Consciousness in the Annual Review of Neuroscience  Essay

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  • Subject: Psychology
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Consciousness" in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, John Searle questions the philosophical and epistemological accuracy of the paradigm that has defined the language and study of consciousness for centuries. His contention is that the study of consciousness must be guided by the idea that consciousness is not the "airy-fairy and touch-feely" phenomenon that many assume it to be (558), but rather is a concrete result of certain biological processes in the brain known as neurological correlates of conscious state (NCCs). While his argument is soundly presented and consistent with itself, I believe that Searle avoids certain questions and considerations of consciousness in order to maintain the assumption at the center of his argument.

Critical to his theory is the concept of subjectivity. Consciousness, Searles argues, only exists subjectively in that it relies on the existence of a subject as part of its definition. This is somewhat related to the famous grade-school question: "If a tree falls in the forest but there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?" If "sound" is defined as the conscious acknowledgement of the stimulus provided by sound waves, then Searle would argue that the tree does not make a sound because the sound relies on the presence of the subject -- the conscious being. Searle counters the position taken by some that the subjectivity of consciousness excludes it as an appropriate object of scientific study by pointing out that the subjective nature of consciousness does not equate to a subjective bias in the study of consciousness. Though consciousness is definitionally subjective, it can nonetheless be treated as an object for the purposes of scientific inquiry, and therefore the scientific study of it can be pursued objectively.

I am not convinced of Searle's argument in this case. Searle glosses over the phenomenon of self-consciousness as just one way that some people define the phenomenon of consciousness (560), and does not return to it specifically in his theory. But I believe that the phenomenon of self-consciousness is not only relevant to his argument, but significantly undermines it. If consciousness is subjective in nature, and if science relies, as it appears to, on the objective engagement of subjective conscious minds with external objects, then any science of consciousness that includes self-consciousness in its scope (and I believe any that doesn't is not complete) must be plagued by a troublesome element of double-subjectivity: the subjectivity of both the conscious observer and the object of consciousness. To illustrate the problem, we can amend the previous example to something like this: "If a deaf man screams in the forest, does he make a sound?" Searle's simple answer to the tree question does not suffice here, because the deaf man has a conscious awareness of having produced the sound even though he cannot give the conscious acknowledgement of its existence.

The dual nature of "sound" in this case (as a conscious action and as a conscious acknowledgement) and the dual role of the man (as an agent and as an observer) call into question the implication by Searle that a conscious being is an appropriate agent to undertake an objective study of consciousness. In a science where the object of study is a third person object, one can at least rely on the objectivity of that object -- that it will be experienced the same way by all observers, given the same circumstances. In fact, the very structure of the scientific method relies on this. But this assumption cannot be made in the study of consciousness, not because of the subjectivity of the object, but because the subjectivity of the object implies the subjectivity of the observer.

To put it in Searle's terms, in order for scientists to agree on the "unified qualitative subjectivity" (557) that Searle isolates as the essential characteristic of consciousness, they would have to come to a consistent scientific understanding of the "qualia" experienced by all conscious beings. The difficulty here is that no scientist can process the qualia of another's conscious experience without filtering it through the qualia of his own conscious experience. The separation of the observer and the observed that it so central to scientific study is violated before the process even gets off the ground.

This is not to say that no scientific knowledge concerning consciousness is possible. As Searle himself points out, advancements have been made in the study of consciousness through the "building block" approach. This approach to some extent eases the problem of the observer and observed by isolating individual, instantaneous moments of "microconsciousness" that an observer may for the most part separate himself or herself from. But Searle dismisses this approach as not adequate for an accurate study of consciousness as a unified field.

Searle concludes his article by enunciating the difference between the view of consciousness as a "computer program" that plays itself out in our brains but could just as well play out on an alternative hardware, and the view of consciousness as a biological problem in which the brain figures prominently not just as an arena but as an active contributor. This clearly has implications for discussions about machine intelligence and human intelligence, and what is meant by intelligence in general.

One important element to bring into this discussion is the difference between types of knowledge. Epistemologists and computational theorists isolate two types of knowledge: semantic and syntactic. These terms are most often used in the context of language. Syntactic knowledge is the knowledge of the rules that govern a system -- for instance, English grammar. Semantic knowledge, on the other hand, is the knowledge of the meaning created by the rules that govern a system -- for instance, the knowledge of the meaning of a sentence. In a general sense, semantic knowledge can be defined as "long-established knowledge about objects, facts, and word meanings" (Levy et al., 2004, para.1), while syntactic knowledge is specific knowledge acquired in becoming proficient in a system.

The differences between these types of knowledge are clear to anyone who has tried to learn a non-native language. For instance, I took Spanish classes in high school. The focus was mainly on syntactic knowledge -- the acquisition of vocabulary, the conjugation of verbs, the gender of nouns, the appropriate construction of sentences. After these syntactic foundations were acquired, effort was put into building a semantic knowledge in which I could decipher meaning using the syntactic tools I had learned. This effort was generally unsuccessful, both for me and for many of my classmates. When I spent some time in Mexico, however, I was able to develop semantic knowledge very quickly, not because I found my syntactic knowledge particularly useful, but because I was constantly exposed to the language in the context of its meaning and was therefore able to bypass the syntactic knowledge and build the semantic knowledge separately.

These two views of language are somewhat akin to the two views of consciousness that Searle points out in his article: "building block" consciousness and "unified field" consciousness. The "building block" view of consciousness very much resembles syntactic knowledge -- the processing of individual components of an experience as separate parts of a conscious system. As Searle points out, however, scientists engaged in the "building block" approach come across much the same problem as my high school Spanish teacher -- the problem of binding, or the creation of a seamless awareness or knowledge from the disparate body of syntactic knowledge.

Searle's "unified field" approach to consciousness, on the other hand, resembles semantic knowledge in many ways. Semantic knowledge expresses syntactic knowledge, not as a separate phenomenon, but as one of a variety of expressions of itself. My semantic knowledge of Spanish includes knowledge of the syntax of the Spanish language, but not as a separate knowledge put into practice in a semantic way; rather, it is a natural feature of my semantic knowledge. This is much like Searle's description of unified field consciousness -- he stresses that the unified field is not a "stage" upon which the "actors" of individual conscious experiences act, but instead it is a topography on which individual conscious experiences are features (574).

This brings us to the ideas underlying the concept of syntactic and semantic knowledge: "form" and "content." Form and content seem on the surface to be simple ideas. Form is the structure that defines an object, experience, or phenomenon, while content is the substance of which it is made. It can easily been with this paper, for instance, that the form constitutes all of its structural elements, and the content constitutes the ideas and arguments expressed in it. Even this basic example, however, is not as simple as it seems, and the division between form and content can be difficult to pinpoint if looked at carefully. Is the use of the indent at the beginning of this paragraph part of the paper's form or part of its content? It is a syntactical tool and helps to define the structure of…

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