What Should We Expect From a Theory of Consciousness?

In H. Jasper, L. Descarries, V. Castellucci & S. Rossignol (eds.), Consciousness: At the Frontiers of Neuroscience. Lippincott-Raven. pp. 19-32 (1998)

Patricia Churchland
University of California, San Diego
Within the domain of philosophy, it is not unusual to hear the claim that most questions about the nature of consciousness are essentially and absolutely beyond the scope of science, no matter how science may develop in the twenty-first century. Some things, it is pointed out, we shall never _ever_ understand, and consciousness is one of them (Vendler 1994, Swinburne 1994, McGinn 1989, Nagel 1994, Warner 1994). One line of reasoning assumes that consciousness is the manifestation of a distinctly nonphysical thing, and hence has no physical properties that might be explored by techniques suitable to physical things. Dualism, as this view is known, is still to be found among those within the tradition of Kant and Hegel, as well as among some with religious convictions. Surprisingly, however, strenuous foot-dragging is evident even among philosophers of a materialist conviction. Indeed, one might say that it is the philosophical fashion of the 90's to pronounce consciousness unexplainable, and to find the explanatory aspirations of neurobiology to be faintly comic if not rather pitiful. The very word, "reductionism" has come to be used more or less synonymously with "benighted-scientism-run-amok", where scientistm apparently means "applying scientific techniques to domains where they are inapplicable." McGinn, perhaps the most unblushing of the naysayers, insists that we cannot expect even to make any headway on the problem. (p. 114) Ironically perhaps, here we are at a conference in honor of Dr. Herbert Jasper who was a great pioneer in moving neuroscience forward on this problem, and where results will be presented allegedly _showing_ additional progress on the problem. Because I am quite optimistic about future scientific progress on the nature of consciousness, my aim here, as a philosopher, is to address the most popular and influential of the skeptical arguments, and to explain why I find them unconvincing. Thus the overall form of the paper is negative, in the sense that I want to show why a set of naysaying arguments fail.
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