can science know when youre conscious

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  • 8/10/2019 Can Science Know When Youre Conscious

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    Can Science Know When You're Conscious?

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    PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2014.All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of amonograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy ). Subscriber: OUP - OxfordOnli ne %28Sales %26 Publicity%29; date: 14 Apri l 2014

    University Press Scholarship Online

    Oxford Scholarship Online

    Pathways to Knowledge: Private and PublicAlvin I. Goldman

    Print publication date: 2002

    Print ISBN-13: 9780195138795

    Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

    DOI: 10.1093/0195138791.001.0001

    Can Science Know When You're Conscious?

    Epistemological Foundations of Consciousness Research

    Alvin I. Goldman (Contributor Webpage)

    DOI:10.1093/0195138791.003.0006

    Abstract and Keywords

    Consciousness researchers commonly rely on their subjects verbal reports to

    determine their conscious states. Is this defensible in the conduct of science? Attempts

    might be made to rationalize the reliance on verbal reports by appealing to higherorder

    thought or functionalist approaches to consciousness, but these are rejected. A third

    approach is defended, based on subjects introspective capacities. Admittedly, the

    reliability of introspection cannot be independently validated, but an independent

    validation requirement is too restrictive for an epistemologically basic method.

    Keywords: consc iousness, epistemology, functionalism, higherorder thought, introspection, verbal report

    Consciousness researchers standardly rely on their subjects' verbal reports to

    ascertain which conscious states they are in. What justifies this reliance on verbal

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    Can Science Know When You're Conscious?

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    PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2014.All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of amonograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy ). Subscriber: OUP - OxfordOnli ne %28Sales %26 Publicity%29; date: 14 Apri l 2014

    reports? Does it comport with the thirdperson approach characteristic of science,

    or does it ultimately appeal to firstperson knowledge of consciousness? If first

    person knowledge is required, does this pass scientific muster? Several attempts

    to rationalize the reliance on verbal reports are considered, beginning with

    attempts to define consciousness via the higherorder thought approach and

    functionalism. These approaches are either (A) problematic in their own right, or (B)

    ultimately based on a firstperson access to consciousness. A third approach

    assumes that scientists can trust verbal reports because subjects reliably monitor

    or introspect their conscious states. This raises the question of whether the

    reliability of introspection (or selfmonitoring) can be validated by independent

    criteria. Merikle's attempts to validate this reliability are shown to involve some

    unavoidable circularity. It is conjectured that scientists' reliance on their subjects'

    verbal reports tacitly appeals to their own introspective reliability, which is not

    independently validatable. Some epistemologists might conclude that this renders

    scientists' conclusions about conscious states unjustified, but I argue that this does

    not contravene the constraints of a proper epistemology.

    1. Why Rely on Verbal Reports?Of the many psychological states people occupy, some are conscious and some are not;

    that is, some involve awareness and some do not. (In what follows, I use the terms

    conscious and aware interchangeably.) 1Scientific (p.115) research on

    consciousness seeks to determine which types of states tend to be conscious and why.

    To answer these questions, consciousness researchers need to ascertain the presence

    or absence of conscious states within their subjects on specific occasions. How do

    researchers do that given that their subjects' conscious states are not directly

    observable? The answer, of course, is that scientists observe their subjects' behaviour,

    especially their verbal behaviour, and use that behaviour to infer the presence or

    absence of conscious states. This looks like familiar scientific procedure. By observing

    public behaviour, consciousness can be studied in an objective, thirdperson fashion,

    much like any other topic in cognitive science or neuroscience. This is the standard

    methodological view, I suspect, among scientific researchers of consciousness. Here I

    want to ask whether this view is correct. Can consciousness be studied scientifically in a

    purely thirdperson fashion, without relying, perhaps tacitly, on firstperson knowledge or

    warrant? If firstperson knowledge does turn out to be required, is the methodological

    respectability of consciousness research thereby threatened? If its epistemologicalviability is threatened, can this threat be met or overcome?

    My discussion focuses on verbal reports. Verbal reports obviously play a central role in

    most methodologies of consciousness. For example, how do consciousness researchers

    determine that patients with blindsight lack visual awareness in certain portions of their

    visual field? Patients report the absence of such awareness, and researchers accept their

    reports. How do memory researchers determine that certain subjects lack explicit

    memory, i.e. conscious memory, for certain events? Again, the subjects say that they

    don't remember, researchers construe such sayings as reports to the effect that no

    conscious memories of the target events are present, and researchers accept these

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    Can Science Know When You're Conscious?

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    PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2014.All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of amonograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy ). Subscriber: OUP - OxfordOnli ne %28Sales %26 Publicity%29; date: 14 Apri l 2014

    reports as true. Admittedly, reliance on verbal reports is not wholly uncontroversial or

    unqualified, especially in the case of denials of consciousness. I shall return to the reasons

    for these qualifications below. In the main, however, researchers rely on their subjects'

    reports as the fundamental kind of evidence for the presence or absence of conscious

    states. This is clearly stated by Marcel:

    There is really only one criterion for phenomenal experience. This is a person's

    report, direct or indirect, that they have a sensation of one or another kind, that

    they are or were conscious in one or another way. . . . Direct reports include

    statements such as I have a headache, or an itch, or I feel hungry. Indirect

    reports include statements such as I see a light or I hear a car, where the

    person is not directly reporting the sensation, but means by the statement that

    they consciouslysee or hear something. . . . [P]rovided that the person is not lying,

    there is little reason to doubt the validity of a report thatthere is phenomenal

    experience. ( 1988 , 131)

    What warrants consciousness researchers in so relying on verbal reports? Cognitive

    psychologists and neuropsychologists would not rely, after all, on (p.116) their

    subjects' reports about all psychological states or processes. When it comes to the

    nonconscious sphere of mental processingthe great bulk of what transpires in the mind

    brainscientists would not dream of asking subjects for their opinions. Moreover, if

    subjects were to offer their views about what happens (at the microlevel) when they

    parse a sentence or retrieve an episode from memory or reach for a cup, scientists

    would give no special credence to these views. So what entitles scientists to rely so

    heavily on subjects' reports when they concern conscious experience?

    There are, I suggest, two possible types of interpretation or reconstruction of the

    epistemic warrant for scientific reliance on verbal reports, a constitutiveapproach and a

    nonconstitutiveapproach.

    (1) Constitutive approach. The verbal report of a conscious state, or the belief

    underlying such a report, is wholly or partly constitutive of there being such a

    state, or of the state's being conscious. For example, part of what it might mean

    for a state to be conscious is that it tends to gives rise to such a report, or to a

    belief that generates such a report, or the like. So when a scientist observes such

    a report and infers its underlying belief, this would provide evidence for the

    presence of the reported conscious state.

    (2)Nonconstitutive approach. Neither the verbal report of a conscious state nor

    the belief from which it issues is (even partly) constitutive of there being such a

    state or of its being conscious. However, the report and/or the belief is a reliable

    indicatorof the occurrence of such a state. Hence, when a scientist observes

    such a report an