Putting Consciousness First

comments 9

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:


The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. John-Paul says

    Hi Phillip,

    Basically what I attempted to get at was the fact that the definitions of certain words in order to have this conversation such as ‘knowledge’, ‘matter’, ‘functions’, ‘existence’, and even ‘science’. Particularly the last word, it seems to me that there is a narrow definition of science being used, so narrow that you can actually cast it aside as if it can be separate from a philosophical enquiry, and then this creates a firm dividing line between what philosophy and science inherently reveal (if you think they reveal different things in different ways) and therefore create the dividing line between what philosophers and scientist do in order to reveal what philosophy and science do in fact reveal. And this to me creates cognitive obscurity whereby you try and gain a ‘philosophical’ understanding of consciousness by essentially talking the talk of science.

    Whereas I think you get a little bit further and on firmer ground by just admitting that there is no distinction between science and philosophy nor between science and any other topic (in terms of the processes used to essentially gain knowledge) and I think as long as philosophers insist on this supposed distinction then a working theory of consciousness will remain puzzling. I also notice how it is only philosophers who see the distinction, and not scientist, perhaps because philosophers don’t want to be out of a job just yet all the while consciousness remains unsolved.


    • Dr Brian Robinson says

      I did like the reference to Schopenhauer because if ever I mention his name to academic philosophers I’m met with a tirade against the poor guy. (He’s ‘superficial’, brilliant prose writer but only with ‘a single thought’!) I read long ago Bryan Magee’s book (see below) and it was the first time I came across stuff like this (Magee writing): ‘… So it can be thoroughly established that our bodies are material objects in the fullest, unqualified sense, made of the same stuff as other material objects, and knowable by perceiving subjects in all the ways in which other material objects are knowable. Yet in addition to this we know them in an entirely different way, from inside. Each of us has this inner knowledge of only one such body, and it is by virtue of this that we are individuals. This material object here, and this one alone, I can know with a direct, non-sensory, non-intellectual knowledge from within: everything else in the universe I can know only from without, via the representations of sense and intellect, which are themselves functions of physical organs which are parts of this body of mine — which means that my knowledge of all other bodies is gained from the standpoint of this one and its position in time and space. This individuation, and the fact that all knowing is only for an individual (not to mention the fact that there is a dichotomy between knowing and being, such that we do not even know what we are) — these things lie very near the heart of life’s mystery. “Everyone can +be+ only one thing, whereas he can +know+ everything else, and it is this very limitation that really creates the need for philosophy” …’

      (The quotation is from ‘The World as Will and Representation’, i. 104. Full quotation above from paperback edn (1987), p 122, of Magee’s book, ‘The Philosophy of Schopenhauer’, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983.)

  2. I think I was careful to talk about ‘neuroscience’ rather than science in general. My objection is against those who think we will make progress on consciousness just by doing more neuroscience, with little or no role for armchair reflection, and that you’re ‘anti-science’ if you think otherwise. My worry is that neuroscience is limited to providing *correlations* between consciousness states and brain states, and we’re still left with the highly theoretical task of working out how best to explain those correlations.

    Sure, I’m more than happy to drop an artificial distinction between philosophy and science. In fact that’s kind of what I was trying to argue for with reference to Einstein. I see the neuro-fundamentalists as having an overly narrow conception of ‘science’, which they contrast with ‘unscientific philosophy’.

    • John-Paul says

      I think I agree to an extent, but surely it’s more clear if you make reference to neuroscientists rather than ‘neuroscience’. I also think it’s vital that we don’t distinguish arm-chair reflection from actual science or indeed neuroscience because there is actually no difference between the two or indeed philosophy and science. Science is basically philosophy in practise, because arm-chair reflection (logic and reason) obviously isn’t enough, and this is where scientists come into play. If neuroscientists think that philosophy is unscientific then I have a bone to pick with them but I do also agree with them when they see philosophers only making consciousness more perplexing and depending on introspection and lacking true objective observation, because there’s no clear evidence, to me at least, that consciousness states and brain states are different things, and they are both interchangeable terms and if they seperate, one cannot be without the other. I mentioned this vaguely on the BBC’s Big Questions discussing Life After Death.

      Sam Harris I know doesn’t do this, he is a neuroscientist working in areas of ‘belief’ and he has routinely argued in favour of both philosophy and science because they are essentially the same thing and there is no clear line apart from the practicalities.

      I was wondering if you do agree that there is no difference between science and philosophy, only tiny differences in what scientist and philosophers do in terms of solving the problems?

      • There’s a spectrum. Some questions are straightforwardly answered by experiments, e.g. does smoking cause cancer? Some questions are purely a priori, e.g. what’s the definition of knowledge? And there’s a vast range in between. I’m inclined to think that considerable work can be done trying to work out how best to interpret quantum mechanics without doing experiments (obviously we have to rely on the experimental data there is, but this leaves open several possible interpretations of what’s going on metaphysically). Much work on string theory has little to do with experiments.

        Yes, there is no *evidence* that brain states and conscious states are different things, but there is considerable conceptual difficulty in making sense of the claim. I can’t see how more correlations from neuroscience is going to help us with this. In order to make sense of how the mental fits together with the physical, we need to either reconceptualise the mental – the approach favoured by Dennett, Blackmore, etc. – or we need to reconceptualise the physical – the approach favoured by myself, Russell, Eddington, David Chalmers, etc.Either way, such reconceptualisation is largely conducted in abstraction from experiments. This doesn’t make it ‘unscientific’ – special relativity was formulated in an armchair – but it puts it on the more theoretical/philosophical end of science.

        I don’t really know Harris’ work very well, but I’ll check it out. As far as I know he hasn’t really engaged much the extant literature on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.

        I didn’t know you were on the Big Questions. Was that recent? I guess it’s too late watch again?

  3. John-Paul says

    Well, I personally don’t particularly believe in a priori, there are claims with no evidence or investigation which is a priori yes, but I mean the sort of a priori that one could ‘know’ something a priori, I find that logically impossible.

    Again, this is the thing, your use of the word ‘experiment’ in such sentences implies a narrow definition of the word (i.e. men in white lab coats) when if you agree that the term science is used to narrowly then so is all its terminology. If experiment means to study a claim or an idea and come to a conclusion based on the evidence using logic and reason, then judging how to interpret quantum mechanics, whether you chose the copenhagen interpretation or the many worlds interpretation (I like this one), is in and of itself an experimental process. It’s just a matter of degree. String Theory doesn’t have much to do with experiments now, no, but that’s just because we don’t have the technology just yet, we tend to dub a situation in physics like this as philosophical but as I said previously, it’s no less scientific. It’s kind of both I suppose.

    I think making sense of the correlations to best understand the neurology of consciousness is no less neuro-scientific than figuring out the best way to interpret quantum gravity theories. I think I take the Dennett approach, the idea of trying to reconceptualise the universe rather than the mysterious phenomena in our brain which we don’t even understand yet seems a bit backward to me. It makes sense to do it the other way round. It’s kind of like that joke: How many theoretical physicists does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to turn the bulb, and one to turn around the whole room. But if you do take that view, then I think its incorrect to make the ‘physical/mental’ distinction, I have no quarrel with someone calling consciousness an emergent immaterial entity, but materialism is different than physicalism; if it is an emergent immaterial ‘thing’ then it is still constrained by the brain (i.e. brain first, consciousness second), in other words, the brain is causally responsible for consciousness, which is exactly what physicalism is.

    Yes he doesn’t particularly engage with the problem of consciousness, rather just its nature and seeking various states of it to its full exploration via meditation, psychedelic drugs etc.

    It was about two sundays ago, it aired on 1st June, so I think its removed from BBC iPlayer now, but I hope it’ll be on YouTube sometime soon.

    • As usual, most discussion of my blog post took place on Facebook…so I thought I’d cut and paste for interested parties:

      • Jonny Blamey How about Ladies first approach?
      May 28 at 6:35pm • Unlike • 1

      Dave Ward Hey Philip, can you say a bit about why you think this kind of approach originates with Kant, Leibniz and Schopenhauer? (or maybe just Kant and Schopenhauer, since I know nothing of Leibniz. Apart from he has a law and nice biscuits)
      May 28 at 11:10pm • Like • 2

      Philip Goff Derk Pereboom in his recent book rehabilitates the Kantian/Leibnizian idea that physics doesn’t provide us with ‘absolutely intrinsic properties’, i.e. properties which are intrinsic and which aren’t grounded in extrinsic properties of proper parts of the property-bearer. Schopenhauer accepts the negative aspect of Kant’s view, but thinks we know something about the intrinsic nature of the world from our own minds. I’m no expert on any of these people, but some interpret them as precursors to the position that emerges in Russell’s 1927 ‘Analysis of matter’.

      The question is: why was the view forgotten for so long????
      May 29 at 9:58am • Like • 5

      Tom Mcclelland There’s a nice Schopenhauer quotation that seems to pre-figure Russell: ‘…a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without’ (World as Will and Representation)
      May 29 at 10:17am • Unlike • 1

      Assaf Weksler I loved the connection you made to Schopenhauer (I return to him below)!

      In any event, the expression ‘consciousness first’ as contrasted with ‘brain first’ seems to me to be somewhat misleading. The ‘brain first’ approach is reductive (we try to red…See More
      May 29 at 11:12am • Unlike • 1

      Jonny Blamey sorry for being flippant, I am looking at knowledge first epistemology. This “X first” meme is interesting as a philosophical move. But there is also a relationship between consciousness and knowledge. In fact they are sometimes synonymous. So here is a leading question: Is consciousness propositional?
      May 29 at 11:50am • Like

      Philip Goff Assaf Weksler Fair point, but let me try to respond. I was not necessarily defining the sides in terms of reduction, but on the source of metaphysical data in terms of which one shapes one’s understanding of the phenomena. We need not think of physical properties as structural; we might think of them as the intrinsic properties underlying the structure physics transparently reveals. So the Russellian monist uses our grasp of consciousness as a starting point in terms of which she shapes her understanding of these intrinsic physical properties.
      June 6 at 8:46am • Like

      David Chalmers well, putting consciousness first in the epistemological order is a pretty weak sense of “conscousness first”. with respect to the metaphysical order, i’d have thought that panprotopsychist version of russelian monism puts consciousness second (or third or worse), with the neutral things first. russellian panpsychism puts consciousness first, usin it to ground physics. in other respects i’d think that e.g. the phenomenal intentionality program is “consciousness first”, putting consciousness before intentionality. and the phenomenal epistemology program, which is sort of out there, puts consciousness before justification and knowledge. no doubt there are plenty of other things that consciousness could come before.
      June 6 at 1:58pm • Like • 1

      Philip Goff David Chalmers I agree with all of the above, but would dispute that my sense of ‘consciousness first’ is ‘weak’ in a problematic sense. It surely just depends what you’re trying to do. I was just trying to distinguish two approaches to the mind-body problem: one which takes the physical sciences to give us the metaphysics of the brain and then tries to fit consciousness into that metaphysical picture, and one which starts with a metaphysical understanding of consciousness from introspection, and tries to build up the metaphysical picture of the brain around that. So this is essentially an epistemological distinction. I was thinking of writing the first ‘big picture’ chapter of my book around this kind of narrative. Would be keen to hear your thoughts if you think this is problematic.
      June 6 at 3:38pm • Like

      David Chalmers when williamson said “knowledge first”, he meant first in many respects — metaphysical, epistemological, explanatory, etc. if you’re going to say “consciousnes first” i think you should use it for an equally strong claim (i think Adam Pautz does this in some unpublished work), not for the relatively weedy claim above. the weaker picture itself would be fine for the first chapter, though. but if you call it “consciousness first” then throw in some elements of the stronger picture too.
      June 6 at 4:14pm • Like

      Philip Goff Ah, I wasn’t making the connection with Williamson. Bollocks. I liked this way of putting things, but don’t want to build the thesis that consciousness is fundamental into the general approach I want to advocate in the first chapter.
      June 6 at 4:22pm • Like

      Assaf Weksler Philip Goff, it is not clear to me what the status of structural properties on the “consciousness first” approach is. Are they supposed to be somehow explained in terms of intrinsic, phenomenal properties ? If they are, then a feeling of an explanatory gap arises (in me at least), which seems as difficult as the original explanatory gap: how can the structural features of, say, electric charge, be explained in terms of the qualitative feeling of (something like) a sweet taste? If the structural properties are not supposed to be explained in terms of intrinsic, phenomenal properties, then it is difficult for me to see in what epistemological sense consciousness comes before these structural properties (I can see in what sense consciousness comes before *intrinsic* physical properties, but my point is that intrinsic physical properties are not the whole physical story). [I guess that I feel the same sort of difficulty with respect to David Chalmers’s claim that Russellian panpsychists put consciousness first]
      June 6 at 6:37pm • Like

      David Chalmers assaf: a thoroughgoing russellian panpsychist might ground these structural relational properties in phenomenal relational properties. but if they don’t, i agree that the view is only consciousness-equal-first.
      June 7 at 6:20am • Like

      Philip Goff Good point Assaf Weksler – my excuse is that because this was just a blog post I hadn’t thought through the precise details. I guess the idea would be that on the ‘brain first’ approach, the physical sciences are the sole source of data for our metaphysical picture of the brain, whilst on the ‘consciousness first’ approach, our introspective understanding of the nature of consciousness is an important source (although perhaps not the only source) of data in building our metaphysical picture of the brain. So more accurate labeling might be ‘brain only’ versus ‘brain and consciousness first’, but that’s less catchy…

      If like David Chalmers you think the laws of nature are contingent, then it’s not going to be hard to ground the structural properties in the phenomenal qualities plus laws. However, I (like many Russellian monists in my experience) prefer the view that dispositions are grounded in categorical nature. I agree that phenomenal properties don’t seem to essentially ground dispositions, and so I am lead to the view that there must be more to the intrinsic nature of the physical than phenomenal properties.

      I don’t like adding more mystery, as the advantage of panpsychism to my mind is that it has some positive conception of the nature of matter, as opposed toTom Mcclelland’s mysterianism. But I can’t really see another option…oh well…
      June 7 at 10:13am • Like • 1

      Richard Brown Philip, the less catchy label makes me wonder who you think takes the ‘brain only’ approach? Is Ned’s a consciousness first approach? What about someone like me who takes consciousness seriously but also thinks that neuroscience and cognitive psychology have given us some reason to think that perhaps our access to our own mental lives isn’t exactly all it has been cracked up to be and so that we have some reason to be cautious about inferring too much from our own conscious experience?

      Also you say that the phenomenal concept strategy ends up redefining consciousness but that seems odd. The phenomenal concept includes the phenomenal property being demonstrated so it doesn’t seem right to say that on their view it is just a bare demonstrative. (But I am probably not a phenomenal concepts type so I may be wrong)
      June 7 at 1:03pm • Like

      Assaf Weksler Philip, I like the “brain and consciousness first” labeling (although perhaps you should use explicitly epistemological terms, and also explicitly state that the goal is the metaphysical picture of the *brain*, as in “putting introspection first, alongside perhaps the physical sciences, in theorizing about the nature of the brain”. Not catchy at all). What you said about using phenomenal properties plus laws (phenomenal laws?) to ground (a priori derive?) physical structural properties is interesting. Is there anyone defending/elaborating this possibility in print?
      Richard Brown, if I understand Philip correctly, what he means by “brain and consciousness first” is supposed to capture something like panpsychism or panprotophsycism (right?). The label is therefore *not* supposed to apply to physicalists, including those who use introspective (phenomenological) data in order to theorize about the neuronal/computational structure of the brain.
      So perhaps the label should involve something about ideal a priori derivability. “Brain first” would thus mean that brain properties are ideally a priori derivable from the truths discovered by the physical sciences. So all physicalists, including those who take consciousness (via introspection) seriously in their theorizing about the brain, count as accepting a “brain first” approach (Philip, have I mixed up the whole thing?).
      June 8 at 7:00am • Like

      Philip Goff Richard Brown & Assaf Weksler This is all very helpful – as I say I’m still working out what I want to say here. But Richard, I guess the question would be: Do you think there’s anything you can find out about the brain from introspection that you couldn’t find out in principle from empirical observation? Consciousness first people say yes, I’m guessing you and Ned say no?
      Re. phenomenal concept strategy, what I wanted to say was that according to the phenomenal concept strategy phenomenal concepts are *opqaue*, revealing nothing of the nature of phenomenal qualities. Perhaps you’re right ‘bare demonstrative’ isn’t quite the right term.
      I think Assaf’s characterisation is still a bit too metaphysical, as what I’m trying to get at is an epistemological approach. Having said that, the position you describe is probably where you’re going to end up if you take this approach.
      I’ll give it some more thought, but I’m not sure whether I need to worry about being explicitly epistemic, or being confused with Williamson, if I’m aiming at a general audience.
      I was thinking what I said about deriving structural properties from micro-phenomenal plus laws was the general Russellian approach, but maybe I just made it up.
      Finally: I wish everyone had written on the blog rather than here, so it looks like people read it (-;
      Yesterday at 8:32am • Edited • Like

      Richard Brown “Do you think there’s anything you can find out about the brain from introspection that you couldn’t find out in principle from empirical observation?”

      I am guessing that someone like Ned (and me in some moods) would at least think that we can know that the brain is conscious via introspection. I am not sure about the ‘in principle’ part but I am guessing that some type-b physicalists would accept that.

      In addition to that we can also know things that end up constraining what we say about the brain (for example, Ned’s argument from phenomenology of attention against representationalism, or the debate about phenomenological overflow). These seem to me to be examples of people using introspective data in conjunction with data from the brain sciences, and it seems to satisfy your weak less catchy notion (as long as you are not a type-a physicalist).
      Yesterday at 12:56pm • Like

      Richard Brown Re phenomenal concepts strategy I think there is at least room for the kind of view which has them only semi-opaque. They may be directly revelatory of the phenomenal nature of the brain state and yet be opaque with respect to the physical brain state nature of the very same sate. Of course one would owe a story about how this works out (maybe Robert Howell.or Katalin Balog would be sympathetic to something like this?)
      Yesterday at 1:05pm • Edited • Like

      Robert Howell I’m good with something like that.
      21 hours ago • Like

      Philip Goff Thanks Richard, this is really helping me develop my under-developed thoughts on what I’m trying to capture here. I think what I should have said was, ‘Do you think there’s anything you can know about *the fundamental nature* of the brain from introspection that you couldn’t find out from empirical observation’. Thus a panpsychist or a panprotopsychist postulates fundamental phenomenal or protophenomenal properties on the basis of introspection, which she wouldn’t have been led to postulate on the basis of empirical observation. I don’t think either you or Ned would count as a ‘consciousness first’ guy if this is the question would you/he? I take it he/you think we could in principle completely understand the fundamental nature of the brain from the physical sciences.

      Re. PCS, Nic Damnjanovic (who has sadly now left philosophy) has a nice paper arguing for this kind of position. I don’t think Katalin can be credited with it, as she says that phenomenal concepts reveal nothing of the ‘metaphysical nature’ of phenomenal properties. I’ve just been at a conference with Robert, and I really need to read his stuff – what should I start with Robert? I argue against this view in ‘Real acquaintance and the phenomenal concept strategy’ on the grounds that fundamental reality ends up being unintelligible, and that we could justify any kind of view if we’re prepared to allow for this, but obviously this is a complex issue.

      There is also the ‘semi-revelation’ view of Janet Levin and Robert Schroer, which I also argue against in the above mentioned paper.

      I’m trying to capture a broad ‘big picture’ narrative about what’s wrong with the ‘brain first’ approach, but I would be the first to agree that it gets fiddly in the details.
      19 hours ago • Edited • Like

      Robert Howell Probably the last two chapters of my book would be best. I give phenomenal concepts a secondary role though, explaining standing beliefs about consciousness. Acquaintance plays the primary role and is explanatorily prior to pcs. I would want to say, I think, that there is something about the fundamental nature of the brain one gets through being conscious that one doesn’t get from objective study of the brain. My views are evolving, though, and I’m not entirely happy with the account in the book. But I don’t have anything else as of now.
      1 hr • Like

      Philip Goff Thanks Robert, I am intrigued, but so far finding your view hard to make sense of…you’ll be hearing from me…
      59 mins • Like

      Robert Howell My view makes sense to me on odd numbered days that start with T, so you’re not alone.
      34 mins • Like • 1

      • John-Paul says

        I must correct myself when I said:

        “I think I take the Dennett approach, the idea of trying to reconceptualise the universe rather than the mysterious phenomena in our brain which we don’t even understand yet seems a bit backward to me. It makes sense to do it the other way round.”

        I meant to say that because I take the Dennett approach, reconceptualising the universe rather than conciousness is the wrong way round to do it, in my opinion.

        I don’t have facebook anymore but thanks for posting it here.

  4. John-Paul says

    Re-reading your initial post, it has triggered another terse thought:

    This whole post is seeking to propose a ‘Consciousness First, Brain Second’ approach.

    I’ll bullet point and contrast with analogy as to why I think is the wrong approach.

    1. There is no proof that consciousness can exist independent of the brain.
    2. However, there is decades of proof which shows how when the brain is damaged, so is the consciousness.
    3. Therefore the properties of consciousness are affected when the brain is affected, i.e. the brain is causally responsible. (Physicalism = Reducing to a causal structure to a physical science i.e. physics.).
    4. By analogy, you wouldn’t say iOS7 can exist independent of an iPhone, because its obvious that you first must establish the hardware of it (the iPhone) before software can run (iOS7). You cannot have software first, hardware second.

    There ends my sermon.

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