Antti Revonsuo has a two-headed paper in the latest JCS; at least it seems two-headed to me – he argues for two conclusions that seem to be only loosely related; both are to do with the Hard Problem, the question of how to explain the subjective aspect of experience.
The first is a view about possible solutions to the Hard Problem, and how it is situated strategically. Revonsuo concludes, basically, that the problem really is hard, which obviously comes as no great surprise in itself. His case is that the question of consciousness is properly a question for cognitive neuroscience, and that equally cognitive neuroscience has already committed itself to owning the problem: but at present no path from neural mechanisms up to conscious experience seems at all viable. A good deal of work has been done on the neural correlates of consciousness, but even if they could be fully straightened out it remains largely unclear how they are to furnish any kind of explanation of subjective experience.
The gist of that is probably right, but some of the details seem open to challenge. It’s not at all clear to me that consciousness is owned by cognitive neuroscience; rather, the usual view is that it’s an intensely inter-disciplinary problem; indeed, that may well be part of the reason it’s so duffucult to get anywhere. Second, it’s not at all that clear how strongly committed cognitive neuroscience is to the Hard Problem. Consciousness, fair enough; consciousness is indeed irretrievably one of the areas addressed by cognitive neuroscience. But consciousness is a many-splendoured thing, and I think cognitive neuroscientists still have the option of ignoring or being sceptical about some of the fancier varieties, especially certain conceptions of the phenomenal experience which is the subject of the Hard Problem. It seems reasonable enough that you might study consciousness in the Easy Problem sense – the state of being conscious rather than unconscious, we might say – without being committed to a belief in ineffable qualia – let alone to providing a neurological explanation of them.
The second conclusion is about extended consciousness; theories that suggest conscious states are not simply states of the brain, but are partly made up of elements beyond our skull and our skin. These theories too, it seems, are not going to give us a quick answer in Revonsuo’s opinion – or perhaps any answer. Revonsuo invokes the counter example of dreams. During dreams, we appear to be having conscious experiences; yet the difference between a dream state and an unconscious state may be confined to the brain; in every other respect our physical situation may be identical. This looks like strong evidence that consciousness is attributable to brain states alone.
Once, Revonsuo acknowledges, it was possible to doubt whether dreams were really experiences; it could have been that they were false memories generated only at the moment of awakening; but he holds that research over recent years has eliminated this possibility, establishing that dreams happen over time, more or less as they seem to.
The use of dreams in this context is not a new tactic, and Revonsuo quotes Alva Noë’s counter-argument, which consists of three claims intended to undermine the relevance of dreams; first, dream experiences are less rich and stable than normal conscious experiences; second, dream seeing is not real seeing; and third, all dream experiences depend on prior real experiences. Revonsuo more or less gives a flat denial of the first, suggesting that the evidence is thin to non-existent: Noë just hasn’t cited enough evidence. He thinks the second counter-argument just presupposes that experiences without external content are not real experiences, which is question-begging. Just because I’m seeing a dreamed object, does that mean I’m not really seeing? On the third point he has two counter arguments. Even if all dreams recall earlier waking experiences, they are still live experiences in themselves; they’re not just empty recall – but in any case, that isn’t true; people who are congenitally paraplegic have dreams of walking, for example.
I think Revonsuo is basically right, but I’m not sure he has absolutely vanquished the extended mind. For his dream argument to be a real clincher, the brain state of dreaming of seeing a sheep and the brain state of actually seeing a sheep have to be completely identical, or rather, potentially identical. This is quite a strong claim to make, and whatever the state of the academic evidence, I’m not sure how well it stands up to introspective examination. We know that we often take dreams to be real when we are having them, and in fact do not always or even generally realise that a dream is a dream: but looking back on it, isn’t there a difference of quality between dream states and waking states? I’m strongly tempted to think that while seeing a sheep is just seeing a sheep, the corresponding dream is about seeing a sheep, a little like seeing a film, one level higher in abstraction. But perhaps that’s just my dreams?