Peter Carruthers on the problems of consciousness

Peter Carruthers is posting this week at The Brains Blog on his new book, Human and Animal Minds, which I mentioned in my post on global workspace theory.  His first post focuses on two issues: latent dualism and terminological confusion.

I think he’s right on both counts.  On the latent dualism issue, I’m reminded of something Elkhonon Goldberg said in his book on the frontal lobes: The New Executive Brain:

Why, then, have neuroscientists, and certainly the general public, been so committed to the concept of consciousness and to the axiomatic assumption of its centrality in the workings of the mind? My answer to this question is shockingly embarrassing in its implications: because old gods die hard. Instead of representing a leap forward, the quest for the mechanisms of consciousness represents a leap backward. The dualism of body and soul has been rejected in name but not in substance. We no longer talk about soul; we now call it consciousnes, just as in some circles people no longer talk about creation, they talk about “intelligent design.” We may feel embarrassed by certain old, tired explanatory constructs, and feel intellectually obligated to discard them, but they are often too ingrained for us to truly purge them from our own mental makeup. We give them different names and sneak them right in through the back door. Like many recent converts, we continue to honor the old gods in secret—the god of soul in the guise of consciousness.

Goldberg, Elkhonon. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World (pp. 35-36). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Carruthers doesn’t seem to go quite that far, but he does note that tacit dualism makes people take thought experiments like zombies and Mary’s room far more seriously than they should.  Amen.

(I should note that Goldberg, despite his skepticism, summarily describes a neural theory about conscious that is essentially the global workspace theory.)

On the terminological issue, Carruthers makes distinctions between different meanings of the word “conscious”, distinguishing between:

  1. wakefulness
  2. perception of things in the environment
  3. access consciousness
  4. phenomenal consciousness.

For him, it’s not controversial that animals have 1-3, but 4 is more questionable.  In a comment, I challenged him that the notion that access and phenomenal consciousness are something other than different perspectives on the same thing, is itself latent dualism, and that we should expect phenomenal consciousness to be present to the extent access consciousness is.

He responded that he’ll address this in later posts this week.  Having read large sections of his book, I’m pretty familiar with what his answer will be.  (And he alludes to it in his response.)  But I’ll hold off commenting until he does address it.

What do you think of his points?  Or of Goldberg’s?

17 thoughts on “Peter Carruthers on the problems of consciousness

  1. In my view access consciousness is much broader than phenomenal consciousness. When I think “Idaho is adjacent to Montana” and “Montana is adjacent to North Dakota”, these thoughts have exactly the same phenomenal imprint: namely, there is something that I think. I express these thoughts verbally on some occasions, spatially on others.

    Whereas, whenever I see a bright green object, there is a very distinctive narrow class of phenomenal aspects that goes with that.

    But if you modify your thesis to “every phenomenal aspect is the Inside View on some apparent access to an objective fact,” I would agree to that. Every time I have the bright green subjective sensation, that goes along with its seeming to me that something green is in front of me. Every time I have the cold sensation, it seems to me I’m touching something cold. Etc.


    1. Your answer might be similar to what Carruthers is going to be. In the book, he makes a distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual content, equating phenomenal experience with non-conceptual content.

      My only issue with that stance is, isn’t it like something (phenomenal) to hold conceptual content, such as realizing that Idaho is adjacent to Montana? And I can’t seem to realize it without catching at least a fleeting sensory image of a map or map like shape in my imagination, so even if we do make Carruthers’ distinction, it seems like there’s a raw image aspect to it.

      I will be curious to see Carruthers’ summary post of his argument. I found it hard to follow in the book.


      1. I agree with you, Mike, that conceptual content has its own phenomenology, but I suggest you be careful, when you talk about associated images, that you are not conflating the sequellae, Dennett’s “then what happens”, with the original content.



        1. On conflating the sequellae, I actually think a lot of phenomenal experiences are the sequellae. For example, I see a cute baby. Technically the image of the young human might enter my workspace, leading to a generated affective response of cuteness. Which exists evolutionarily because it enhances preservation of genetic legacy. But phenomenally it’s just a cute baby, one whose cuteness will likely influence my next actions (more sequellae).


  2. Okay, I’m coming out of the closet: I’m a dualist. I’m sure I’m a “some kinda” dualist, but I’m not sure what should replace “some kinda”. There are (at least) two things, physical stuff and patterns. These things are not the same, though they are related. All physical stuff are associated with patterns, but not all patterns are associated with physical stuff.

    Mind is a pattern that may or may not be associated with physical stuff.

    As to Carruthers’ viewpoint, I perceive his view to be unnecessarily condescending with respect to those thought experiments (zombies, Mary). In trying to understand the nature of concepts like qualia, it is worthwhile to consider whether it is a pattern which could possibly be recognized in physical stuff. So zombies? Not so much. Qualia? Maybe.



    1. I don’t think that’s dualism, at least as it’s commonly defined, because no pattern by itself can compute, or think. If you’re a platonist, you might say the patterns exist independently of any material substrate, but that would make them an abstract object, and causally inert. In order to have causal effects, a physical substrate is necessary.

      Such a platonic dualism is a far cry from substance dualism, which holds that the mind can operate independent of its physical substrate. (It might fit with property dualism, but I have to admit my grasp of property dualism has never been solid.)

      Or am I missing an example of a pattern that can have causal effects without any physics?

      I can see your reaction to Carruthers’ attitude. In truth, in his book, he actually takes many of those thought experiments much more seriously than I do. Although my approach is to dissect them and explain why they’re bogus, rather than simply dismiss them. But I have to admit when people quote them as if they were some kind of scientific evidence, my patience with those “experiments” disappears.


    2. I like James’ distinction between patterns and physical stuff, and I’d extend it to say that a process like cognition or consciousness is a pattern with the added dimension of time.

      The underlying mathematical representation of our physics is continuous and analogue, not discrete and binary, it seems, and perhaps so is reality. That means that as soon as we start working with discrete concepts and words we are moving into pattern space not physics space, into mental space in a dualist view.

      While ‘real world’ patterns need to be physically embodied, we get a more efficient and parsimonious handle on what is going on by tracing causality through the patterns than through the underlying physics. Indeed the same outcome would hold with very different physical instantiations of the same pattern; and any one pattern corresponds to an infinite number of solutions of the physical equations.

      We think and communicate by importing physics into a pattern in mental space via discretisation into detected features and on into words. When that pattern can reference itself and modify itself in particular ways, what we call consciousness results (I would claim!).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I totally agree that the organization, the patterns, are where it’s at. I do post under the name SelfAwarePatterns after all. 🙂 I’d furthermore note that the substrates in which patterns form are themselves patterns, at least down to elementary particles or fields, and those things may themselves be patterns of something else. The primary reality may be structure all the way down.

        And yet, to have effects in this universe, a pattern must be instantiated on top of those lower level patterns that we call “physics”. Even an abstract pattern is instantiated in some kind of physical pattern, as a representation in our brains if nowhere else.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. FYI, this post doesn’t turn up on my Followed Sites in the WordPress Reader. Wasn’t there a caching issue causing this before? It does show up if I click your site directly in the Reader. I don’t seem to see a problem with other sites but maybe I’m missing posts from them and don’t know it.


    1. Thanks for letting me know. I did notice it was delayed showing up, but it later appeared for me. I’ve been round and round with WP support on this. At this point, I give up. I know the RSS feed and site are working. WP needs to work on fixing the Reader.


  4. With language there arrives, at least potentially, a unique kind of reflective graspability of one’s own thoughts ,not merely of the thoughts of others. Inner speech, conducted in a derivatively sensory format, thus (again, at least potentially) reflectively graspable, provides the opportunity for a unique kind of self-consciousness, upon which cognition might profitably further proceed. But there isn’t ,really, “anything it’s like” to reflectively grasp one’s own thoughts. As for alleged first-order consciousness,, why isn’t it circular to claim merely that there’s “something it’s like” to have an allegedly more “direct” perceptual/sensory experience of the world or of oneself? Is it an implicit grasp that of the circularity itself that prompts the bafflement?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I agree that language, and symbolic thought overall, dramatically enhance our cognition. It’s very difficult to remember far into the past, or plan far into the future, if you don’t have a grasp of symbolic concepts like days, months, years, etc. Most animals can only imagine a few minutes into the future, bound to their own immediate experiences.

      Your skepticism of first order consciousness seems to put you in the higher order theory camp. I agree that higher order capabilities are a major factor in human experience, but there do seem to be occasions where we don’t have those capabilities engaged. A higher order theorist will argue that they’re always engaged, but I can’t see that that’s been demonstrated. Of course, that could change at any time.


    2. Language, and its structure is a great clue to how we represent the content of consciousness, and the rate at which we are able to read it out and update it. It’s rather like, in computer science, serialising a complex interlinked structure. The ‘what its like’ is held as the contents of consciousness, but is also able to be updated, acted upon, combined and communicated. The structure of conscious content includes relationships between past, present and future – establishing continuity over time; self and world; and the flow from what is sensed to feelings to actions, and back round again. The current content of consciousness provides our position in the state space of mental possibilities, and the candidate steps to the next such state. Attentional focus within conscious content makes this problem computationally tractable.


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