• Consciousness (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Consciousness | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness

A number theories of consciousness associate it with a distinctcognitive architecture or with a special pattern of activity with thatstructure.

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A comprehensive descriptive account of consciousness would need todeal with more than just these seven features, but having a clearaccount of each of them would take us a long way toward answering the“What is consciousness?” question.

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Perhaps the largest division is between general metaphysicaltheories that aim to locate consciousness in the overall ontologicalscheme of reality and more specific theories that offer detailedaccounts of its nature, features and role. The line between the twosorts of theories blurs a bit, especially in so far as many specifictheories carry at least some implicit commitments on the more generalmetaphysical issues. Nonetheless, it is useful to keep the division inmind when surveying the range of current theoretical offerings.


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Once again the arguments are controversial, and both the supposeddata and their interpretation are subjects of lively disagreement (seeFlanagan 1992, and commentaries accompanying Velmans 1991). Though theempirical arguments, like the zombie claims, require one to considerseriously whether some forms of consciousness may be less causallypotent than is typically assumed, many theorists regard the empiricaldata as no real threat to the causal status of consciousness.

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The freedom to chose one's actions and the ability to determineone's own nature and future development may admit of many interestingvariations and degrees rather than being a simple all or nothing matter,and various forms or levels of consciousness might be correlated withcorresponding degrees or types of freedom and self-determination(Dennett 1984, 2003). The link with freedom seems strongest for themeta-mental form of consciousness given its emphasis on self-awareness,but potential connections also seem possible for most of the othersorts as well.

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Consciousness has been thought to open a realm of possibilities, asphere of options within which the conscious self might choose or actfreely. At a minimum, consciousness might seem a necessary preconditionfor any such freedom or self-determination (Hasker 1999). How could oneengage in the requisite sort of free choice, while remaining solelywithin the unconscious domain? How can one determine one's own willwithout being conscious of it and of the options one has to shapeit.

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Increased freedom of choice or free will. The issue of freewill remains a perennial philosophical problem, not only with regard towhether or not it exists but even as to what it might or should consistin (Dennett 1984, van Inwagen 1983, Hasker 1999, Wegner 2002). (Seethe entry on .) The notion of free will may itself remain too murky and contentiousto shed any clear light on the role of consciousness, but there is atraditional intuition that the two are deeply linked.

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This particular role is most directly and definitionally tied to thenotion of access consciousness (Block 1995), but meta-mentalconsciousness as well as the phenomenal and qualitative forms all seemplausibly linked to such increases in the availability of information(Armstrong 1981, Tye 1985). Diverse cognitive and neuro-cognitivetheories incorporate access as a central feature of consciousness andconscious processing. Global Workspace theories, Prinz's AttendendIntermediate Representation (AIR) (Prinz 2012) and Tononi's IntegratedInformation Theory (IIT) all distinguish conscious states andprocesses at least partly in terms of enhanced wide spread access tothe state's content (See section 9.6)

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Inaddition, after years of being out of fashion in France, existentialmotifs have once again become prominent in the work of leadingthinkers. Foucault's embrace of a certain concept of freedom, and hisexploration of the “care of the self,” recall debates withinexistentialism, as does Derrida's recent work on religion without Godand his reflections on the concepts of death, choice, andresponsibility. In very different ways, the books by Cooper (1999) andAlan Schrift (1995) suggest that a re-appraisal of the legacy ofexistentialism is an important agenda item of contemporaryphilosophy. Reynolds (2006), for instance, concludes his introductionto existentialism with a consideration of how post-structuralists suchas Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault extend certain reflections found inSartre, Camus, and Heidegger, while Reynolds (2004) does the same, inmore detail for Derrida and Merleau-Ponty. If existentialism's verynotoriety as a cultural movement may have impeded its seriousphilosophical reception, then, it may be that what we have most tolearn from existentialism still lies before us.