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Eating soup with chopsticks: dogmas, difficulties and alternatives in the study of conscious experience

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Abstract:

The recently celebrated division into ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems of consciousness is unfortunate and misleading. Built on functionalist grounds, it carves up the subject matter by declaring that the most elusive parts need a fundamentally and intrinsically different solution. What we have, rather, are ‘difficult’ problems of conscious experience, but problems that are not difficult per se. Their difficulty is relative, among other things, to the kind of solution one is looking for and the tools used to accomplish the task. I argue that the study of conscious experience in our scientific and philosophical tradition is a very difficult problem because it has been addressed with inappropriate tools: with harmful long-lasting and inadequate dogmas that have dogged science for centuries. I describe five of these dogmas, which are: (1) the existence of an objective reality independent of human understanding; (2) the subordination of epistemology to ontology; (3) the restricted view of the objectivist-subjectivist dichotomy; (4) the exclusion of the body from the study of the mind; and (5) the idea of explaining the mind in terms of the neurophysiological processes of individual brains.

I claim that conscious experience is not a transcendental, paranatural, mystic or magic phenomenon. It is tractable and approachable with scientific methods. However, one must look not only for non-reductionist views to approach it, but also for views that avoid the dogmas here described. Conscious experience is a living phenomenon and it has to be understood as such. Accordingly, our understanding of it has to make sense at several levels, from evolution to morphophysiology, from neuroanatomy to language. I put forward an approach to conscious experience which is free of the dogmas that make the study of conscious experience so difficult. This view, called ecological naturalism, is a non-functionalist and non-reductive view that provides an naturalistic account of the mind. It also puts special emphasis on irreducible supra-individual biological (SIB) processes that are essential in the realization of mental phenomena and therefore conscious experience.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Institute of Cognitive Studies, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.

Publication date: January 1, 1997

imp/jcs/1997/00000004/00000002/753
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