Woodstock of the mind

Journal of Consciousness Studies
February 12, 1999

While Ray Monk is fascinated by the problem of consciousness, he asks - is it really a scientific problem?

A few decades ago, to raise "the problem of consciousness" was to reveal an inadequate training in one's discipline. Properly educated philosophers analysed language, well-trained psychologists investigated behaviour, and computer scientists discussed intelligence. The word consciousness was avoided, except by those inspired by eastern religions (higher consciousness, pure consciousness, etc) and political activists (false consciousness, feminist consciousness, consciousness raising, etc). Now, both the word and the problem are back with a vengeance. Today one cannot get away from books with titles such as Consciousness Explained , The Conscious Mind , The Problem of Consciousness and so on. We lack a scientific theory of consciousness, and this, it seems widely to be held, is the great scandal of our scientific age. And so, hardly a year goes by without a new and bold theory being put forward, often in a semi-popular blockbusting book that stands a fair chance of becoming a bestseller. The theories come from far and wide: physicists, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, literary theorists and philosophers all compete in what is becoming a large, confusing, over-crowded, but still potentially lucrative market.

In this somewhat bizarre situation there is clearly a need - or a demand - for an interdisciplinary journal devoted to the subject, and in its first five years the Journal of Consciousness Studies has done an admirable job of meeting that need. Though focused on just one topic, it has the widest range of contributors of any academic journal I have read. In any one issue, one might read an account of Buddhist meditation techniques by a theologian, an explanation of quantum superposition by a physicist and a history of phenomenology by a philosopher. Despite this variety, however, the journal often gives the impression of being the in-house magazine for a society or club, the members of which happen to be drawn from all walks of academic life. The same names recur again and again: David Chalmers, Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, Bernard Baars.

To a large extent, this is explained by the journal's close association with the series of extraordinary conferences on consciousness held in Tucson, Arizona. The three conferences, all entitled "Toward a science of consciousness", have played a major role in defining and shaping the field, and have established the reputations of a number of its leading figures. The first, held in 1994, coincided with the founding of the Journal of Consciousness Studies , and, ever since, the journal has been content to have its agenda set by whatever happens at Tucson. Its first issue contained a report of the first Tucson conference, describing it as "a seminal event for the future of consciousness studies" and carried an editorial referring to it as a "landmark".

How seriously the editors took these judgements of the importance of "Tucson 1" is evident throughout subsequent issues, which were dominated by the ideas discussed there. Among these were Francis Crick's astonishing hypothesis that "you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells"; and Roger Penrose's call for a new "quantum theory of consciousness". The first issue of the journal began with interviews with these two distinguished scientists - clearly intended to set the tone of what was to follow. Indicative of the nature of the journal, however, is the fact that, whereas Crick's investigations into the neural correlates of perceptual states were hardly referred to again, Penrose's more speculative search for hitherto undiscovered "non-computable" physical phenomena to account for consciousness became the subject of a great number of articles. Despite their enthusiastic eclecticism and their manifest intention to maintain an even-handed approach to hotly contested theories, the editors of this journal display an evident preference for theories of consciousness, such as Penrose's, which necessitate a radical restructuring of the foundations of physical science.

The motivations behind this preference are made explicit in the "Editors' introduction" to the first issue and are apparent also in the many articles published in the journal by the editors themselves. Among their number are a clergyman, a theologian and at least two writers with an interest in mysticism and eastern religions. It is clear that they believe that the "problem of consciousness" will - or should - drive western scientists into the arms of a broadly religious point of view. "What is needed," the "Editors' introduction" states, is a replacement of the naive, common sense of the "Aristotelian-Cartesian" tradition with "one employing systematic methodologies for examining the subjective phenomena of consciousness". Fortunately, they add, we do not need to develop such methodologies anew, since they lie ready to hand in the eastern religions, which "for a variety of reasons have traditionally given more attention to the problem".

In his contribution to the first issue, executive editor Robert K. C. Forman, elaborates somewhat on this line of thought."`We hope that The Journal of Consciousness Studies ," he writes, "serves as a home and a stimulus for serious exploration of a wide variety of the new, purportedly non-reductionist theories of consciousness and also the full panoply of holistic, ecological, metaphysical, eastern-oriented, transpersonal theories and the like. My personal interest in such matters has grown out of my experience with and studies of mysticism."

In a later issue, another editor, Jonathan Shear, contributes an article that argues that the "empirical gap" between objective science and subjective phenomena might be closed by a consideration of the "pure self", allegedly reached through meditation techniques taught by eastern religions.

For the most part, these editorial suggestions that western science, in its attempts to construct a theory of consciousness, seek inspiration from eastern mysticism, are ignored by the contributions from scientists themselves. However, perhaps surprisingly, Penrose and Hameroff make a gesture in that direction in their article "Conscious events as orchestrated space-time selections", the central claim of which is that moments of consciousness might be identified with quantum events taking place in the cytoskeletal microtubules of the brain's neurons. More specifically, the model envisages superposed states developing in tubulins, the sub-unit proteins of microtubules. These superpositions then collapse at various points, producing a conscious event. Sequences of these collapses give rise to a "stream of consciousness", which is thus identified with the orchestrated "space-time selections" of the tubulins. As yet, there is little evidence for this theory, but Penrose and Hameroff, perhaps clutching at straws, cite "information gathered from the Buddha-l newsnet" to the effect that "trained meditators describe 'flickerings' in their experience of reality" and that "Buddhist texts portray consciousness as 'momentary collections of mental phenomena', and as 'distinct, unconnected and impermanent moments that perish as soon as they arise'." Citing other sources that give figures for the frequency of these "moments of experience", Penrose and Hameroff calculate that they are roughly consistent with the frequencies of "orchestrated collapses" of tubulin superpositions posited by their theory.

One is reminded here of David Chalmers's gibe: "The attractiveness of quantum theories of consciousness may stem from a law of minimisation of mystery: consciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics is mysterious, so maybe the two mysteries have a common source." Perhaps by bringing the mystery of mystic experience to bear on the issue, Penrose and Hameroff are seeking to extend still further the applications of this "law".

Chalmers himself is evidently the favourite son, both of the Tucson conferences and of the Journal of Consciousness Studies . No fewer than six issues are given up to discussions of the "hard problem" of consciousness as formulated in Chalmers's contribution to Tucson I, his now-famous paper, "Facing up to the problem of consciousness". As Chalmers puts it: "The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does." Rejecting all actual and possible attempts to answer this question by identifying physical correlates to experiential states, Chalmers argues that the basic framework of natural science ought to be changed to accommodate a "dual-aspect" notion of "information" as a fundamental feature of nature. Information has both a physical and a phenomenal aspect, neither of which can be reduced to the other. In the science Chalmers envisages, consciousness will find a place, not by being identified with any physical events, but through an analysis of the phenomenal aspects of "information" of which the world is made.

Of the responses to this provocative suggestion collected in six special issues devoted to it, the most robustly dismissive is that of D. C. Dennett (who, at the second Tucson conference, confessed to feeling like a "policeman at Woodstock"). Chalmers's argument for making "information" a basic concept of natural science, Dennett says, is like the discredited philosophy of "vitalism", the view that life could never be understood in physical terms, or even cutism, "the proposal that since some things are just plain cute, and other things are not cute at all - you can just see it, however hard it is to describe or explain - we had better postulate cuteness as a fundamental property of physics alongside mass, charge and space-time." Only slightly more respectful than Dennett is Patricia Churchland, who dismisses Chalmers's central question as "The Hornswoggle Problem".

That the irreverence of Dennett and Churchland sits uneasily with the editorial line of this journal is emphasised in a report on the second Tucson conference in 1996 by two of the journal's editors. Dennett, the editors say, presented his case "with customary charm and panache", but "failed to convince", while Churchland's talk is rather tartly described as a "cabaret show" that failed to address the serious scientific issues. The highlight of the conference in the editors' opinion "was the panel on Phenomenology and Experiential Approaches". Accordingly, the journal at this point takes a decidedly phenomenological turn, pride of place being given to Francisco Varela's paper, "Neurophenomenology: a methodological remedy for the hard problem". In this, Varela denies that any extra ingredient from nature can be found to close the gap between matter and consciousness and suggests as an alternative a study of Asian traditions.

This emphasis on phenomenology persists through to the third Tucson conference of 1998, the opening session of which, "Models of the self", provides the theme for two more special issues of the journal. The keynote talk on that occasion was an extraordinarily interesting and deeply serious paper by Galen Strawson called "The self", in which Strawson argued that the "problem of the self" requires "a more phenomenological starting point" than that customarily adopted by analytic philosophers. Accordingly, Strawson devotes part of the paper to an intriguing description of his own inner life: "I have no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. I have little interest in my own past and little concern for the future. My poor personal memory rarely impinges on my present consciousness. Even when I am interested in my past, I'm not interested in it specifically in so far as it is mine. The one striking exception to this, in my case, used to be - but no longer is - memory of recent embarrassment." The point of this excursion into introspection seems to be to capture the phenomenon, so to speak, of consciousness. "When I am alone and thinking," Strawson writes, "I find that my fundamental experience of consciousness is one of repeated returns into consciousness from a state of complete, if momentary, unconsciousness." On the basis of this and related observations, Strawson offers what he calls a "pearl view" of the self, according to which "many mental selves exist, one at a time and one after another, like pearls on a string".

It seems to me that it is pointless to argue for or against such a view. One can, as I do, find it suggestive and even illuminating, but it is as little a theory of consciousness as Keats's Lamia is a theory of snakes. And perhaps in this lies an important lesson that is systematically ignored in the movement represented by the Tucson conferences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies : not every addition to our understanding takes the form of a scientific theory. Penrose's speculations about the quantum events in microtubules, Chalmers's proposals for restructuring physical science, and the borrowing of methodologies from phenomenology, mysticism and eastern techniques of meditation may (though I doubt it) combine to produce a major step towards a science of consciousness. But, even if it did, is it really a science of consciousness that we want? Suppose, for example, that Penrose's speculations turned out to be correct and that we discovered that conscious moments were, after all, "orchestrated self-collapses" of superposed tubulins, would we, in knowing that, understand ourselves any better? Does not the phenomenological turn endorsed by the editors and adopted by philosophers such as Strawson suggest that a quite different craving is being expressed here, a craving that will be satisfied, if at all, not by an explanation of consciousness but by subtle, refined and insightful descriptions of it?

Here, I think, lie the roots of a feeling expressed repeatedly by Chalmers and other contributors to this journal - the feeling that, when consciousness is explained by physical science, it is not consciousness that is explained but something else. I think this feeling would remain even if science were to undergo the radical transformation advocated by Chalmers, Penrose and the editors of this journal.

That science has no answer to the problem of consciousness is easily explained: it is not a scientific problem.

Ray Monk is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Southampton.

Journal of Consciousness Studies: Controversies in Science and the Humanities (four times a year)

Editor - J. A. Goguen and Robert K. C. Forman
ISBN - ISSN 1355 8250
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Price - £28.00 (students); £37.00 (individuals); £60.00 (institutions)
Pages - -

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