I've just returned from a quick hop to Syracuse for the SPAWN conference on consciousness, organized by Bob van Gulick. (Visuals: My photos are now online, and Murat Aydede has put together a photo-movie. Uriah Kriegel has a conference report, including a summary of the papers.) This is the first of a series of conferences aimed at highlighting new work by up-and-coming researchers in a given field of philosophy, with papers supplied in advance by relatively junior researchers, commentaries on these papers by relatively senior researchers, and a number of overview sessions to pull things together. (Here's the program.) It's a great model for a conference, and the conference was memorable in a number of respects. Here I'll mention a few themes that came up along the way, especially in the overview sessions.
The first overview session mostly involved a look back at the last 15 years. Most entertaining was Alex Byrne's division of researchers in the field into advocates of the "inner" perspective and the "outer" perspective on consciousness. "Innies" and "outies", as they came to be known, were given different pithy one-line views on a number of the main issues in the field. The conference attendees seemed fairly evenly divided between innies and outies: by my count, the nine senior commentators were divided 4-5 (in favor of outies) and the junior paper-givers were divided 6-3 (in favor of innies). Also memorable in this session was a leading senior researcher's heartfelt declaration that there's a serious danger of the field becoming too driven by the latest empirical discoveries and losing touch with enduring philosophical issues. Needless to say, this view wasn't shared by everyone.
For the second evening, I was commissioned to give an after-dinner talk on challenges for the philosophy and the science of consciousness in the next 15 years. Fortunately I was helped in this by President Bush's announcement earlier that day of a major 15-year research project aimed at building a consciousness meter (motivated inter alia by the Terri Schiavo case and by the need to deal with uncooperative foreign prisoners). After the president's proposed "Putin method" was rejected ("I looked into his eyes and saw his soul"), it was decreed that the project would need both neuroscientists and physicists to design a perfect brain scanner, and philosophers to interpret the results. The latter part involved a number of key subprojects, each aided by a key advisor of the president. The project on analyzing criteria for the ascription of consciousness was to be headed by Bill Frist; the project on verbal reports by Karl Rove; the project on the epistemology of consciousness by Donald Rumsfeld (well-known advocate of the KK thesis); the project on the relation between phenomenal states and intentional states by Condoleeza Rice (the Secretary of States); and, of course, the project on central executive function was headed by Dick Cheney. (This last project led to a familiar-sounding debate about whether George Bush is epiphenomenal, or plays an as yet unknown causal role, or is just wheeled out occasionally for press conferences, as on Dan Dennett's old theory. Some advocated eliminativism about the concept of the presidency, some advocated analytic functionalism, but most seemed to favor adopting Ned Block's distinction between the phenomenal president, who is mostly for show, and the access president, who does all the work.) There was also discussion of the CIA's proposal for a zombie army, of inattentional blindness (explaining nuclear weapons in North Korea?) and change blindness (explaining why no WMDs have yet been found in Iraq -- they're moved every time we saccade), of the development of new language (cf. "misunderestimate" and "strategery") for formalizing conscious states, and of many other crucial topics.
In the paper sessions themselves, many of the papers dealt with relatively subtle aspects of phenomenology. For example, Tim Bayne argued that ordinary experience always involves the experience of "phenomenal unity", and discussed whether and how this might extend to split-brain patients. Evan Thompson argued that the experience of mental imagery is not pictorial. Fiona Macpherson argued that the phenomenology of synesthesia is probably neither straightforwardly perceptual nor straightforwardly imagistic. Alva Noe argued that we experience a tilted coin as elliptical, and analyzed this "two-dimensional" element in sensorimotor terms. Uriah Kriegel argued that there is a "for me"-ish subjective character that goes along with the qualitative character of any conscious state, and held that this is best explained by a Brentano-esque self-representational theory. Jesse Prinz argued that perceptual consciousness involves only "intermediate-level" contents such as the experience of color and shape, not high-level contents such as the experience of a person (e.g. Ned) as that very person.
All this was a welcome change from philosophers mostly focusing on simple experiences such as experiences of red and of pain. But at the same time, the relevant phenomenological claims were frequently controversial, and led to lively discussion. Many didn't find the for-me-ish element or the experience of the coin as tilted in their own phenomenology; many thought that ordinary experience involves high-level as well as intermediate-level contents; and so on. (For contrary perspectives on the tilted coin, and on high-level visual content, see these papers by Eric Schwitzgebel and Susanna Siegel respectively. See also Uriah's newly-posted partial list of phenomenological disputes.) Not too many minds were changed, and as the conference went along this there was increasing discussion of possible methods by which these disputes might be settled. These issues were discussed to some extent in the last paper by Charles Siewert on phenomenological methods, and culminated in an impassioned debate in the final wrap-up discussion. Some advocated more sophisticated phenomenological analysis; some advocated experimental studies; some advocated theory-building; some advocated conceptual refinement. And some were pessimistic about the whole endeavour.
My own first inclination is to be tentatively optimistic about the possibility of progress here. We had a productive workshop on first-person methodologies at Arizona a few years ago, for example. But still, it is undeniable that resolving these disputes is much more difficult than one would like. It's a familiar enough point that antecedent disputes tend to persist even on sophisticated phenomenological analysis. Of course the fate of introspectionist psychology serves as a background spectre for everyone. Many hope that triangulating with data from neuroscience and psychology will help settle these matters, but in practice proponents of different phenomenological claims can interpret these data in correspondingly different ways. This phenomenon has become familiar in debates over the impact of experiments on change blindness on whether there is consciousness outside attention, for example. The same phenomenon was present in the discussion after Jesse Prinz's talk, in which an array of neurophysiological evidence about the contents of perceptual experience was interpreted by each side as supporting their view. Likewise, antecedent phenomenological disputes often persist through conceptual and theoretical analysis. So there is a real question here about how best to move forward.
Some people present felt that this was just an instance of the familiar intractability of philosophical disputes, where in practice one hopes for clarification of the landscape of options and isolation of the really fundamental underlying issues, without expecting universal agreement to ensue. There may be something to this, but I'm inclined to think that these debates are quite different in character from ordinary philosophical disputes (including other philosophical disputes over consciousness). In a way, they're quasi-empirical disputes about largely contingent non-modal facts about what's going on in the world. As such, they're as much disputes in science as in philosophy. Of course there's a role for conceptual refinement and a priori analysis here, but in this domain, even those who share conceptual frameworks and a priori reasoning may still disagree. (And my own favorite deflationary diagnoses of disputes, as either terminological or indeterminate, seem unlikely to apply here, though Dan Dennett might disagree!) So I'm inclined to at least initially hold these debates to the higher standard of empirical debates, where we expect the possibility of eventual consensus. But of course, ordinary empirical methods aren't straightforwardly applicable here, because of the lack of straightforward intersubjectivity. So there is a real methodological challenge here.
I expect this to become an increasingly pressing issue in the next few years of both the philosophy and the science of consciousness. It's fortunate in the meantime that there's a core of relatively uncontroversial aspects of phenomenology, especially in sensory experience, which doesn't immediately give rise to quite this sort of dispute: one might dispute the precise nature of the phenomenology of color, shape, and pain, but few dispute the existence of this phenomenology. In practice this serves as the basis for a relatively robust science of consciousness where phenomenological disputes don't permeate everything. Likewise, in the more complex domains, there's a core of work on mechanisms that plays a grounding role even when accompanied by differences over phenomenology. But we want the science of consciousness to eventually extend to experience in all of its complexity and glory. If we want more than a relatively small stable core, with a broad contested penumbra, we'll have to resolve these disputes in the long run. It's an open question just how far we can get. In the meantime, new ideas will be more than welcome.