The problem of explaining consciousness and self-consciousness is the central problem that any account of the relation between the brain and the mind must address. In recent years there have been a great number of books in the sciences and in philosophy claiming to have solved the mystery of consciousness and self-consciousness by giving them a purely scientific explanation; and an equal number of books and articles, mainly by philosophers, claiming that consciousness and self-consciousness necessarily elude purely scientific explanation . Progress beyond such claims and counter claims is severely hampered by the absence of any informed cross disciplinary understanding of what it is that is being explained and what conceptual and empirical constraints successful explanations should meet.
The project on consciousness and self-consciousness has been set up in the belief that what is needed for genuine understanding of the nature of consciousness and self-consciousness is detailed work on issues that can serve to relate work in philosophy on the subjective phenomenological and epistemological aspects of consciousness and self-consciousness, to experimental and theoretical work in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology (including work information processing models) and neuropsychology.
The aims and objectives of the project can be better understood in the light of its general theoretical background. A claim that has its origin in Kant is the claim that an account of consciousness and of self consciousness will turn on the account we give of what it is for a subject’s mental states to be related in such a way as to yield a unified perspective on the environment, at a time and over time. A substantive claim Kant made was that for mental states at a time and over time to constitute a perspective they must, at the very least, be connected in such a way as to yield a representation of a single connected space and a single connected temporal order. Commentators since Kant have added to this the claim that accounts of consciousness and self-consciousness must also include an explanation of what is involved in subjects’ representing the spatio-temporal order as one that contains, in additional to purely physical objects, minds (subjects or persons) in it. These claims provide the backdrop to the first set of issues the project will be working on. How are space, time and minds represented in perceptions and other mental states when these states yield a unified perspective on the environment? And, how do we distinguish between the representations of space, time and minds involved in possessing a merely conscious perspective, from those involved in possessing a fully self-conscious one?
For a psychological state to count as a constituent of a perspective on the environment it must belong to a causal nexus, of some kind, that relates current, past and future psychological states of various kinds in such a way as to yield a unified perspective. There must be some psychological mechanisms responsible for such integration. The second set of problems to be addressed in the project turn on the question: what are these mechanisms? In the psychological literature attention and self-monitoring have been given critical roles in this respect. Philosophical interest in the mechanisms involved has tended to focus instead on epistemological constraints that any account of such mechanisms must meet, and on the role of rationality in this, whatever the actual mechanisms are. A central claim of the project is that an understanding of the nature of consciousness and self consciousness requires integrating philosophical and psychological approaches here. And here too, a central question will be: how do we distinguish between the kind of attention and self monitoring required for a merely conscious perspective of the environment from the kind of attention and self-monitoring implicated in a fully self-conscious perspective on the environment?
A non-Cartesian account of the perspectives of consciousness and self consciousness (i.e. an account that treats subjects as essentially embodied) must give a central role to the way we represent and are aware of our own bodies. One place in which this often comes up in the philosophical literature on self consciousness is in the neo-Kantian claim that the representation of an objective spatial world requires thought of oneself as located in that world. The body also comes up in discussions, mainly in the phenomenological tradition, of non self conscious perspectives on the world, where the capacity for action and the feeling of sensations is supposed to play a critical role in the anchoring of such perspectives to the body. Implicit here is the idea of a distinction between ways of representing the body, in, for example, sensation and action, that do not involve self-consciousness, and ways of representing the body which do, and which are linked with objective ways of thinking about the world. While these ideas are highly suggestive they are, at present, not much more than that. A third aim of the project is to provide the theoretical distinctions needed for articulating the distinction between the ways in which the body figures in explanations of embodied consciousness and self-consciousness respectively.
The answers we give to each of these three sets of questions are closely interconnected. The individual and collaborative research of project members will be directed at providing the theoretical framework for bringing out these interconnections. The project will also be providing the kind of cross disciplinary forum needed for bringing out these connections, through seminars and workshops on detailed sub-sets of questions.