Crick and mind over natter

June 14, 1996

One theory of consciousness rules supreme, Tony Durham reports, while readers reply to one scientist's views.

Francis Crick warns that if we are not careful with our approaches to consciousness, it will "become unfashionable again". Because philosophers have not managed to solve the problem, "there is no reason to suppose they will do it now". The implication is that scientists stand a better chance "through detailed neurological, neuro-anatomical experiments" and through getting down to a level of the nervous system where "types of nerve cells in the brain can be turned on and off". Admittedly Crick thinks some tasks are left for philosophers: to show scientists "where (their) ideas are incoherent".

The idea that the problem of consciousness is to be solved by experiment into nerve cells, leaves the most important question unanswered. It can be put in terms of the idea that there is something it is like to be conscious. If there is something that it is like to be a conscious creature, then there is something that it is like for that creature. The what it is like to be conscious, or the subjective properties of consciousness, fall outside the compass of a neuroscientist's view of the world. The reason for this is that every conscious phenomenon is connected with a particular point of view - with a subject. If neurological facts are about nerve cells, then subjective facts are about subjectivity. By "subjective" I mean pertaining to a conscious creature with a particular point of view, or to a self-conscious subject with a first-person point of view. Science will never capture the phenomenology of subjectivity, though it can demystify the intentional object of subjectivity.

Because facts about consciousness are subjective, they cannot be captured by a scientific theory, which cannot be a theory about the first-person point of view. If scientism is to be defended in this area, then consciousness itself must be given a scientific account. But when we examine its subjective character such a result is impossible because any scientific account will inevitably abandon the subjective point of view. Given such a view is essentially connected with consciousness, any scientific account will inevitably abandon consciousness itself. Neuroscientific theories of consciousness are, therefore, of necessity inadequate. Subjective facts about consciousness cannot be explained by, nor identified with, neurological or quantum facts.

Andrea Christofidou is lecturer in philosophy, Worcester College, Oxford.

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