welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Introducing Consciousness

David Papineau and Ted Honderich recently locked horns at Borders Bookstore in London, in a debate organised by Philosophy For All and Philosophy Now.

Chair David Papineau is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London and was until recently the editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Ted Honderich was for many years the Grote Professor of Philosophy at University College London; the Professorship formerly occupied by A J Ayer. Both of them have written and published extensively on consciousness and are well-known figures in this debate. David Papineau has just brought out a new book called Introducing Consciousness which is published by Icon Books and about which I’ll say more in a minute. I’m particularly happy to be chairing a debate on consciousness because I myself in fact am often conscious, as of course are many of you. Or are you? I think I’m conscious. I think; I dream; I enjoy listening to music; and I experience particular sensations when I see particular colours. But how do I know that any of you are conscious? Or maybe half of you are and the other half are zombies. You are able to walk and talk and function normally in your everyday life but in fact you have no internal selfawareness. How do you know that I’m not a zombie? (Laughter, heckling) Questions about what it is to be conscious; about whether animals have consciousness; whether we could make machines which are conscious; about how consciousness relates to what is happening physically in our brains, have become central to philosophy of mind. It wasn’t always so, but recently the problem of consciousness has come particularly to the fore, perhaps driven by the interest in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. And it’s perhaps a measure of the problem’s importance and the degree to which it is now almost universally accepted as a central area of debate that David Papineau has devoted the time to writing a book with cartoons and pictures to introduce the subject to beginners. David, can you tell us about the book and about the problems which it addresses?

David Papineau I’ll tell you in summary what is in the book apart from the pictures. I would like to thank Howard Selina who illustrated the book and a number of others in the Icon series. The book really has two halves. In the first half I raise what I take to be the basic problem of consciousness: how does the realm of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, the realm of awareness relate to the physical world and, in particular, the brain? There are three possible answers to the question. There’s the dualist answer that says that conscious feelings are separate from the physical world. There’s the materialist answer that says the two things are just the same thing and there’s the mysterian view associated with Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn that says the whole problem’s too hard for us humans to solve. I explain the various pros and cons of these three views. In fact, it being an introductory book, I don’t really put my cards on the table but anybody who reads carefully, I think, will notice that I favour the materialist view over the other two. The mysterian view I don’t give much time to; I think it’s unduly pessimistic. If we can solve the problem then we prove that the mysterians are wrong so let’s go ahead and try to solve it! I think one of the biggest difficulties with the materialist view is to understand how it can be true when it seems so obviously false. I mean it doesn’t seem as if our feelings are the same as physical states of our brains – put it the other way round, the problem is to explain why materialism should seem so implausible if indeed it’s true. And in the book I make some suggestions about how materialists might do that.

But the thing I’d like to stress now, I think, is that when we come to dualism there is a substantial problem, and it’s worth saying that this is a modern objection. It’s an objection that comes to the fore in the last hundred years or so. 150 years ago a dualist could think of the mind as something that came down and jiggled the molecules in the brain and got us to behave in the way we do. In fact most serious people 150 years ago were interactionist dualists of that kind. They thought the mind was separate but it influenced the brain. I think the last hundred years of science have shown, not beyond all possible doubt, but convincingly for most people, that there isn’t any such downward causation. Nothing influences the brain except other bits of the brain. So if you accept that, then dualism is forced into the view that the mind is kind of impotent. It’s floating above the brain, perhaps caused by the brain, but it doesn’t make a difference. This is called epiphenominalism. The nicest model of that is the child with a toy steering wheel that thinks it’s driving the car but in fact it’s not having any influence at all. In the light of modern science, dualism seems forced to that kind of view of the separate mind as impotent and I think that’s a disabling feature of dualism. Modern dualists like David Chalmers are prepared to countenance this and accept that the mental doesn’t have any influence on the brain. But I think if materialism can be made to work it’s more attractive precisely because it doesn’t condemn the mental realm to that kind of impotence. So that’s the first half of the book. I look at dualism, materialism, mysterianism; I look at the various pros and cons.

In the second half I turn to a rather different set of issues. I look at scientific and philosophical theories of consciousness and I think of these as attempts to figure out which kinds of physical system, which kinds of brain are, or give rise to,consciousness. And a curious thing is that that kind of question is equally interesting to both materialists and dualists. That’s why a moment ago I said “which physical systems are”, (that’s what the materialists will ask), or “give rise to”, (that’s what the dualists will ask), “consciousness”. And both of them are interested in the same issue. “Where will we find consciousness?” “What kind of physical arrangements do we have to produce that will then amount to real consciousness?” I look at various kinds of research into human consciousness by scientists and philosophers. Perhaps the most interesting research is that which shows us that much less than we thought going on in us is actually conscious. Plenty of things we do that we think are guided by our conscious awareness turn out to be guided by mechanical systems inside us that we’re not aware of at all. This is most forcefully shown by studies done on people with brain lesions that remove the conscious awareness, say of various kinds of vision, but still leave them able to move around and grab things effectively – as in the phenomenon is called ‘blindsight’. Still, while this kind of research is interesting I’m not sure that it will really end up answering the questions that people want to answer with a theory of consciousness.

A theory of consciousness would be a great thing if you could get it because it would answer some questions that we really want to answer. At its most outlandish, if we came across some alien lifeform, extraterrestrials, how could we tell if they were conscious or not? People sometimes ask “How could we tell, is it possible, that a sophisticated enough computer could be conscious?” And much closer to home and more important is the question of which animals are conscious and in what ways. If we could find out what is characteristic of the physical systems that gives rise to consciousness, then we could tell which animals are conscious and which aren’t. Unfortunately I don’t think the kind of research that people are conducting into human consciousness is going to generate that kind of answer. And the problem is that it’s not clear that looking at the class of states of the conscious in humans is going to come up with a signature of consciousness: some physical characteristic present in all and only those states which will be the sign, the characteristic, of consciousness in other beings. It’s possible that the research will come up with such a signature of consciousness but it is equally likely that we’ll find that there’s a whole bunch of disparate states in humans that are conscious, or perhaps even if they aren’t that disparate, the feature they have in common isn’t one you’d expect to find in other beings even if they were conscious. So we seem to be stuck without an answer to the questions I just raised a moment ago. Which animals, which possible cyber machines or aliens are conscious? At this point the difference between materialism and dualism becomes relevant again. A dualist, I think, is really stuck with this kind of question. Their view is that in some physical systems there’s extra, non-physical stuff that goes on; some animals have this extra stuff and others don’t. But they have absolutely no way of figuring out which do and which don’t and there’s no further research they can do to find out about that. Materialists have a bit more room to manoeuvre. Materialists think of consciousness as just a certain kind of physical system, so they can say “Look, there’s all kinds of animals, all kinds of possible things, with all different kinds of physical systems; there’s no need to suppose there is a definite cut-off point between the ones that are conscious and the ones that aren’t.” They can say “Well maybe it’s not like much to be a stone and not much more to be an ant but maybe it’s a bit more interesting to be a toad.” They can suppose there’s a kind of continuum here and that it’s rather a matter of decision whether we count fish as in the class of conscious beings or not. Now I’m not saying we can decide whether to make fish conscious. It would be crazy to suppose our decisions will make a difference to what it’s like for the fish. My thought is rather that we can decide whether we should count that type of what-it’s-like as sufficiently interesting, sufficiently important to qualify as consciousness. I think that in the end this issue should be decided, or will be decided, by moral considerations. The important question is how should we treat fish or how should we treat animals, extraterrestrials, computers – that’s if computers become interesting enough to raise this question. Remember, I’m not saying it will make a difference to how they are; I’m saying what we should do is decide whether to include that kind of being in the class of conscious beings on moral grounds. That might seem a bit odd, to say that this issue is going to be decided on moral grounds but if you ask why this issue matters, why it’s important to decide which things are conscious and which aren’t, surely the most obvious reason is the moral reason – it makes a difference to how you are going to treat them. So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to go at it backwards, to think about how you ought to interact with those beings and decide on that basis whether they’re conscious or not.

Ted Honderich I’m a very lucky fellow for several reasons, one of which is that I keep running into immortals. I actually Honderich had the good fortune to spend a week with the immortal Elvis Presley. And I find myself tonight, it seems, in the company of another immortal and this one is Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher of the 17th Century – 1588 to 1679. I see he’s here reborn as David Papineau. David is not a half-materialist or a pretend materialist but he’s actually a real one. He actually thinks that consciousness is material and he’s not even of the functionalist variety, which pretends it’s not really materialist but really is! He’s an all-out materialist. I read his book and I must say I was absolutely delighted by it. Dead clear. You can actually see things to disagree with. And I do tell everybody here to buy Introducing Consciousness by David Papineau. It really makes you think, and you learn things. What’s more you disagree a lot. That was my experience anyway. Indeed I came to 19 disagreements and, come to think of it, I wrote them down in a handout. (Distributed) I won’t make it through all of them so I’ll just single a few out. Materialism about consciousness, materialism in answer to the question “What is it for someone to be conscious?” really comes in two varieties these days. There’s half-materialism or pretend materialism and the famous American philosopher Donald Davidson is a good example of this. And what half-materialism comes to is something like this. In a piece of consciousness – that is, your seeing or your thinking something – there is one event in your head and that one event is both neural (that’s the materialist bit), a matter of transmitter substances, electrical potentials and so on, and also conscious. You might think that’s really a fake materialism since it preserves consciousness but just assigns it as a property to one thing which is also neural. On the other hand, as against this half-materialism, there’s real materialism and what it says is that when this sort of consciousness happens – when you are seeing something or thinking something – there’s one event in your head, with only neural properties. That’s the important bit, not anything else. That one event in your head has only the properties of transmitter substances and electrical potentials and what-not. And this is Thomas Hobbes reborn as David Papineau the materialist. He’s not even a neural functionalist, by the way, which is one kind of true materialist. A neural functionalist says that your thought or perception, the event in your head, is in fact neural but what makes it mental or conscious is that it’s an effect of certain things, certain input, and a cause of certain things; certain output. Neural functionalism has its origin, I think, in the truth that if you try to define the desire for a glass of wine, you would say it was the thing that was the result, or the effect, of the glass of wine heaving itself up in your visual field and the cause of your arm reaching out. Where neural functionalism goes as mad as the rest of materialism, is trying to pretend that the episode of wanting the glass of wine is only whatever has the right causes and the right effects. Now, David doesn’t believe that. He thinks rightly, and I agree with him, that neural functionalism is pretty doubtful stuff though he is a little more charitable towards it than I am. As I say, neural functionalism takes the view that your desire for the glass of wine is what has the right causes and the right effect and David speaks of these facts about the event as being its ‘structural properties’. And being charitable to neural functionalism he thinks maybe it could save itself from being an epiphenomenalism (which is the view that the mental event doesn’t have any explanatory power with respect to your arm flying out a little later), by saying something like this; that structural properties are causes with respect to the arm going out. But the structural properties simply are the fact that this event has certain causes. So we’re on the way with neural functionalism, so understood, to the really absurd proposition that the arm movement is caused by the event causing the arm movement. Sounds pretty fishy! Now, I want to leave aside other things that can be said about neural functionalism and come to something which I think is absolutely solid. David, as I say, is a real materialist and a real materialist, for present purposes, is somebody who thinks that a mental episode has only neural properties, no others. And it seems to me that that is dead mistaken, because of something I want to call the ‘wholly resilient proposition’. The proposition that never lies down for long. It always gets up and fights again. It always overtakes more people than are ever convinced by philosophers. And the wholly resilient proposition is that the properties of such conscious events as your now feeling something, your now thinking of what I’m saying – the properties of conscious events aren’t neural ones. They’re not matters of transmitter substances and electrical potentials. That is the wholly resilient proposition. And it seems to me that it defeats absolutely the real materialism that David is strongly inclined to hold.

Now of course, as he rightly points out, there’s also something wrong with the other side, with non-materialism, if it turns out to be the idea that conscious states consist of funny stuff in the head, really funny stuff in the head. Funny stuff of some very curious kind. The philosopher David Chalmers seems to be espousing this view and the idea roughly is that consciousness consists of funny stuff in the head which is not the stuff of current neural science, not our known stuff about transmitter substances and electrical potentials, but some future stuff that may one day get discovered. That’s what consciousness is. Now it seems to me that that dualism, if you want to call it that, is entirely ill-fated because what will happen if that stuff is ever discovered and it is in character something like stuff of neural states as we now know it, is that people are bound to say “well that isn’t what my thinking of Aunt Mary is. That isn’t what my wanting a glass of wine is. That isn’t what listening to Ted really is.”

It seems to me that if materialism is up the spout, because of the wholly resilient proposition, and if the kind of dualism that I’ve just mentioned is going to fail in the end, what we need is a brand new start in the philosophy of mind. A lot of people think this. It’s a majority view that philosophy of mind, roughly speaking, is up the spout at the moment. We need a paradigm shift. We need something really different and it’s going to be a lot more different than supposing that the question of consciousness is what moral attitude you take to somebody. This is a factual question, what consciousness is. It’s not about the attitudes we take to persons or the moral responses we make to fish or whatever else it is. I want to put a brand new view to you which I think has tremendous recommendations. Let me talk for a little bit not about all of consciousness but just about perceptual consciousness. That is the consciousness which is your awareness of your environment. I’ll start by asking this question: what is it for you, and I really mean you individually right now, what is it for you to be aware of this room? What is it for you to be aware of where you are? What is it for you to be perceptually conscious right now? And I suggest to you that there are various criteria that have to be satisfied by a really good answer. The first criterion is that it has to seem persuasive, has to sound phenomenologically correct. The answer’s going to have to sound like what it’s like for you actually to be aware of this room. And I put it to you that what it is for you now to be aware of this room is, and this is the central proposition in what I’ve got to say, what it is for you to be aware of this room is for a world somehow to exist, for things somehow to exist in space and time. If you think for a moment, “What was it like a moment ago for me to be aware of this room,” you don’t think of some funny little thing in your head, a neural event or a funny neural event, what you think is what it was for me to be aware of this room was for the room somehow to exist. Now you might think that that isn’t much use because it’s just to say that for you to be aware of this room is for a mental world to exist – your particular mental world. And if that were true, of course, the answer to the question of what your awareness of this room consists in would be circular, because we’d snuck in talk of mentality or consciousness in the answer we gave of what it was for you to be aware of this room. But I want to say that the answer isn’t circular, for the following reason. What it is for you to be aware of this room, what it is for you to be perceptually conscious, is a certain state of affairs. I want to attempt to persuade you that that is not a mental or a conscious world and I want to do so essentially by saying one thing about something else and it’s the physical world, the physical world by one very traditional conception. What does the physical world consist of? Well, it consists, you might say, firstly of chairs and things like that. And secondly of atoms and things like that. And the chairs and things like that are space occupiers that are perceived by people in general. And the atoms are space occupiers which are in causal connection with the first lot of stuff. Now, the first part of the physical world – made up of the sofas or the space occupiers which are perceived by people in general – has a dependency on the atoms, that is, the other part, and it also has a dependency, and this is the essential point, on the perceivers in general. Ever since Hobbes, it’s been clear that our conception of the perceived part of the physical world is partly dependent on us; on our perceptual apparatus. Bats, for instance, have very different perceptual apparatus. We also have a conceptual scheme. The point that I want to stress is that the perceived part of the physical world both has a dependency on the atoms and a dependency on us. And if you now turn to the world that I say somehow exists with respect to you when you are aware of your surroundings you’ll find similar dependencies. That world, the chairs in it for you depend on the atoms. And that world depends on you. Not on perceivers in general but on you. Now, the fact that the perceived part of the physical world isn’t downgraded or demoted into a mental world because of its dependency on perceivers in general should lead us rightly to think that the world that I’ve ascribed to you, in explanation of what it is for you to be conscious now, isn’t to be downgraded either. It too is a world of existing things.

There are a lot of other criteria for a good answer to the question “What is consciousness?”, or more particularly “What is it to be perceptually conscious?”, which is part of that question. Let me mention them very quickly. Consciousness, we think, is a reality. It’s not a nothing. My view which turns consciousness into a certain state of affairs makes it a real reality. Secondly, or thirdly rather, consciousness certainly involves something called subjectivity. Virtually every philosopher in the history of the subject has agreed on this. And I really can give sense to what it is for consciousness to be subjective with respect to perceptual consciousness. Your world is different from the objective world. A fourth criterion, and this is the one that David will perhaps be most interested in, is this: an account of consciousness these days must not worsen the mind/body problem – the terrible difficulty of explaining how there can be interaction between mind or consciousness and body, the physical world. And I point out to you that the world of perceptual consciousness, that state of affairs which I’ve indicated to you, is a spatial world. The things in it are in space. That is enough to make possible interaction between that world, that state of affairs of which your consciousness consists, and the physical world. Finally, two more criteria. It’s often said that consciousness has something to do with intentionality; intentionality being some kind of relation between a conscious event and a thing out there in the world. Then it turns out the things out there in the world don’t have to exist so it can’t be a relation after all. And for that reason amongst others it seems to me that philosophical doctrines of intentionality or ‘aboutness’ are nonsense. They’re a mess and we should get rid of them. There’s no real criterion of consciousness in philosophical doctrines of intentionality. And finally there’s the last criterion for a good account of consciousness and that’s the wholly resilient proposition. The wholly resilient proposition is that none of us really believes – not even David although he tries it on at the end of his book – that thinking or feeling, or the experience of seeing, has only neural properties. Any decent account of consciousness has to satisfy that criterion and mine certainly doesn’t make your awareness of this room into something which has only neural properties.

The only thing I’ve got left to say is that I’ve written a review of David’s book and I’m going to put it on my website soon. One last thought – buy the book. It’s all wrong but philosophy’s usually all wrong. It’s an excellent book.

Many thanks to Borders Bookstore in Oxford Street, London, for hosting this event. Introducing Consciousness by David Papineau is published by Icon at £8.99 and in the US by Totem Books at $10.95.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X