SH21 Consciousness

One of the great remaining mysteries, and maybe the most intractable, is consciousness: that intimately known but often indescribable qualitative character of experience: what it’s like to see red, or feel pain, etc. The cognitive sciences have done an impressive job of explaining other features of our mental lives: how and why certain brain states register information about the world around us, how memories are coded, the mechanisms of sleep/wake cycles, and so on. But it is not clear that they have made any progress in explaining why we have inner lives at all, why there’s something rather than nothing in our experience, and why those experiences have the felt qualities they do. Why this failure? Some think it’s because consciousness is the product of something immaterial and thus beyond scientific purview. Some think it’s because consciousness pervades everything in nature, at the fundamental level, and scientists are looking in the wrong place: in the emergent properties of complex systems. Some think it’s simply because we’re not smart enough. Others think that we can, in fact, explain consciousness, or are on the verge of being able to do so.

In this course, we will examine the problem of consciousness and various contemporary scientific and philosophical theories of consciousness. These will include: panpsychism, integrated information theory, global neuronal workspace theory, and various higher order representational theories. We will look at how (and whether) consciousness relates to quantum physics, the “free energy principle,” and neuroscience. We will end by asking about consciousness in animals and machines, and about the evolution of consciousness.

Course lecturer:  Prof Jack Lyons
Semester:  1
Lecture hour & venue:  See Honours timetable.

Teaching resources for this course will be made available on the Philosophy Moodle site.