Are ideas conscious at all? Neuroscience of Consciousness is a promising new journal from OUP introduced by the editor Anil Seth here. It has an interesting opinion piece from David Kemmerer which asks – are we ever aware of concepts, or is conscious experience restricted to sensory, motor and affective states?
On the face of it a rather strange question? According to Kemmerer there are basically two positions. The ‘liberal’ one says yes, we can be aware of concepts in pretty much the same kind of way we’re aware of anything. Just as there is a subjective experience when we see a red rose, there is another kind of subjective experience when we simply think of the concept of roses. There are qualia that relate to concepts just as there are qualia that relate to colours or smells, and there is something it is like to think of an idea. Kemmerer identifies an august history for this kind of thinking stretching back to Descartes.
The conservative position denies that concepts enter our awareness. While our behaviour may be influenced by concepts, they actually operate below the level of conscious experience. While we may have the strong impression that we are aware of concepts, this is really a mistake based on awareness of the relevant words, symbols, or images. The intellectual tradition behind this line of thought is apparently a little less stellar – Kemmerer can only push it back as far as Wundt – but it is the view he leans towards himself.
So far so good – an interesting philosophical/psychological issue. What’s special here is that in line with the new journal’s orientation Kemmerer is concerned with the neurological implications of the debate and looks for empirical evidence. This is an unexpected but surely commendable project.
To do it he addresses three particular theories. Representing the liberal side he looks at Global Neural Workspace Theory (GNWT) as set out by Dehaene, and Tononi’s Integrated information Theory (IIT)’ on the conservative side he picks the Attended Intermediate-Level Representation Theory (AIRT) of Prinz. He finds that none of the three is fully in harmony with the neurological evidence, but contends that the conservative view has distinct advantages.
Dehaene points to research that identified specific neurons in a subject’s anterior temporal lobes that fire when the subject is shown a picture of, say, Jennifer Aniston (mentioned on CE – rather vaguely). The same neuron fires when shown photographs, drawing, or other images, and even when the subject is reporting seeing a picture of Aniston. Surely then, the neuron in some sense represents not an image but the concept of Jennifer Aniston? against theconservative view Kemmerer argues that while a concept may be at work, imagery is always present in the conscious mind; indeed, he contends, you cannot think of ‘Anistonicity’ in itself without a particular image of Aniston coming to mind. Secondly he quotes further research which shows that deterioration of this portion of the brain impairs our ability to recognise, but not to see, faces. This, he contends, is good evidence that while these neurons are indeed dealing with general concepts at some level, they are contributing nothing to conscious awareness, reinforcing the idea that concepts operate outside awareness. According to Tononi we can be conscious of the idea of a triangle, but how can we think of a triangle without supposing it to be equilateral, isosceles, or scalene?
Turning to the conservative view, Kemmerer notes that AIRT has awareness at a middle level, between the jumble of impressions delivered by raw sensory input on the one hand, and the invariant concepts which appear at the high level. Conscious information must be accessible but need not always be accessed. It is implemented as gamma vector waves. This is apparently easier to square with the empirical data than the global workspace, which implies that conscious attention would involve a shift into the processing system in the lateral prefrontal cortex where there is access to working memory – something not actually observed in practice. Unfortunately although the AIRT has a good deal of data on its side the observed gamma responses don’t in fact line up with reported experience in the way you would expect if it’s correct.
I think the discussion is slightly hampered by the way Kemmerer uses ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’ as synonyms. I’d be tempted to reserve awareness for what he is talking about, and allow that concepts could enter consciousness without our being (subjectively) aware of them. I do think there’s a third possibility being overlooked in his discussion – that concepts are indeed in our easy-problem consciousness while lacking the hard-problem qualia that go with phenomenal experience. Kemmerer alludes to this possibility at one point when he raises Ned Block’s distinction between access and phenomenal (a- and p-consciousness), but doesn’t make much of it.
Whatever you think of Kemmerer’s ambivalent;y conservative conclusion, I think the way the paper seeks to create a bridge between the philosophical and the neurological is really welcome and, to a degree, surprisingly successful. If the new journal is going to give us more like that it will definitely be a publication to look forward to.