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?