New Directions for Consciousness Research?
Comments on Susan Hurley Consciousness in Action

by Timo Jarvilehto e-mail including Hurley's rejoinders [in CAPITALS]

Department of Behavioral Science
University of Oulu
Finland


The book of Susan Hurley (in the following SH) Consciousness in Action is certainly one of the most significant books recently published in the field of consciousness studies. This field is much too much dominated by the Anglo-Saxon philosophy, and by the simple idea that consciousness will by some clever trick found in the brain as interaction between specific areas (prefrontal cortex etc.), or a special characteristic of single neurons (quantal properties, microtubules, etc). Consciousness research during the last decade is concentrated on solving two main problems: the problem of separate functions (the "easy" problem) and the problem of subjective experience (the "hard" problem). Although there is seemingly progress in this line of research, there are convincing reasons to question this whole approach; therefore all new attempts to see these problems in a broader context are welcome.

SH brings in new refreshing ideas and points of view; sometimes even so many that it is hard for the reader to follow. She does not just repeat some old dogmas in new clothing, as is true of abundant literature in this field, but she looks critically at many alternative ways of thinking and develops new ideas how to approach several problems in the field: conflation of vehicle and content, problems in linear Input-Output Picture, perception/action relations, etc. The name of the book already indicates another look in comparison to more static approaches regarding consciousness as a phenomenal experience or just a physical state of the brain; consciousness is a process rather than a stable picture of the world. There are so many interesting themes in the book, which would deserve commenting, that it is difficult to choose the most significant ones. It is also sometimes difficult to find out for the purposes of comment the position of the author, because she deals with the problems from so many different angles and considers them with so many different interpretations.

FAIR COMMENT. WHILE THE ESSAYS ARE SELF-STANDING, THEY ALSO INTERACT. IT WOULD HAVE MADE ALREADY COMPLEX CHAPTERS JUST TOO COMPLEX TO EXPLORE THESE INTERACTIONS FULLY.

It is not quite clear to me how SH sees the relation between perception and action. She criticizes their identification with input and output, respectively, and says that they are more intimately related to each other than the Input Output Picture allows (p. 3). Furthermore, she suggests that their interdependence may be explained in terms of their codependence on a subpersonal dynamic singularity.

ONE WAY OF DEVELOPING THE IDEA OF CO-DEPENDENCE MIGHT BE TO THINK OF PERCEPTION AND ACTION IN TERMS OF DIFFERENT DIMENSIONAL CROSS-SECTIONS OF A HIGH-DIMENSIONAL NONLINEAR DYNAMIC SYSTEM. CERTAIN SUBSETS OF DIMENSIONS OF SUCH A SYSTEM MAY BEAR THE IMPRINT OF OTHER SUBSETS OF DIMENSIONS. ATTRACTORS IN ONE DIMENSIONAL SUBSET MAY BE RELATED IN REGULAR AND SUBSTANTIVE WAYS TO THOSE IN ANOTHER DIMENSIONAL SUBSET--THOUGH IF BOTH ARE CHAOTIC THE FINE DETAILS OF THESE RELATIONS WILL BE EXTREMELY ELUSIVE.

SIMILAR POINTS MIGHT BE MADE ABOUT RELATIONS BETWEEN THE INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL ASPECTS OF A COMPLEX SYSTEM THAT CARRIES A MIND: SOME INTERNAL SUBSETS OF DIMENSIONS MIGHT BEAR THE IMPRINT OF SOME EXTERNAL SUBSETS OF DIMENSIONS. COULD THIS EXPLAIN HOW A SELF-ORGANIZING SYSTEM THAT SPANS ORGANISM AND ENVIRONMENT CAN ALSO SUSTAIN THOUGHT ABOUT ABSENT EXTERNAL OBJECTS 'OFF LINE', WHEN NOT INTERACTIVELY ENGAGED WITH THE ENVIRONMENT? OR WHY REALITY SEEMS TO ACT AS AN ATTRACTOR IN MANY CASES OF PERCEPTUAL ADAPTATION?

However, later on, when she deals with concrete experiments (e.g. chapter 5) she seems to separate perception and action, because she seems to accept the idea that perception may be influenced by action, i.e. that how we perceive may depend on what we intend to do. I think this already a step forward in respect to the traditional thinking that consciousness and contents of consciousness are determined simply by sensory processing, but it still leaves the Input Output Picture intact on the subpersonal level.

IN ESSAY 5, SECT. 6, I EXPLICITLY ADDRESS THE TRANSITION FROM REGARDING ACTION AS A CAUSE (RATHER THAN AN EFFECT) OF EXPERIENCE TO REGARDING PERCEPTION AND ACTION AS CO-CONSTITUTED, AS IN MY TWO-LEVEL INTERDEPENDENCE VIEW. MERELY ALLOWING FOR A REVERSED DIRECTION OF CAUSAL DEPENDENCE DOES NOT, I SAY, CAPTURE THE POSSIBILITY OF CO-CONSTITUTION IN VIRTUE OF CO-DEPENDENCE ON ONE DYNAMIC SINGULARITY.

THE INPUT-OUTPUT PICTURE IS ESSENTIALLY A VIEW ABOUT THE RELATIONS BETWEEN LEVELS, SO I DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW IT COULD BE INTACT ON THE SUBPERSONAL LEVEL ALONE. WHILE I ARGUE IT IS WRONG AS A GENERAL FRAMEWORK AND FAILS TO CHARACTERIZE VARIOUS CASES, I DO ALLOW THAT THE INPUT-OUTPUT PICTURE MAY, AS AN EMPIRICAL MATTER, DESCRIBE CERTAIN CASES OF PERCEPTION AND ACTION CORRECTLY.

SH tries to develop Input Output Picture by stating that input and output cannot be seen as separate, but they are connected by the environment. However, it is not quite clear what is the role of environment here. Does it only add something to the action possibilities of the organism, or is the environment authentically included in the system?

I WOULD LIKE TO SAY THAT THE ENVIRONMENT IS AUTHENTICALLY INCLUDED IN THE SYSTEM. HOWEVER, I'M NOT SURE EXACTLY HOW JARVILEHTO UNDERSTANDS THIS DISTINCTION.

IN ESSAY 8 I ARGUE, BY REFERENCE TO MY DYNAMIC EL GRECO EXAMPLES, THAT IT MAY NOT ALWAYS MAKE SENSE IN PRINCIPLE TO ASSUME, IN THE WAY A TRADITIONAL VIEW OF THE MIND DOES, THAT INTERNAL PHYSICAL STATES CAN BE DUPLICATED IN SYSTEMATICALLY DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTS. I CONSIDER HOW THIS POINT SUGGESTS A MORE RADICAL FORM OF EXTERNALISM THAN CONTENT EXTERNALISM, WHICH I CALL VEHICLE EXTERNALISM. IN THIS SENSE, AT LEAST, THE ENVIRONMENT IS AUTHENTICALLY INCLUDED IN THE SYSTEM.

There are also earlier attempts (SH cites Clark, 1997) proposing that mind may extend into the environment in the sense that environmental parts may be used as a support to the mind, but in these attempts consciousness, for example, is still left within the brain, between the input and output.

I WANT TO EXTEND THE CONSIDERATION OF MORE RADICAL EXTERNALISM TO CONSCIOUSNESS AS WELL AS THOUGHT.

FOR EXAMPLE, I CONSIDER THE HYPOTHETICAL CASE OF A CONGENITALLY ACALLOSAL SUBJECT WHO HAS DEVELOPED FROM INFANCY EXTERNAL RATHER THAN INTERNAL MECHANISMS OF INTEGRATION OF INFORMATION IN THE TWO HEMISPHERES, SUCH AS CROSS-CUING AND ACCESS MOVEMENTS. IN SUCH A CASE, I SEE NO REASON IN PRINCIPLE NOT TO REGARD SUCH EXTERNAL MECHANISMS OF INTEGRATION AS PART OF THE VEHICLES OF A UNIFIED CONSCIOUSNESS, EVEN THOUGH IN A RECENTLY OPERATED COMMISSUROTOMY PATIENT SUCH EXTERNAL DEVICES WOULD TAKEN TO SUGGEST COMMUNICATION BETWEEN SEPARATE CENTERS OF CONSCIOUSNESS. IF THE EXTERNALLY UNIFIED ACALLOSAL WERE TO BE PLACED UNDER EXPERIMENTAL CONDITIONS (FIXATION, ETC) THAT PREVENT THE EXTERNAL MECHANISMS OF INTEGRATION FROM FUNCTIONING, THIS MIGHT BE EQUIVALENT TO TEMPORARY SURGICAL INTERVENTION: IT MIGHT ALTER THE STRUCTURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

I have here a more radical proposal: One should consistently develop SH's idea of subpersonal singularity, i.e. with the idea that the vehicle of content is not an arbitrary process from the input to the output, but a circle consisting of the organism and environment, as proposed by Dewey (1896) already over hundred years ago. Thus, the sensory and motor parts are inseparable in respect to perception and action.

YES, THERE CERTAINLY ARE VARIOUS PRECURSORS TO MY VIEW. BUT WHY IS THE VIEW YOU EXPRESS HERE MORE RADICAL THAN MY VIEW?

In fact, we can show already at the neurophysiological level that the basic innervation of receptors and muscles is similar: for both we have centrifugal and centripetal nerves (see Jarvilehto, 1999). Therefore, we could speculate that their functions are also similar: muscles are for sensing as much as the senses are for moving. A change in the sensitivity of the receptor means a new kind of structure of the singularity (organism-environment system), exactly in the same sense as its structure is changed by the contraction of the muscle. In both cases availability of new parts of the environment is changed that makes new results (e.g. percepts) possible.

I think this sort of consideration would make it more clear why there cannot be a causal relation between perception and action, and why both of these concepts describe the organization of the same system, but from a different angle. Thus, there are no sequences such as perception->action->change of environment->perception->etc.,

I SUSPECT THAT THIS SEQUENCE INVOLVES WHAT I WOULD CALL INSTRUMENTAL DEPENDENCE OF PERCEPTION ON ACTION. I DO NOT AGREE THAT THERE ARE NO SUCH SEQUENCES. FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN I WALK AROUND THE CORNER OF A BUILDING IN ORDER TO SEE SOMETHING, MY ACTION OF WALKING IS A MEANS TO MY SEEING THE THING IN QUESTION.

RATHER, I ARGUE THAT IT IS WRONG TO ASSUME THE RELATIONS BETWEEN PERCEPTION AND ACTION MUST BE OF THIS KIND. THE INPUT-OUTPUT PICTURE MAKES THIS INSTRUMENTAL VIEW THE GENERAL CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR RELATIONS BETWEEN PERCEPTION AND ACTION. IN MY VIEW, INSTRUMENTAL RELATIONS MAY HOLD IN PARTICULAR CASES, BUT NONINSTRUMENTAL RELATIONS ARE ALSO POSSIBLE--AND INDEED, ARE ESSENTIAL TO HAVING A PERSPECTIVE. THE INSTRUMENTAL VIEW IS NOT CORRECT AS A GENERAL FRAMEWORK.

but when the subject perceives, he acts together with his environment, and when he acts his action is not something that belongs only to his body, but it involves necessarily also those parts of environment which constitute his behavior. Perception leads to another perception, and action to another action, because perception and action are only different aspects of the same process and they already include the environment.

I AGREE THAT THIS IS THE CORRECT WAY TO DESCRIBE MANY CASES, AND THAT THIS SAYS SOMETHING IMPORTANT--INDEED, ESSENTIAL-- ABOUT PERCEPTION AND ACTION. BUT THERE MAY ALSO BE SOME EXAMPLES THAT FIT IN THE INPUT-OUTPUT PICTURE AS AN EMPIRICAL MATTER. FOR ME, THE CRITICAL POINT IS THAT THE INPUT-OUTPUT PICTURE IS NOT CORRECT AS A GENERAL CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK. IN THAT SENSE MY AIMS MAY BE LESS RADICAL THAT JARVILEHTO WOULD LIKE.

When SH says that Input-Output Picture confuses levels, what does this exactly mean? Does SH accept a hierarchy of sciences from physics to sociology, and sees the main problem only there that these different hierarchical levels should not be confused. What is the relation between subpersonal and personal?

I UNDERSTAND THIS AS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LEVELS OF DESCRIPTION; THE PERSONAL LEVEL DESCRIBES ORGANISMS AND THEIR INTERACTIONS WITH THEIR ENVIRONMENT IN NORMATIVE AND RATIONAL TERMS, RATHER THAN STRICTLY IN CAUSAL AND FUNCTIONAL TERMS.

Is subpersonal something more primary than personal?

NOT NECESSARILY. BUT I HAVE NOT ATTEMPTED TO PROVIDE A SOLUTION TO ISSUES ABOUT MENTAL CAUSATION AND HOW REASONS CAN BE CAUSES. HOWEVER, I SUSPECT THERE IS GROUND TO BE GAINED IN TAKING THE IDEA OF EMERGENCE SERIOUSLY, AND WOULD NOT DISMISS IT IMMEDIATELY ON THE GROUNDS THAT THE 'DOWNWARD CAUSATION' IT ENTAILS IS METAPHYSICALLY SPOOKY. ON THESE MATTERS, I THINK MORE ATTENTION IS NEEDED TO THE USES THAT SCIENTISTS (EG HOLLAND, KAUFFMAN) ACTUALLY MAKE OF THE CONCEPT OF EMERGENCE AND WHAT WORK IT MAY BE DOING FOR THEM.

I think also here a more consistent use of the idea of singularity or unity of organism and environment would help. If we think that the mind is a process in an organism-environment system then the point of criticism against Input Output Picture is not so much a confusion of levels, but confusion of the system and its elements. To say, for example, that a physical stimulus is in a causal relation to perception means that we take only one element of the system of perception and put it in a causal relation to the whole system of which it is a part.

THIS SEEMS TO ME A VALID POINT, WHICH IS RELATED TO MY POINT ABOUT CONFUSION OF LEVELS. THE TWO POINTS ARE COMPLEMENTARY, NOT IN TENSION. I DIAGNOSE THE INWARD RETREAT OF EG PERCEPTION THAT YOU CRITICIZE IN TERMS OF THE INPUT-OUTPUT PICTURE WITH ITS CONFUSION OF LEVELS: THINKING OF PERCEPTION AS INPUT FROM WORLD TO MIND AND ACTION AND OUTPUT FROM MIND TO WORLD MAKES IT VERY NATURAL TO SEGREGATE MIND IN AN INNER REALM, BUFFERED ON BOTH SIDES FROM THE WORLD.

If these relations are not clearly formulated then it is possible to say, for example, that the content of consciousness may be at least sometimes determined by the brain only, i.e. the content may be identified with one part of the vehicle. However, if we take that mind/consciousness is always related to organism-environment singularity, then consciousness may never be based on "the brain only", although the brain is certainly important as an element of the system. It seems that in SH's descriptions this somewhat unclear conceptual situation leads to acceptance of such terminology which in my opinion is inconsistent with her basic ideas. She speak about "information" in the brain, or describes the hemispheres as "reporting" (p. 174) or be "speaking" or "cross-cueing" (p.186) to each other. This is, of course, the terminology of those who believe that parts of the brain may be conscious as such, but it is somewhat unfortunate that SH doesn't indicate clearly here her own position.

I AM NOT CLAIMING THAT VEHICLE EXTERNALISM MUST ALWAYS BE TRUE OF CONSCIOUS STATES. I HAVE A LESS AMBITIOUS AIM: TO MAKE THE IDEA OF VEHICLE EXTERNALISM, WHICH WILL STRIKE MANY AS VERY RADICAL, PLAUSIBLE AS A POSSIBILITY TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY FOR EVEN A FEW CASES. MINE IS A 'THIN END OF THE WEDGE' OPERATION. HOW FAR WE CAN PUSH THE WEDGE IS A FURTHER QUESTION.

I AM VERY INTERESTED IN THE QUESTION OF HOW MENTAL LIFE UNDERSTOOD IN TERMS OF SELF-ORGANIZING SYSTEMS THAT LOOP INTO THE ENVIRONMENT CAN GO 'OFF-LINE' (SEE MY REMARKS ABOVE). THIS IS AN OBVIOUS AND IMPORANT CHALLENGE FOR FRIENDS OF VEHICLE EXTERNALISM. BUT I DO NOT ADDRESS THIS FURTHER QUESTION IN MY ALREADY-LONG BOOK. ITS AIMS WERE TO DO PRELIMINARY GROUNDWORK AND TO BUILD BRIDGES FROM TRADITIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL PREOCCUPATIONS TO SOME OF THESE IDEAS.

The book of Susan Hurley is so rich of many ideas and different interpretations that it is possible in such a short commentary to touch only a few of them. However, I would still at the end of my commentary like to add one point of view which seems to be completely missing from the book, and this is the role of conspecifics in understanding of consciousness. In my opinion in most modern treatments of consciousness the main problem is that consciousness is studied in an individual separated from all necessary conditions of his life (environment, other people) and the main value of consciousness is seen only in the possibility of having subjective experiences. SH has included the environment, but what does this environment consist of? What about the other people?

FAIR POINT. OTHER PEOPLE DO CERTAINLY COME IN IN MY ESSAY IN THIS BOOK ON WITTGENSTEIN (ALSO IN MY 1998 AND IN OTHER WORK). BUT INCLUDING OTHER PEOPLE IN MY DISCUSSION THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK WOULD HAVE INCREASED ITS COMPLEXITY EVEN FURTHER; THERE SEEMED ENOUGH TO BE GOING ON WITH. HOWEVER, IT IS A GOOD QUESTION WHETHER ISSUES ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE REALLY CAN BE BRACKETED TO THIS EXTENT IN DISCUSSING CONSCIOUSNESS.

It seems that in any treatment of consciousness there are two features which seem to be in contradiction: The first of these is the apparent subjectivity of consciousness: I can know my own feelings, but I can always doubt if other humans have such feelings. The second one seems to be the opposite to this, viz. the commonality of the conscious experience: I can report my feelings and think that others can share them and understand what I say. In fact, even the term consciousness is related to common knowledge (Lat. com-scire, to know together). Thus, consciousness would be something in common. If consciousness is only subjective, how then common knowledge is possible? My own thesis is (for details see Jarvilehto, 2000) that the scope of the usual consciousness theories is too narrow; when limited to a person artificially abstracted from the environment and other people, many essential factors are left out. If consciousness is understood as something in common, e.g. common knowledge, it is impossible to see how this sharing could develop separately within each individual.

I ALSO ARGUE, THOUGH IN A DIFFERENT WAY WHICH DOES NOT DRAW ON OTHER PEOPLE, THAT CONSCIOUSNESS CANNOT BE PURELY SUBJECTIVE. IN PARTICULAR, THE UNITY OF CONSCIOUSNESS IS AN ESSENTIAL FEATURE OF IT, AND IT CANNOT BE UNDERSTOOD IN PURELY SUBJECTIVE TERMS. THERE MAY BE MORE THAN ONE WAY TO ARGUE FOR THIS POSITION, AND I AM OPEN TO ARGUMENTS THAT GIVE OTHER PEOPLE A CRITICAL ROLE (THOUGH MY OWN DID NOT DO SO IN THIS BOOK).

My proposal is that - in order to develop a comprehensive theory of consciousness - we must look at the phylogeny and at such behavioral characteristics of the organisms that have made common knowledge possible. I have suggested that the critical feature in the advent of consciousness was the development of such common activity - co-operation - that produced something genuinely new as a result, i.e. a common result, which was useful for the participants and for the development of the system as a whole. The specific feature of this result was that any individual alone could not achieve it, and it could be varied under different life conditions.

THIS SEEMS A PROMISING LINE OF THOUGHT. RELATED LINES OF THOUGHT THAT ARE FAMILIAR TO ME, E.G. TOMASELLO'S, TEND TO FOCUS ON THEORY OF MIND ISSUES RATHER THAN ISSUES ABOUT CONSCIOUSNESS. PERHAPS THESE SHOULD BE BROUGHT TOGETHER.

It is actually quite surprising how little attention has been devoted in consciousness studies to the real products of human consciousness. However, the evolutionary significance of consciousness may perhaps be seen most clearly in the structure of the human environment and culture, and in the way humans have changed the structure of the earth: in buildings, factories, roads, and even wars -- all results of intensive and well-organized co-operation and possible only for the human species as a whole, not for any individual alone.

HOWEVER, MANY WILL SEPARATE THESE FUNCTIONAL ASPECTS AND PRODUCTS OF OUR MENTAL LIVES FROM THE 'HARD PROBLEM' OF UNDERSTANDING PHENOMENAL CONSCIOUSNESS: WHY IT IS LIKE THIS, OR INDEED LIKE ANYTHING AT ALL, TO LEAD SUCH A LIFE. A CENTRAL ASPECT OF WHAT IS WIDELY REGARDED AS SUCH A HARD PROBLEM IS OF COURSE TO EXPLAIN EXACTLY HOW THE FUNCTIONAL AND THE PHENOMENAL ARE RELATED.

To summarize, I suggest that consciousness is present when there is an organization for common results. This means that all animals, which cooperate with each other, have some kind of consciousness. However, we, as humans, can have access only to the human consciousness, because it is not possible to overcome the borders of the species (exceptions here may be dogs or some other pet animals, which may to some extent develop human consciousness). We cannot weave a web with the spider or live in an anthill.

I have also suggested that we must start our considerations with a unitary organism-environment system which I think roughly corresponds to the concept of singularity of SH. This means that we should not look at two separate systems: organism and environment, and try to find consciousness in only one of them. If we think that consciousness is related to the whole organism-environment system (or rather a set of such systems) then we can at once realize that consciousness cannot simply be described by biological events in the brain or physical events in the environment, but as a specific form of a comprehensive living system in its all environmental connections. Then the problem of consciousness turns out to be the problem of description of the organization of such system, and this -- I think -- should be the main task of the consciousness research in the future. I also think that Susan Hurley's book will support such development.

    References

Clark, A. (1997) Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press

Dewey, J. (1896) The reflex arc concept in psychology. The Psychological Review, III, 357-370.

Hurley, S. (1998) Vehicles, Contents, Conceptual Structure, and Externalism", Analysis, vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 1-6.

Jarvilehto, T. (1999) The theory of the organism-environment system: III. Role of efferent influences on receptors in the formation of knowledge. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 34. Web: http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/tjarvile/nerve.htm

Jarvilehto T (2000) The theory of the organism-environment system: IV. The problem of mental activity and consciousness. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 35, :1 in press. Web: http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/tjarvile/art4.htm

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