Is Consciousness Just a Brain Process?

Though a young movement, experimental philosophy is broad in scope. Its proponents apply their methods to varied philosophical problems, including questions about the nature of the self. For example, what (if anything) makes you the same person from childhood to adulthood? They investigate issues in ethics, too: Do people think that morality is objective, as is mathematics, and if so, why? Akin to the question of free will, they are also tackling the dissonance between our intuitions and scientific theories of consciousness.

Scientists have postulated that consciousness is populations of neurons firing in certain brain areas, no more and no less. To most people, however, it seems bizarre to think that the distinctive tang of kumquats, say, is just a pattern of neural activation.

Our instincts about consciousness are triggered by specific cues, experimental philosophers explain, among them the existence of eyes and the appearance of goal-directed behavior, but not neurons. Studies indicate that people’s intuitions tell them that insects—which, of course, have eyes and show goal-directed behavior—can feel happiness, pain and anger.

The problem is that insects very likely lack the neural wherewithal for these sensations and emotions. What is more, engineers have programmed robots to display simple goal-directed behaviors, and these robots can produce the uncanny impression that they have feelings, even though the machines are not remotely plausible candidates for having awareness. In short, our instincts can lead us astray on this matter, too. Maybe consciousness does not have to be something different from—or above and beyond—brain processes.

Philosophical conflicts over such concepts as free will and consciousness often have their roots in ordinary intuitions, and the historical debates often end in stalemates. Experimental philosophers maintain that we can move past some of these impasses if we understand the nature of our gut feelings. This nascent field will probably not produce a silver bullet to fully restore or discredit our beliefs in free will and other potential illusions. But by understanding why we find certain philosophical views intuitively compelling, we might find ourselves in a position to recognize that, in some cases, we have little reason to hold onto our hunches.

Edited from an extract of Is Free Will an Illusion by Shaun Nichols

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