A thoroughly empirical approach to consciousness

Psyche 1 (6) (1994)
Abstract
When are psychologists entitled to call a certain theoretical construct "consciousness?" Over the past few decades cognitive psychologists have reintroduced almost the entire conceptual vocabulary of common sense psychology, but now in a way that is tied explicitly to reliable empirical observations, and to compelling and increasingly adequate theoretical models. Nevertheless, until the past few years most cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists avoided dealing with consciousness. Today there is an increasing willingness to do so. But is "consciousness" different from other theoretical entities like "working memory" or "mental imagery"? Some argue that under no circumstances can empirical science speak of consciousness as such, while others claim that the scientific goal is "knowing what it is like to be a bat" --- to share an organism's conscious experience . The Bat Criterion is ominously reminiscent of the protracted debate on the consciousness of ants and amoebas that caused so much uneasiness in psychology around 1900. It seems to demand that we first solve the mind-body problem as a condition of doing sensible science, and thereby creates the risk of endless, fruitless controversy. The endless philosophical debate about consciousness helped trigger the Behaviorist revolution about 1913, which threw out the baby of consciousness with the bathwater of perennial, circular debate. We've been that way; let's not go back to it. This paper maintains that the position of behavioristic denial is far too restrictive, but that the Bat Criterion is far too demanding --- that in fact, we only need to specify comparable pairs of psychological phenomena that differ only in the fact that one member of any pair is conscious, while the other is not. This "method of contrastive analysis" is a generalization of the experimental method, with consciousness as a variable whose interaction with other psychological and biological phenomena can be assessed in standard ways. As usual in science, this strategy is pragmatic: If it appears to yield sensible results, it can be a stepping-stone toward further understanding . This paper describes five sets of well-established pairs of phenomena that meet these criteria. Others are presented elsewhere, with more of a theoretical interpretation . Here I simply want to show that any adequate theory of conscious experience must satisfy these demanding but achievable empirical constraints
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