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Can There Be A Test For Conciousness

2834 words - 12 pages

C O G I T O VOL . I NO .


Can There Be a Test for Consciousness?
Mark Peters

HE desirability of a test for consciousness derives from its potential to resolve conflict in several debates on interesting subjects of serious ethical importance where there is a potential to minimise suffering, such as foetal consciousness, euthanasia, animal consciousness and (perhaps soon) machine consciousness. Such a test, if formulated, might also establish the usefulness, one way or another, of debate on extra-terrestrial, plant, sub-atomic and cosmic consciousness, all of which have their ardent adherents. Finally, a test might enable us to detect consciousness where it has hitherto been ...view middle of the document...

The test must be built on the ground plan of an agreed physical definition. But researchers are fundamentally split on the issue of the definition of consciousness. One school of thought, which includes Daniel Dennett2 , Patricia Smith
L. A. Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions (Cambridge 1987) 8. D. C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin 1993) 459. “I do resist the demand for a single, formal, properly quantified proposition expressing the punch line of my theory. Filling in the formula (x)(x is a conscious experience if and only if . . .) and defending it against proposed counterexamples is not a good method for developing a theory of consciousness.”
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Churchland3 , Francis Crick and Christof Koch4 , Lawrence Weiskrantz5 , Heinz Pagels6 and William Lycan7 , is wary of premature definition and prefers to continue research in the belief that better understanding of consciousness will bring a clearer definition with it. This view is relevant to our question, because it strongly asserts the correlation of consciousness with physical events, but is not helpful, because it specifically declines to offer any such events as candidates. There are just as many others, for example, Bernard Baars8 , Eduardo Bisiach9 , Anthony Marcel10 , James Thompson11 and David Woods12 , who are prepared to offer their definitions of consciousness.13 The difficulty in this attempt is two-fold: identifying the physical events, and finding a common meaning. In none of the definitions of consciousness offered by these writers are observable physical events mentioned. Though these definitions differ in the detail, they have common failings when it comes to the question of a test. Because of this, it is possible to look at one of the definitions and draw conclusions about them all. Of the definitions, Bisiach’s seems inclusive enough to represent the others as a class, yet is sufficiently well constructed to illustrate the central problems of consciousness. Before looking at Bisiach’s definition, I will point out that we have already encountered two major obstacles to devising an agreed test of consciousness: many writers do not even think we are able to define what it is we seek, and those that do, do not provide any testable criteria, and differ in the detail of their definition. Bisiach’s position on the question of premature definition is objective:
P. S. Churchland, “Reduction and the Neurological Basis of Consciousness” in Consciousness in Contemporary Science ed. A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach (Oxford 1988) 273–304. “There is a fatal temptation to try to deal with the problem of the vagueness of ‘consciousness’ . . . by giving stipulative definitions. . . . The difficulty is that, if we are not clear about the phenomena that are meant to be captured under ‘consciousness’, stipulative definitions will not help significantly.” 4 F. Crick and C. Koch, “The Problem of...

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