Archive | May, 2014

Putting Consciousness First

28 May

There are fundamentally two distinct approaches to solving the mind-body problem: a ‘Brain First’ approach, and a ‘Consciousness First’ approach. With the Brain First approach, we start from the idea that the brain is the thing we really understand, through neuroscience, and we try to squeeze consciousness into it. With the Consciousness First approach we start from the idea that consciousness is the thing we really understand – you know what pain is when you feel it – and we build up our picture of the brain around our understanding of consciousness.

The Brain First approach was dominant in the twenty first century, but has not gone all that well. The trouble is that it inevitably involves redefining consciousness. You start off with, say, a feeling of pain that you want to squeeze into the brain. But there doesn’t seem to be a place for feelings in soggy grey brain matter. So you redefine pain in behavioural (functional/topic neutral) terms: to be in pain is to behave in a pained way, i.e. to scream and run away as the result of bodily damage. Suddenly the problem of consciousness looks easier. It’s still incredibly difficult of course, but it looks like we have some kind of grip on how physical brain processes could produce pain behaviour. The problem is that in redefining pain we’ve changed the subject: we’re no longer talking about the inner feeling of pain; we’re now talking about pain behaviour.

[Philosophers: I have argued that the most recent manifestation of physicalism – the phenomenal concept strategy – which is designed to avoid this problem, is equally guilty of redefinition. The phenomenal concept strategist redefines our phenomenal concepts as bare demonstratives]

It’s high time we had a go at the ‘Consciousness First’ approach to the mind-body problem. It has its roots in Kant, Leibniz and Schopenhauer, and was defended by Russell and Eddington (independently) in the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately the Consciousness First approach didn’t fit with the zeitgeist of the latter half of the twentieth century, and was largely forgotten about (you don’t hear about it in standard undergraduate philosophy of mind courses). However, the approach is currently enjoying a revival, with a forthcoming collection of essays on the topic coming out with Oxford University Press later in the year (edited by Torin Alter and Yujin Nagasawa).

We’re in the early days with consciousness, and who knows where we’ll end up. But at this stage of our knowledge, the Consciousness First approach looks to be the more plausible way forward.

Tom McClelland and I talk more about the Consciousness First approach to the mind-body problem on the following podcast from the Philosophy Now show: