What is the best way to understand consciousness? In philosophy, centuries-old debates continue to rage over whether the Universe is divided, following René Descartes, into ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’. But the rise of modern neuroscience has seen a more pragmatic approach gain ground: an approach that is guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers. Its key is to recognise that explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis – to start building explanatory bridges from the subjective and phenomenal to the objective and measurable.
This is the start of an essay I recently wrote for the website aeon.co, which publishes an essay a day, focusing on ideas and culture. The basic idea is to chart a pragmatic path for the scientific study of consciousness, respecting but not directly targeting the deep metaphysical mysteries so eloquently exposed by Chalmers’ famous distinction between the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems. Much of what I say has been said before (e.g., in the tradition of neurophenomenology) but I hope to bring things together in a new way and with a distinctive empirical angle. Anyway, best make up your own mind – I’d be keen to hear what you think!