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by Rick Lewis
It gives me particular pleasure to introduce an issue focussing on consciousness, as I myself am sometimes conscious. I know the same goes for many of you. But there is a great deal of debate among philosophers about what this actually means.
The nature of consciousness is a philosophical problem which has come to centre stage mainly in the last few years. As the neuroscientists have gradually found out more and more about the workings of the brain, philosophers have wondered whether any part of the mind is inaccessible to scientific investigation. Many have argued that even if we find out everything about the way the brain physically functions, there will still be something vital missing from our picture. What this is, of course, is an understanding of how our subjective experiences come about. This is what David Chalmers calls the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.
In this issue we have articles looking at this problem from a wide variety of viewpoints. In the first of them, Mary Midgley says that many people talk about consciousness as if the brain was in isolation. She says we need to step back and see consciousness in its wider context, which is the context of organic life.
If conscious life had to be organic, this would rule out the possibility of conscious machines. Professor Igor Aleksander, (see interview) is an expert on artificial intelligence. He, at least, thinks that it is possible to build robots which are conscious of their surroundings in a sense broadly similar to the sense in which we say that humans are aware of their surroundings. He aims to prove this by actually building one, and has already made some progress in that direction.
There is a huge contrast between Igor Aleksander’s view and that of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson was a towering figure in French philosophy in the early 20th century – the Jacques Derrida of his day. However, he has gone into a profound eclipse. Reading John-Francis Phipps’ article about him, it isn’t hard to see why – there can be few philosophers less in tune with the intellectual spirit of the early 21st century than our Henri. Still, for that very reason his ideas on consciousness give a completely different perspective on the subject from that to which we’re now accustomed.
Some people approach the problem by pointing out that consciousness is always consciousness of something. I was conscious of the gathering clouds. You were conscious of the rain falling on your face. So, they say, consciousness is always directed towards something. It has ‘aboutness’ or in philo-jargon, intentionality. This isn’t the only way we talk about consciousness in everyday speech, however. As Jeanne Warren points out in her article on John Macmurray, we also use it to mean the opposite of unconsciousness – of being asleep, or in a coma. There isn’t necessarily any huge divergence of meaning here, as when we say “Has Fred regained consciousness?” we might be asking whether he has become aware again of all the various things and people around him.
Though the theme of this issue is consciousness, a second, unanticipated theme seems to have crept in as well. With articles on Henri Bergson, John Macmurray and John Herschel, we have pieces on three thinkers who are regarded by some as being unjustly neglected. Bergson and Herschel were acclaimed as giants in their own day. Macmurray wasn’t, but has gradually gathered admirers in the years since his demise.
From one of the most conceptually difficult problems of philosophy, we turn to one of the most practically worrying ethical issue of today. The headlines have been filled recently by the misdeeds of soldiers stationed in Iraq – the torture of prisoners, the deaths of civilians. In the first article in this issue, philosophy graduate Douglas Gearhart, who served as a PSYOPS (psychological operations) specialist in Iraq, appeals to philosophers to develop practical moral guidance and moral training for soldiers in battlefield situations. Scholastic philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, called this aspect of just war theory jus in bello. If Gearhart is right, it should cease being seen as a quaint relic of medieval thought and instead become the urgent concern of ethicists everywhere. In a way this is also about consciousness, as the choices soldiers make in wars are conscious choices, but ones made under enormous stress and without the steadying framework of everyday civilian life. How can they recall more easily in such situations a conscious awareness of the dignity and fragility of human life?