Outline of a General Methodology for

Consciousness Research

 

(appears in Anthropology and Philosophy 3(2), 1999, 43-56)

 

Michael V. Antony

Department of Philosophy

University of Haifa

Haifa 31905, Israel

E-mail: antony@research.haifa.ac.il

 

Abstract.  In spite of the enormous interdisciplinary interest in consciousness these days, sorely lacking are general methodologies in terms of which individual research efforts across disciplines can be seen as contributing to a common end.  In the paper I outline such a methodology.  The central idea is that empirically studying our conception of consciousness—what we have in mind when we think about consciousness—can lead to progress on consciousness itself.  The paper clarifies and motivates that idea.

 

Keywords.  cognitive science, concept, conception, consciousness, eliminativism, meaning, methodology, psychological limitations, unconscious

 

After a century in which relatively little attention has been paid to the study of consciousness, we are now in the midst of a tremendous renewal of interest in the topic.  Approaches to the subject are highly varied.  Across the contributing disciplines—psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, physics, computer science, biology, anthropology,  religion, and more—researchers are attempting in various ways to get a handle on the phenomenon, ranging from developing cognitivist models to exploring quantum process in microtubules to defending the logical possibility of absent qualia to practicing meditation.[1]  In considering the situation, however, one is quickly struck by the absence of any general, overarching methodologies in terms of which such varied research efforts can be seen as contributing to the same end—not to mention general methodologies that show some promise of leading to progress.

 

            In this paper I attempt to contribute toward rectifying that situation, to some small degree at least.  I characterize and defend a methodology for studying consciousness that is general enough to subsume a wide range of research projects across disciplines.  The basic idea of the methodology is to study our conception or “picture” of consciousness—how we think about consciousness—in order to make progress on consciousness itself.  My intention is not to present this as the best or only general methodology for studying consciousness; just one with a reasonable chance of leading us forward.  In the sections that follow I explain the methodology so as to clarify what is being proposed, and then offer some defense of the proposal.  §§1-3 deal respectively with what is meant by ‘consciousness’, ‘our conception of consciousness’, and ‘progress on consciousness’; and §4 tries to make plausible the claim that studying our conception of consciousness can lead to progress on consciousness.  Some loose ends are tied up in §5.

 

1. ‘Consciousness’

 

The proposal of the methodology is that studying our conception of consciousness can lead to progress on consciousness itself.  As a first step toward making sense of that claim, it is important to have some idea of what is meant by ‘consciousness’, so as to appreciate both what the methodology is intended to help us make progress on, and also which conception I am suggesting ought to be studied (since ‘consciousness’ is employed in referring to the conception).  As it happens, I believe that there is a single, broad pretheoretical sense of the term that most researchers of consciousness employ.  Since that belief is controversial, and the issue of the meaning(s) of ‘consciousness’, I think, generates considerable confusion in the literature, I shall spend a bit of time on this preliminary matter.

 

To get an idea of why I think there is a single sense of ‘consciousness’ used across disciplines, and also what that sense is, consider the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS), a journal with which many readers will be familiar.  JCS publishes articles from a wide range of perspectives—from cognitive science, physics, and analytic philosophy, to Yoga metaphysics, mysticism, and transpersonal psychology.  JCS does not, however, publish on just anything: one finds no articles on spark plug technology or fly fishing, for example.  Why not?  Part of the reason, surely, is that the topics on which JCS publishes, in contrast with those of spark plugs and fishing, are deemed by the editors to be about or relevant to consciousness.  Well, that use of the term expresses the single, broad sense I have in mind.

           

            But is there really a single sense there?  Are there not, rather, many different senses of ‘consciousness’ that contributors to JCS employ?  Put aside those questions for the moment and consider whether the term has a single meaning in JCS’s name.  The alternative is that the term there is ambiguous, and simultaneously expresses its various senses—as might the word ‘bank’ in the name of an offbeat journal about financial institutions and rivers’ edges.  But that seems wrong.  Articles in JCS, to be sure, express widely differing beliefs and theories about both consciousness and our concept of consciousness (how it is to be defined, analyzed, etc.), but these are all matters over which individuals can argue, agree or disagree.  In contrast, agreement or disagreement between bankers and (say) geologists about banks (where each understands the term in his or her own proprietary sense) is impossible, since agreement or disagreement demands a shared subject matter.  So arguably there is a single sense of ‘consciousness’ expressed in JCS’s title, a general, pretheoretical sense that supports the multifarious controversy and argument in the literature.

 

Suppose, then, one grants that there is a shared, general sense of ‘consciousness’.  Might there also be different senses of the term?  Well, outside of the consciousness literature, either in current everyday usage, or from the term’s history, there clearly are different senses.  According to current, non-theoretical usage the term can refer to wakefulness, knowledge, a kind of social anxiety (feeling “self-conscious”), etc.  And, historically, one was said to be conscious to another if the two shared knowledge.[2]  These are different senses of the term, but they are not what consciousness researchers intend.[3]  What about within the consciousness literature?  I think that for the most part different senses are not used there.  While I cannot adequately defend that claim here, I would suggest that, typically, when one suspects that different senses of ‘consciousness’ are in play, what in fact is the case is just that there are contrasting theories or beliefs about consciousness, or our concept of consciousness.  Some think consciousness can be modeled in terms of a “global workspace” (Baars 1988); that practicing Yoga can lead to experiences of “pure consciousness” (Rao 1998, p. 321); that ‘[t]he concept of consciousness is a hybrid or...mongrel concept [that]...connotes a number of different concepts’, such as “phenomenal consciousness” and “access-consciousness” (Block 1995).  However it is far from obvious that different senses of ‘consciousness’ are involved here.  Rather, what seems to be involved is a view on how consciousness can be modeled, a belief that it has a pure form, a theoretical claim that the concept of consciousness has a certain sort of semantic complexity.[4]

 

So what is this shared, general sense of ‘consciousness’?  As I see it, there are two circumstances in which I would be under an authorial obligation to convey my meaning: (1) where a non-negligible number of readers do not understand the relevant sense of the term; and (2) where a non-negligible number of readers understand the sense, but do not know whether it is that sense that I mean or some other.  Individuals in the first category must learn a new word-meaning, acquire a concept, gain competence with ‘consciousness’ in the relevant sense .  I offer no instruction, however, since I believe the number of such individuals is negligible.  (Any such individuals should just learn the word by reading from the consciousness literature, talking to people, etc.)  Regarding individuals of the second sort, it is even less likely that there are any.  Is there really much chance that there are readers who understand perfectly well the general sense of ‘consciousness’ I have in mind, but think I may mean something else like being awake, or knowledge?  Hardly.  But then there is no need to specify my intended sense.

           

            Many will dislike my response.  But why?  The reason, I suggest, is that what is wanted is not a specification of which sense of ‘consciousness’ I mean, but rather some (quasi-) theoretical account of that sense—a (partial) definition, analysis, etc.  I imagine it would do, for example, if I were to say that the sense is closely related to notions like subjective or phenomenal experience, awareness, qualitative character, it being “like something” to be conscious (Nagel 1974), and so on.  I find many of those notions highly suggestive (albeit less than clear), and I believe that exploring them and their relations to our notion of consciousness is important.  However I see no reason for taking a stand on those matters at the start of any inquiry about consciousness.  More importantly, doing so runs counter to the methodology I wish to propose—which, as we shall see, involves empirically investigating our conception of consciousness in order to make progress on consciousness.  Doing that demands that we not lay down theoretically constraining a priori pronouncements about our conception at the start.  A priori reflection about our conception is to be treated as a valuable source of hypotheses about our conception, but not more.

 

To sum up:  It is important to know what is meant by ‘consciousness’ in this paper, both to know what the methodology is for, and to know which conception I am claiming should be studied.  However I said that anyone reading this in all likelihood already knows my meaning.  So why this section on terminology?  The main reason is that there is a good deal of confusion on these issues in the literature, with the somewhat odd result that while most use ‘consciousness’ in the same broad sense, many do not believe they do.  However the methodology requires a certain degree of explicit awareness of this shared, general sense of ‘consciousness’ (in whatever way one can be aware of meanings), and also of the fact that there is this general sense.  A second reason for the section has been to emphasize the importance for the methodology of not committing oneself at the start to a priori proposals about the shared sense of ‘consciousness’.

 

2. Our conception of consciousness

 

I turn now to our conception of consciousness, since it is by studying that, I claim, that progress can be made on consciousness.  I implied above that our conception of consciousness is related to how we think about consciousness, which suggests that I wish to interpret ‘conception’ psychologically.  Indeed I do.  Specifically, I take our conception of consciousness—or CC, as I shall call it—to be a mental kind falling within the domain of cognitive science, a representational structure in people’s heads many of the details of which are in all likelihood unconscious.[5]  What CC is like is thus an empirical question, one in principle no different from (or at least highly similar to) questions about the nature of other concepts, conceptual structures, etc. routinely studied in cognitive science.  Since cognitive science is a multidisciplinary enterprise, and CC is a cognitive scientific kind, the project of pursuing the methodology proposed in this paper is also a multidisciplinary one.

 

            It was proposed in §1 that the term ‘consciousness’ is used among researchers of consciousness with a single, shared meaning.  CC can be viewed as the internal psychological conception underlying our understanding of that meaning.  The semantic content of CC can be treated for all intents and purposes as identical to the meaning of ‘consciousness’—which is why ‘consciousness’ can be used to refer to CC.  Viewing CC as the mental structure underlying our shared understanding of ‘consciousness’ rests on an assumption commonly made in cognitive science—that intuitive, folk-psychological standards for judging an individual to be a competent user of a term suffice for ascribing to that individual an internal concept or conception the intentional content of which is identical to the term’s meaning.  To illustrate: where a psychologist is studying the concept bird, if a subject is judged by everyday standards to be a competent user of the term ‘bird’, that normally suffices (i.e., it provides a defeasible reason) for taking the subject to possess the concept bird, construed as an internal representational structure.  Similarly, competence with ‘consciousness’ suffices for attributing CC—which is why CC can be viewed as the psychological structure underlying our general, shared understanding of ‘consciousness’.  Now while it is acknowledged that there will be individual differences across subjects regarding the precise features of their internal representations, it is assumed that such differences can be abstracted away from.  The idea, presumably, is that if that assumption turns out to be unwarranted in a given instance, that is likely to eventually reveal itself in the course of investigation.

 

            A few words on my choice of the word ‘conception’.  I view CC as a complex internal structure.  The complexity has both a formal or syntactic side, and also a semantic side; that is, the internal structure has parts, and its meaning also has parts, or ‘elements’ as I shall say.  Since the word ‘conception’, to my mind at least, suggests complexity more readily than does ‘concept’, I adopt the former.  Nothing turns on that, however, and I often use ‘conception’ and ‘concept’ interchangeably.  CC is complex because it represents consciousness as having several different aspects or properties, perhaps along the lines of the following: (1) CC represent consciousness as involving something like phenomenal or qualitative content; (2) as containing, moreover, indefinitely many qualitatively distinct contents; (3) such contents are conceived as in some sense “unified” or “bound”; (4) CC points to something like a subject, self, “point of view,” etc.; (5) CC interacts with our conception of time in complex and subtle ways; and so forth.  In short, our picture of the conscious mind is highly complex, containing several conceptual elements.  Studying CC will involve discovering what those conceptual elements are, how they are interrelated, and so on.

 

3. Progress on consciousness

 

I hope it is now tolerably clear what is meant by ‘studying our conception of consciousness’.  In the next section I shall argue that studying CC can lead to progress on consciousness itself.  That argument, however, requires a way of construing what progress on consciousness is, so it can be shown that exploring CC leads to it.  Since at this stage, on my view, we have next to no idea what form progress on consciousness will take, our understanding of ‘progress on consciousness’ should be sufficiently general so as to allow for a wide range of possible outcomes.  In this section, accordingly, I survey a number of forms that progress on consciousness might take, so as to arrive at a general characterization of such progress.

 

Suppose one were to suggest that progress on consciousness amounts simply to working toward a true and complete theory of consciousness.  That assumes that consciousness exists.  In my view, however, the possibility should be left open that eliminativism is true, that CC is illusory and lacks reference.  I shall say more below about why I think that, but for now I just point out that although it can be hard to understand what it could even mean to say that consciousness does not exist, or that CC is illusory,[6] our grasp of what it means to say that consciousness exists and that CC reflects the truth about consciousness is not much firmer.[7]  At bottom I think it must be admitted that the entire affair is extraordinarily confusing, and so it would seem most prudent to remain open to the possibility that eliminativism is true, along with the possibility that we might come to understand more clearly how it could be true.  So perhaps we should take progress on consciousness to be this: approaching the truth about consciousness, whatever that truth may be—including the possibility that there is no such thing.

 

So far we are allowing for two possibilities: one on which consciousness exists and the other on which it does not.  Considering the matter now from a more epistemological perspective, to approach the truth about consciousness is to approach knowledge of  it.  Here, however, the possibility of principled limitations in humans’ abilities to arrive at such knowledge must be noted.  If consciousness exists, we may be unable to arrive at full knowledge of its nature, due to our being psychologically limited or constrained in various ways.[8]  And if it does not exist, we may be unable to fully escape the grip of the illusion that it does, or understand the nature of the illusion.  In such cases, complete knowledge of the above two possibilities would be impossible, but some degree of partial understanding might be obtainable.  I shall say a bit below about why the possibility of such psychological limitations should be treated seriously.  Assuming it is treated seriously, however, progress amounts to approaching whatever degree of knowledge of the truth about consciousness is humanly possible; and, ideally, also knowledge of any relevant limitations we may possess.  If consciousness exists, call the best theory of consciousness that humans can in principle achieve ‘TC’.  If it does not exist, call the best possible theoretical understanding of our illusion ‘TI’.  Progress on consciousness thus becomes: approaching TC if consciousness exists, and TI if it does not.

           

            TC and TI are the two possible endpoints of consciousness research, relativized to human intellectual capacities.  Our starting point is CC.  Just as the details of TC and TI can vary depending on human cognitive limitations, so can CC vary with respect to how veridical it is.  Logically, CC could range from being entirely false and lacking in reference (eliminativism) to being a perfectly accurate and complete representation of consciousness.  Between those two unlikely extremes are countless possibilities according to which CC gets some things right about consciousness, some wrong, addresses certain aspects of consciousness, is silent on others, and so on.  So CC can be veridical to various degrees.  (That too will be addressed further presently.)  Now assuming consciousness exists, the theoretical “distance” to TC will vary depending on how veridical CC is.  (As CC’s veridicality increases, distance to TC decreases.)  And if consciousness does not exist, and TI is our goal, the difficulty of reaching TI can also vary depending on how “bad,” confused, etc. CC is.  So CC’s degree of veridicality is also a factor in determining the different forms progress on consciousness might take.

           

            We have now covered the main possibilities.  We start with CC, which is veridical to some degree or other, we know not which, and we work toward TC or TI, we know not which.  “Progress on consciousness” must take some such form.  In the next section I try to show that regardless of which form it is, there is reason to think that studying CC can help us achieve it.  First, however, I want to say a few words on why one should not reject out of hand the possibilities that CC is not entirely veridical, that eliminativism is true, and that we are unable to fully understanding consciousness if it exists and our illusion if it does not.

 

I assume it is clear enough if consciousness exists that CC is not complete, that there are truths about consciousness CC does not express.  Certainly it does not do so consciously,[9] for if it did we would consciously know all there is to know about consciousness, and we would not be puzzled.  It is nearly as ridiculous to suppose that anything we do not know consciously about consciousness we know unconsciously.  That would entail, among other things, that unconsciously represented in our brains is all we need to solve the mind-body problem.  So CC is not complete.  It is also likely, however, that much of how CC represents consciousness, either consciously or unconsciously, is false.  Think of the myriad difficulties in which one so easily gets enmeshed when one theorizes about consciousness.  For good reason Dennett (1978) likens consciousness to quicksilver: from a clear and robust picture of the conscious mind, we take a few short steps (in virtually any direction!) to get a theoretical grip on the matter, and the clarity swiftly vanishes, leaving us deep in confusion and puzzlement.  Now that could be the result of a mistaken and even incoherent conception; and I think that suffices for taking seriously the (epistemological) possibility that CC may be mistaken in several respects, and perhaps even so entangled that it could not refer to anything, thus making eliminativism true.  On the issue of cognitive limits, we can add that trying to make sense of consciousness often has the feel of endlessly circling in a maze—which could be a sign of intellectual limits.  Finally, if eliminativism is true, the mere power of the illusion alone, I think, should suffice for our treating seriously the possibility that we may be incapable of escaping it or fully understanding its nature.  I emphasize that my intention here is not to argue that CC is radically false, confused, or lacking in reference; or that we are cognitively limited; just that such possibilities should not be hastily dismissed.

 

4. How studying CC can lead to progress on consciousness

 

If eliminativism is true, it seems reasonable that studying CC could help us better understand the situation—i.e. how it could be that consciousness does not exist, the nature of our illusion that it does, etc.  For if consciousness does not exist, all there is are our (mistaken) beliefs and thoughts about consciousness, all of which involve CC.  So CC would be a natural place to seek a deeper understanding of the matter.  Suppose however that consciousness exists.  Why should anyone think that investigating CC—the internal psychological structure by means of which we think about consciousness—might teach us something about consciousness itself?  In this section I gesture toward an answer to that question.  At the end I shall say a bit more about the eliminativism case.

 

The key point to focus on is that, in all likelihood, a significant part of CC is unconscious, inaccessible to introspection.  That follows from the fact that in all likelihood that is true of all our concepts, conceptions, and other representational structures (or most anyway).  It is a basic assumption of cognitive science that there are aspects of our concepts and other representational structures to which we have no conscious access.  The point in exploring such concepts, after all, is to make discoveries; and if that is possible they must have aspects of which we are unaware.  A scan of the cognitive science literature turns up numerous examples.  The concept literature contains controversies about the general structure of our concepts—whether they have a prototype or classical structure, involve exemplars, etc.[10]  And there are studies of specific concepts like artifact, natural kind, function, living thing, etc.[11]  Other sub-literatures within psychology, such as time perception, face perception, the psychology of music, social cognition, etc., investigate our conceptual capacities, representational structures, etc. with respect to time, human faces, music, and social situations.[12]  Turning to theoretical linguistics, it can be seen as providing, among other things, an account of our intuitive conception of a grammatical sentence.[13]  In all of these examples, unconscious, structured representations are posited in explaining our conceptual capacities.   To the extent that cognitive science is on the right track, therefore, there is every reason to think the same will hold of CC.

           

            But how, assuming consciousness exists, is the fact that there is much about CC that is unconscious supposed to help?  Pretend for the moment—what we suggested in §3 is almost certainly false—that everything CC represents about consciousness is true; that while CC may not be complete, it is accurate as far as it goes.  Then if portions of CC are unconscious and inaccessible to introspection, there will be unconsciously represented truths about consciousness itself.[14]  Now so long as (1) we do not know what all of CC’s unconscious elements represent—and there is no reason to think we do since we possess no detailed body of knowledge about consciousness—and (2) it is possible in principle to discover what those elements are by cognitive scientific research, it follows that there are as yet undiscovered truths about consciousness itself that cognitive scientific research on CC can in principle uncover!  Perhaps a great many.  Such truths might concern parts or properties of conscious experience, relations among such parts or properties, and so on.  Now we have agreed that, if consciousness exists, CC’s being perfectly accurate is highly implausible; it is far more likely to be only partly correct.  But then unless all of CC’s truths are conscious, there will still be unconscious truths waiting to be discovered.  So even if CC is not wholly accurate, it seems likely that exploring CC will lead to truths about consciousness of which we currently have no knowledge.

 

Many will be troubled by the above argument.  I discuss two possible worries.  First, one might reflect on the basic strategy of the methodology as applied to phenomena in other domains—say astrophysics or biology—and find the idea absurd.  No one would suggest, for example, that we study the creation of spiral galaxies or the mating rituals of cheetahs by studying unconscious elements in our folk conceptions of those matters—i.e. by just doing some human psychology!  The suggestion is laughable.  But then why should consciousness be different?  I think the main reason it seems absurd that we might learn anything about astrophysics or biology by studying our folk conceptions of those matters is that it is overwhelmingly likely that any unconsciously represented truths about those domains are ones that either our scientific theories already express, or are such that they follow trivially from those theories.  And that is because the sciences of those domains are well-established and advanced, with successful theories and methodologies that go well beyond any matters touched on by our folk theories.  Our unconscious representations of those domains, in other words, simply have nothing to offer.  With consciousness, on the other hand, since we possess no significant body of theoretical knowledge, it is far less likely that unconsciously represented facts about consciousness are ones of which we already have knowledge.  So it is worth trying to tap CC.

 

A second, related worry stems from the thought that cognitive scientific studies of unconscious conceptual elements, as a matter of empirical fact, do not lead to discoveries about phenomena in the conceptualized domains.  So even if we assume there are unconsciously represented features of those domains, cognitive science might seem unequipped to discover them.  The conclusion would be that nothing new can be learned about consciousness from investigating CC.  My response begins by pointing out that it is not quite correct that cognitive science reveals nothing new about conceptualized domains.  Linguistics, in uncovering how we unconsciously represent grammatical sentences tells us about grammatical sentences themselves; discoveries of how we conceive of artifacts arguably reveal something about artifacts; studies of our concept of disgust tell us about disgusting things; etc.[15]  One might object to these examples, however, since they involve cases in which the nature of the phenomena are largely determined by our concepts: the unconscious representational elements for the most part have to be right.  Are there examples, then, of discovered truths about a represented domain where the domain’s nature is not fixed by the concept under study?  I think it must be admitted that there are few, if any.  That calls for some explanation.

           

            It is easy to see why there should be few discoveries in cognitive science about conceptualized domains, where the relevant concepts do not determine the domains’ natures.  The reason is simply that psychologists typically study concepts whose domains are well understood.  Doing so ensures that researchers have a way of precisely characterizing individual differences across subjects, tracking their errors, etc.[16]  Studying concepts about whose domains we ourselves are deeply confused and lacking in basic knowledge would make the task of designing experiments all the more difficult; and psychology is hard enough as it is.  Indeed, it could be argued that the only good reason for studying such confused concepts at this early stage in the history of cognitive science would be to try to make discoveries about the represented domains themselves.  However psychologists, understandably, have not been interested in doing so; their interests have lain elsewhere.  That, at bottom, is why I think there have been no discoveries about represented domains where the concepts do not determine the domains’ natures.  Clearly, however, none of that shows that cognitive science is unequipped to make such discoveries.

           

            Well, could such discoveries be made—particularly for CC and consciousness—if the interest were there?  I do not see why not.  That is not to say it would be easy, or that we could be assured of success, or even that there are very clear ideas about how to proceed.  On the contrary, it is likely to require a lot of hard work and not a bit of creative genius.  However, assuming consciousness exists, and there are truths about consciousness unconsciously represented in CC, we should in principle be able to uncover them—or at least some of them.  Doing so, moreover, could lead to conceptual breakthroughs of various sorts—what many see as essential for escaping the intellectual rut we have been in for centuries regarding our thought about consciousness.  Occasionally, integrating a few new facts into a pre-existing body of knowledge is all that is needed to lead to radically new ways of viewing matters.  On a related point, newly discovered truths, or conceptual breakthroughs, might show that we are not as conceptually limited as some might have thought, simply by showing a way beyond what we now know or can conceive.  This is of course all highly speculative, for we do not know what will be found.  But since there is reason to believe new truths about consciousness will eventually be unearthed by exploring unconscious elements of CC, we can hope to learn things of considerable value.

 

So far we have spoken of truths about consciousness that are unconsciously represented in CC.  What of falsehoods, confusions, incoherent aspects of CC, etc.?  On the plausible assumption that some unconscious elements of CC are true and some are false, there will be falsehoods too.  Discovering such falsehoods could help us in approaching TC too, since they would tell us what not to include in TC.  They could also provide clues for generating hypotheses about what is true, or even for taking some needed conceptual leap.  One way of getting a sense of what might happen is to consider intellectual puzzles—“brain teasers”—that are made difficult because it is so natural to make a certain mistake.  Once one learns of the mistake, or can consider the possibility that it is a mistake, one is well on one’s way to solving the puzzle.[17]

 

The story under consideration assumes that we can identify which discovered unconscious elements of CC are true and which are false.  But can we?  I think we can, in the same way we would for any other theoretical sentences whose truth values we wish to determine.[18]  Holistic considerations about confirmation enter the picture: the truth values of sentences are not decided one by one; rather we build a story based on sentences that seem most obviously true and hard to abandon, and reject sentences that do not cohere with that basis.  We look for local sets of cohering sentences and provisionally treat them as collectively true (or false).  Contradictions indicate that at least one sentence is false, and comparison with parts of the theory to which we hold fast can suggest candidate sentences for rejection.  In this Quinean[19] spirit no sentences are sacrosanct if a more attractive overall picture can be achieved by rejecting them.  And, crucially, there is no method or algorithm for making these determinations.  But that seems to be the way of science and theory-building generally: we appeal to logic, coherence, simplicity, explanatory strength, etc.—all in the absence of explicit rules on how to proceed.  I see no reason why we should be any worse off in determining which elements of CC are true and which are false.

 

Two other ways studying unconscious elements of CC might help, assuming consciousness exists, are these: First, doing so might help us determine which conscious elements of CC are true and which are false.  For unconscious elements of CC to which particular truth values have been assigned will have repercussions for what can be said about conscious elements (since the conscious and unconscious elements must cohere).  Second, it seems vaguely conceivable that discoveries of unconscious elements of CC might aid us in better understanding certain cognitive limitations we may possess.  Granted, the idea of understanding our own psychological limits is suspect, to say the least.  However we might imagine, for example, coming to be more strongly convinced that we have such limits, or perhaps acquiring a clearer view of where the limits lie.

           

            Suppose now that eliminativism is true, that CC does not refer.  Then all thoughts stemming from CC about our conscious minds and those of others are false; or at least they are not about anything.  We are thus under some extreme and radical illusion.  And the fact that one might have trouble understanding how eliminativism could be true, we are assuming, is not enough to justify rejecting the possibility out of hand.  Now if eliminativism is true, there is no TC, no true theory of consciousness.  However it seems reasonable to suppose that under such circumstances studying CC might help us in approaching TI—in better understanding how eliminativism could be true, why it is true, what the nature of our illusion is, etc.  I can provide no detailed defense of that here; I can only offer the same rough and speculative points about how conceptual breakthroughs might be brought about (this time, however, regarding our illusion, and how to cope with it), how we might acquire clearer views of our cognitive limitations, and so on.  Fortunately, however, as was mentioned at the start of this section, if eliminativism is true and CC is generating the illusion that consciousness exists, the methodology needs no defense, since studying CC would seem to be the only possible way of making progress.

 

How might we discover that eliminativism is true, on the assumption that it is?  If we were to continually find that more and more elements of CC are false, increasingly encounter confusions and contradictions, and get insights regarding the possibility of an illusion, we might (possibly with understanding!) come to decide that there is no such thing as consciousness.  But just as there is no explicit formula for deciding which sentences of a theory are true and which are false, so too is there no formula for deciding when the kinds posited by a theory are candidates for elimination.[20]  But then there is no reason why we might not come to a decision about the existence of consciousness in the same way we do about anything else.  So there is reason to think studying CC could help us discover whether eliminativism is true.

 

5. Tying up some loose ends

 

§3 laid out various possibilities for what progress on consciousness might be, depending on whether consciousness exists, on how cognitively limited we are, and on how veridical CC is.  §4 aimed to make plausible the idea that no matter what progress on consciousness amounts to, investigating CC can point us in its direction.  It is true that the methodology depends on the viability of the cognitive scientific picture according to which there are discoverable unconscious features of our conceptions.  To the extent that cognitive science is misguided, the methodology loses its motivation.  However if the methodology is no worse off than cognitive science itself, that would make it a decent bet, particularly in light of the dearth of methodologies presently available.  I conclude that there is good reason for pursuing the methodology sketched in this paper.

 

The foregoing discussion of the methodology has been highly general.  If space permitted, it would be useful at this point to discuss potential contributions of disciplines relevant to the study of concepts, like cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, lexical semantics, AI, philosophy, cultural anthropology, etc.  Potential research projects could be described, for example, developmental studies in which children are taught to appreciate the mind-body problem or the inverted qualia examples; AI projects for building robots that display “consciousness-behavior”; cross cultural conceptual studies, etc.  Philosophy’s contribution to the study of CC could also be elaborated.  Briefly, philosophical thought experiments or “conceptual analyses” can be viewed as resulting in part from one’s internal conceptual structures.  What philosophers say, accordingly, can serve as a source of hypotheses about those internal structures.  Armchair reflection about consciousness can thus provide clues about unconscious features of CC much in the same way that intuitive grammaticality judgments can be treated as data to be accounted for by theories of internal grammars in linguistics.

 

What about TC or TI?  How are we supposed to get from studying CC to whichever of those is true?  It should come as no surprise that I think there is no very definite answer to that question.  One might start, however, by noting that in the empirical disciplines mentioned above, there is already a good deal of research on or relevant to consciousness itself (assuming it exists).  Certainly that is the intended aim of such research, although much of it can also be interpreted as relevant to CC.  Such research is thus aimed at developing TC.  Some examples are the literatures on conscious versus unconscious perception, implicit memory and learning, attention, Baars’s (1988) global workspace model, etc.[21]  Now it is obviously no part of the methodology suggested in this paper that such research projects should be discontinued.  Quite the contrary.  It is just that, in addition, researchers should take up CC itself, and stick with it for the long haul.  Moreover, those attempting to study consciousness directly should look to emerging theories of CC for clues.   If the above considerations are on the right track, doing so is likely to help in approaching TC or TI.

 

I end with this note.  So long as cognitive science is not thoroughly misguided, there is nothing to lose in following the methodology suggested in this paper.  At the very least we will get a valuable piece of psychology about how we conceptualize some of the deepest aspects of our nature.  As I have tried to show, however, there is reason to think, or at least hope, that we will get a good deal more.

 

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[1] For some examples, see respectively Baars (1988), Hameroff and Penrose (1996), Chalmers (1996), Shear and Jevning (1999).

[2]  See the first entry for ‘conscious’ in The Oxford English Dictionary (1971, p. 522).

[3] That, however, does not stop theorists from feeling the need to state that they do not have such senses in mind.  This, I think, should strike one as at least mildly puzzling.

[4] Two possible exceptions to my claim that ‘consciousness’ has a single sense in the literature are: (1) contexts in which it is stipulated that ‘consciousness’ will have some favored theoretical meaning; and (2) a use of ‘consciousness’ that refers (roughly) to the relation between the “I” or “self” and experiential contents.  (Experiential contents, on this usage, are distinct from consciousness; they are what consciousness is conscious of.)  (1) can be ignored since stipulative definitions typically are introduced just for ease of expression, and remain in force only for the duration of the discussion.  And while (2) does point to a different sense—a narrower one—it is quite rare these days; and in any case it can easily be accommodated into the standard, broader use.  For some century-old examples of (2) see Brentano (1995), Moore (1903), and James (1996).

[5] Two points: First, ‘cognitive science’, ‘representational structure’, and the like, are to be construed here very liberally: any interpretations of those terms that make sense of the cognitive psychological literature on concepts (see note 10) are acceptable.  Second, in saying that representational structures are in people’s heads I do not mean to be taking a stand on the “externalism” debate, i.e., on whether intentional contents are individuated individualistically (see Putnam 1975 and Burge 1979).

[6] Cf. Chalmers (1996, p. xii).

[7] Consider the sorts of issues raised in Chalmers’ (1996) discussion of “the paradox of phenomenal judgment.”

[8] See, e.g., McGinn (1989).

[9] In speaking of CC ‘consciously expressing’ truths, ‘consciously representing’ features of consciousness, and the like, I have in mind truths or features that can be consciously entertained.

[10] For an aging but still useful overview see Smith and Medin (1981).  See also Smith (1989) and Smith (1995).

[11] See, e.g., Keil (1989) and Carey (1985).

[12] On time perception, see e.g. Friedman (1990); on face perception, Bruce (1988) and Bruce and Young (1998); on musical cognition, Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983) and Krumhansl (1990); and on social cognition, Fiske (1991).

[13] See, e.g., Chomsky (1975, 1980).

[14] Actually, that follows only if some of CC’s unconscious elements represent aspects of consciousness.  For conceivably they could represent just syntactic or structural features of CC, how CC is processed, etc.  But there is no reason to believe that CC’s unconscious elements are so restricted.

[15] On linguistics, see e.g. Chomsky (1975, 1980); on artifacts, Keil (1989) and Bloom (1996); and on disgust, Rozin et al. (1993).

[16] Two examples are probabilistic reasoning where probability theory is the standard (see, e.g., Kahneman et al. 1982); and folk physics where physics is the standard (see McClosky 1983).

[17] A well-known example involves nine dots arranged in three rows of three (forming a square with a dot in the middle).  The task is to connect all of the dots using straight lines only and without lifting your pen.  Typically people mistakenly assume that the lines must remain within the square’s boundaries, but it is recognizing that they can be extended beyond them that points to the solution.

[18] For present purposes we can treat CC as comprising a “folk theory” of consciousness, and so as consisting of theoretical “sentences.” Cf. Churchland (1981).

[19] See, e.g., Quine (1953).

[20] Compare Ramsey et al. (1990) and Stich (1996).

[21] On unconscious perception, implicit memory, implicit learning, and attention, respectively, see e.g. Merikle (1998), Schacter (1987, 1998), Reber (1993), and Pashler (1998).