White Matter Matters

Tales from the science trenches

Axons & Axioms, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

Can there be a neural theory of consciousness?

This week I’d like to introduce a semi-regular podcast, called Axons & Axioms, that I do with a friend and colleague Derek Leben.  Derek is a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown. He and I have had a lot of drunken conversations about topics that overlap the sometimes blurred boundary between psychology & philosophy. We decided it’d be fun to finally put them down on paper (or in this case, put them down as electronically recorded voice mediums for display on the internet tubes).

Now Derek contributed equally to this post, as well as to the podcast (he brought the bourbon).  So from here on out I’m going to refer to myself in the third person to indicate the joint contribution.

For the first episode of Axons & Axioms, Derek and Tim rehash a discussion that they’ve had time and time again (and one that Tim has blogged about previously).

Can there be a measurable neural basis of consciousness?

Providing a theory of consciousness has been one of the most important issues in philosophy of mind. Discovering who exactly is conscious (and why) has potential implications for how we treat animals, the comatose, and the unborn.

Recently, neuroscientists and psychologists have entered the fray with attempts to discover a ‘neural correlate of consciousness.’  In July of 2012, a group of scientists at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in Cambridge signed a declaration affirming that the neuroscience of consciousness has progressed so far that we can confirm that animals have conscious experience. If true, this would be a major success for science.

Now, Tim is pretty much a skeptic that this is a valid (neuro)scientific endeavor.  His stance arises because consciousness itself is a pretty un-quantifiable concept.  There isn’t a device or test that can measure the “degree of consciousness” and often it gets conflated with concepts like being awake, intention, or attention.  In neuroscience, it is impossible to measure a brain-behavior relationship if the behavior part of the equation is intangible.

Derek is open to the possibility of a “science of consciousness,” but he is currently unimpressed by what’s been offered so far. His position agrees with Tim that most of the definitions of consciousness are vague and unhelpful; they usually define consciousness in terms of what it’s not.  However, scientists can sometimes make new discoveries about phenomena of which we have vague or incomplete concepts.

In the podcast, Derek presents three replies to Tim’s claim that a mental state must be detectable or measurable to be studied scientifically: (1) there may be behaviors which can only be explained by appealing to something like consciousness, (2) we might use an “argument from analogy,” comparing our own experiences to other peoples’, and (3) the science of related mental states like attention and sleep might converge on discoveries about consciousness.

Derek admits that the first reply is shot down by the definitions of consciousness as ‘over and above’ anything measurable, and the second reply is weak, just like all arguments from analogy. The third reply is a promissory note, and if there is no interesting convergence from psychology on consciousness, Derek is willing to abandon it as either something which can’t be studied or doesn’t exist.

Like any academic debate, more questions are raised than are answered.  But hey… that’s what makes this stuff so fun.

So jump on over to SoundCloud and enjoy the first episode of Axons & Axioms, aptly titled “The Phantom Menace.” 

 

Tim Verstynen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He is interested in sensorimotor systems, plasticity, and zombie brains.

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