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Journal of Consciousness Studies -- Controversies in Science and the Humanities

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, No. 5-6, 1997, pp. 385-8

THE FUTURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS STUDIES

The Editors

The working group for the first Tucson conference and the first Oxford JCS editorial meeting took place around the same time (Spring 1993), and in both groups there was the same Davy Crockett pioneer feeling. However things have moved on a bit since then: Tucson II attracted over 1000 registrants along with worldwide media coverage and Andy Clark referred to ‘the highly successful Journal of Consciousness Studies‘ in a recent New Scientist review. However, partly as a result of this success, along with the steady progress of dedicated journals like Consciousness and Cognition (launched in 1991) and Psyche, 1997 has seen a mushrooming of small focused meetings, and specialist journals are now publishing papers on consciousness. So how does this leave the broad interdisciplinary focus of JCS and of meetings like Tucson and Elsinore (see review on page 390)? As Bernie Baars put it recently:

From the attendance at ASSC1 it seems that mainstream psychology and brain science are now poised to take over scientific consciousness studies, as indeed they should. Major scientific journals like Nature and Science already publish frontier contributions on a monthly basis, especially on the brain basis of consciousness. When everybody in science is hard at work exploring human consciousness, what is going to be the role of JCS, the Tucson conference, and the University of Arizona Consciousness Center? I can think of some exciting possibilities, but we need to ask the question explicitly and see if we can arrive at plausible answers. It is a major challenge for the future.

Thomas Metzinger put this point rather more emphatically at the Elsinore meeting by claiming that consciousness studies was in a chaotic, pre-paradigm state — somewhat akin to nuclear physics at the beginning of this century. He concluded that broad meetings like Elsinore did little to clarify the issues and illustrated this by dismissing Bruce Mangan’s call for a renewed phenomenology as a discredited research programme that has been intellectually bankrupt for at least 50 years. He was looking forward to the establishment of a dominant (information-processing) paradigm, and the abandonment of all first-person approaches to the New Age Journal. In the same way that Francis Crick has expressed his frustration at the broad public interest in this field, Metzinger argued for the debate to be limited to a narrow band of specialists.

A number of people queried the use of the word ‘narrow’ when they read this editorial in proof, so let’s have a go at unpacking this widespread view that only certain approaches should be included in the serious study of consciousness:

kosher

taboo

Philosophy

Physics

Botany

Hermeneutics

Neurobiology

Phenomenology

Healing

Literature

Cognitive science

Sociology

Folk psychology

Aesthetics

 

Anthropology

Anomalies

Religion

 

Feminism

Psychotherapy

Ethics

 

Ecology

 Transpersonal psychology

OK, like most classifications this is pretty crude, but it does represent a widespread body of opinion. It’s interesting to note, in passing, that there is no correspondence between the above model and a Wilberesque ‘reductionist–holist’ taxonomy, as the ‘taboo’ column would include arch-reductionists like Penrose and Hameroff alongside advocates of strong emergence theories like Alwyn Scott. And individual scientists often will advocate the inclusion of some of the items in the right-hand column. But we would argue that the distinction is wrong in principle for the following reasons:

  1. No-one has as yet come up with any evidence for a theory of consciousness that will satisfy the demands of the various sceptics, so the decision to focus the investigation at, say, the level of the neuronal network has to be for pre-theoretical reasons.
  2. We only know consciousness through our own experience, so arguments against including a first-person phenomenological approach are a contradiction in terms.
  3. The only form of consciousness that we know directly is human, and this is characteristically shaped by social, cultural and environmental factors.

JCS is subtitled controversies in science and the humanities and we consider that all the approaches listed above have something useful to offer. What is not acceptable, though, is when approaches that have their rightful centre of gravity in the humanities try to masquerade as science — obvious examples here being psychoanalysis and certain schools of sociology. Thus the editors will tend to favour contributions from these disciplines that are explicitly hermeneutic in their approach. We will publish informed speculation in areas where little else is available (e.g. Penrose’s views on the existence and importance of as yet unknown physical theories). However the meaning of ‘informed’ will depend on the context, but might for example include links to well established work, and should certainly include intellectual coherence — one use of our ‘Opinion’ section is to provide a forum for more exploratory ideas. It’s also the case that many believe the evidence from the study of anomalies has to be viewed against a historical background of fraud and poor scientific practice. But, with these caveats, it would be irresponsible for our editorial team to exclude any area.

But it is important not to confuse this argument for inclusiveness with a rejection of the scientific method. We should all be alarmed at the sharp rise in anti-scientism that we are witnessing at the moment, and it’s no good just writing it off as a case of Pre-Millenial Tension that will somehow disappear on the first of January 2001. The main reason for this reaction is that the rampant, unconstrained march of scientific progress has had a profoundly dehumanising influence on modern life, and the image of the scientist as expert has taken quite a battering over crises like ‘mad cow disease’ (BSE). You really don’t need a PhD in molecular biology to understand that it’s probably not a good idea to feed herbivores on diseased sheeps’ brains, and yet such views were just shrugged off by ‘expert opinion’. The editors of this journal are keen that consciousness studies should not be hijacked by experts and that scientific progress in the field should be fully constrained by a lively humanistic input. Who knows, some of the aphorisms of folk psychology may even end up losing their scare quotes.

 

Consciousness Research Abstracts

It’s important, however, to try and understand the arguments for restricting consciousness studies to a narrower range of disciplines. Given the explosion in knowledge and publications over the last few decades, scholars do have to specialise very narrowly in their own area. In most fields of study this has not been inappropriate, as the nature of the problems are fairly well defined. However, in the field of consciousness studies this is not the case: as John Searle famously put it: ‘At the present state of our investigation of consciousness we don’t know how it works and we need to try all kinds of different ideas.’ Sadly, few scholars are prepared to accept such an open-minded approach, as Joshua Stern wryly noted on Psyche D:

In practice this means that the 1997 Montreal meeting (see p. 397) was attended mainly by neuroscientists, ASSC Claremont (see p. 393) by psychologists, New School (NY) by philosophers etc. There is a serious danger that the emerging multi- disciplinary field of consciousness studies could Balkanise and different groups of scholars will end up ‘circling the wagons and talking among themselves’. Obviously this sort of monolithic tendency is anathema to those of us who feel the problem of consciousness is so puzzling that we would like to keep all strands of the debate open. The question is how best to go about this, given the above-mentioned trends towards premature closure. We will argue here that a comprehensive ‘Consciousness Research Abstracts’ service could help to address this problem in a uniquely effective way.

The whole point of a multidisciplinary approach to consciousness studies is that specialities as far removed as, say, neurology and sociology should act to mutually constrain each other. But how could neurologists possibly keep abreast of work in such an alien field and (more importantly), why on earth would they want to? Let’s take a concrete example from a recent draft from a philosopher seeking to demonstrate that the self is a neuronal construct:

The pre-reflexive self-intimacy of the subject is only instantiated episodically and, for instance, completely disappears in deep sleep or coma.

However, if the author had been conversant with some less well-known psychophysiology studies he would have been aware of some new evidence for the maintenance of self-awareness throughout deep sleep amongst advanced meditators.1 This is a clear instance of how evidence from radically different traditions is an essential constraint for real progress in the field of consciousness studies. The practical issue is how to familiarise such authors with work from outside their own field.

It’s clearly the case that a few scholars do have a genuinely open-minded approach to this problem and they will continue to attend broadly-based meetings like Tucson and to read general journals like JCS. However, it has to be accepted that they will tend to be in the minority and most academics, wishing to make progress and achieve some ‘results’ will actively seek to blinker themselves against other disciplines which may take a completely different line on the problem of consciousness.

However, if we were to establish a truly comprehensive research database this trend to insularity could be made more difficult, for the following reasons. First of all, the scope of the database would include everything on the ‘Tucson taxonomy’ — i.e. from single-cell recording to shamanism. Secondly, and most importantly, the database would be user searchable and (here’s the rub): if the author of the last quote (on self-awareness in sleep) were to do a dual search — ‘self’ and ‘sleep’, he would then, inter alia, be presented with evidence from published work in psycho- physiology that he would be hard pressed to ignore. Such a service would be an invaluable aid towards preventing the premature closure of the field.

But this would only succeed if researchers had confidence in the quality of the database. Such a service should therefore only contain abstracts of published material from reputable sources, should be comprehensive with regard to current awareness and should progressively develop a good archive of older material. A plan for the creation of a comprehensive abstracts service has been included as part of the funding proposal for the new University of Arizona Consciousness Studies Center.

There is no reason at all why the broad-brush approach offered by JCS and the new Tucson Center should not sit comfortably alongside the tightly-focused approach of journals like Consciousness and Cognition and Psyche, and the ASSC conferences. At the time of the first Tucson conference there was a slight feeling of either–or, but there is now an increasing recognition of the necessity for both approaches. At the risk of sounding slightly hackneyed, this is a bit like having Kuhnian and Popperian science at the same time — the individual disciplines would go all out to establish the paradigm, with cross-disciplinary snipers doing all they can to shoot it down in flames. This ongoing dialectic will certainly make for good science, even if it causes a little discomfort to some of the players in the field.

The only thing one can say with certainty regarding any scientific theory is that it will eventually be proved wrong. In most fields of enquiry this should not worry us unduly; however the study of human consciousness is the study of our selves in the deepest meaning of the word, and the adoption of the wrong paradigm could have disastrous consequences. Given the aforementioned provisionality of scientific explanation, we can be certain that the paradigm will be wrong, so, to paraphrase [the late lamented] Sir Isaiah Berlin, our only defence must be a pluralistic one. Past ages have witnessed the adoption of monolithic paradigms for dogmatic reasons, with a less than universally happy outcome in human terms, so let’s not make the same mistake again.

 

One-Third Increase in Pages for 1998

So, dear reader, how can you help in this crusade towards a truly open, but rigorous assault on the ‘final frontier’ of knowledge? Well, as a first shot, renew your subscription promptly! (see renewal form on the back of the label sheet). Andy Clark may like to call us ‘highly successful’ but we always have a struggle to pay the printers and every subscription counts. As we’ve got such a huge backlog of good material ready to publish we are introducing a 1/3 increase in pages next year and this has inevitably led to a corresponding price rise. However this has been offset by a new reduced rate for students and retired people. And, secondly, introduce JCS to your library (college or city). There’s a special library recommendation card at the back of this issue. Thirdly, you might like to consider introducing JCS to a colleague by taking out a one-year gift subscription — details on the colour insert and subscriptions renewal sheet. Thank you for your continuing support.

1 L.I. Mason et al., ‘Electrophysiological correlates of higher states of consciousness during sleep in long-term practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation program’, Sleep, 20 (1997), pp. 1

 


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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