So says Galen Strawson in the TLS: philosophers have been talking about consciousness for centuries. Most of what he says, including his main specific point, is true, and the potted history of the subject he includes is good, picking up many interesting and sensible older views that are normally overlooked (most of them overlooked by me, to be honest). If you took all the papers he mentioned and published them together, I think you’d probably have a pretty good book about consciousness. But he fails to consider two very significant factors and rather over-emphasises the continuity of discussion in philosophy and psychology, leaving a misleading impression.
First, yes, it’s absolutely a myth that consciousness came back to the fore in philosophy only in the mid-1990s, and that Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis was important in bringing that about. The allegedly astonishing hypothesis, identifying mind and brain, had indeed been a staple of philosophical discussion for centuries. We can also agree that consciousness really did go out of fashion at one stage: Strawson grants that the behaviourists excluded consciousness from consideration, and that as a result there really was an era when it went through a kind of eclipse.
He rather underplays that, though, in two ways. First, he describes it as merely a methodological issue. It’s true that the original behaviourists stopped just short of denying the reality of consciousness, but they didn’t merely say ‘let’s approach consciousness via a study of measurable behaviour’, they excluded all reference to consciousness from psychology, an exclusion that was meant to be permanent. Second, the leading behaviourists were just the banner bearers for a much wider climate of opinion that clearly regarded consciousness as bunk, not just a non-ideal methodological approach. Interestingly, it looks to me as if Alan Turing was pretty much of this mind. Strawson says:
But when Turing suggests a test for when it would be permissible to describe machines as thinking, he explicitly puts aside the question of consciousness.
Actually Turing barely mentions consciousness; what he says is…
The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.
The question of consciousness must be at least equally meaningless in his eyes. Turing here sounds very like a behaviourist to me.
What he does represent is the appearance of an entirely new element in the discussion. Strawson represents the history as a kind of debate within psychology and philosophy: it may have been like that at one stage: a relatively civilised dialogue between the elder subject and its offspring. They’d had a bit of a bust-up when psychology ran away from home to become a science, but they were broadly friends now, recognising each other’s prerogatives, and with a lot of common heritage. But in 1950, with Turing’s paper, a new loutish figure elbowed its way onto the table: no roots in the classics, no long academic heritage, not even really a science: Artificial Intelligence. But the new arrival seized the older disciplines by the throat and shook them until their teeth rattled, threatening to take the whole topic away from them wholesale. This seminal, transformational development doesn’t feature in Strawson’s account at all. His version makes it seem as if the bitchy tea-party of philosophy continued undisturbed, while in fact after the rough intervention of AI, psychology’s muscular cousin neurology pitched in and something like a saloon bar brawl ensued, with lots of disciplines throwing in the odd punch and even the novelists and playwrights hitching up their skirts from time to time and breaking a bottle over somebody’s head.
The other large factor he doesn’t discuss is the religious doctrine of the soul. For most of the centuries of discussion he rightly identifies, one’s permitted views about the mind and identity were set out in clear terms by authorities who in the last resort would burn you alive. That has an effect. Descartes is often criticised for being a dualist; we have no particular reason to think he wasn’t sincere, but we ought to recognise that being anything else could have got him arrested. Strawson notes that Hobbes got away with being a materialist and Hume with saying things that strongly suggested atheism; but they were exceptions, both in the more tolerant (or at any rate more disorderly) religious environment of Britain.
So although Strawson’s specific point is right, there really was a substantial sea change: earlier and more complex, but no less worthy of attention.
In those long centuries of philosophy, consciousness may have got the occasional mention, but the discussion was essentially about thought, or the mind. When Locke mentioned the inverted spectrum argument, he treated it only as a secondary issue, and the essence of his point was that the puzzle which was to become the Hard Problem was nugatory, of no interest or importance in itself.
Consciousness per se took centre stage only when religious influence waned and science moved in. For the structuralists like Wundt it was central, but the collapse of the structuralist project led directly to the long night of behaviourism we have already mentioned. Consciousness came back into the centre gradually during the second half of the twentieth century, but this time instead of being the main object of attention it was pressed into service as the last defence against AI; the final thing that computers couldn’t do. Whereas Wundt had stressed the scientific measurement of consciousness its unmeasurability was now the very thing that made it interesting. This meant a rather different way of looking at it, and the gradual emergence of qualia for the first time as the real issue. Strawson is quite right of course that this didn’t happen in the mid-nineties; rather, David Chalmers’ formulation cemented and clarified a new outlook which had already been growing in influence for several decades.
So although the Hard Problem isn’t new, it did become radically more important and central during the latter part of the last century; and as yet the sherriff still ain’t showed up.