Visions of a healthier state of mind

February 10, 1995

Psychologists staked their claim in the consciousness debate this week when they held a press briefing at the Royal Society entitled "Consciousness: its place in contemporary science". Theirs was the only science represented.

The meeting was led by Jeffrey Gray, of the Institute of Psychiatry, who rejected the role of philosophers, neuroscientists and artificial intelligence experts in elucidating consciousness.

He told a packed room that "it is now generally agreed that the problem is a scientific one somehow to be solved by the normal processes of scientific discovery, not a pseudo-problem or a philosophical problem.

"There are within science a very large number, particularly in the neurosciences, who think that if there is a problem of consciousness it's simply a problem of gathering data. There's a parallel point of view, particularly in the artificial intelligence community. They believe that we'll be able to get to the same end point by studying input/output relationships."

The most sophisticated thinkers put both ideas together, but they were still wrong, he told the meeting, held in conjunction with the Association of British Science Writers. Professor Gray said that he and others had been labelled "mysterians" for their belief that consciousness was a qualitatively different problem yet to be solved.

The name was conferred by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who believes he has already revealed the essentials in his book Consciousness Explained.

Max Velmans, of Goldsmiths College, London, also on the panel, described surprising discoveries showing that human activities can often happen without consciousness being necessary. For example, people can remember words although they hear them unconciously because they are concentrating on something else. Other studies suggest that we can take in the meaning of a complex sentence before we are conscious that we understand it. But Dr Velmans was depressed at the elusiveness of consciousness: "It's far more complicated than we dreamed many years ago."

Then Dr Velmans dropped his bombshell: "What we need is a restoration in science of what we might call the first-person perspective." Scientists are too addicted to objectivity and the third person, he said. "We have ignored the fact that central to the very process of doing science is the conscious being. We do have access to that information because it goes on in ourselves."

"But wouldn't that mean you were opening up psychology and science to premonitions and visions of the Virgin Mary?" asked a member of the audience.

"Well . . . yes," admitted most of the panel. "Peer review would have to be hard-nosed", said Professor Gray.

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