- What is the best way to understand consciousness? In philosophy, centuries-old debates continue to rage over whether the Universe is divided, following René Descartes, into ‘mind stuﬀ’ and ‘matter stuﬀ’. But the rise of modern neuroscience has seen a more pragmatic approach gain ground: an approach that is guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers. Its key is to recognise that explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis – to start building explanatory bridges from the subjective and phenomenal to the objective and measurable.
- In my work at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton (Web Link), I collaborate with cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, brain imagers, virtual reality wizards and mathematicians – and philosophers too – trying to do just this. And together with other laboratories, we are gaining exciting new insights into consciousness – insights that are making real diﬀerences in medicine, and that in turn raise new intellectual and ethical challenges. In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive. In this story, we are conscious ‘beast-machines’, and I hope to show you why.
- This returns us one last time to Descartes. In dissociating mind from body, he argued that non-human animals were nothing more than ‘beast machines’ without any inner universe. In his view, basic processes of physiological regulation had little or nothing to do with mind or consciousness.
- I’ve come to think the opposite. It now seems to me that fundamental aspects of our experiences of conscious selfhood might depend on control-oriented predictive perception of our messy physiology, of our animal blood and guts. We are conscious selves because we too are beast machines – self-sustaining ﬂesh-bags that care about their own persistence.
- Sub-title: "It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be."
- See Web Link.
- This is an interesting and important paper, which rejects David Chalmers’s hard problem in favour of the real problem (“how to account for the various properties of consciousness in terms of biological mechanisms; without pretending it doesn’t exist (easy problem) and without worrying too much about explaining its existence in the ﬁrst place (hard problem)”).
- I hope to add a commentary in due course.
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