Perspectives on Consciousness

Perspectives on Consciousness

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Item Code: IDD865
Author: Ed. by. Amita Chatterjee
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. in association with Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 8121510813
Pages: 221 (Figures: 2)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8" X 5.7"
Weight 480 gm
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About the Book:


Consciousness has remained an enigma even after close scientific scrutiny. Last two decades of the twentieth century, therefore, witnessed an explosion of interest in consciousness. Lack of consensus about the nature, definition and taxonomy of consciousness and lack of conviction about the adequacy of the reductive methodology have led scholars from different disciplines to study this multidimensional phenomenon from perspectives of their own. This volume, is a collection of essays focusing on ontological, epistemological, semantic and methodological debates from philosophical and scientific perspectives. The issues dealt with here include the following: What is consciousness - a substance, a state or a process? Is consciousness subjective and private? Does 'consciousness' mean something unitary and indivisible or is it a cluster concept? What constitutes the core of consciousness - representation or experience? What is the hard problem of consciousness and how to solve it? Who will have the last word on consciousness - philosopher, physicist, psychologist or neurobiologist? Is it possible to have a unified theory of consciousness and how to go about it?

The unique feature of this volume is the inclusion of articles on classical Indian theories of consciousness analyzed from the contemporary point of view competent scholars.

This collection is meant for both scholars and general readers. Rich information contents of the volume will be particularly useful to students and researchers in Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness Studies.

About the Author:

Amita Chatterjee is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Center for Cognitive Science at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is author of Understanding Vagueness (1994) and editor of Indian Ethics in Bengali (1998). She is co-editing volumes on Physicalism and Its Alternatives and Some Philosophical Issues of Indian Logic.


A large number of studies on consciousness were made during the last two decades of the twentieth century and the topic has received quite some attention. We wanted to identify a few areas where the significant theories of traditional Indian thinkers and the contemporary theories might converge and the accumulated wisdom on consciousness could help to remove the confusions abounding in this area. The Department of Philosophy, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India organized an international Conference on 'Philosophical and Scientific Perspectives on Consciousness: Toward a Systematic Theory' in January 2002. Some of the original contributions presented at the Conference are being published in this volume. Unfortunately, Pierre Jacob and C.A. Tomy could not participate in the Conference, but their papers are also being included. Objectives of this Conference were to provide a forum for scholars from different disciplines to interact with a view to arriving at a unified theory of consciousness and to begin an inter-cultural dialogue with the hope that new horizons in consciousness study would emerge, overcoming the stumbling blocks encountered by interdisciplinary efforts.


The success of the Conference was primarily due to all the contributors and all the participants, to whom we are grateful. Madhucchanda Sen, Rupa Bandyopadhyay and Dr Abhijit Chatterjee enriched the Conference by their presentation, with only a week's notice. I thank them from the core of my heart.

I take this opportunity to express our sincere thanks to our sponsors: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, University Grants Commission, United States Educational Foundation in India, Government of West Bengal, Indian Council of Social Science Research and Jadavpur University. Without their generous support, we would not have been able to hold the Conference and publish this volume.

A few special acknowledgements would be in order. I would like to thank my friends, my teaching and non-teaching colleagues and students fro their assistance and support. I am indebted to Buddhadev Bhattacharya, who had taken up the onerous task of publication of this volume and successfully negotiated all the issues, which cropped up during the publication. I reserve my special thanks for three of my research students, Maushumi Guha, Smita Sirker and Atreyee Mukherjee for their invaluable assistance in the preparation and the editing of the manuscript.


In a well-known story of the Mahabharata, the Wise Heron, Lord of Morality Incarnate, asked Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, 'What is the greatest wonder on earth?' Yudhisthira replied, 'Everyday people are dying all around, yet men wish to go on living, what can be a greater wonder than that?' The Wise Heron accepted the answer as correct at that point of time. But if anyone of us were asked the same question today, the unanimous answer, irrespective of the person's profession, propensity or position, will be, I presume, 'Consciousness'.


Agreement among scholars is indeed a rare phenomenon. It is all the more rare when pluralism is the order of the day. Yet, scholars from different disciplines have agreed on one point, i.e., the enigma called consciousness is to be explored, understood and explained. As a step towards that, first we need to understand the causes of our persisting lack of understanding of the subject.

A cursory look at the history of development of ideas shows that man's engagement with consciousness is a much late affair than his engagement with the external world. Maybe, this has some evolutionary significance. But the fact remains that all other natural sciences had gone a long way even before consciousness study could properly begin. However, it is not due to the late start alone that consciousness is still baffling, still mystifying. There are some inherent problems with theorizing on consciousness, the foremost among which is the problem of definition.

The first thing that appears to stand in the way of a definition of consciousness is its extreme familiarity. There are stalwarts in the field who think that we need not put any effort to define consciousness at all because all of us know and understand what consciousness is. Second, consciousness itself being the highest genus, we cannot define it in accordance with Aristotle's dictum per genus et differentium. Third, we do not get any help in this matter from the lexicon because the term has been subject to constant semantic shifts. Fourth, there is no unanimity among those who are in the business of using the concept. Psychologists, philosophers, neurobiologists or men of religion do not mean the same thins by 'consciousness'. Nor are they sure where to draw the line between conscious, unconscious and non-conscious. The dividing line always varies with change in the theoretical background ranging from substance dualism to eliminativism through different types of property dualism and reductionism. Hence, defining 'consciousness' in terms of its necessary and sufficient conditions is out of the question. Fifth, we cannot expect to define it in terms of family resemblance either, for its cognate concepts like conscience are equally unintelligible. Sixth, attempt to define it in terms of its constituents will not meet with approval form all quarters, since many believe that consciousness is a simple indivisible thing. On the other hand, those who entertain the possibility of analyzing consciousness into its aspects or components do not see eye to eye with one another. Hence, providing a 'real' definition of 'consciousness' seems to be an impossible task. A real definition of any term is supposed to illumine the nature of the thing referred by the term and to distinguish it from everything else; but it requires at least some pre-theoretic agreement about the definiendum, which, in this case, is altogether absent. Without a definition, we do not know how to classify various conscious experiences. So, the next problem that the theoreticians in the realm face is the problem of taxonomy.

While classifying consciousness theoreticians have often been found to follow the phenomenological route. They proceed by raising the question, what are the different things that are said to be conscious, depending on our everyday experience? An individual and his mental states are generally said to be conscious, and we tend to draw a distinction between creature consciousness and state consciousness. Within creature consciousness again, a distinction is drawn between intransitive and transitive variants. When an organism is conscious simpliciter, it is conscious intransitively, e.g., when the being is awake and alert, and not asleep or comatose. Consciousness, on the other hand, is transitive when somebody is aware of this or that thing. Here also we are faced with a host of problems. Need we confine creature consciousness to organisms, alone, or should we grant creature consciousness to computers and robots? When someone is conscious of something, must she also be conscious of this fact? Is the mental state by virtue of which an organism is aware of something itself conscious? When someone is conscious of something is she necessarily aware of the qualitative feature of her conscious experience? Formulated in the current technical jargon, the question boils down to this; are intentional consciousness, phenomenal consciousness, access consciousness, higher order consciousness, self-consciousness different types of consciousness or are they just different aspects of the unitary consciousness? This is a seminal question. We shall discuss the issues raised here in details later because many of the papers included in this volume have been developed around this question. Moreover, many other contemporary debates can be shown to have direct links with it.

It has been suggested that both the problem of definition and the problem of taxonomy can be solved by fine-grain analysis of our conscious experience. That is what scientific studies of consciousness aim at. Scientists often explain macro-scale phenomena in terms of their micro-scale constituents. This is a move towards naturalizing consciousness. However, the exercise of naturalizing consciousness often turns out to be a reductive exercise, reductionism being the most successful strategy in science. Since brain has for quite some time been accepted as the seat of consciousness, scientists have attempted to explain consciousness with the help of the structural and functional features of the neuronal network in human brain. For example, according to Crick and Koch, a synchronized 35-75 hertz neural oscillation in the sensory areas of the cerebral cortex is uniformaly correlated with phenomenal consciousness. Here also, we face at least two problems. First, the micro-level data seem to be necessary and not sufficient for consciousness. There is always an explanatory gap. For instance, even if we knew everything about synapses and neurotransmitters, would we thereby know how one perceives the colour red, hates one's enemies, believes one's friends and feels sad or dejected or happy? The answer is: 'No'. The second problem is: how far should we analyse? How fine-grained our analysis should be? It is not possible to determine a priori the appropriate level of reductionism for a particular problem. For explaining consciousness neurobiologists have chosen the neuronal level while physicists wants us to take as far as the level of quanta. But to say that consciousness is nothing but a pack of quanta may be true but totally uninteresting from the explanatory point of view. Just as the saying, life is chemistry, is true but insignificant. From the explanatory point of view, emergent properties of life, such as heritability, are significant, not the constituent parts. Probably similar is the case of consciousness.

It is in this context that Mohanty's view as expressed in 'Perspectives on Consciousness', the first paper of this volume, become relevant. The paper was delivered in the form of a keynote address in an international conference with a focus on systematization of theories of consciousness. Mohanty categorically says that the project of naturalization should not be confused with the reductionist programme. The main problem of consciousness, according to him, is the problem of explaining consciousness. There is, however, no uniform idea of explanation; it depends on the science concerned. Hence explanation of consciousness does not depend on its being translatable in the language of physics. Following Weinberg he maintains that even if there is a unified theory in the realm of science, it is unlikely that it will provide adequate explanation for all levels of consciousness as manifested in social, cultural and experiential realm. The central thesis of the paper is that all philosophical truths are many-layered, so is the truth about consciousness. The same reality, as the Jaina philosophers would point out, may have multiple descriptions and all of them contain some truth about it, if not the entire truth. A philosopher cannot, and should not, choose between these. As an example of right type of naturalization Mohanty mentions the work of the Neurophenomenology Group led by Fransisco Varela. Neurophenomenoligists' enterprise is distinctive because unlike many other scientists they are not trying to reduce the phenomenology of consciousness to brain physiology. As a consequence of their dynamic approach towards consciousness, they have realized that phenomenology and neurophysiology should act as constraint on each other. We should not, however, conclude from this that Mohanty considers the neurophysiological truth about consciousness the most significant truth. True to his main thesis he reiterates that consciousness can very well be part of nature, this world of experience. In that case, we must admit that nature is not merely physical but that there are different kinds of things in nature. If there are different kinds of entities, one might wonder, how can there be a unified world or how can we have a unified theory of such a world? To answer that question, Mohanty says, we do not require physics but a good theory of categories explaining how inter-categorial relations are maintained.

Another important aspect, which Mohanty has highlighted in his paper, relates to the nature of consciousness. He contests the view that consciousness is purely subjective, a view which he takes to be a hangover of Cartesian dualism. Nor is consciousness like a torchlight, which illumines whatever falls within its focus. Consciousness is always with content. Content of consciousness may be of different types – intellectual and sensory. Within sensory consciousness he accommodates kinesthetic consciousness where body enters consciousness as its content. This, he thinks, is one way of refuting Cartesian dualism. In many mystical as well as philosophical systems of both the East and the West pure contentless consciousness has been admitted. Mohanty wants one to explore seriously the possibility of contentless consciousness before rejecting the notion altogether.

Like Mohanty, Hiranmoy Banerjee also in his paper discusses what philosophers can do about consciousness, which can be ignored only by going against human experience, since consciousness is introspectible. Consciousness has been for a long time, a happy playing field of philosophers and men of religion. It was sort of anathema to the scientists. Philosophers have speculated and theorized about the nature and types of consciousness since time immemorial, relying mainly on experiential evidence and folk-psychological concepts. But now that scientists have entered the field, attempt to explain consciousness by philosophers might appear presumptuous. Many naturalists, like Chomsky, think that that there is nothing left for philosophical understanding to achieve after the sciences have given the best theoretical account of conscious experience. Philosophical account, which is based on ethno-science like folk-psychology, must yield place to scientific account of consciousness. If freedom and creativity, two inalienable marks of consciousness, resist strict naturalistic explanation (a vestige of reductionism?), then Chomsky wants us to take a 'mysterian' attitude about them. These are to be placed within the category of 'mystery for humans' and not within the category of 'problem'. Contesting the Chomskyte position, Banerjee holds that philosopher's approach is not at all incompatible with the spirit of naturalistic enquiry. There is not just one type of explanation, nor is there a singular variety of naturalism. Philosopher's approach, asserts Banerjee, is perfectly responsible and even naturalistic from one perspective, though not as strict as Chomsky would like to have it with underpinning of real science as opposed to proto/ethno-science.




Amita Chatterjee

Perspectives on Consciousness
J.N. Mohanty

Introspectable Consciousness : What Philosophers Can Do About It
Hiranmoy Banerjee

Thinking Beings
Monima Chada

Qualia Domesticated
Roberto Casati

The Mind-Mind Problem
Madhucchanda Sen

Dreamless Sleep : An Analysis of the Advaita, Madhva and the Nyaya Theories
Rupa Bandyopadhyay

Inner Sense and 'Higher Order Consciousness': An Indian Perspective
Sukharanjan Saha

Perception, Apperception and Non-Conceptual Content
Arindam Chakrabarti

Subject in Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science: Some Reflections of Thomas S. Kuhn
S.G. Kulkarni

Perceiving Temporal Passage: An Indicator of the Natural of Consciousness
Arthur Falk

Perceiving Objects and Grasping Them
Pierre Jacob

An Argument for the Unity of Consciousness
C.A. Tomy




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