Chuanfei Chin

Neuroscientific Impasses and Historical Insights

How can historical insights help in neuroscientific impasses? I shall show that both a
historical understanding of scientific classification and a historical analysis of
conceptual development contribute to resolving recent impasses in the neuroscience
of consciousness.

First, I will examine a series of neuroscientific impasses on the nature of
consciousness. These impasses concern the role of attention in consciousness, the role of accessibility, and the possibility of artificial consciousness. I will explain why these impasses arise from the same methodological problem in neuroscience. As various neuroscientists demonstrate, there is more than one neurofunctional structure responsible for conscious behaviour in humans. So how should they determine the true structure of consciousness?

Second, I will turn to the history of classificatory practices, in order to explore how biologist and psychologists
solve similar problems in their research. I will argue that they develop more context-sensitive classifications to manage different explanatory structures. Adopting this strategy, neuroscientists can use the concept of consciousness to refer, in different contexts, to the different neurofunctional structures related to conscious behaviour.

Third, I will address the most serious objection to this strategy. It rests on what many scientists and philosophers take to be our introspective authority on the nature of consciousness. I will clarify the limits of this authority by looking into the history of the concept of consciousness, as it is used in neuroscience and philosophy. This historical analysis suggests that scientists and philosophers mean more than one thing when we speak of ‘what it is like’ to be a conscious creature or to be in a conscious state.