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How a Neural Correlate Can Function as an Explanation of Consciousness: Evidence from the history of science regarding the likely explanatory value of the NCC approach

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A frequent criticism of the neuroscientific approach to consciousness is that its theories describe only 'correlates' or 'analogues' of consciousness, and so fail to address the nature of consciousness itself. Despite its apparent logical simplicity, this criticism in fact relies on some substantive assumptions about the nature and evolution of scientific explanations. In particular, it is usually assumed that, in expressing correlations, neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) theories must fail to capture the causal structure relating brain and mind. Drawing on work in the history and philosophy of science, I argue that this assumption - along with the related claim that even a correct NCC theory would fail to explain consciousness - is grounded in an inadequate conception of the way in which scientific explanations develop. Examination of parallel developments in 20th century biology reveals that, under the right circumstances, seemingly crude correspondences can play an essential role in scientific discovery and can sometimes become central to our everyday understanding of the phenomena in question. A proper understanding of this process clarifies the value of NCC theories and sheds light on the standards by which they should be evaluated. In closing, I describe two specific criteria for evaluating NCC proposals: intertheoretic bridge potential and detailed mapping.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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