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When philosophical nuance matters: safeguarding consciousness research from restrictive assumptions

When philosophical nuance matters: safeguarding consciousness research from restrictive assumptions

In this paper, we revisit the debate surrounding the Unfolding Argument (UA) against causal structure theories of consciousness (as well as the hard-criteria research program it prescribes), using it as a platform for discussing theoretical and methodological issues in consciousness research. Causal structure theories assert that consciousness depends on a particular causal structure of the brain. Our claim is that some of the assumptions fueling the UA are not warranted, and therefore we should reject the methodology for consciousness science that the UA prescribes. First, we briefly survey the most popular philosophical positions in consciousness science, namely physicalism and functionalism. We discuss the relations between these positions and the behaviorist methodology that the UA assumptions express, despite the contrary claim of its proponents. Second, we argue that the same reasoning that the UA applies against causal structure theories can be applied to functionalist approaches, thus proving too much and deeming as unscientific a whole range of (non-causal structure) theories. Since this is overly restrictive and fits poorly with common practice in cognitive neuroscience, we suggest that the reasoning of the UA must be flawed. Third, we assess its philosophical assumptions, which express a restrictive methodology, and conclude that there are reasons to reject them. Finally, we propose a more inclusive methodology for consciousness science, that includes neural, behavioral, and phenomenological evidence (provided by the first-person perspective) without which consciousness science could not even start.

Then, we extend this discussion to the scope of consciousness science, and conclude that theories of consciousness should be tested and evaluated on humans, and not on systems considerably different from us. Rather than restricting the methodology of consciousness science, we should, at this point, restrict the range of systems upon which it is supposed to be built.

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