Jan Degenaar, BA. (University of Groningen)

Approaching the explanatory gaps of consciousness

The explanatory gap between conscious experience and the physical processes involved is the problem to get beyond mere correlation (Levine 1983). We want to understand why a certain physical process leads to consciousness. This question can be rendered more specific by distinguishing two different explanatory projects, one to understand the character of experience (e.g. why is the experience of red as it is), and the other to understand the existence of experience (why is there experience at all) (e.g. Chalmers 1996). I shall argue that this distinction between different explanatory gaps opens a way for present empirical work to be directly relevant for understanding the physical basis of consciousness.

Two empirically-minded proposals can illustrate possible approaches to the different explanatory gaps. First the sensorimotor theory, that has been put forward to explain the character of experience (O'Regan & Noë 2001, Hurley & Noë 2003). Given that fact that we experience, the question at issue here is why e.g. seeing is different from hearing in the way it is. Second the neural workspace theory, which aims to explain the difference between consciousness-related processes and not directly consciousness related processes (Baars 1988; Tononi & Edelman 1998; Dehaene & Naccache 2001). It can be argued that an understanding of this difference is an understanding of the existence of experience.

The theories under discussion appeal to different processes in their attempts to solve an explanatory problem. While workspace theories focus on what happens in the brain, sensorimotor theory extends the perspective to include the whole pattern if interaction cutting across boundaries between brain, body and world. Despite these differences, I shall argue that the theories themselves are not in conflict. However, there may be other reasons to be sceptical towards the combination of the presented approaches. An influential idea behind these doubts is the claim that consciousness arises out of physical processes. For this seems to imply that whenever experiential character arises, then experience itself arises, and vice versa. We may deny this explanatory unity of the problem of experience. This might allow different questions about conscious experience to be approached in the most appropriate ways. We may have reasons to be more optimistic about the approachability of the explanatory gaps.

Jan Degenaar (1981) studies biology and philosophy of science at the University of Groningen. As biology student he has done research on the neural bases of the perceptual phenomenon of binocular rivalry and he is presently involved in neuro-imaging research on social cognition. His philosophical master thesis utilises Wittgensteinian and Rylean ideas in an attempt to clarify the internalism/externalism discussion concerning the vehicles of consciousness.