Ten Tests for Theories of Consciousness

A Philosophical-Scientific Decathlon

Posted Jul 26, 2012

This list comprises a sort of decathlon for theorists of consciousness to test their creations against. Some of the tests might have ‘skeptical solutions’, in that theorists might claim that we were mistaken in thinking that they were relevant to consciousness at all. Even in this case, however, an account of error is owed: Why did we believe that they were relevant to consciousness?

1. Relate consciousness to mind. Are there unconscious mental states or unconscious parts of the mind? How do they relate to the conscious mental states or conscious parts of the mind? 

2.  Relate consciousness to perception. How do sound waves, light waves, etc. entering the sense organs get transformed into conscious perceptions? Why does all perception have a focus-background structure? Or does it?

3.  Relate consciousness to dreams. Are dreams conscious states? If they are conscious states, how are they different from our normal waking conscious states, and how are these differences to be explained? 

4.  Relate consciousness to the self. Is there a self? If there is a self, what is it? How does the self relate to the mind? Is it the entirety of the mind, or some portion of it? Where is it in the brain? What is its function? If there is not a self, why have so many people believed there is one? 

5.  Relate consciousness to representation. Are all conscious states representations of some sort? Can there be non-conscious beings who can nevertheless represent the world? How do mental representations relate to external representations, such as photographs and paintings? 

6.  Relate consciousness to the brain. If consciousness has no intrinsic connection to the brain, why do things that affect the brain, such as blows to the head, psychoactive drugs, etc., also affect the mind? Where in the brain are conscious states located? Which brain processes correspond to (or are identical to) conscious states?

7.  Explain what the function of consciousness is. Given that any external behavior can be generated by a number of internal mechanisms, some involving consciousness, but some not, why do our brains use consciousness? Are there ways to achieve consciousness other than the way that our brains do it? 

8.  Provide an account of the explanatory gap. Why are conscious states, as we experience them, so different from the brain, as we look at it from the outside? In short, how does something that looks like that produce something that feels like this?

9.  Provide an account of error for the other major theories. It is often the case that asking the proponents of a theory to explain where the other accounts went wrong serves to greatly clarify that theory, in addition to the obvious testing function the exercise serves. Accounts of error need to be plausible, in that they cannot depict the proponents of the other views as blithering idiots, obstinately making the same obvious mistakes over decades or centuries. To continue our decathlon analogy, here we are asking the decathletes to fight one another. 

10.  Relate your account to the history of the study of consciousness. Who, if any, of the historical writers on consciousness were right, and who were wrong, and why? Was Rene Descartes right about mind and matter being metaphysically separate, or about there being a substantial self or Cartesian ego? If not, where exactly did he go wrong in his thinking?  Was Thomas Nagel right when he said we could never really know what it’s like to be a bat?

No doubt this list will evolve over time. As we get closer to a correct account, certain parts of the list might begin to fall out as uncontroversial, while new entries are added. The new entries might come from the scientific side, in the form of questions based on discoveries. Or they might come from the philosophical side, in the form of inferences derived from the testing of theories via arguments and counterexamples. Ideally, the set of tests would become more and more complete and exacting, until only one theory can pass them, the correct theory.