Consciousness as a Scientific Problem. A Brief History of Psychology and Cognitive Science

With the rapid progress of science during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, philosophical approaches to the mind lost popularity.

The Science of Psychology

The science of psychology was born as the empirical exploration of conscious experiences. Pioneering researchers in psychology also pursued biological explanations of the mind. Spanish neurologist Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934) proved the neuron theory of the brain and wondered how neurobiology could inform psychology. However, considering the state of the art, he thought neurobiology (the “science of the cerebrum”) was better informed by psychology (the “science of the mind”) than the other way around:

At the present time the phenomena of consciousness are better known than cerebral architecture, and the science of the mind can more effectively aid the science of the cerebrum than the science of the cerebrum can aid that of the mind. (Ramon et al. 1988, p. 470)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) attempted to understand the neurobiological basis of psychology but gave up because neuroscience had not advanced sufficiently to adequately inform psychology.

In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) pioneered an early psychology lab to study consciousness in Leipzig. Wundt argues, in the introduction to Outlines of Psychology (Wundt and Judd 1897), that while natural scientists study objects mediated through experience (cells, molecules, electricity, magnetism, etc.), psychologists study immediate objects of experience, such as ideas, feelings, and emotions.

Like Kant, Wundt believed that science is about experience, but he rejected Kant’s noumenal world:

It is impossible to understand how the fact that sensations are given to us can prove the existence of a reality independent of us. This would be a plausible inference only if we first

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A. Hedman, Consciousness from a Broad Perspective, Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality 6, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52975-2_4

assumed that these sensations are given to us by something outside of our consciousness.

But to make this assumption is to presuppose what is to be proven. (Wundt 1892)

Wundt was so deeply dissatisfied with Kantian epistemology that he wrote a paper dedicated to its rejection—“What Kant Should Not Be to Us” (Wundt 1892)— insisting that Kant should “no longer be treated as alive by the living.” To understand the mind, we must make room for psychology as an empirical mental science. On the subject of psychology, he writes:

The first, or metaphysical, definition belongs to a period of development that lasted longer in this science than in others. But it is here too forever left behind, since psychology has developed into an empirical discipline, operating with methods of its own; and since the “mental sciences” have gained recognition as a great department of scientific investigation, distinct from the sphere of the natural sciences, and requiring as a general ground-work an independent psychology, free from all metaphysical theories. (Wundt and Judd 1897, p. 1)

Point of view is what makes mental science (psychology) distinct from natural science. Natural science adopts an indirect view of events in the world. The chemist cannot experience molecules directly but studies them using beakers, Bunsen burners, litmus paper, and so on. The psychologist, however, experiences what appears in consciousness directly, such as the sound of a tone or a feeling—any experience.

Wundt has been credited with founding introspectionism in psychology, but for Wundt, there is no distinct introspective realm of inner experience. We simply adopt direct and indirect viewpoints on what we experience, leading us to talk about the internal and external—the inner and the outer. There is no special faculty of introspection. There is but one experiential domain. Everything comes to us through a single field of experience. Wundt’s introspection concerns methodological, empirical observations of that conscious field. In his explorations, Wundt finds a mind that actively organizes conscious experience, and he seeks its organizing principles—a supposedly scientific answer to Kant.

According to Wundt and his British follower Edward Bradford Titchener (18671927), philosophers such as Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, and others did not use scientific methods in their introspection. Scientific introspection relied on trained subjects who knew how to introspect under experimental conditions.

Titchener’s and Wundt’s work on finding the structural elements of consciousness came to be known, in psychology, as structuralism. For Titchener, there are three important issues in psychology: (1) to expose the basic elements of experience; (2) to examine how they combine; and (3) to find their physiological correlates. He tackles the first two questions by using introspection; the latter question must be resolved by future brain science. His long-term vision was to find what we would call the neural correlates of consciousness (Titchener 1910). It seemed to him that consciousness could be studied in the same fashion as science studied other aspects of the universe. Titchener was, however, also a dualist and a psychophysical parallelist:

For Titchener, although the nervous system does not cause mental events, it can be used to explain some of their characteristics. Ultimately then, neurophysiological processes are the why of mental life, if why is understood to mean a description of the circumstances under

which mental processes occur. (Hergenhahn 2009, p. 277)

Titchener believed that whatever happened in our minds did so in parallel with events in the body, but absent causal relations. We can find the neural correlates of consciousness, but according to Titchener’s view, we cannot understand how the brain causes consciousness (it simply doesn’t). In some ways, Titchener’s view resembles the theory of consciousness postulated by the philosopher David Chalmers (1966-), whom we will explore later in this book.

Titchener’s program was challenged by philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910). Structuralists assumed conscious experience could be reduced to microelements analogously to how matter can be reduced to molecules and atoms. For James, consciousness is a fluid process—not a structure to be broken down and analyzed into components. James also wants to understand the survival value of consciousness—its evolutionary function. He sees consciousness as guiding us—allowing us to plan, learn from mistakes, and decide how to act. His thoughts became influential in the development of functionalism. To understand the mind, we must ask why it functions in the way it does. James also understood that there are subconscious, nonintrospectable elements of the mind, but it was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who oriented psychology to the study of the subconscious, urging us to see consciousness as the tip of an iceberg.

For Freud, conscious life is largely an expression of hidden subconscious processes. His explorations of the mind are in terms of three agents: the id, ego, and superego. We are born as the id—impulsive and uninhibited with primitive desires. With time, a second agent emerges—the ego—capable of reasoning. The ego knows how to plan to maximize gratification. Lastly, the superego develops. The superego is the moral agent controlling the ego and ensuring it resists undesirable id-based impulses. Under pressure from the superego to act morally and from the id to satisfy desires, the ego mediates between them, repressing some mental states and allowing others to surface in consciousness, sometimes concealed. Our subconscious contains mental states of which we are largely oblivious. Other mental states bubble up to the surface of the subconscious, in the preconscious. In mediating between the superego and id, the ego is a gatekeeper between the conscious, preconscious, and subconscious.

Freud’s therapeutic approach is to access mental contents from the subconscious via the preconscious and bring them to consciousness. He believes that insight into the subconscious will be curative, and his work pioneered the insight-oriented tradition in psychology. Therapy in this tradition is about having the client understand and accept mental life.

While psychoanalysis flourished, its science was soon criticized as unviable introspectionism. Freud, like the introspectionists, relied on verbal reports of subjective mental life, and introducing the concept of the subconscious into the equation seemed to render the situation untenable. If you couldn’t be certain of the conscious mind, how could you be certain about the subconscious? Some psychologists argued that psychology should be thought of as the study of neither consciousness nor the subconscious.

Philosophers also noted problems with introspectionism and the Cartesian picture of the mind with private mental entities. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) asked himself how beliefs, desires, and feelings—as private, inner entities—could be connected to a public language (Wittgenstein and Anscombe 1997). For example, how could the utterance “I feel happy” be used publicly if the meaning is a private entity—an inner something? Suppose A says “I feel happy” to B, who understands. B understands what A means if B knows the meaning of the words. But if meanings are strictly inner, how could A and B have learned to connect “I feel happy” to its meaning? Let us look at an analogy provided by Wittgenstein to gain a clearer picture. Suppose A and B each have a box with something in it. Each person can see inside only his box. They both refer to what they have inside with the word “beetle.” As they use the word “beetle” with some consistency, the word has meaning. But what is this meaning? There could be nothing inside each person’s box, or what is there might change. As an analogy, Wittgenstein suggests that words describing mental life needn’t refer to definite mental entities inside our minds. Wittgenstein is not denying that we have conscious mental lives with shared experiences. He suggests, however, that we can think of language as an inherently social phenomenon and that meaning is to be understood within language praxis—particular language use contexts.

In our earlier example, if A says “I feel happy” and B understands, it is because they have acquired shared language skills and know how to use a common language. Wittgenstein thinks of language use in terms of an open-ended set of language games. A common interpretation is that he advocates a use theory of meaning: words have meanings in terms of their uses in language.

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