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
Though in our first meetings we were able to have reasonably meaningful discussions for at least part of the time without clear definitions: for this meeting that will have to change. If we're going to talk ontology (the consideration of what we count as "real") we would do well to be very clear about what it is that we're talking about.
One aspect of ontological thinking that seems near the foundation is the stipulation that the agent making the positive claim assumes a "burden of proof". Basically, if I want to claim that something exists, be it a coffee cup, a Jaberwocky, or "consciousness" I better be able to tell you at least 2 things: What is it? and Why should I include it in my list of things that exist?
Some of us do not think that the proponents of "consciousness" have satisfied these requests. That is one tack in the case I will present against believing in consciousness. The very difficulty of defining it counts against it in the court of ontology. Nevertheless I will do my best to pull together a definition that includes most of the criteria that I think the consciousness crowd is looking for, and then argue that that conception might not have its ontological passport.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes the following as features of consciousness that various philosophers have found important:
- "First-person" or "Subjective" character-- consciousness is a phenomenon that is accessed through introspection or phenomenology.
- "Qualitative" character-- "raw feels", "what it's like-ness", subjective experience.
- Phenomenal structure-- the "stream of consciousness", the ordering of experiences.
- Unity-- the singular nature of the "self", identity, psychological consistency over time.
- Intentionality-- "mental states" have "aboutness" or "directedness", "representational" quality.
So, for the purposes of this discussion (and we will be open to minor modifications or additions to this) we will define "consciousness" as: The subjective phenomenon of awareness of mental objects which have a phenomenal, qualitative character and an intentional or representational aspect and which takes place in the mind of a single person or self.
(Personally, the more carefully I attempt to define 'consciousness' the more meaningless it appears! Feel free to add your comments about definitions below and/or bring them to the meeting. Also, check out this cute page for some prominent people's comments on this issue.)
The more sophisticated version of the provocative claim of the title which I will actually be attempting to describe and defend is this: When all is said and done, in the most complete and best argued for ontology that science and philosophy can describe; "consciousness" in the sense defined above will not be included. In other words, we ought not include "consciousness" in our ontology. In other words, a positive case for consciousness (beyond emphatic foot stomping) has not been made, the burden has not been met to define and motivate the case.
If you are in the mood to do some homework before this meeting, try reading Dennett's fascinating article: "Quining Qualia" to get an idea as to how we might go about attempting to argue for this contentious claim.