The experimental study of consciousness

Prepared for the 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference

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What sets consciousness apart in the realm of scientific research is the fact that we cannot observe consciousness outside of ourselves. Most philosophers and scientists have concluded that the traditional scientific method would never work for consciousness. Traditionally, we employ a reductionist approach: we break down the system in components until we reach the atoms, then we explain the properties of the whole from the properties of its atoms.
What I propose is that the old reductionist approach will work also for consciousness. Consciousness is no more "magic" than electricity. We study electricity by studying the elementary particles that give rise to it. We can study consciousness if we can identify the particles and their properties that give rise to it.
The main problem is the lack of an empirical test for consciousness. We cannot know whether a being is conscious or not. We cannot "measure" its consciousness. We cannot rule out that every object in the universe, including each elementary particle, has consciousness: we just cannot detect it. Even when I accept that other human beings are conscious a) I base my assumption on similarity of behavior, not on an actual "observation" of their consciousness; and b) I somehow sense that some people (poets and philosophers, for example) may be more conscious than other people (lawyers and doctors, for example). The trouble is that our mind is capable only of observing conscious phenomena at its own level and within itself. Our mind is capable of observing only one conscious phenomenon: itself.
A good way to start is to analyze why (we think) consciousness is hosted in the brain. Why does consciousness apply only to the brain? What is special about the brain that cannot be found, say, in the foot? If the brain is made of common matter, of well-known constituents, what is it that turns that matter conscious when it is configured as a brain, but not when it is configured as a foot? And why does it stop being conscious if oxygen or blood are not supplied?
Ever more sophisticated devices allow us to analyze the activity of the brain. It is becoming technically possible to register the activity corresponding to conscious states. We have to trust that, when someone claims to be conscious, s/he really is conscious. If accept this premise, then it is possible to observe consciousness at the level of brain processes. It is possible to classify different kinds of conscious activity and map it to different kinds of brain activity. These observations will result in physical laws of conscious activity. Those physical laws, just like any other physical laws, can be explained by making assumptions on the structure and behavior of matter, just like the laws of gravitation can be explained by making the assumptions embodied by the Theory of Relativity. We have not found any evidence yet that a reductionist approach cannot work for consciousness. The fact that we do not have a physical theory of consciousness cannot be interpreted as evidence that a physical theory of consciousness is impossible.
As it becomes easier and easier to study neural activity, one can start measuring and mapping neural activity corresponding to a repertory of conscious states, including emotions and dreams. One can classify the neural activity related to conscious states and apply a reductionist approach to the classification, looking for a compositional law that explains the results.
I believe it is possible to deduce the "funda-mental" property of matter from observation of neural activity related to conscious states.
We will never be able to perceive it directly. But then we can never "see" a black hole. We can only see the effects of a black hole and speculate that a black hole is consistent with our theory of the world and with the observed behavior of the world. A similar level of evidence can be achieved
See my website for more details and bibliography.
The 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference