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.)

guest
20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Maler
Matt Maler
4 years ago

Even if the “hard problem” is driven by quasi-religious motivations, it doesn’t mean that the philosophical study of consciousness is a useless research program. For instance, a recent volume by Carlos Montemayor and Paul Halajian called “Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention” explores the relationship between consciousness and attention that takes seriously the naturalizing intuitions Manzotti brings to the table. So, there isn’t an obvious need to be skeptical about philosophical explorations of consciousness, but perhaps what that exploration and inquiry looks like needs to be reframed.Report

Ricky
Ricky
Reply to  Matt Maler
4 years ago

Consciousness can’t be explained in a rational way. Rationalism is only a small segment of how we perceive the universe and is a human projection. Consciousness from a non dual perspective transcends neuroscience from a post rational perspective.Report

Nate S
Nate S
4 years ago

“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.”

This is really uncharitable. Chalmers is also a major player in the revival of panpsychism, which sees consciousness as a ubiquitous phenomenon, not limited solely to human brains. That sounds more Copernican to me. Maybe Manzotti has some other target in mind, but if not, it looks like a straw man.Report

JPL
JPL
4 years ago

It’s perhaps a small point, but the target of Manzotti’s criticism is the *metaphysical* status of consciousness. There are, however, debates at the intersection of epistemology and philosophy of mind over whether or not phenomenal consciousness plays an indispensable epistemic role in securing our knowledge of the external world, as well as our knowledge of our thoughts. These debates don’t give the impression of stagnating in the light of the intractability of the hard problem.Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  JPL
4 years ago

A little more about the state/activity of “phenomenal consciousness plays” please…Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
4 years ago

Thanks for posting on this, Justin. I found myself confused by Manzotti. I’ll just quickly note that I think he’s wrong to claim that 1-3 above are “assumptions” that Chalmers makes. I could certainly be wrong, but I think they’re better characterized as either implications of his view or as no part of his view at all, not assumptions upon which his view is based. What really confused me was the combination of his extended criticism of Chalmers with his impatience with the view that “neurons cause consciousness.” Though I’m far from an expert here, I wouldn’t have thought that folks who are critical of somebody like Chalmers or views like his would also try to put cog sci in its place with statements like this: “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.”

I’ll note that some of my confusion here was dispelled when I realized that I was assuming Manzotti was meant to play the role in this exchange as a representative of a standard scientific approach to consciousness. But once I looked into Manzotti a bit more, I realized that he has a pretty idiosyncratic view about consciousness and that he’s touting this view, not some standard line, in this exchange.Report

arnold
arnold
4 years ago

Seeing is phenomenon–seeing phenomena is phenomenon–even that we are here is phenomenon…

Digression: “propositional attitude” is Being…propositional attitude has never been a ‘mental state’…
…The phenomena–phenomenon) of forces for study duty effort struggle will intention…Report

Jonathon
Jonathon
4 years ago

“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.”

It’s interesting that Chalmers and co. are charged with being the borderline religious orthodoxy. I always got the sense that the orthodoxy still is (and was 20 years ago) some kind of physicalism, and that Chalmers has done quite a bit to (reasonably) shake up that orthodoxy. Otherwise, I agree with the commenters above that this account of anti-physicalists/anti-physicalist sympathizers is uncharitable. Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind (and elsewhere) very explicitly distances itself from the religious “we’re at the center of everything” attitude. He even refers to his brand of dualism as “naturalistic” (in contrast with supernatural, or scientifically intractable/miraculous dualism). Relatedly, the proposed assumption one is misleading: yes, it is thought that phenomenal properties are in some sense “invisible” from the third person objective viewpoint (and therefore to the tools of scientific instrumentation). But this does not make them entirely invisible to science; if true, it just means that we need further conceptual work (the positing of psychophysical laws, symmetries between them, etc.) to bolster the science of consciousness (which can still very much proceed). And someone else already made the excellent point that the implied panpsychism is in a strong sense not anthropomorphic at all. Finally, it seems to me that assumption three is just what Chalmers and co say about the so-called “easy problems”; with respect to the hard problems, they say just the opposite. I’m inclined against dualism, but I think that the (unorthodox) challenge to physicalism is a very welcome and necessary one. Somehow the deeper mystery–subjectively accessed, phenomenally conscious mental states–ought to be addressed. I don’t quite buy that the problem is intractable for physicalists, but the feverish attention it’s receiving–and the various arguments offered against physicalism in light of it–are at the very least useful tools for pinpointing and addressing the weak spots of any naturalistic theory of consciousness.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

“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.

The question I would like answered is: Why do some male philosophers (and others) continue to produce androcentrism?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Well that has absolutely nothing to do with either the piece or the discussion.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Are you sure about that, Daniel?

Most (if not all) feminist philosophers and theorists hold that, historically, androcentrism and dualistic thinking have been mutually constitutive of the tradition, the questions that have comprised and continue to comprise it, how these questions have been addressed, why they are asked, and who can address them. As feminist philosophers have shown, dualistic thinking is always hierarchical and exclusionary. Consider these dualisms: male-female, objectivity-subjectivity, impartiality-partiality, mind-matter, reason-emotion, rational-emotional, masculine-feminine. Feminist philosophers argues that within the terms of these dualisms (and dualistic thinking in general) the former term of each pair is venerated, elevated to a universal, and operates by, indeed achieves its identity by, excluding the latter term of each pair. Sandra Harding and other feminist epistemologists and philosophers of science have written a great deal about how dualisms operate to exclude various groups of people, the “natural” world, and so on. Androcentric language (of the sort used in the article) operates according to this sort of universalizing logic of exclusion.

So, I think the use of androcentric terms in the context of this discussion is very relevant, not least because we can ask who is setting the parameters of the discussion, both within “the piece” itself and in this thread. I find it fascinating that the authors of the article engage in the dualistic thinking that they purport to eschew.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

As feminist philosophers have shown, dualistic thinking is always hierarchical and exclusionary.
= = =

You mean, “as they have argued.” Your way of phrasing it suggests that somehow the point is conclusive, and as we should know very well, philosophy is not that sort of discipline.

I also disagree with it. And with the notion that this complaint has anything to do with the substance of the article. I stand by my original comment.Report

Phil
Phil
4 years ago

Manzotti’s claims struck me more as a rhetorical analysis of Chalmers’ views. And he may be correct about how the rhetoric of “the hard problem” ends up functioning in certain discourses. Of course, that doesn’t mean the metaphysical claim Chalmers is making is wrong.Report

Andrew Peterson
4 years ago

Chalmers has marketed his ideas extraordinarily well. Many — if not most — scientific papers that engage consciousness in leading neuroscience journals gesture toward the hard problem, but they are often without a rigorous understanding of the argument. In my experience, this causes two things: First, scientists are excited to talk to philosophers about consciousness; Second, scientist think that philosophical views about consciousness have to do, primarily, with zombies. That can be a double-edged sword for young philosophers interested in working on consciousness with scientists.Report

a
a
Reply to  Andrew Peterson
4 years ago

Great—funny….Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
4 years ago

There are some valid points here, but it is some ways quite unfair. One should not accuse Chalmers of philosophical error based on an analogy used in a TED talk, designed to engage a general audience (something he does extremely well).

Personally I’m a fan… Chalmers’s writing got me interested in the philosophy of consciousness and I’ve read quite a bit about it since. Manzotti is right however that Chalmers’s flirting with so many different positions, including some that seem rather odd, can be a bit bewildering. At the moment I like Galen Strawson on this stuff.

But basically what Chalmers has done is called BS on eliminativism, which is a great service as this is (paraphrasing G Strawson), the most stupid doctrine ever invented in human history.Report

Sasha
Sasha
4 years ago

A number of problematic presumptions in the series:

– a kind of positivism/scientism: science should be able to know everything
– a constriction of science to physicalism/materialism
– a general presumption of monism,
– conflation of the mental with the physical, which leads to some bizarre claims like “conscious experience…is a thing, a physical phenomenon”

All of these are not really proven, just as speculative as dualism or other approaches.Report

Sasha
Sasha
4 years ago

Further evidence of the scientism bias of the series:
“in the Cartesian model, we have immaterial souls, or just selves if you like, separate from the physical objects we experience and even, ultimately, from our bodies… scientifically it’s a non-starter, since it’s based on the notion that the subject cannot be an object of scientific enquiry. So we can be forgiven, I think, for paying it no further attention.”

If science cannot comprehend something with its limited methods and presumed physicalist, causally closed (etc) ontology, it is therefore justifiably rejected outright? This is pure dogmatism: with such positivistic scientism, science becomes a religion. It’s ironic that the authors are so dismissive of religion when they impose their own religious convictions.Report

arnold
arnold
4 years ago

Even “Time dilations” and quantum time “(Chronon)” are contradictions in use–counting…”Wiki”
…avoiding the phenomenom of observation and the phenomenom of time, ever occurring unknowns…Report