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Where precisely do we stand in our understanding of consciousness?


Consciousness is inherently inexplicable. Obviously some people say otherwise. But their ‘theories’ are so much laugh-track fodder. And quibbles aside, there are really there are only two such theories, namely:

(1) Consciousness doesn’t exist. Our belief to the contrary embodies some kind of ‘category mistake’ or logical blunder.

(2) It doesn’t exist but is a useful fiction, at least until we have a more fine-grained knowledge of ‘neural networks’ and the like.

(3) It exists and is to be explained in terms of the usual pushes and pulls governing the physical universe.

(1) and (2) are a sick a joke, albeit one that ‘philosophers’ urge acceptance of, in many forms, using every conceivable lubrication and fabrication, ranging from Donald Davidson’s ‘interpretivism’ (‘to be sad is to act in a way that is readily interpreted as sadness-driven’) to Paul Churchland’s wholesale denialism (‘we believe in consciousness for the same reason we believe in ghosts—we haven’t fully come out of the trees…and if you believe it self-refuting to deny its existence, well, then, you really, really can’t walk upright’).

Consciousness does exist; it interacts with the physical and is therefore itself mediated by the physical—by brains, obviously. But it doesn’t follow that consciousness—or any other aspect of the mental, for that matter—-can be explained in the same way that tire-pressure or temperature or other physical phenomena can be explained. This is because it is truths that are explained, not objects, and mentalistic statements—-though obviously capable of being coordinated with physicalistic statements—seem to govern a different data-space and cannot be absorbed into the statement-classes that mediate biological (or otherwise physical) explanations.

Philosophy, especially recently, is the very definition of failure when it comes to ‘explaining’ anything relating to the mental. It assigns hero-status to people like Quine, Wittgenstein, and Davidson, who simply deny its existence, albeit under various subterfuges, guaranteeing that anything meaningful said on the matter is drowned out.

There is a lot of good work in this general area, however. None of it explains consciousness per se, but it clarifies adjacent issues. The best such body of work is the Advances in Consciousness Series, published by John Benjamins. Advances in Consciousness Research There are philosophers who contribute to this series, but they are multi-disciplinary—and on the edges of the philosophical community. It’s mostly cog sci people, albeit of a philosophically informed variety. Let me know what you think.

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