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Do you believe that your consciousness can survive the death of your body? Or do you believe, along with Francis Crick, that ‘You are nothing but a bunch of neurones’? Such incompatible beliefs reflect the twin horns of the dilemma created by Enlightenment scientists in the 17th century, and the conflict between science and religion which persists to this day. On the one hand, ‘materialism’ threatens to reduce human beings to deterministic robots with no apparent use for consciousness or free will; on the other, ‘idealism’ threatens to remove human beings from the realm of explanatory science altogether.



The recent resurgence of ‘consciousness science’ is a fascinating phenomenon. From the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, psychology was defined as ‘the study of consciousness’. But by the 1940s and 50s, psychology came to be dominated by behaviourism, an extreme form of reductionism which treated consciousness as irrelevant to science or even as non-existent. The rise of cognitive science in the 60s (where researchers often depend on the ‘subjective report’ of volunteers taking part in an investigation), and the development of functional imaging techniques (which create the illusion that we can ‘see’ thoughts), has brought consciousness back into the scientific realm. The new journal Consciousness and Cognition – dominated by a mechanistic cognoparadigm – was launched in 1992, and the more eclectic Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1994. The first international ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness’ conference was also convened in 1994 at Tucson, Arizona, and has been held every two years since. The major current debates circle around the so-called ‘hard problem’ of con-sciousness, as defined by the philosopher David Chalmers: How does consciousness ‘arise’ from ‘physical’ processes in the brain? The problems of explaining brain processes themselves are, of course, difficult enough, but Chalmers defines them as ‘easy problems’ in the sense that we can, at least in principle, conceive of current scientific method eventually leading to solutions. But, Chalmers points out, no matter how fully we come to understand mechanistic brain processes, our understanding remains mechanistic, and the ‘hard problem’ is untouched. The ‘hard problem’ is ‘hard’ because we cannot conceive of any way it can be solved, or be sure that we would recognise a solution even if we had one. It should be self-evident that the ‘hard problem’, so defined, is only a problem if you accept the physicalistic world-view of post-Enlightenment science. If you have any kind of spiritual or religious belief, then you are not likely to accept that cons-ciousness ‘arises’ from ‘physical’ processes. Consciousness (whether you call it ‘God’ or not) came first, and everything else in the universe derives from it. Few scientists recognise that the problem of consciousness is entirely political in origin – due to one group of dominant males (Enlightenment scientists) attempting to seize authority and power from another group of dominant males (the Christian clergy) who, until then, had held a monopoly of the Truth market. To this end, scientists adopted two strategies: they asserted that the only authority for ‘truth’ is what you can discover for yourself, and they invented the notion of a ‘physical’ universe which supposedly contains everything ‘real’ even though it paradoxically excludes consciousness. Simply by the way it is defined, a ‘physical’ account of the universe cannot accommodate consciousness.



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Murinbata, T., Whitehead, C. (2000) ‘Why conferences on consciousness are not really getting us anywhere: A stone-age anthropologist explains’ Journal of Consciousness Studies; 7 (6): 81-5 Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (1998) ‘The re-enchantment of science’ Anthropology Today; 14 (5): 20-1. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2000) ‘The anthropology of consciousness: Keeping body and soul together? Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2000) ‘Grand illusions: Robogeeks meet bad scientists at Tucson 2000’ Anthropology Today; 16 (4): 22-3. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2001) ‘Social mirrors and shared experiential worlds’ Journal of Consciousness Studies; 8 (4): 3-36. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2002) ‘Cultural and political origins of the “hard problem”’ Toward a Science of Consciousness: Tucson 2002, sponsored by the Centre for Consciousness Studies, University of Arizona: Tucson, 6-13 April. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2003) ‘Social mirrors and the brain: including a functional imaging study of role-play and verse’: PhD Thesis, University College London: CONCLUSIONS. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2004) ‘“Everything I believe might be a delusion. Whoa!” Tucson 2004: Ten years on and are we any nearer to a science of consciousness?’ Journal of Consciousness Studies; 11 (12): 68-88. Download PDF_TOP


Copyright © 2005 Charles Whitehead. All rights reserved.