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The Consciousness Wars Are Akin to the Crisis in Psychology

The wars in consciousness research mirror the historical divides in psychology.

Key points

  • Last year, the field of consciousness studies broke out into a major conflict.
  • Much of the wars center around differences in how to define consciousness.
  • A new approach to unifying psychology has a map of mind that can help sort things out.

Last week, an article in Nature by Mariana Lenharo summarized the “wars” that have broken out in the field of consciousness studies. The main event was a bomb that was dropped last September, when “more than 100 researchers signed a letter that critiqued Integrated Information Theory [a major theory in the field], arguing that its predictions are untestable and labeling it as pseudoscience.”

The article continued…

Chaos ensued. The letter provoked blowback from other scientists who felt that such an attack could aggravate divides and hurt the field’s credibility. Signatories reported receiving ominous e-mails containing veiled threats. Researchers on both sides of the aisle lost sleep over accusatory tweets. Some even contemplated leaving science altogether…. Younger researchers are particularly worried about the contentious climate. They fear that a field engulfed in such angry disputes could be perceived externally as being stuck.

Why is there such conflict? Lenharo described the core issue aptly:

One problem is that consciousness means different things to different people. For example, some researchers focus on the subjective experience — what it is like to be you or me. Others study its function — cognitive processes and behaviors enabled by being conscious. These differences muddy attempts to compare ideas.

I strongly encourage folks to consider these wars in consciousness research in relation to the history of psychology. Indeed, failure to consider history means that one is likely doomed to repeat it. I think that is happening here, especially when we consider the historical “crisis of psychology.” The crisis in psychology refers to the fact that, as the field developed, there were tremendous differences in how psychology was defined, and in the specification of its subject matter. The crisis was identified as early as 1899, 20 years after the field's official birth, and it was never resolved. I have renamed it the “problem of psychology” because it points to a core problem with how we are framing science, behavior, and mind. And I believe the same dynamic is affecting the modern field of consciousness studies.

This 10-minute video introduces folks to “Psychology 101,” and it provides a brief history of the major schools of thought. For example, there were some psychologists, like Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, who claimed the science of psychology was about the structure of human consciousness, and that studying it could only be done through introspection. In contrast, there were the functionalists, like William James, who emphasized the mental processes and behaviors enabled by being conscious, and framed psychological science as being concerned with the adaptive activities in animals and people. Some Freudian psychoanalysts emphasized the dynamic unconscious, and how it impacted mental health. And there were Watsonian behaviorists who emphasized the experimental analysis of stimulus-response relations.

Psychology’s crisis emerges because inner human consciousness, the functional activity of animals and humans, stimulus-response relations in the laboratory, and unconscious drives experienced by troubled humans on the therapy couch are all different things. And, of course, as the history of psychology clearly shows, there was no coherent big-picture view that enabled us to put these pieces of the puzzle together.

My book, A New Synthesis for Solving the Problem of Psychology: Addressing the Enlightenment Gap, explains in rich detail why the problem of psychology emerged and why it was so hard. The answer is framed by the subtitle. The Enlightenment Gap refers to the profound hole in our knowledge that emerged in the wake of the modern scientific Enlightenment. That hole refers to the process by which we conceptually place the mind in relationship to matter, and effectively relate scientific knowledge to subjective and social knowledge. We have no good philosophical system that coherently resolves these problems.

My point here is that the Enlightenment Gap is still with us. Everywhere you look you see confusion about how to frame the mind in relationship to scientific knowledge. Last year made clear that the Enlightenment Gap is in the process of swallowing the field of consciousness research. Interestingly, the field of consciousness studies is about 30 years old, which is just about the time when the crisis in psychology was really being felt.

The good news is that there is now a framework that resolves the Enlightenment Gap. As I lay out in A New Synthesis, the Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK), has advanced our understanding to the point where we can now see why and how other systems have been so confused, and how we can advance the ball and achieve cumulative knowledge.

To give just one example of what it can do for us, consider UTOK’s Map of Mind. As I delineate in this post on Updating Freud’s Psychology, the Map of Mind gives us a new vocabulary for mapping mental domains and how they relate to consciousness.

The first domain, mind1, is the domain of neurocognitive activity. This domain is available via a third-person exterior empirical lens and consists of both brain-body activity (called mind1a), and the functional awareness and responsivity of the animal as a whole (called mind1b).

The second domain of mental processes is subjective conscious experience, and it is called mind2. This is available only from the inside, via a first-person perspective. This blog describes some of its main features and explains how we can frame it as a portal of knowing into the exterior world pulled through the senses, the world of inner feelings tracking the body, the world of images and imagination, and the world of language.

Finally, there is the domain of mind3, which is the domain of human propositional language, reason-giving, and self-conscious justification. As with mind1, but unlike mind2, mind3 can be divided into the private inside (mind3a) and the public outside (mind3b). However, a fascinating feature of mind3 is that its contents move inside and outside the skin without changing their informational form.

Gregg Henriques
Gregg Henriques

If we return to the problem that Lenharo mentions and apply the lens given by the Map of Mind, we can see right away that there is confusion. Depending on how you define it, consciousness can include either functional awareness and responsivity from a behavioral point of view or it can refer to subjective conscious experience. And, as was described in my previous post on how to update Freud with modern science, it can refer to the self-conscious reflection and reasons one has for doing things in the world (i.e., mind3).

With its Map of Mind, UTOK gives us a new and much clearer vocabulary for mental processes, including cognition, behavior, consciousness, and the self. Perhaps this new vocabulary can help bring peace to the warring factions and start the process of generating cumulative knowledge about consciousness with the right vocabulary to do the job.

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