Max Jones, Takuya
Niikawa and Roly Perera
Reflexive Approaches to
the Function of Consciousness
This special issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies brings together work from a range of philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, behavioural scientists, and computer scientists who are all united in their approach to answering questions about consciousness. The contributions to this journal are inspired by work presented at the inaugural Designed Mind Symposium, held at the University of Edinburgh Informatics Forum on 7–8 November 2017.
While each contribution takes a different perspective, the accounts all build on the conviction that consciousness can be explained using the methods of science. In this sense, all of the work presented attempts to sidestep the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995). The hard problem is often contrasted with the so-called easy problems that ‘presumably encompass… the nature of short-term memory, long-term memory, autobiographical memory, the nature of representation, the nature of sensorimotor integration, top-down effects in perception’, among other things (Churchland, 1996, p. 403). The usual way of understanding Churchland’s challenge to the hard problem is to suggest that once all of the easy problems have been solved there will be no hard problem left over as residue. The approaches on offer here take a somewhat different view. Rather than seeing consciousness as the aggregate of various mental functions of this kind, the contributions herein take as a starting point the idea that consciousness may serve its own specific function. Consciousness is not an all-encompassing feature of mental lives, it is a particular capacity that some minds engage in to fulfil a particular function, perhaps only some of the time. As such, solving the problem of consciousness may itself be just one of the many easy problems, albeit probably the hardest easy problem of them all.
There are many different kinds of questions that one can ask about consciousness, and which question one prioritizes provides an insight into one’s underlying intuitions about its nature. Perhaps the broadest and, for many, the most tantalizing question is to simply ask, ‘What is consciousness?’ When one approaches the issues with this deep metaphysical question in mind, it is easy to see why things get hard very quickly. It feels as if an answer to this question is, in one sense, extremely straightforward: ‘consciousness is just all this stuff that I am currently feeling, that which I’m now aware of.’ However, in another sense, the question seems to lead to unpalatable consequences: one must seemingly either deny that science can help us with the answer or embrace the fact that science deflates the question.
Rather than directly addressing the big question of what consciousness is, others have attempted to approach the issue from a different direction. Instead, they have asked the question: ‘What has consciousness?’ If one can give principled reasons for ascribing consciousness to certain kinds of entity or to things with properties of a specific kind, then one may thereby indirectly point towards an answer to the bigger ‘What is…’ question. Unfortunately, asking this seemingly narrower question fails to help in settling things, as the range of viable answers is broad. At one end of the spectrum, panpsychists argue that everything, from atoms to animals, has some degree of consciousness (Skrbina, 2003; Strawson, 2006). At the other end of the spectrum, eliminativists and illusionists argue that nothing has consciousness, at least as it’s traditionally understood (Dennett, 1988; 1991; Frankish, 2016; Humphrey, 2016; Pereboom, 2011). In between these two extremes are a range of views, from those that see consciousness as more abundant to those that see consciousness as sparser. For example, some see consciousness as a property of all living things (Thompson, 2010; 2011), while other see consciousness as a relatively recent product of evolutionary selection that fulfils a specific purpose and is possessed by only a few species (Carruthers, 1998; Dennett, 2017; Flanagan, 1992; Humphrey, 1992).
The focus of this special issue arises from asking a different sort of question. Rather than asking what consciousness is or what has it, the aim is to begin with the question: ‘What is consciousness for?’ Approaching the issue from this direction comes with an inbuilt bias in favour of a sparse account of consciousness. It is assumed that consciousness serves a specific function and emerged to serve this function for specific kinds of organism, as a result of bestowing a particular evolutionary advantage. This bias need not be insurmountable, in the sense that the function may be so central as to be relatively abundant. However, the key idea is that consciousness wouldn’t have arisen if it didn’t do something useful. Presumably the generation of rich what-it’s-likeness is pretty energetically costly, so if creatures are going to spend all that energy in generating it, it had better be doing something useful. In short, the focus is on attempts to answer the question: ‘What is the point of experiencing all this?!’
When one approaches the issues from this perspective, one can see consciousness in a different light. Consciousness can be understood as something that we do, rather than a thing that we possess or something that merely happens to us. Being conscious is more like swimming, running, or contemplating, and just as we do not need to posit a metaphysically mysterious substance, ‘swimmingness’, in order to explain what happens when swimmers swim, neither do we need to posit a metaphysically mysterious substance to explain what conscious beings do when they are engaged in conscious awareness. Consciousness is a specific kind of activity, which serves a specific function (or specific functions), and the papers collected herein aim to address the issue of what this function is (or what they are).
Approaching the subject of consciousness by questioning the function of consciousness is by no means new. However, this special issue gathers together researchers and scientists who answer the question in specific ways. The contributions to the volume all discuss the view that the function of consciousness is to allow the mind to represent some aspect of itself to itself, a view that has previously been developed elsewhere, most notably by Daniel Dennett (1991), Thomas Metzinger (2003; 2009), and David Rosenthal (2005). The view is nicely summed up by the following: ‘Consciousness is a property I have by virtue of my brain’s attributing it to me’ (McDermott, 1992, p. 217).
Rather than a mysterious epiphenomenal or non-physical accompaniment to all the functional stuff, we can start to see conscious experience as a certain kind of reflexive functionality — our ability to behave about ourselves in highly contentful ways, driven by a rich self-theory or self-model. We cannot easily recognize this self-theory or self-model for what it is because ‘we’ only exist in virtue of the theory or model, as its central feature. From this ‘self-representational’ perspective, the problem of how we ‘are’ conscious and the problem of how we manage to behave as though we were conscious are not two different problems.
It is not enough, however, to simply point to some form of reflexivity as the function of consciousness, since reflexivity ‘can be interpreted in too many ways and lends itself to confusions’ (Hurley, 1998, p. 37). As such, rather than merely emphasizing the self-representational function of consciousness, the papers in the special issue isolate specific features of ourselves that consciousness functions to reflexively represent, as well as exploring how such a reflexive representational function might be realized.
A good example of this kind of strategy is Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory (AST) (Graziano, 2013; Graziano and Webb, 2014; 2015). According to this approach, consciousness emerges as a result of representing one’s attentional relation to the world, as well as others’ attentional processes, to oneself. This function is reflexive in the sense that it is one’s own attention whose representation explains the emergence and nature of conscious experience. In his contribution to this volume, Graziano argues that the AST can explain both the feeling of consciousness as a kind of mysterious substance and how it can account for our understanding of others’ awareness.
Tom McClelland’s contribution presents a different kind of strategy for explaining conscious experience according to which perceptual experience involves representing affordances for both bodily and mental action, thus building on Gibson’s (1979) ecological approach. These action-oriented representations are inherently self-representational as they always, in part, involve an organism representing its own capacities for action, and the self-representational aspects of these representations can contribute to explaining our perceptual and cognitive phenomenology.
Perceptual consciousness is also the focus of Roly Perera’s contribution, which connects Dennett’s (1991) ‘third-personal’ approach to consciousness with Metzinger’s (2003) self-model theory of subjectivity. Perera argues that perceptual phenomenology should be understood as a particular kind of reflexive behaviour, and that this functionality can be accounted for by something like Metzinger’s ‘phenomenal model of the intentionality relation’, the organism representing itself as an agent with a perceptual vantage point.
As well as investigating the ways in which consciousness may arise from self-representational functions, it is important to understand the underlying processes that support such functions. In recent years, the predictive processing framework has become increasingly influential as an explanation of the processes that support our mental functions, arguably providing a grand unified theory of the mind (Clark, 2013; 2015; Hohwy, 2013). As such, it is arguably also well-placed to provide the basis for self-representational accounts of consciousness. In line with this thought, in this special issue Krzysztof Dołęga and Joe Dewhurst, Tobias Schlicht and Elmarie Venter, and Wanja Wiese all provide differing accounts of how the predictive processing account may be able to explain the kind of self-representation that gives rise to conscious experience. Dołęga and Dewhurst look into the relationship between Graziano’s AST and predictive processing accounts, investigating ways in which these approaches can be seen as mutually supportive, with the latter providing the basis of a process-level theory for the former. Wiese also investigates the interaction between AST and Letheby and Gerrans’ (2017) predictive-processing-based account of the self, with a particular focus on the role that representing salient features of our interaction with the world plays in giving rise to the apparent substantiality of experience. Schlicht and Venter provide a predictive-processing inspired account of the difference between representing self-as-object and self-as-subject, and explore the implications of this distinction for our understanding of conscious experience.
It is also important to look into the origins of our capacity for self-representation. Once one sees consciousness as a particular functional capacity, rather than an ineffable property common to all minds, this opens up the question of how this capacity develops. Axel Cleeremans’ contribution addresses this question via his radical plasticity thesis, according to which being conscious is something that we learn to do; consciousness is something that develops over time in any one individual, as the capacity for greater degrees of reflexive representation emerges from changes in the brain’s predictive hierarchy as a result of neural plasticity driven by environmental interaction. It is natural to think that self-representational capacities that give rise to conscious experience are more basic than our capacity to represent others. However, in Wolfgang Prinz’s contribution, he presents his import theory, which challenges this assumption, arguing that the consciousness-conferring capacity for representing our own minds develops from our capacity to represent the minds of others. In this sense, conscious experience is a self-representational phenomenon with essentially social origins.
At first sight, this idea seems to conflict with our intuition that young infants and non-human animals are also capable of conscious experience. However, this neglects the prevalence of infant–mother tactile social engagement, even as early as in the womb. The role of this tactile engagement in the development of self-representational aspects of consciousness is explored in the contribution by Anna Ciaunica and Laura Crucianelli. For some, the capacity for self-representational consciousness requires more sophisticated forms of social interaction, perhaps even requiring language and the capacity for reason-giving. This is often seen to lead to the anthropocentric view that only humans are truly conscious. However, in his contribution Don Ross explores the idea that some other non-human animals may have sophisticated enough communicative capacities to give rise to conscious experience, and perhaps even full-blown personhood, based on the case study of investigations into elephant behaviour.
In order to properly understand the relationship between consciousness and self-representational functions, it is also important to recognize the specific phenomenon of self-consciousness. Ross, Wiese, and Schlicht and Venter all touch on this issue, while Raphaël Millière’s paper addresses it head-on. In his contribution, Millière argues against the view that self-consciousness comes in degrees, with the upshot that self-consciousness can only be understood as a complex multifaceted form of reflexive relationship.
Approaches to consciousness of the kind that are the focus of this issue often get labelled as illusionist approaches. However, it is important to distinguish illusionist theories (e.g. Frankish, 2016; Pereboom, 2011) from theories that merely argue for a more restricted function for consciousness than many people ascribe to it. Arguing that consciousness plays a more nuanced and minimal role than many other people tend to assume is not to argue that consciousness is itself an illusion. It is to suggest that those that see consciousness as an abundant and all-encompassing feature of mind are wrong. To many this may seem unsatisfactory, as the question of the nature of consciousness is so fascinating that any deflationary answer is disappointing. However, we are the kinds of creature for whom specific reflexive or self-representational capacities are extremely significant. Explaining consciousness in terms of these capacities therefore need not fail to do justice to consciousness’s importance to us, even if it does make consciousness less metaphysically significant in the wider scheme of things.
One of the benefits of adopting an approach of this kind, according to which consciousness plays a specific reflexive function, is that it renders consciousness more amenable to investigation using empirical methods. Axel Cleermans’ work with colleagues at the Université Libre de Bruxelles’ Neuroscience Institute takes as a starting point the idea that rigorous scientific enquiry can provide us with insights into the nature of consciousness. Raphaël Millière’s work alongside colleagues in the ALIUS Research Group aims to develop novel ways of empirically investigating consciousness by exploring the effects of meditative practices and psychotropic drugs in inducing altered states of consciousness. Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory is explicitly presented as a ‘mechanistic theory of consciousness’ (Graziano and Webb, 2014; 2015) and his ongoing empirical work with colleagues at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute aims to make progress in answering (or deflating) some of the deeper problems of consciousness from a neuroscientific perspective. Dołęga and Dewhurst may be right to question whether Graziano’s approach, as it stands, provides a fully mechanistic account. Yet their attempt to frame this theory in terms of the processes described by predictive processing theories, as well as Wanja Wiese’s alternative but potentially complementary predictive processing account, can forseeably provide a first step towards a truly mechanistic theory of consciousness that can generate directly testable hypotheses, once more work is done to explain how predictive processing might be realized by neural mechanisms.
As mentioned earlier, much of the work on offer here is predicated on the assumption that the problem of consciousness is an ‘easy’ problem, and just one amongst many such problems. Yet this need not preclude it from being one of the hardest problems around. The brain is fiendishly complex, and its capacity for reflexive representation may be one of the more complex things that it does. Moreover, it’s not clear that consciousness as reflexive representation can be understood by looking at the brain alone. We may need to also look at an organism’s broader capacities and its relation to its environment (McClelland), to its development over time (Cleeremans), to its social interactions and embedding in a social milieu (Prinz), perhaps including its prenatal developmental interactions with its mother (Ciaunica and Crucianelli) and even its interactions with other species (Ross). Whether one takes the problem of consciousness to be ‘easy’ or ‘hard’, and whether or not one accepts that consciousness can be explained in terms of fulfilling a reflexive representational function, we hope that the contributions contained herein can stimulate further debate and research into the questions of why we experience all this and what consciousness is for.
Carruthers, P. (1998) Language, Thought and Consciousness: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chalmers, D.J. (1995) Facing up to the problem of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), pp. 200–219.
Churchland, P.S. (1996) The hornswoggle problem, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3 (5–6), pp. 402–408.
Clark, A. (2013) Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36 (3), pp. 181–204.
Clark, A. (2015) Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D.C. (1988) Quining qualia, in Marcel, A.J. & Bisiach, E. (eds.) Consciousness in Contemporary Science, pp. 42–77, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained, New York: Little Brown & Co.
Dennett, D.C. (2017) From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Flanagan, O.J. (1992) Consciousness Reconsidered, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frankish, K. (2016) Illusionism as a theory of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23 (11–12), pp. 11–39. Reprinted in Frankish, K. (ed.) (2017) Illusionism and a Theory of Consciousness, Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Gibson, J.J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Graziano, M.S. (2013) Consciousness and the Social Brain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Graziano, M.S. & Webb, T.W. (2014) A mechanistic theory of consciousness, International Journal of Machine Consciousness, 6 (02), pp. 163–176.
Graziano, M.S. & Webb, T.W. (2015) The attention schema theory: A mechanistic account of subjective awareness, Frontiers in Psychology, 6, art. 500.
Hohwy, J. (2013) The Predictive Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Humphrey, N. (1992) A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness, New York: Copernicus.
Humphrey, N. (2016) Redder than red: Illusionism or phenomenal surrealism?, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23 (11–12), pp. 116–123. Reprinted in Frankish, K. (ed.) (2017) Illusionism and a Theory of Consciousness, Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Hurley, S.L. (1998) Consciousness in Action, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Letheby, C. & Gerrans, P. (2017) Self unbound: Ego dissolution in psychedelic experience, Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2017 (1), nix016.
McDermott, D. (1992) Little ‘me’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15 (2), pp. 217–218.
Metzinger, T. (2003) Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Metzinger, T. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, New York: Basic Books.
Pereboom, D. (2011) Consciousness and the Prospects of Physicalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rosenthal, D.M. (2005) Consciousness and Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skrbina, D. (2003) Panpsychism as an underlying theme in western philosophy: A survey paper, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10 (3), pp. 4–46.
Strawson, G. (2006) Realistic monism: Why physicalism entails panpsychism, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 13 (10–11), pp. 3–31.
Thompson, E. (2010) Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thompson, E. (2011) Précis of mind in life, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18 (5–6), pp. 10–22.