Consciousness Science: A Science of What?

Dissertation, University of Edinburgh (2011)
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While the search for scientific measures, models and explanations of consciousness is currently a growing area of research, this thesis identifies a series of methodological problems with the field that suggest that ‘consciousness’ is not in fact a viable scientific concept. This eliminativist stance is supported by assessing the current theories and methods of consciousness science on their own grounds, and by applying frameworks and criteria for ‘good’ scientific practice from philosophy of science. A central problem consists in the way that qualitative difference and dissociation paradigms are misused in order to identify measures of consciousness. Another problem concerns the wide range of experimental protocols used to operationalise consciousness and the implications this has on the findings of integrative approaches across behavioural and neurophysiological research. Following from this the way that mechanisms of consciousness have been inadequately demarcated, and how this affects whether ‘consciousness’ refers to any scientific kinds, is discussed. A final problem is the significant mismatch that exists between the common intuitions and phenomenological claims about the content of consciousness that motivate much current consciousness science, and the properties of neural processes that underlie sensory and cognitive phenomena.It is argued that the failure of these methods to be appropriately applied to the concept of consciousness, both in particular cases, and in the way that these methods fail to fulfil their crucial heuristic role in the practise of science, suggests that the concept of ‘consciousness’ should be eliminated from scientific discourse. Aside from the purely negative claim found in eliminativist accounts, the strong empirical grounding of this eliminativist claim also allows positive characterisations to be made about the products of the current science of consciousness, to identify real target phenomena and valid research questions for the mind sciences, and to suggest how the intuitions that ground the confused research program on consciousness result from real features of our cognitive architecture.



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Elizabeth Irvine
Cardiff University

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