The XXII World Congress of Philosophy: Panel Session, 'Frontiers of the Cognitive Neurophilosophy of Consciousness'

14 August, 2008 NOBUHARA Yukihiro, MURATA Junichi, John O'DEA

On Saturday Aug 2nd members of UTCP took part in a round-table on recent neuroscience and consciousness at the World Congress of Philosophy. Apart from myself, the other panel members were Jung-Sun Han Heuer, Yukihiro Nobuhara, and Saku Hara. Junichi Murata chaired the round-table.

Saku Hara spoke about the difficulties for representational theories of so-called "phenomenal" consciousness. Starting from the idea that representational theories of phenomenal consciousness must be couched either in terms of sensory representations (modal theories) or in more abstract terms (amodal theories), Dr. Hara argued that neither type of theory is successful, and the prospects for both are dim, and therefore that we have reason to be pessimistic about the project of naturalising phenomenal consciousness.

Yukuhiro Nobuhara addressed the issue of autonomy in the context of neuroethics. It is plausible that sooner or later our knowledge of the brain will permit its manipulation in a way that undermines the autonomy of the individual. At present, however, there is no good account of autonomous action that is informed by the neuroscience of decision-making. Prof. Nobuhara described recent findings that support the idea of two decision mechanisms in the human brain, which can be described as “impulsive” and “reflective” systems, and argued autonomous acts are those which would follow from the proper operation of the reflective system. Importantly, the reflective system should not be regarded as a purely rational system, since the emotional system is crucial to its proper functioning.

Jun-Sun Han Heuer spoke about the tension within neuroscience between the idea that the self can be reduced to neural activity and the idea that the self is an illusion, and of the shortcomings that result from discussing consciousness in purely neural terms, rather than incorporating the results from neuroscience into a wider exploration of consciousness that includes those sciences (such as psychology and anthropology) which take the self and its embodied intentionality as starting point.

Connected to this idea, in my own paper I argued that there is a tight connection between the problem of other minds and the problem of consciousness. I discussed the need to re-examine our conception of consciousness in the light of recent work in psychology and social neuroscience which suggests that the concept of consciousness arises as much, or more, from our encounters with others as it does from introspection, and that consequently the science of consciousness in general must take this conception as its starting point.

The discussion following the talks was lively. Some question focused on specific neuroscientific findings, such as the well-known Libet experiments which purport to show that conscious awareness of making an autonomous action happens after, rather than before, the brain appears committed to the action. Other questions focused on philosophical implications, such as the relationship between Merleau-Ponty’s argument that we should view the mind as biological and in it’s biological context, and the arguments for the reduction of the mind to a collection of neurons, which is also a way of viewing the mind biologically. Further questions focused on the very general and speculative, such as the question of whether a solution to the problem of consciousness will ever be discovered.

The World Congress of Philosophy was by far the largest philosophy conference I have ever attended, and for me it raised the question of whether a truly international philosophical dialogue is possible. Professional philosophy has become highly specialized and consequently parochial. We are too immersed in our own disciplines – and careers – to acquire the knowledge necessary to start a real dialogue with a philosopher from a different background. But all of the conference participants left with an inspiration to expand our philosophical horizons, and that is a very good thing.

John O’Dea

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