A Decade of Consciousness Studies
By J. Andrew Ross
Second edition 2009, Imprint Academic
ISBN 978 184540185 6
Understanding consciousness is one of the central scientific challenges of our
time. This book presents Andy Ross's recent work and discusses a range of
perspectives on the core issues. The chapters are based on texts written for a
variety of occasions and audiences. Reading them in order, one senses a growing
clarity in the articulation of the new ideas, some of which are deep and rather
subtle, and glimpses the outlines of a dynamic field. Ross has taken pains to
unify the collection and make the main thread clearly visible. His new ideas are
of fundamental importance, and readers who grapple with them should gain insight
that amply rewards the effort.
Consciousness studies, now halfway through its second decade as a
self-consciously separate field of inquiry, finds a lucid, entertaining
expositor in Andrew Ross. As well as chronicling the developments — and some of
the colorful personality clashes — in the field, Ross has ideas of his own to
contribute, grounded in a thorough acquaintance with physics, math, psychology,
and philosophy, taking Wittgenstein's "I am my world" for a keynote. It's a wild
— John Derbyshire, author of
In Mindworlds, Andrew Ross mixes, in a charming and highly intelligent way,
speculations about consciousness with a very informative account of recent
debates in consciousness studies plus some autobiography. Anyone interested in
consciousness and the people who study it will be fascinated by it, as I have
— Paul Snowdon, Grote Professor of Mind and Logic, University College London
Andy Ross thinks, and thinks for himself. He can teach things to mutual-citation
circles in the philosophy and science of consciousness.
— Ted Honderich, Grote Professor Emeritus of Mind and Logic, University College
Consciousness is hard to understand. The ongoing attempt to understand it is one
of the central scientific challenges of our time.
This book is a portrait of consciousness with two sides. The introvert side
presents my own recent work, while the extrovert side discusses a range of other
perspectives on the issues. The chapters are based on essays written for a
variety of occasions and audiences. Reading them in serial order, one senses a
growing clarity in the articulation of the new ideas, some of which are deep and
rather subtle, and this adds movement to the introvert side of the picture. As
for other perspectives, many ideas in this field are still provisional, and it
is interesting to see how they have evolved over the decade during which the
I have taken pains to unify the two sides of the portrait and make the main
thread clearly visible. It seems to me that my new ideas are of fundamental
importance, and I hope that readers who grapple with them will gain enough
insight to feel their effort has been rewarded.
In this public and printed edition of the collection, five years after a pilot
online edition, I have deleted four earlier essays of lesser scientific interest
and replaced them with four more recent works. The result, with a fresh
application of editorial polish, is an anthology that should be of real value to serious researchers.
The special difficulty with the scientific study of consciousness is not that
the concept resists easy definition — many scientifically tractable concepts
share that feature — but that as would-be scientists we live in consciousness.
This indefinable state of organized or unified awareness frames our every move
as cognitive agents. We seem to need to perform a Kantian critique of pure
reason before we can even begin to see how and where science can get a grip on
Ideally, such a philosophical critique can set the limits of the scientific
enterprise in psychology. What we seek is a story about a mechanism that can
explain our range of experiences as neutrally and uncontroversially as we now
explain other biological functions like digestion or physical phenomena like
liquids or technology like computers.
What we need in addition — and this is the hard problem — is perspectival
therapy to get us out of the mental confusion about first and third person
perspectives that makes the issue seem so intractable. In principle, the
inner–outer contrast is as trivial as a perspectival shift in an Escher picture.
All we need to do is find a set of reliable ways to characterize this
perspectival shift in logic, physics, psychology, and philosophy. In practice,
this task is far from trivial. But it is doable.
My main purpose in this book is to perform that therapy, essentially by taking
the first steps in logic and physics toward a substantial explanation of
consciousness within the frame of contemporary science, using what I hope are
familiar and uncontested results and approaches and simply putting them together
in such a way that the correct view of it all is fairly obvious. Some of my
assertions may seem variously ambitious, optimistic, abstract, simplistic and so
on, but by the end of it all I hope you’ll find the general position quite
plausible and even natural. In fact, I hope you’ll be thinking — of course,
quite right, no problem.
Try this test — read the book and see if you agree.