Consciousness as a science in psychology

The above quotation gives an impression of how difficult it is for scientists to study one of the very subjective matters of mind: consciousness. One possible reason for this is that the nature of consciousness itself is still uncertain, how can its function be easily explained with any hard data in a purely objective way (Velmans, 1996). The fact is, it is easier for philosophers to study consciousness as they often deal with subjective phenomena, but it is distressingly difficult for scientists to provide well-accepted explanations to tackle the mystery of consciousness and behaviour. Maybe, this difficulty is due to differences in definition of what consciousness really is (Baruss, 1986-1987).

There has been a variety of definitions put forward by numerous researchers in order to come up with the best definition of consciousness (Natsoulas, 1978a as cited in Wallace & Fisher, 1987; Velmans, 1996; Chalmers, 1996). However, every now and then the definition of consciousness is questioned. For instance, Searle (1993) argued that consciousness is a biological phenomenon characterised by the brain activities and processes. According to Searle (1993), conscious states were caused by lower-level neurobiological processes in the brain and hence became the higher-level features of the brain. However, other researchers may not agree: How could purely physical activities give rise to subjective conscious states? (Velmans, 1996).

In this paper, I will explore the possibilities of a more scientific approach to the study of consciousness. I do so by (a) dealing with consciousness only as it is defined as a state of awareness (Natsoulas, 1978 as cited in Wallace & Fisher, 1987). Such a state includes knowledge of unobservable private events or mental occurrences, as well as a knowledge of external, observable objects or events. Therefore, the concept of consciousness involves the knowledge of being aware of something, generally through sensory confirmation (Wallace & Fisher, 1987); (b) exploring which behaviours would or would not require consciousness in the initiation stage, and (c) distinguishing different levels of consciousness for different types of behaviour.

The first approach to consciousness involves perception and voluntary movement. There have been arguments and counter-arguments concerning the role of consciousness in the initiation of behaviour (Taylor & McCloskey, 1990). A study was conducted to determine whether consciousness was needed in the initiation of preprogrammed movements. The subject was asked to display simple and more complex voluntary motor responses upon detection of visual (small and large) stimuli. There were two conditions: masked (where the stimulus could not be perceived) and unmasked (where the stimulus could be easily perceived). Results showed that there was no significant difference between the two conditions. This suggests that voluntary movement which is normally under conscious control maybe subjected to automaticity. If this is the case, it could be argued that consciousness is not really necessary in the trigger of preprogrammed movements.

However, there are other types of behaviour (or actions) that do not rely on consciousness in the initiation process. For example, people engaged in a reflex action such as knee-jerk reaction and eye-blink movement are unaware of their reactions till some time later or till they were being told by other people (Flanagan, 1991). The same phenomenon applies to people who are engaged in a fight-or-flight response. They are usually aware of a threatening stimulus in their environment, but they are unaware of their response (either a fight or a flight response) until they are in a middle of a fight or safe in a different place (Flanagan, 1991). These two examples show that consciousness is necessary in perception, but it is not necessarily needed in the initiation of voluntary movement. However, as the initiation stage passed, consciousness plays a major role in behaviour.

The second approach to consciousness involves the relations between consciousness and the brain. It has long been argued that the production of intelligent (adaptive) behaviours requires consciousness (Searle, 1993). Searle (1980, 1993) argued that every intelligent behaviour must have purposes or intentions and the only way to produce such state is through consciousness. This argument was put forward to deny strong Artificial Intelligence (AI) claim that an appropriately programmed computer is not only a tool in the study of the mind, but it is actually the mind. Therefore, according to strong AI, mind does not require consciousness and consciousness is not essential to intelligent mentality (Searle, 1980; Flanagan, 1991).

Strong AI claims are questionable because being intelligent and purposeful in the ways in which humans are involves consciousness (Flanagan, 1991). Without consciousness, a successful adaptation to the environment would not be possible to make. Searle (1993) outlined several important features of consciousness that an empirical theory of the brain should be able to explain. Three of them are (1) subjectivity – an abstract and private concept that cannot be pointed at, (2) unity – the totality of the impressions, thoughts, and feelings which make up a person’s conscious being, and (3) selectivity – the distinction between the centre and the periphery of consciousness. Searle (1993) also claimed that the most common mistakes about consciousness are due to researcher’s ignorance of these features in the study of consciousness.

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