Theories of Consciousness

As psychology and neuroscience progress, theory rapidly expands in its capacity to model and predict mental phenomena, but while practical for the field of medical treatment and instructive as we attempt to make our knowledge of the world and our place in it more profound, this growth in mechanistic explanations has only deepened the mystery surrounding interiors of consciousness.  Philosophy has termed components of this internal domain ‘qualia’, the perceptual elements or qualitative contents of experience as contrasted with conventionally physical matter, and they have proven highly intractable to rational analysis, even the rigorous empiricism of science.  Why is the brown color of a table brown and not simply a light wave, why is thought not merely synapsing neurons and nothing more, what is this supramaterial substance of consciousness that scientific instruments seem unable to detect and to which all our mechanistic theorizing has traditionally been incapable of adding, even when individuals can report these occurrences to each other so casually that we do not even have to think about them in the majority of circumstances?  Scientific understanding of mechanistic particles and parts seems difficult to reconcile with intuitions about our own minds, and it ordinarily makes hardly any difference at all, truly a strange situation.

Analysis has approached this theoretical paradox from various angles.  The treatment that currently predominates is the physicalist model, which claims the mind can be exhaustively explicated by scientific procedures operating in the context of a knowledge of the physical world.  Whatever first person experience is, it will be subsumed someday by materialistic theory, whatever this matter turns out to be, becoming functionally though perhaps not pragmatically obsolete, subjected to causal explanations based solely on theoretical and technological data, as if the brain is a machine or computer shrouded in mystery, the definitive principles of which are still to be revealed.  This is the most rhetorically prevalent tact: science discovers that specific kinds of neuron firing correlate with a phenomenon like emotion, so emotions are essentially neurons firing in some way that will soon be further described.  It has never made much headway in philosophy, as this discipline wants to get to the bottom of everything rather than making preemptive assumptions or propagandistic claims, though philosophy’s speculative rationations cannot really match the clout of scientific modeling with its surpassing practicality.

Two contemporary approaches to qualia suggested by philosophers are strong and weak supervenience.  Strong supervenience claims that subjectivity-based descriptions and physicalist science provide equivalent definitions of the mind, so that materialism will never antiquate its rival.  “I feel sad” will never be less valid, accurate or certain than “neurons of the frontal lobe have synapsed” or something similarly mechanistic.  Weak supervenience proposes there are mental phenomena that cannot be explained by physicalist science because of either the observational complications of experimenting with cognition or the possibility that mind is an entirely different sphere of causality with its own natural laws, so our theories of qualitative consciousness will never be matched or exceeded by mechanistic theories, which would be something like mental health counseling replaced with or superseded by neuroscience.

An older proposal reverses the orientation of matter to mind, with the material world being content of a spiritually aware cosmos of much greater though mysterious scale, perhaps with our relatively narrow perception existing in the mind of God.  This is a common view of many ancient mysticisms and traditional strains of religion; it was elaborated in some depth by George Berkeley, an influential 17th century Irish philosopher, and continually surfaces in all kinds of ruminations on consciousness.  By contrast, behaviorism propounds the opposite kind of idea, that asserting anything at all about a realm of mind and its supposedly distinct operations is unnecessary for explanatory purposes, with research on overt behavior providing all the knowledge we need to understand and predict human action.  In this framework, any concepts of mind itself, as its own causal domain, are subsidiary and possibly dispensable in relation to theories of the conditioning operative upon organisms.  

A newer theoretical approach is computational modeling, which is based on the principle that activity of the brain exists in its characteristic forms to fulfill particular functions, and these recurring tasks can be simulated in different mediums such as powerful computer programs, enabling researchers to assemble features of cognition without understanding microscopic matter and biochemical processes down to the last detail, something that may very well be impossible without huge unforeseen advances.  We may not be able to fabricate an actual brain in total, but computers can perhaps approximate many brain states studied in research settings, like those concurrent with specific kinds of thought or fear response, holding much technological promise.  

A further research trajectory concerns itself with mental phenomena that have not been documented in any substantial way up to this point, such as telepathy, synchronicity, all kinds of paranormal perceptions and experiences, but which ignite widespread interest and have allegedly been glimpsed in enough fringe investigations to deserve attention from science.  It seems that verifying and theorizing in this largely untapped field of examination could potentially revolutionize our concepts of mind, matter and evolution.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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