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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber



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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

THE STUDY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Glimpses into the Life and Work of Great Thinkers in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Paul Churchland

Alice Ailisi

“The basic idea is that cognitive activities are ultimately just activities of the nervous system.”
-— Paul Churchland

The relationship between mind and body has been a controversial topic. There are philosophers who believe in dualism which holds that humans have both mental properties and physical properties. In this context, consciousness is associated with the mind which is different from the brain.

Paul Churchland
Paul Churchland

Paul Churchland is a leading proponent of eliminative materialism which is “the radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.” Churchland holds that mental states and processes are nothing more than states and processes of the brain.

Paul Montgomery Churchland, a Canadian-born American philosopher, was born on October 21, 1942 in Vancouver, Canada. He is currently the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and his research interests include the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence and cognitive neurobiology, epistemology, and perception. Churchland received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (with a focus on mind and science) from the University of Pittsburgh 1969. In the same year, Churchland married Patricia Smith who is now known as Patricia Churchland, and she works as an analytical philosopher and neuroscientist. They have been known as the Churchlands, and their work has attracted broad attention from many philosophers and cognitive scientists who are drawn to the concept of eliminative materialism. The Churchlands draw the connection between the philosophical study of mind and neuroscience.

During the New Yorker interview on July 21, 2014, by Larissa MacFarquhar, Paul Churchland described the academic interaction between him and his wife. He said, “to what extent has Pat shaped my conceptual framework and hence my perceptions of the world, and to what extent have I done that for her? I think the answer is, an enormous extent. But I don't know how to unwind it.”[1]

Churchland presented his stand on consciousness in his book Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. He states that the empirical sciences have provided a steady flow of relevant evidence for people to make a rational choice of the possible alternative theories of mind, and he argues that: “Psychology has taught us some surprising things about the penetration and reliability of our introspective knowledge. […] Cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence have produced provocative models of cognition, which, when 'brought to life' within a suitably programmed computer, mimic closely some of the complex activities of goalĀ­driven intelligence. The neurosciences have begun to unravel the vast microsystem of interconnected brain cells that, in living creatures, appears to execute those activities.”

Prominent critics such as Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers argue that consciousness cannot be explained by science or brain process. Thomas Nagel holds that “conscious experience is subjective, and thus permanently recalcitrant to objective scientific understanding.” David Chalmers claims that “any possible brain-process account of consciousness will leave open an 'explanatory gap' between the brain process and properties of the conscious experience.” In other words, neural mechanisms alone cannot provide a full explanation of consciousness. However, Paul Churchland argues that thalamocortical recurrency explains the selective features of consciousness. Based on his view on consciousness and mind, Churchland believes that neuroscience will ultimately answer how imagination, emotion, intelligence, mental illness, etc., are products of the brain and its processing. Churchland further elaborates on this view in his essay A Neurocomputational Perspective (1989) stating that “genuine psychological processes are sequences of activation patterns over neuronal networks.” Churchland is confident in his perspective on neuroscience which he thinks is progressing nicely in explaining human behavior.

However, the Churchlands' position on folk psychology, which they claim will be replaced by a future neuroscience, has given rise to some very aggressive opposition. Paul Churchland claims that “[folk psychology] does not consist of law. It does not support causal explanations. It does not evolve over time. Its central purpose is normative rather than descriptive. […] Its assimilation to theories is just a mistake.”

John Haldane opposes Paul Churchland's view on folk psychology. In addition, Alice Drewery from University of Reading commented on the Churchlands' essay “On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997." She states that “[folk psychology] can coexist with modem neuroscience, and as with our other folk theories, particularly folk physics, there is no need to eliminate.” People may think Churchland's viewpoint on the body and mind problem is challenging or not convincing, but it is certain that Churchland has broadened the horizons of how people may look at the relationship between the human mind and body.

NOTES

[1] Larissa MacFarquhar, "Two Heads: A marriage devoted to the mind-body problem", www.newyorker.com, July 21, 2014.

Further Reading

1. Plato's Camera: How the Physical Brain Captures a Landscape of Abstract Universals , The MIT Press; Reprint edition (August 16, 2013)

2. Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind, Cambridge University Press (August 29, 1986)

3. The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain, The MIT Press (August 1, 1996)

MSAC PHILOSOPHY GROUP

The Study of Consciousness

Human interest in the nature of consciousness dates far back to our ancestral past. However, it is only in the last century or so that researchers and philosophers have been able to tackle the problem in a more scientific way. This is primarily due to our increasing understanding of human physiology and how our brain functions. With the advent of ever more sophisticated technology—from fMRI scans, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to DARPA's neural engineering program, understanding neural “dust”—we are now able to not only create vivid simulations of cerebral activity but also to systematically reverse engineer the brain. Whether such empirical observations will unlock the secrets of self-reflective awareness is still open to vigorous debate. Nevertheless, the study of consciousness is now considered to be of elemental importance and has invited a large number of brilliant thinkers— from a wide range of disciplines, including mathematicians, quantum physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers—to join in the discussions and offer their own contributions.

The following essays briefly explore the life and work of pioneers in the field of consciousness studies. Included in this eclectic mix are such notables as Giulio Tononi (University of Wisconsin), Paul and Patricia Churchland (University of California, San Diego), Noam Chomsky (M.I.T.), the late Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, and Jean Pierre Changeux (Collége de France) among others.



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