Can we ever fully understand consciousness?
Geoff Lee, New York University

A background assumption of recent empirical consciousness research is that the task of understanding consciousness has two components that can be separately pursued. First, understanding what physical property all conscious representations have in common in virtue of which they are conscious – for example, what distinguishes a creature that has no consciousness from one that does? Second, the task of finding neural correlates of specific kinds of conscious states – given that I am conscious, what determines whether I am having one kind of experience rather than another? Recent research has focused more on the latter question, and great progress has been made both in developing paradigms for studying this question and in uncovering information about the neural correlates of certain specific types of experiences.

I will explain why the separation of these questions can be only a temporary stop-gap measure, in particular why a fully satisfactory answer to the second question requires resolving at least some controversial aspects of the first. I will then explain why one might be skeptical about whether it is possible in principle for us to ever know the complete answer to either question. Even in a futuristic state of completed neuroscience, there could still be room for disagreement about what is required for a mental representation to be conscious, and what the specific contents of our conscious experiences are.

References / Further Reading:

Block N (2006) ”Consciousness, Accessibility and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30, 481-548

Chalmers D (1996) “The Conscious Mind : In Search of a Fundamental Theory” OUP.

Rees G, Kreiman G, Koch C (2002) Neural correlates of consciousness in humans. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 3(4):261-70

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