Introduction: Consciousness Research at the End of the Twentieth Century.
Document Type:Book Chapter
Topics:Theory of Consciousness
Keywords:ncc, qualia, psychophysical correlation, content, representation, consciounsess research, theoretical and phenomenal models
Deposited by:Kristina Musholt
Date of Issue:2000
Title of Book:Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Empirical and Conceptual Questions
Number of Pages:16
Place of Publication:Cambridge, MA
Abstract:In 1989 the philosopher Colin McGinn asked the following question: ``How can technicolor phenomenology arise from soggy gray matter?'' (1989: 349). Since then many authors in the field of consciousness research have quoted this question over and over, like a slogan that in a nutshell conveys a deep and important theoretical problem. It seems that almost none of them discovered the subtle trap inherent in this question. The brain is not gray. The brain is colorless. Obviously, the fundamental methodological problem faced by any rigorous research program on consciousness is the subjectivity of the target phenomenon. It consists in the simple fact that conscious experience, under standard conditions, is always tied to an individual, first-person perspective. The subjective qualities inherent in a phenomenal color experience are a paradigm example of something that is accessible from a firstperson perspective only. Color consciousnessÐ regardless whether in gray or in TechnicolorÐis a subjective phenomenon. However, the precise nature of the relationship of such first-person phenomena to elements within the domain of objectively describable events is unclear. From an objective, third-person perspective all we ®nd in the world are electromagnetic radiation and the re¯ectance properties of middle-sized objects, wavelength mixtures and metamers, retinal input vectors and activation patterns in the visual system. None of these, so far, map nicely and systematically onto the chromatic primitives of subjective, visual experience. It is just as our physics teacher in high school always told us: From a strictly objective perspective, no such things as colors exist in the world. Therefore, the pivotal question is not How do we get from gray to Technicolor? The core question is if at allÐand if so, in what senseÐphysical states of the human nervous system, under a certain description, can be successfully mapped onto the content of conscious experience. This content can be a simple qualitative feature like ``grayness'' or ``sogginess.'' There are also complex, nested forms of conscious content like ``the self in the act of knowing'' (see, e.g., chapters 7 and 20 in this volume) or high-level phenomenal properties like ``coherence'' or ``holism'' (e.g., chapters 8 and 9 in this volume). But what, precisely, does it mean that conscious experience has a ``content''? Is this an entity open to empirical research programs and interdisciplinary cooperation? And what would it mean to map this content onto physical states ``under a certain description''? In other words: What kinds of relations are psychophysical correlations? Do we have a workable conception of the isomorphism we are obviously assuming? If one is seriously interested in getting away from the naõÈveteÂ of popular discussions concerning consciousness, the ®rst thing one has to understand is that we know the world only under representations. For philosophers this is a point of great triviality, but since the large majority of contributors in this volume address empirical issues, a few short remarks may be in order. Let me explain.