Theories of Consciousness

The purpose of this meetup is twofold:

  1. To give a broad CONCEPTUAL overview of the major theories of consciousness. These theories can be divided in two conceptual categories with different empirical and conceptual implications.
  2. To ask, what do theories of consciousness purport to explain to begin with? What should they try to explain? What can they explain in principle?

First of all, it is important to note what are NOT theories of consciousness (TOC). Physicalism, dualism, and panpsychism are general metaphysical theories about the mind-body relationship, not TOCs. Functionalism and mind-body identity are specific physicalist theories which may point us to particular TOCs, but are not in themselves TOCs. This thread provides a broad overview of functionalism and mind-body identity. There are also theories about the nature of conscious content, such as representationalism, which are not TOCs. A TOC is a theory that at a minimum specifies a mechanism for why a mental event is conscious, as opposed to unconscious. TOCs can be philosophical, psychological or biological.

First, we can ask what we should be looking to explain. Several authors have suggested that we start with the common sense conception of consciousness:

It also makes sense to stay as close as possible to everyday, natural language usage for related terms. In common usage, the term “consciousness” is often synonymous with “awareness,” “conscious awareness,” and “experience.” For example, it makes no difference in most contexts to claim that I am "conscious of" what I think, "aware of" what I think, "consciously aware" of what I think, or that I can “experience” what I think. Consequently, to minimise confusion, it is important not to load these terms with added meanings that are peculiar to a given theoretical position. (Max Velmans)

Second, we should ask what aspect of consciousness does a specific theory purport to explain? As we will see, a pervasive problem in the field is that different theories simply define consciousness as whatever their theory explains. For example, Antonio Damasio has been criticized for defining consciousness as self-consciousness, and ignoring phenemonal consciousness (not surprising, as his theory purports to explain self-consciousness).

"What Was I Thinking?" by Ned Block

"How Weird Is Consciousness? Scientists may not even be asking the right questions" by Alison Gopnik

A similar criticism (ignoring phenomenal consciousness by defintion) has been levelled at the well-known Global Workspace Theory.

But as we will discuss, it is not easy to isolate phenomenal consciousness (if it exists discretely) experimentally.

The following articles survey the major theories of consciousness.

"Theories of Consciousness" by Ned Block

"Neurobiological Theories of Consciousness" by S. Kouider

"Cognitive Theories of Consciousness" by deGardelle and Kouider

It is quite apparent that given the proliferation of TOCs, many if not all will be eventually be proven wrong in significant aspects. As Kouider notes in his article, "over the last two decades, dozens of theories of the NCC have been proposed." It may seem difficult to see the forest through the trees here. But TOCs can be broadly divided into 2 categories (I will refer to visual awareness as that is best understood).

The first category could be characterized as "functional" (see my first link in this discussion for more detail). In these theories, consciousness is a ROLE. These theories are more abstract, and imply that consciousness could be substrate-neutral, (e.g., realized outside the brain) such as in computers. The best known of these theories include the global workspace theories, higher order theories, and the information integration theory. In more concrete terms, they typically identify visual awareness as occurring in the ANTERIOR parts of the brain (prefrontal and parietal). These could also be identified as more "global" than the "local" biological theories.

The second category could be characterized as "biological" (well known proponents include Christof Koch and Victor Lamme). In these theories, biology is the REALIZER of the roles consciousness plays. These theories are more "local" identifying visual awareness as occurring in POSTERIOR (occipital) areas of the brain. These have also been referred to as "first order" theories. Given that these theories are more detailed in specifying neural mechanisms, they imply mind-brain identity, as it would be hard to have consciousness in an organism without very similar neural mechanisms.

At this point, it is useful to discuss the issue of phenomenal and access consciousness. In the words of Ned Block (the originator of the idea):

Consciousness is a mongrel concept: there are a number of very different "consciousnesses." Phenomenal consciousness is experience; the phenomenally conscious aspect of a state is what it is like to be in that state. The mark of access-consciousness, by contrast, is availability for use in reasoning and rationally guiding speech and action. These concepts are often partly or totally conflated, with bad results.

Now while this distinction has been widely adopted by scientists, some believe that there is no distinction, there is only one type of consciousness. Some think that phenomenal consciousness cannot occur without access, while others think they can come apart (in particular that there can be phenomenal without access consciousness). In the preceding anterior-posterior brain distinction, access is anterior, while phenomenal consciousness could be anterior or posterior depending on your theory. These views are closely tied to which TOC one holds, and how one might interpret the results of various studies.

In practice, access is often identified with attention, although it is not completely identical. So one question would be, what is the relationship of attention to consciousness? If phenomenal consicousness cannot occur without access (attention), then it is not clear how one could really study phenomenal consicousness discretely, and some (like Dennett) will question whether such a thing even exists. Per Cohen and Dennett:

Any neurobiological theory based on an experience/function division cannot be empirically confirmed or falsified and is thus outside the scope of science.

It is clear, then, that proper scientific theories of consciousness are those that specify which functions are necessary for consciousness to arise. A true scientific theory will say how functions such as attention, working memory and decision making interact and come together to form a conscious experience. Any such theory will need to have clear and testable predictions that can in principle be verified or falsified. Most importantly, such theories will not claim that consciousness is a unique brain state that occurs independently of function; instead, the focus will be placed on the functions themselves and how they interact and come together to form consciousness.

"The attentional requirements of consciousness" by Michael A. Cohen et al.

"Consciousness cannot be separated from function," by Michael A. Cohen and Daniel C. Dennett

So to see how this might play out in practice, imagine an event of visual awareness with anterior and posterior brain activation. In functional theories, it might be hypothesized that the posterior activation is unconscious content, the anterior activation is attention which is necessary for consciousness, and with both we have phenomenal consciousness. In a biological theories, it might be hypothesized that the posterior activation is phenomenal consciousness while the anterior activation is attention which is not necessary for phenomenal consciousness (remember, the biological theories state that visual awareness is posterior, so they don't want attention (anterior) to be necessary for consciousness).

We will look at one theory of consciousness, the higher order thought (HOT) theory. Why this theory? The HOT theory is a philosophical TOC which is based upon a simple commonsense concept, and as such is very easy to understand—and in fact its proponents tout its intuitive nature as one of the major strengths of the theory. Here is the basic principle of HOT, simply stated:

A subject’s mental state is conscious when the subject is aware of herself as being in that state.

In the link above, I'm only discussing the actualist higher order thought theory.

Although the HOT seems abstract, it is possible to test it empirically and some think, to prove it superior to other TOCs by empirical means.

"Empirical support for higher-order theories of conscious awareness" by Hakwan Lau and David Rosenthal

“Arbitrating philosophical theories of consciousness by cognitive neuroscience experiments”

Finally, do any of the TOCs even begin the answer the famous “hard problem” of consciousness? What might a possible answer even look like? In the paper linked above, Cohen and Dennett state that the "hard problem" is an IMPOSSIBLE problem, as phenomenal consciousness cannot be separated from function even in ideal circumstances - and thus cannot be studied by science. Here is the hard problem as stated by its originator, David Chalmers:

What makes the hard problem hard and almost unique is that it goes beyond problems about the performance of functions. To see this, note that even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience—perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report—there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?

There are really a lot more possible links—I've tried to provide a reasonable number but even that is a lot. You don't have to do any reading though—I will try to keep things at a very conceptual level.

--Gene L

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  • Joseph A.

    Missed my flight hopefully next meet up though

    February 27, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Regrettably we cannot make it because of a late work meeting that just came up.

    February 25, 2013

  • Mark M.

    Theo = I wanted to respond to your question.
    The inspiration of the above approach was the consideration of the situation when the same idea is present in the cortex in two places at the same time. Interpolating from there led me to the idea that the base state of the brain might be disorganization, which would be stressful and energy draining. Consequently the incentive to organize information would be manufactured by the benefits of reducing the stress; cognition might be created in the effort to mitigate the stress by organizing the cortex's content. --- I don't know anyone who considers the above situation.

    February 13, 2013

    • Ted

      Mark - Thank you. I would enjoy talking with you more about this sometime. You might find Terence Deacon's recent book on thermodynamics, self-organizing systems and brain organization interesting. Theo

      February 13, 2013

    • Mark M.

      Theo - I youtubed Terrence Deacon. Overall I find it hard to connect his theory with other theories and speculation and with established features of cognition. He does establish some terms and notions which have meaning. The speculation about the logic of populations is worth taking into account since it is a good assumption that evolution can, in some cases, drain every drop of functionality from opportunities presented. Thanks for your interest in the question I raised. I do look forward to talking about it. I should be at the next meetup. Meanwhile I posted it on the discussion board. - Mark

      February 19, 2013

  • Gene L
    There is an online conference on consciousness going to right now. There are numerous talks and you can respond on (the speakers may respond). However, the comments are moderated. I would stay away from the general discussion board and post on the individual talks where the "professionals" are. The talk by Dennett is not new, but is relevant to the topic of this meetup.

    February 16, 2013

  • Mark M.

    Hello - last night the post meetup conversation considered what might precede an understanding of consciousness.
    It has occurred to me that Godel's incompleteness theorem may be a component in some fashion. The search for a definition of consciousness bears a resemblance to Russel at als' search for a formal axiomatic system. It was ended when Godel showed it was not possible. The brain can be said to be primarily concerned with the task of organizing information; you could say that just as the heart pumps blood that the brain organizes information. It seems to me that the attempt to define consciousness is an attempt to superimpose a meta-axiom on top of the organizational agenda proposed above.
    In any case the brain or the whole organism is a closed rational system which stubbornly resists attempts to axiomatize it.
    So this suggests to me that the question of the boundaries of rationality may be on the path to an understanding of consciousness.

    Cheers, Mark

    February 2, 2013

    • Gene L

      Ted and Jon, this thread is getting fairly long and is peripheral to the meetup topic, could I gently suggest starting a forum thread where this issue could be discussed in more detail?

      February 13, 2013

    • Ted

      Jon - thanks for your response. I think we disagree a bit and might be talking past each other a bit. Either way, let's take it up in person or, per Gene's suggestion, on the bb.

      February 13, 2013

  • Ben D.

    Thank you for giving me the term ' supervenience '. Seeing consciousness properties supervene on the mind - the mental properties supervene on the brain - the brain properties supervene on the chemical properties, that is the chemical properties determine the basic properties of the brain - the brain properties determine the basic structure of the mind - the mental properties determine the basic structure of consciousness. makes sense to me.
    To be conscious one must have a co-operating brain.

    February 11, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    sounds very interesting and thot provoking

    February 10, 2013

  • Jon C.

    How does one justify the claim "A true scientific theory will say how functions such as attention, working memory and decision making interact and come together to form a conscious experience"? What if the fundamental nature of consciousness differs from how we as humans experience it? Furthermore, in meditation one tries to get away from memories and decisions. Awareness does seem intrinsic to consciousness, because whatever a consciousness is experiencing is what it is aware of. But that doesn't seem to be anything other than semantics.

    February 9, 2013

    • Gene L

      See the paper by Cohen and Dennett I posted above. They describe a "perfect experiment" to show that the thesis that consciousness could occur without functional consequences is outside the realm of science because it is unfalsifiable. Not that it is untrue - it is just outside the realm of science. I'm not saying that I fully agree with this, but the paper is well argued and Lamme's response to it isn't convincing.

      February 9, 2013

    • Gene L

      Regarding awareness and consciousness , there is a very substantial debate about the relationship between attention and consciousness. Is attention necessary for consciousness? Some think so, others think not. If not, one might have phenemonal consciousness without the subject being aware of it. This is not a merely a semantic issue but involves controversy over interpretation of the empirical literature over phenomena such as iconic memory, change blindness, visual pop-out, etc. See the link on attention and consciousness above.

      February 9, 2013

  • Bill


    February 9, 2013

  • Gene L

    I've added some material in the past day or so - a paper by Cohen and Dennett linked above which is quite interesting. They state that so-called phenomenal consciousness cannot be separated from function even in an ideal situation, and as such falls outside the domain of science. The so-called "hard problem" of consciousness is therefore impossible for science to address. During the meetup we will discuss whether it is possible to separate function from phenomenal consciousness...

    February 8, 2013

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