A Scientific Approach to Consciousness Studies...

June will be Philosophy of Mind month.  All four meetings will be dedicated to the theme of "consciousness".  And, as the organizer/moderator of these meetings is somewhat convinced that we currently have one clear "greatest" philosopher of mind right now, Daniel Dennett, one could also consider this Dennett Month, though of course his ideas will serve as an entry point and is open to challenges of any stripe.

Combining the theme of consciousness with our 4-week framework of: Science Night, Philosophy Night, Pushing the Envelope Night, and Book Club night we get these meetings for June:

  • Scientific Approaches to Consciousness
  • Dennett's Intentional Stance and Consciousness Explained
  • PtE: Consciousness Does Not Exist
  • Dennett: Short Texts and Videos

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This week we will consider an approach that the philosopher Daniel Dennett has expounded upon (in Chapter 4 of Consciousness Explained if you want to study up on it) dubbed "heterophenomenology".  This approach, in brief, is an instrumental/operational approach to the study of consciousness wherein the scientist takes an anthropological approach to the subjective verbal reports; an agnostic position where what the experimental subject says is taken to constitute a fictional text, treated as metaphysically and ontologically neutral at the outset.

This text is a co-construction of the scientist and the subject upon which to reach intersubjective agreement as to the syntax of the text itself, which then becomes the object of scientific study.  The game is: develop a scientific account of the underlying causes, mechanisms, structure, function, and substance which brings about this text.

As the theory goes, its advantage is that the subject is treated in a neutral way, we do not prejudge any issues of "consciousness", but is granted the ability to tell us how things seem.  The subject is allowed to be "the author" of the text, in the same way that an anthropologist allows a culture that is being studied to make religious pronouncements without believing that those claims are true.  Dennett thinks that, in this manner, we can undertake a scientific study of consciousness, whatever it turns out to be.

After examining the heterophenomenological method, we will also look at some famous cognitive science findings about the difference between how things are often reported (how things seem to most subjects) and how things "really are" (according to the scientists).  Things like we discussed in our first meeting on cognitive bias like: Change Blindness, Inattentional Blindness, Attribute Substitution, and the Introspection Illusion.

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  • Michael G

    I liked the nuts & bolts explanation on the front end, and Harland's facilitation. I came away with a couple of new angles on Dennett than I'd had before. Great to see everyone.

    June 6, 2013

  • Carmen

    I thought the facilitator did an excellent job of explaining the ideas in the book (which I have not read yet) and laying out the areas for discussion. This is a very intelligent and well-informed group, and I look forward to future meetings. I left a little early when it appeared that most of the rest of the discussion was going to be about methodology, which interests me less than the nature of consciousness and its relationship to mind and brain. Not fully on board with Dennett's perspective but want to remain open. It's important to me to know if I really am just a set of electro-chemical impules or something more.

    June 6, 2013

  • Tim

    The meeting dealt well with a difficult topic, with good attendance and participation in the discussion by those who attended. I usually work in the evenings, but I hope to attend other meetings of this group in the near future.

    June 5, 2013

  • Tim

    I haven't read Dennett, but I've read Searle. The subject generally interests me.

    June 5, 2013

  • Rod M.

    See y-all tomorrow
    Meanwhile, about the other Daniel Dennett:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/23/nyregion/23spydad.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&;

    June 4, 2013

  • Michael G

    Good points Ryan. So much of our research being from WEIRD nations (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democrat) biases us toward finding effects and jumping to the conclusion that we've discovered something very significant about human universals that might not actually apply so widely. Not directly applicable to consciousness, but along side of it there has been a bit of dust up in the area of social psychology that I'm both thrilled to see at the same time as I am deeply disappointed to see. Very good potential example of the self correcting mechanism of science, awesome discussion with one of my heroes, Paul Bloom, Psychology Prof at Yale: http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/18167?in=34:27&out=38:36

    May 31, 2013

  • Ryan S.

    One great difficulty, it seems, is that the reflective aspect of human experience is so suggestible. Such that evocative descriptions of 'how it is to be' are so often self realizing. I think this is evidenced in the wide array of worldviews we see. And how conceptions of mind and self are often highly localized and culturally dependent. This is human bias of course but it isn't only that. Brains exhibit extraordinary plasticity and do, in fact, form physical pathways in response to experience in a way that no other organ does. It seems perfectly possible, to me, that consciousness isn't necessarily any one thing. Given that human conditions are so variable.

    May 31, 2013

  • Rod M.

    We are animals who evolved from inanimate matter. There is nothing else. But we feel like we are something else. Dennett tries to explain that feeling. We will discuss whether he succeeds.

    1 · May 18, 2013

    • mary

      "Succeeded"? And by that, do you mean garnered the approval of the dominating scientific community of the day? Supplying "verifiable data" that we now know are not that valid -- or contextually relevant -- even when "collected" and "replicated"? Scientists do indeed "push the envelope": My robot is going on strike....

      May 27, 2013

    • Rod M.

      No scientist would claim she is right because of 'the approval of the dominating scientific community'. Except a climate scientist. But that's another controversy for another day.

      May 27, 2013

  • Michael G

    Just ran across a quip of Dennett's that for me captures one of his primary themes: Of course we have a soul...and it's composed of millions of tiny robots.

    May 19, 2013

    • Michael G

      He does like that robot metaphor. He uses it for lots of other processes above and below the neuronal level from brain modules down to molecular processes...anything that carries out physical or informational tasks...robots composed of yet smaller robots, Russian doll style. You're certainly not alone in feeling that way about Dennett.

      1 · May 20, 2013

    • RJ - Rene' G.

      Dare waz Da Age-O-AquariuzZ...Iz DizZ Da Age-O-RobotzZ....HmmmM? I have Found MieZelf Communicatifcatin LikezZ Da RobotzZ. When I hear Dat Little Robot Voice Inzide Myzelf TalkN' I better LizZten Or Day turn Da Power OfF.

      May 25, 2013

  • RJ - Rene' G.

    Yep...Zcienze iz Kool!

    May 23, 2013

    • Michael G

      Good timing for Dennett month, pretty fresh off the presses. Just got it in the mail. Looking forward to digging in.

      May 20, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Just so I don't start out with a misconception, I have a question. From reading Harland's information above, particularly "Dennett thinks that, in this manner, we can undertake a scientific study of consciousness, whatever it turns out to be," my initial impression was that Dennett had NOT already decided what he believed, but rather devised a system that could be used to investigate what consciousness might be using sources of information materialist scientists usually refuse to consider at all, but within a framework where the experiences themselves are considered but not the subject's interpretation of those experiences. This would add those experiences to the body of phenomena that any credible theory of consciousness would need to explain while NOT necessitating a theory that explained what the subject BELIEVED he had experienced. But Rod's comment makes me think Dennett was working backwards, creating a system he thought he could use to prove what he'd already decided was true?

    May 18, 2013

    • Harland

      Kristen, I have a hard time understanding your question, but I'll try to address at least part of it. You write, 'a framework where the experiences themselves are considered but not the subject's interpretation of those experiences...' I don't think this is what D- had in mind, or is even possible. Heterophenemenology is about subjective reports, it is about listening to what the subject believes about their "conscious experience" (if that is what they call it) without assuming that the subject is interpreting their experience accurately. I don't know what "experiences themselves" are, but whatever they are: they are not accessible to science. So instead, science has to work with the subjects' reports about these putative experiences.

      1 · May 18, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Michael, thanks for your info; it is helpful. Harland, I apologize for not being more clear; what I was trying to express is a situation such as this: A scientist listens to the report of a subject who believes he had (for instance) a near-death experience. The subject relates this experience which would include descriptions of what he saw, what he heard, the emotional states and physical sensations he experienced, as well as his overall belief that what he experienced was his soul departing his body and traveling to the "afterlife." The scientist would then, in trying to formulate a theory of consciousness (or prove or disprove an existing one), consider what the subject saw and heard, the emotions and physical sensations he experienced to be occurrences that the theory needed to account for, but the theory would not need to be one that allowed what the subject believed had occurred (i.e., his soul leaving his body and traveling to the afterlife).

      1 · May 19, 2013

  • Helen D. L.

    This is actually a tentative "no," pending response(s) to my longer comment.

    May 18, 2013

  • Rod M.

    It takes Daniel Dennett a long, difficult-to-read book to define consciousness. He doesn't define it at the beginning and then try to explain it. The explanation of its physiological foundation leads to a definition of what it is.

    1 · May 17, 2013

    • Michael G

      I agree, Rod...partly contributing to the reason some jab at his book calling it Consciousness Explained Away, as I'm betting you already knew. Though I love Dennett's, humor, metaphors and thought experiments, not to mention his interpersonal style, I do understand the frustration many have with how long it takes to get to the punch line in Consciousness Explained (and some claim he never gets there).

      May 17, 2013

  • Curt G.

    Seems like we will need some sort of working definition of 'consciousness' at least for the purposes of these discussions... easier said than done, I know.

    1 · May 17, 2013

    • Harland

      Though I agree definitions are extremely important in philosophy, and though other meetings ('Consciousness'­ does not exist) need a clear definition to make any sort of traction... This meeting, as I see it actually needs a "definition" the least. This is part of the benefit of the heterophenomenological approach: it works no matter what the underlying mechanisms turn out to be. So for this one, I think we can be comfortable going no further than the dictionary/common sense/folk psychology level of definition. But we'll see how it goes. I am familiar with a few definitions and you probably are too so they will be available if we need to pull them out.

      May 17, 2013

    • Michael G

      I had been thinking in terms of the month rather than this meeting in particular...but sounds to me like you've got your hand on the tiller with respect to what meetings need what sort of definitions. Meanwhile, I'll do my best to contain my excitement until philosophy of mind month actually begins.

      Sorry for misspelling your name below Curt. I don't see an edit option.

      May 17, 2013

  • Michael G

    Just ran across this. Seems to sum up my point below nicely: http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=8037

    May 17, 2013

  • Michael G

    I like Kurt's suggestion a lot. I'm wondering if that's going to be tricky since many approaches to the scientific study of consciousness seek to describe the experience of qualia, (roughly what an experience is like e.g. seeing the color red). Christof Koch and Francis Cricks work together would be one example, where Dennett argues against the need to resort to the concept of qualia. It will be fun and instructive for me to find out either way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia

    I have to say, this is pretty close to my dream month as far as think. topics. Looking forward to it.

    May 17, 2013

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