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How To Make The Study Of Consciousness Scientifically Tractable

by Tam Hunt: We need to reexamine the idea of “objectivity” in research…

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Strangely, modern science was long dominated by the idea that to be scientific means to remove consciousness from our explanations, in order to be “objective.” This was the rationale behind behaviorism, a now-dead theory of psychology that took this trend to a perverse extreme.

Behaviorists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their human or animal subjects thought, intended or wanted, and focused instead entirely on behavior. They thought that because thoughts in other peoples’ heads, or in animals, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior.

Erwin Schrödinger, one of the key architects of quantum mechanics in the early part of the 20th century, labeled this approach in his philosophical 1958 book Mind and Matter, the “principle of objectivation” and expressed it clearly:

“By [the principle of objectivation] I mean … a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world.”

Schrödinger did, however, identify both the problem and the solution. He recognized that “objectivation” is just a simplification that is a temporary step in the progress of science in understanding nature.

He concludes: “Science must be made anew. Care is needed.”

We are now at the point, it seems to a growing number of thinkers who are finally listening to Schrödinger, where we must abandon, where appropriate, the principle of objectivation. It is time for us to employ a “principle of subjectivation” and in doing so understand not just half of reality—the objective world—but the whole, the external and internal worlds.

The science of consciousness has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of decades and the study of our own minds—consciousness/subjectivity—has finally become a respectable pursuit. It’s still tricky, however, to determine what kinds of data and what kinds of experiments we should consider legitimate in the study of consciousness.

We are retreating from the notion of only “objective” science being legitimate. We are now developing a new set of standards to replace “objectivity.” These new standards are based on the notion of intersubjective confirmation. This fancy term just means that we recognize that all “objective” data are data that we can discuss and decide as a community of scientists whether to regard as accurate and relevant and thus “true.” Truth is intersubjective, not objective. There is no “view from nowhere.” There is always a somewhere, a perspective, a subject.

This is the epistemological “hard problem” lurking behind the ontological “hard problem.” The former asks: What kinds of data and questions do we need to ask to figure out the nature of consciousness? How does science make sense of what has seemed to so many for so long to be a scientifically intractable problem? The latter is the now well-known reframing of the classic mind/body problem proposed by David Chalmers in his 1996 book The Conscious Mind: Toward a Theory of Consciousness.

Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi made the epistemological problem clear in their 2001 book A Universe of Consciousness:

“Consciousness poses a special problem that is not encountered in other domains of science. … What we are trying to do is not just to understand how the behavior or cognitive operations of another human being can be explained in terms of the working of his or her brain. … We are not just trying to connect a description of something out there with a more sophisticated scientific description. Instead, we are trying to connect a description of something out there—the brain—with something in here—an experience, our own individual experience, that is occurring to us as conscious observers.”

So, the study of consciousness requires a mapping between two very different domains: an objective (i.e., “intersubjective”) measurable world and a subjective hard-to-measure internal world. How do these worlds correspond to each other? What physical structures are associated with consciousness and why? How far down the chain of being does consciousness extend?

I want to suggest here, however, that while the study of subjectivity, as a physical phenomenon, is different to some degree because it’s turning the very lens of consciousness back on itself, it is not different in kind from other scientific objects of study.

Reasonable inference is a commonly used tool in science because we very rarely know what is “really” going on in whatever area of science we’re focused on. We make inferences all the time, based on the best information available. Neuroscientist Christof Koch makes this point well in his new book The Feeling of Life Itself.

A number of neuroscientists and philosophers are now developing various tools for measuring the presence and type of consciousness—some of which I discussed in my last essay here.

All of these tests depend on reasonable inference. We can’t know any consciousness other than our own.

A colleague, psychologist Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me that an “important aspect of ‘first-person science’ is identifying key tenets that emerge from experience itself, and then examining what implications they may have for science more generally.” He and other scientists are fleshing out a “first-person science” and a “metascience” along these lines.

To sum up, by ignoring mind in nature we ignore ourselves—because the “world” is, for each of us, wholly a creation of our own mind, but based on the imperfect sense data we receive from the objective world. What we gain by accepting subjectivity as part of nature is a more complete science.

Human minds are, in this new view of science, a natural product of the evolution of mind and matter, which are just two aspects of the same thing. Human minds represent the most complex form of mind in this corner of our universe, as far as we know.

We are, then, special in the complexity of our minds, but we are not distinct in a qualitative sense from the rest of nature, and the infinite number of far less complex minds that constitute nature—the world all around us.

We are now at a point where scientists and philosophers who study consciousness can roll up their sleeves and get busy testing the nature of consciousness in its many manifestations, and that data will, in turn, feed back into our theories of consciousness, and of physical reality more generally, in an ongoing dance of unfolding truth.

Source: Scientific American

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