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Consciousness Science 2002: past, present, and future.

by Antti Revonsuo
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Consciousness Science 2002: past, present, and future.

The present wave of the scientific study of consciousness could soon celebrate its 10th anniversary. It was sometime in the early 1990's when the topic of consciousness made a final breakthrough and the multidisciplinary studies on consciousness became a distinct, respectable field of scientific inquiry, with its own academic journals, conferences and societies. The pioneering spirit of the 1990's seems to have been driven by the conviction, explicit in conference slogans and book titles, that we are steadily progressing towards a Science of Consciousness.

At this point in the development of the field it might be a good idea for the field to take stock and evaluate what has been achieved, and where to head next. At the theoretical and philosophical level, the main achievement is that the different options as to the fundamental nature of consciousness have been systematically charted and vigorously explored. However, it still remains unclear what kind of a philosophical approach should be taken as the basis of the Science of Consciousness. In any case, one thing is clear: If we want to have a genuine SCIENCE of consciousness, at some point the consciousness research community will have to discontinue endlessly arguing about the philosophical alternatives and for the time being just settle with something reasonably plausible in order to make progress with the actual empirical science of consciousness.

A unified empirical research program could be built on that kind of shared philosophical and theoretical basis. Unfortunately, so far empirical consciousness research has not been formed around any particular theory and philosophy of consciousness, but has been either fairly untheoretical in nature or only loosely committed to standard cognitive science and neuroscience which unfortunately do not have sufficient theoretical tools to deal with subjectivity. Furthermore, different empirical approaches seem to embrace entirely different background assumptions about the nature of consciousness. Just to mention a few examples of the wild variety of views: Some believe that consciousness is radically embodied and not located in the brain at all whereas others seek for it in the brain under the label “the neural correlates of consciousness”. Some believe that consciousness is a biological phenomenon that falls in the domain of neuroscience whereas others speculate that it must be essentially a quantum phenomenon, therefore falling into the domain of physics to explain. Thus, there is a fair degree of disunity and disagreement about the basic nature of both consciousness and the appropriate ways to study it.

In view of this disunity both at the philosophical and empirical levels, a plea for unity might be in place. If consciousness science is to make significant progress in the future, it will have to establish a more unified research program on consciousness. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being perceived (by mainstream science and those who fund it) as too incoherent and incapable of advancing to a stage beyond mere philosophical argumentation. If the field is stuck with such a situation for another decade, we might not have to wait long until some new wave of behaviorism and eliminativism will try to raise its ugly head, arguing that the so-called science of consciousness has shown no progress because of its philosophical and methodological weaknesses. That, of course, is the worst scenario, but it may be helpful to remind ourselves about it every once in a while. Sometimes even worst scenarios do come true and last time in the history of psychology when consciousness was for a while taken seriously, the worst scenario eventually did come true in the form of behaviorism.

One important ingredient of a more unified research program is a growing empirical database that is acknowledged and shared by the community of researchers working within the field. So far, it has been difficult to picture what exactly constitutes the database for consciousness science: the relevant research is published in scattered journals and it has not been entirely uncomplicated to keep track of all the important new findings in the field.

This is where the present web-magazine, Science and Consciousness Reviews, steps in. One of its functions is to offer a quick and easy channel to the latest developments in the field of empirical consciousness research, both for researchers and interested lay people. Its editorial policy naturally reflects the views of the Editors and Editorial Board members as to what is deemed as significant additions to the database of consciousness science, and hence, what consciousness science itself is all about. If a theoretically and empirically more unified Science of Consciousness is to slowly emerge during the next ten years or so, perhaps SCR will be able to make a small contribution to its emergence. 



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