mind to the public (at least the NYRB-reading public)? What do they get right, what do they get wrong?

Relatedly: the Minds Online open access conference is happening now.

(I had initially posted a link to the Parks – Manzotti conversation in the Heap of Links yesterday, but was convinced by a friend to post about it so that others could contribute to the discussion; I’ve removed it from the Heap.)

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