Tuesday 16 December 2014

Attention and Phenomenal Consciousness

Henry Taylor
My name is Henry Taylor and I have recently submitted my PhD in philosophy at Durham University. In this post, I would like to discuss some issues that I address in my paper ‘Is Attention Necessary and Sufficient for Phenomenal Consciousness?’

With some notable exceptions, attention has until relatively recently been neglected as a topic in its own right in analytic philosophy. This has occurred despite its widespread use in fields as diverse as aesthetics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. However, in the last few years this attitude has radically and suddenly shifted, and attention is one of the most exciting topics in contemporary philosophy of psychology.

One of the most striking questions within this domain is whether it is possible to use attention to explain consciousness. Amongst many psychologists, and philosophers, there is hope that by studying consciousness in terms of attention, the problem of consciousness may turn out to be empirically tractable. Of course, this project becomes significantly more realistic if it turns out that attention and consciousness co-occur.

A strong source of resistance to this optimism comes from a collection of experiments that apparently show attention in the absence of consciousness. The most famous results of this kind concern the patient GY, who suffers from blindsight. In a now classic experiment, Robert Kentridge et al. (1999) presented stimuli to GY’s blind field. GY denied all knowledge of these stimuli appearing (he is, after all, ‘blind’ to them). However, it was found that he was able to discriminate the presence or absence of certain stimuli much faster, if those stimuli were preceded by arrows (placed in the healthy area of his visual field) which correctly indicated where the stimuli were to appear. The experimenters concluded that the arrows were facilitating attention toward the stimuli, though the stimuli did not penetrate to consciousness. Therefore, attention is insufficient for consciousness.

Typically, the debate over these results has centred around the question of whether GY is really ‘paying attention’ to the stimuli in question or not. Here, the vexed question of what attention is becomes more acute than ever.

Those who oppose the view that GY was attending to the stimuli (such as Prinz 2012) typically rely on a particular definition of ‘attention’ in order to make their case. This definition has as its starting point the idea that attention is intimately related to working memory, the short term storage system that allows for executive control of many different cognitive systems. Once attention is defined in terms of working memory, then we can draw the conclusion that GY was not attending to the stimuli in question, and thus that he is not a counterexample to the claim that attention is sufficient for consciousness. Opposed to this are those who define attention somehow in terms of task performance. Such an operationalist definition certainly would count GY as attending to the stimuli in question.

In my paper, I argue that verbal problems of just this sort arise with relation to all of the experiments that have been brought to bear on the question of whether attention is necessary and sufficient for consciousness: the disagreements in this field are (I argue) entirely conceptual, and not empirical ones.

This is a surprising consequence, as it entails that much of the research (focussed as it has been on the empirical data) has been looking in the wrong place. If we really want to make progress, then we must redirect our efforts to the more conceptual and linguistic issues in the vicinity.

All of this is good news for philosophers of psychology, because it brings the debate from the purely empirical sphere into the domain of philosophy of language and conceptual analysis. A collection of interesting questions suggest themselves, such as whether one definition or account of attention could be ‘better’ than another and what theoretical roles we want our concept of ‘attention’ to perform for us. A particularly fascinating question is whether one particular definition of ‘attention’ carves nature at the joints better than the others, and whether that gives us good reason to adopt it.

The answers to these questions are anything but clear, but they must be answered, and the answers we give will dictate the future of attention research in philosophy and throughout empirical psychology as well.

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