Binding the mind

In J. Cornwell (ed.), Consciousness and Human Identity. Oxford University Press. pp. 212--224 (1998)
Several of the essays in this collection discuss the `binding problem', the problem of explaining in neurophysiological terms how it is that we see the various perceptual qualities of a physical object, such as its shape, colour, location and motion, as features of a single object. The perceived object seems to us a unitary thing, but its sensory properties are diverse and turn out to be processed in different areas of the brain. How then does the brain manage the integration? Readers of the essays in this collection may find themselves suffering from an analogous binding problem about the study of consciousness, though this problem is conceptual rather than perceptual, and here the difficulty is to achieve the integration rather than to understand how an effortless integration is achieved. Consciousness is the ideal topic for inter-disciplinary investigation. It is a central concern of such diverse disciplines as neurophysiology, evolutionary biology, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy and theology, among others, yet none of these disciplines has come close to providing full answers to the central questions that consciousness raises. Inter-disciplinary investigation seems an obvious way forward, but it generates the conceptual binding problem that this collection displays. The standard of the essays is very high, but it is extraordinarily difficult to integrate their content into anything like a single picture. We are all apparently talking about the same phenomenon, the conscious awareness of the world that each of us enjoys first-hand, but it is quite unclear how to see the very different things we say about this phenomenon as part of a single picture, or even as parts of different but compatible pictures. Having raised the binding problem for the inter-disciplinary study of consciousness, I hasten to say that I will not attempt even a partial substantive solution here: that is left as an exercise for the readers of this book.
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