The Character of Consciousness (Philosophy of Mind)
The Character of Consciousness
What is consciousness? How can it be explained? Can there be a science of consciousness? What is the neural basis of consciousness? What is the place of consciousness in nature? Is consciousness physical or nonphysical? How do we know about consciousness? How do we think about consciousness? What are the contents of consciousness? How does consciousness relate to the external world? What is the unity of consciousness?
We can think of these questions as limning a few dimensions of the character of consciousness. Consciousness is an extraordinary and multifaceted phenomenon whose character can be approached from many different directions. It has a phenomenological and a neurobiological character. It has a metaphysical and an epistemological character. It has a perceptual and a cognitive character. It has a unified and a differentiated character. And it has many further sorts of character.
We will not understand consciousness by studying its character on just one of these dimensions. Studying the phenomenology or the neurobiology of consciousness alone may tell us a great deal, as might studying the metaphysics or the epistemology. The perceptual and cognitive aspects of consciousness pose huge challenges in their own right. But ultimately we must approach consciousness from all of these directions.
In this book, I address all of these issues about the character of consciousness and a number of others. It is not the last word (or even my last word) on any of them. There are many aspects of the character of consciousness that it does not address at all. Still, I hope that it provides a unified picture of many aspects of consciousness that repays attention.
The chapters of this book were first written as separate articles, so one might think that the book is bound to be fragmented. I have tried to structure and rework it in such a way that it works as a whole, however. Later chapters build on ideas put forward in earlier chapters, and there are many common themes throughout. In principle one could read the book from start to finish as if following a narrative thread. The book is long enough that perhaps this is too much to expect, but there are also many subbooks within it, some of which I will explain. I have added afterwords to some of the chapters, as well as new footnotes (marked with an asterisk). I have shifted some of the material and cut out the more blatant acts of repetition, although occasional repetition has survived, in part to assist readers who may not be reading straight through.
The book is structured as follows. Chapter 1 introduces the problems of consciousness in an accessible way. Chapters 2–4 address the science of consciousness by developing a positive picture of how the science works in light of the problems. Chapters 5–7 address the metaphysics of consciousness, arguing in detail against materialist views and for a view on which consciousness is irreducible. Chapters 8–10 address thought about consciousness and the epistemology of consciousness, developing an account of the concepts we use to think about consciousness and the distinctive knowledge that we have of consciousness. Chapters 11–13 address perceptual consciousness and the way it represents the external world. Chapter 14 addresses the unity of consciousness. The appendix gives an outline of the two-dimensional framework that plays a central role in a number of the more technical chapters.
Although the book contains some technical material, it also contains much that is intended to be highly accessible. Chapters 1–4 and 13 were written with a general audience in mind, and chapters 5 and 14 should be accessible to a reasonably broad audience. Chapters 6–12 are more technical and are likely to appeal mainly to philosophers or to those who are willing to work hard. To someone without much background in philosophy, I suggest skipping these chapters on a first reading. If pressed for time, start with chapters 1, 2, and 13, which have perhaps the broadest appeal. Likewise, for those especially interested in the science of consciousness, chapters 1–4 are the places to start, with perhaps some material of interest in chapters 13 and 14.
There are also many paths through the book for philosophers. Those especially interested in the mind-body problem might focus on chapters 1, 5–7, and 10 (with some relevant material in 2, 8, and 9). Those interested in issues about language, content, and concepts might focus on chapters 6–8 and 11–13, as well as the appendix. Those interested in epistemology might focus first on chapters 9 and 13, with relevant material also in 2, 4, 6, and 7. Those interested in phenomenology might find material of interest in chapters 11, 12, and 14. I urge philosophers not to skip chapter 13: the topic might seem frivolous, but the philosophical issues go as deep as in any chapter in the book.
This book could be considered a sort of sequel to my earlier book on consciousness, The Conscious Mind (TCM). That book received far more attention than I could reasonably have expected, for which I am enormously grateful. At the same time, it is very far from a perfect work (most of it was written as my PhD dissertation after four years of studying philosophy), and there is much about it that I would change if I were writing it now. There are also many relevant issues that it simply does not address. I would like to think that in subsequent years, I have come to understand a number of important issues better than I did then. In this book, I aim to flesh out a picture of consciousness that is clearer, fuller, and more adequate than the picture in The Conscious Mind.
The picture in this book is largely consistent with the picture in The Conscious Mind. I have not had an enormous change of mind since then, though there are some medium-sized changes: for example, I am somewhat less sympathetic to epiphenomenalism than I was then and somewhat more sympathetic to drawing close connections between consciousness and intentionality. A few chapters present arguments along the same lines as those in that book. In particular, chapters 1 and 5–7 cover the same sort of ground as the early chapters of TCM, in what I hope is a better fashion. In some of those chapters I have also responded to various critics of TCM. The chapters in sections II and IV address issues regarding the science of consciousness and concepts of consciousness that are touched on far too briefly in TCM, while sections V and VI move in new directions that are not explored at all there (those who want to explore entirely different issues could start here). I have not presupposed any knowledge of the earlier book; this book can stand alone.
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