Results in Ted Honderich's book, Actual Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 2014

18 Dec 2014

1 Disagreement in philosophy and science about what it is to be conscious, and seeming disagreement, have mainly or at least significantly been a matter of no adequate initial clarification of the subject, no single question being asked. There is vagueness, circularity etc instead. Consciousness, for a start, is taken both as one part of and as all of the mental. It is taken by one side in philosophy and science as just conscious mentality somehow understood, and by another side as both conscious and unconscious mentality. This difference issuing in disagreement or seeming disagreement, facilitated by dictionary vagueness about 'mental' and of course 'mind' or 'the mind', has at least delayed the science of consciousness. It is endemic in cognitive science. But adequate initial clarification of consciousness is possible. 

2 Neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are the sciences that most obviously also have recourse to one or more of five leading ideas of consciousness. These ideas are: (i) qualia, these being close enough to being successors to sensations, ideas, sense-data etc, (ii) what it is like to be something, maybe a bat, (iii) subjectivity in the sense of an inner entity or homunculus, (iv) intentionality or aboutness, and (v) phenomenality, which is diverse and I'd say elusive despite Ned Block's efforts. The science like the philosophy of the five leading ideas needs to begin again -- in the case of neuroscience not so much with its practice as with its attitude or orientation in that practice, its general view of it, its accompanying implicit philosophy. 

3 Psychology went astray in 19th Century Germany about introspection, taken as a kind of inner eyesight, inward seeing. Science or some philosophers inclined to science still seem to dismiss something to which they sometimes give that name. But right now you recall what happened in or with you a moment ago with respect to my uttering the words 'give that name'. You have what we can call a hold on your consciousness. Clear-headed science grants this, I assume, regularly. It grants as well, I am sure, limits on what this hold can be of, the possibility and indeed the certainty of kinds of mistake. But in our holds we have a beginning of an advance towards what is a database.

4 This is a database that turns up in philosophy as well as to some extent in science. It is linguistic and conceptual, with respect to ordinary consciousness in the primary ordinary or core sense. It is, in short, a database that recognizes or takes this consciousness as actual consciousness -- as something's being actual. This start, metaphorical or figurative, issues in what is certainly something else, a wholly literal theory or analysis of consciousness. In the initial metaphor and in progress from it, this philosophy is identical with or like some or much science. Histories of science certainly establish the fact of such progress in science. It may be that the kind of transition in question from the figurative to the literal is evident in all serious inquiry, in whatever discipline or line of life.

5 The theory or analysis, Actualism, principally explains what is actual and what it is for it to be actual.  

6 These issues are approached by way of a full and unspeculative inquiry into what it is for something to be objectively physical, what the characteristics of objective physicality are -- the objective physical world, often called the world of science. Science has a large role in this conception.

What is actual with respect to your consciousness in perception, as against any other consciousness, is a part, piece or stage of a subjective physical world, say a room, which has characteristics that are partly different counterparts of those of the objective physical world. A subjective physical world is no less spatial and otherwise real for being lawfully dependent not only on the objective physical world but also on a perceiver neurally -- and for being transient and one of a myriad of such worlds. Science itself, say physics, is full of myriad and transient items.

8 Is the idea, to be misleading by being brief, that your being perceptually conscious is a real world out there, absolutely not a world in the head -- is this different idea strange enough to call for your serious doubt, maybe more than that, maybe an inclination to set this theory aside fom science in its extraordinariness? If so, you are forgetting things. Schodingef's Cat, the stuff in interpretation of Quantum Theory, the science not only on television of 'the universe', its beginning in space and time, much more down-to-earth items, such as time iself, etc. Science is not short of what is too kindly called the extraordinary.

9 What is actual with respect to cognitive and affective consciousness is quite different from what is actual with perceptual consciousness. What is actual with perceptual consciousness is representations-with-attitudes, the attitudes having somehow to do with the true and the good -- about all of which there is much developed theory that needs large a supplementation.

10 Actualism is thus both an externalism and an internalism with respect to consciousness, and radical in its externalism. Compare the externalist theories of Putnam, Burge, Clark and Noe. Actualism is a very long way from Putnam's 'meanings ain't in the head'. It is far from Burge's idea, for example, that conscious states or some conscious states depend for their individuation on an external world. 

11 Now the second large question in Actualism. What it is for a world with respect to perceptual consciousness to be actual, to come to a fundamental proposition, is for it to be subjectively physical, to have 16 characteristics that are counterparts of characteristics of the objective physical world. 

12 What it is for representations-with-attitudes to be actual is for them to be differently subjectively physical, again in terms counterpart characteristics. That is the large supplementation to ordinary representationism mentioned above -- indeed an addition of something as essential. 

13 Actual consciousness is wholly within what science admits to what it takes to exist, its inventory of reality -- despite a general preoccupation with objecive physicality. The reality of actual consciousness also does not deprive it of the great fact of consciousness, on which the mistake of dualism depends for what large recommendation it has -- the fact that consciousness is not only real but different. While being real, it is subjective. The facts of its physicality and of is subjectivity, as you have heard, can be and are made wholly explicit.

14 The key, then, or rather the main key, is indeed that Actualism makes consciousness both real and different, each of these facts several-sided. Actualism succeeds, I propose, by not making the matter of consciousness simpler than it is. It follows Newton in letting reality speak for itself.

15 As several of the above propositions entail, it would be entirely mistaken to suppose that science can deal only with the neural correlates of consciouness, not consciousness itself. That is a fallacy that wrongly diminishes science. One other fallacy, already in the past, is the impertinent notion of Popper and Eccles that there is a self that owns a brain.

16 Actualism, for reasons additional to the perceiver-dependency with respect to subjective physical worlds, includes what is essential, a further and full explanation of the ubiquitous conviction of subjectivity with respect to consciousness. It is an explanation, more particularly of an individuality, in terms of a lawful unity of things in all of your percepual, cognitive and affective consciousness. It is as well called personal identity or the living of a life. Nothing metaphysical, nothing spooky.

17 Actualism in its several parts, particularly with subjective physical worlds, despite its clarity, gives to consciousness a uniqueness, indeed a strangeness. That is a part of the difference criterion for an adequate theory, partly got from examination of other theories of consciousness.

18 Actual consciousness, obviously, and as you have heard, is not the only subject sometimes spoken of as consciousness that can be clarified as a subject for inquiry. Another, common in science, is conscious and unconscious mentality taken together, mentioned already, the conscious part at least ill-understood. But actual consciousness arguably is the subject uniquely necessary to all such inquiry. Certainly it is necessary, for a start, to the very identification of the unconscious mentality.

19 Neuroscience, psychology and cognitive science are already advanced with respect to actual consciousness, and there is no known reason to think there are unique barriers to further progress. None at all. There is no uniquely 'hard problem' for Actualism (David Chalmers), no special mystery (Tom Nagel, Colin McGinn), no barrier of obscurity about physcality and in particular objective physicality, owed to the history of science itself (Chomsky).

20 Certainly there is the mistake of scientism: at least excessive confidence in the power of science, sometimes dismissal of anything else. There is also the mistake of philosophism. One of its saints is Wittgenstein. He should be better known than he is for the inane remark that 'no supposition seems more natural than that there is no process in the brain correlated with associating or thinking'. 

21 In Actualism there is of course no ghost in the machine, nothing traditionally spiritual of which neural states and events are only correlates. There is no mere abstractness of consciousness, as in abstract functionalism and much related cognitive science -- all of which thinking, despite its proclaimed or assumed superiority to traditional mind-body dualism, running from Descartes to Chalmers, is in fact fundamentally identical to it. Abstract functionalism is as hopeless as that dualism. There is more to be said for physical functionalism.

22 There is in science an inclination, at least a temptation, at the very least a possibility, to run together the two quite different kinds of explanation of a thing. One is of its occurrence, typically causal, sometimes called aeteological explanation. The other is of its nature, its nature now. The outstanding relevant case of this is indeed the abstract functionalism of or under cognitive science.

23 The science or the scientized philosophy of consciousness, notably the cognitive science, does make all consciousness different by making it an abstract sort of thing, related to but not identical with any of the objective physical states and events that are said to 'realize' it or to be somewhere under it. This science, as already implied to you, should therefore be regarded as in a sinking ship or rather sunk ship with what it rightly disdains, traditional non-physical dualism.  

24 There is right now what is surely a passing moment of inclination to suppose that the problem of consciousness is solved or something like solved by recourse to Quantum Theory, the interpretation of reality derived from the mathematics of the physics. Whatever is true of the mathematics, the application of it to reality really is a mess. It is such, certainly, if serious reports for and several books on Quantum Thery for non-physicists are decent. The mess should not be overlooked, as by the popular scientists who write of the wonderful mystery of it all, the engrossing weirdness, etc.

25 Do you, since your guide is a philosopher, and despite some previous remarks, wonder about what place the science of the mind and in particular the science of consciousness is given in his inquiry? Well, it has in it the inclination, resolution and indeed certainty on the part of your guide that a good theory of consciousness must give a prime place to the science of the mind and consciousness. If the philosophy does not actually engage in the science, it cannot assign to it only an ancillary role. A good philosophy of consciousness can no more make the science of it into a handmaiden of itself than decent philosophy can be what Locke supposed, merely a handmaiden of science. A good philosophy, again, cannot give to science no more than the subject of a correlate or the correlate of consciousness. It must give to science as much as to philosophy the subject of consciousness itself.
26 Being conscious and certainly being actually conscious are to be understood in terms of naturalism, which is to say understood as being a property wholly open in principle to understanding by way of the scientific method. It is a property to be understood by a method, further, that is true not only to empiricism but also to an ordinary logic that is clarity, consistency and validity, completeness, and generalness.

27 It is a good idea for science to remember a passing remark of a philosopher more esteemed by me than almost all of his contemporaries, Peter Strawson, father of Galen, a son following in his father's footsteps. The remark, about philosophy: 'Science is not only the offspring of common sense; it remains its dependant.'

28 I take it there are no proofs of large things in philosophy, as there are supposed to be in science. For a while Frank Jackson was taken to have one against dualism, having to do with what happened to previously colour-blind Mary when she got her sight. Rightly he has recanted. That there are no large proofs in philosophy, in my view, but comparative judgement instead, is one large thing that makes it harder than science. That is most of the reason that there is less progress in philosophy. Compare the view of Dave Chalmers in his lecture in Philosophers of Our Times, the collection of Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lectures.

29 There is no problem of causal or other lawful connection between the objectively physical and the subjectively physical. So, as I have remarked in connection with Chalmers, there is no mind-body problem in the best understanding of the term.

30 In short, there is with respect to consciousness an entire freedom to take forward a great scientific research project, maybe in some sense the greatest. 

31 And Actualism, in its relation to science, at least contributes to a fertile or progressive research programme. It contributes to what Lakatos named as a progressive rather than a degenerating programme. It does so by seeing things differently. Quite a lot of philosophers would be small Copernicuses. Yes, here is another one. I take it abstract functionalism, and cognitive science in part, are in contrast degenerating programmes.

32 If all of consciousness is a subject for science, all of it open to science, consciousness is not open only for science. The contribution of philosophy here as elsewhere, as already implied, has been and will be that greater concentration than that of science on ordinary logic: clarity, consistency and validity, completeness, generality. That greater concentration, of course not ownership, is the difference between mainstream philosophy and science.

33 There is no easy distinction between  science and philosophy in connection with the matter of respect for consensus, for that kind of democracy about truth. Remember the great scientfic revolutions. They went against and destroyed consensus.

34 Actualism fits in with, and in my view is a wholly necessary addition to, Searle's Chinese Room Argument against cognitive science -- that best resolution of an issue in the philosophy and science of consciousness in the 20th Century.

35 Is all this reflection on philosophy and science too spirited for you? Too confident? A philosopher up on his hind legs? Without purporting to join or to be equal to or to be approximate to them, I refer you to scientists past and present. Not the scientist who said a while ago that philosophy is dead. Rather Newton and Chomsky. The first indeed said let nature speak for iself. The second overturned an orthodoxy in linguistics and related science, and went on to do what should have overturned orthodoxies about international relations and his own country's role in them. Do not be reluctant to try to join them. In particular that is what graduate students ought to be for. Try to deal with confidence about what you need to change. There is likely to be more bumble in it. Some of it has been indicated above.