The goal of my dissertation is to develop a strategy for deciding between candidate theories of consciousness by appealing to the resources of evolutionary theory. To achieve this goal, I challenge several long-standing philosophical views on the concept of consciousness and the potential for science to isolate the physical/functional correlates of consciousness. In doing so I put in place philosophical scaffolding that may be used not only for the particular strategy I defend but also for empirical investigations of consciousness in general. I also pave the way for more fruitful collaboration between philosophers and scientists—collaboration that, going forward, I hope to take part in.
the adaptive functions of consciousness
I propose that we can learn about the causal powers of consciousness by appealing to the resources of evolutionary biology. As one might expect, this is not a new thought. The trouble is that, with a few notable exceptions, researchers propose theories on the evolutionary origins of consciousness only to buttress whatever theory of consciousness they antecedently accept. As a result, they tend to tell ad hoc, just-so stories, motivated by whatever theory of consciousness they prefer. To address this problem, I argue that it is possible to investigate the evolutionary origins of consciousness and learn something about the causal powers that consciousness confers without presupposing that any particular theory of consciousness is the right one. The approach can be summarized as follows:
- There is an emerging consensus on the basic features of consciousness and its psychological and neurological correlates.
- The emerging consensus can support theories on the evolutionary origins of consciousness without presupposing a particular theory of consciousness.
- Theories on its evolutionary origins can help identify its causal powers.
- Theorists can use the causal powers we identify to evaluate live theories of consciousness.
I hope to develop these ideas further after receiving input from scientists, perhaps in order to co-author a paper to appear in an interdisciplinary journal. I also plan to put together a more complete functional profile of consciousness by combining what can be learned on conceptual and phenomenological grounds with what can be learned from theories on the evolutionary origins of consciousness.
the concept of consciousness
I argue against the view that theoretical usage of the term "consciousness" conflates different concepts of consciousness. Special attention is given to Block's distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness, but I also touch on a number of other alleged concepts of consciousness: in particular self-consciousness, narrative consciousness, and monitoring consciousness. The main thesis is that that the diversity of concepts allegedly conflated by the term "consciousness" are not concepts of consciousness, but rather definitions of consciousness, kinds of consciousness, and, especially, explanations of consciousness. The proposal that global access can explain consciousness is not a sign of confusion but rather reflects substantive theoretical disagreement about the nature of consciousness.
In future research I will investigate the extent to which the conflation of distinct concepts has historically prevented scientific progress. My preliminary sense is that this sort of conflation is quite rare. More often what looks like conflation in retrospect was substantive theoretical disagreement at the time.
the neural correlates of consciousness
If scientists are to explain consciousness without resorting to dualism, they'll need to track down the material correlates of conscious mental states. But there are many such correlates, some of which are clearly not the sort properties that scientists are interested in. I argue that inappropriate correlates remain even if the scope is restricted to set aside creatures with different material constitutions, even if attention is limited to a particular level of description, and even if scientists employ the minimal correlate strategy.
Scientists are unlikely to isolate the correlates of conscious mental states and processes without attributing to them necessary causal powers or functional roles. I propose that this can be done by appealing to the arguments for global access theories and representationalism.
In coming research I plan to further develop my criticisms of the conceptual independence of phenomenal and physical/functional concepts. I believe that phenomenal properties play many necessary causal roles that we can recognize on conceptual and phenomenological grounds.