Finding the Appropriate Levels of Description and Explanation for a Scientific Research Program on Consciousness

The first empirical question that we have to face after reconceptualizing consciousness as the phenomenal level of organization is to ask what that level is like. This is the basic question concerning the systematic description of the phenomenon we are interested in. Any empirically based scientific discipline must start with systematic description, which is the indispensable foundation of all explanatory research in biology as well (Mayr 1996).

Here we encounter one of the principal problems in current research on consciousness: It seems to operate at two levels of description only—(1) the level of the cognitive or computational information-processing mechanisms and (2) the level of the currently known neural mechanisms or neural correlates of those cognitive mechanisms. Surprisingly, the most important level of description in consciousness research, that of phenomenal organization, has no central role in current theorizing. Without a systematic description of the phenomenal level, however, it does not make much sense to chart the cognitive or neural mechanisms of consciousness, for it remains quite unclear what all those detailed mechanisms are supposed to be mechanisms of. The point is that a science of consciousness must first treat the phenomenal level of organization as a proper level of description. The lower levels of explanatory mechanisms can be invoked only after we have a clear conception of the phenomenon that these mechanisms are supposed to explain.

It is not too difficult to see why consciousness research still largely lacks the level of phenomenal description: There is no well-established, empirically based framework of phenomenology to turn to. In the history of psychology, intro-spectionism once failed, and many still feel that an empirically based scientific phenomenology is outright impossible. Phenomenology as practiced in philosophical circles seems to be too obscure and conceptually isolated from current cognitive neuroscience to be of any real value for the empirically minded scientist. Furthermore, some philosophers are not too optimistic about the prospects of an "objective phenomenology" (Nagel 1974). Thus, it is no wonder that in consciousness research, conceptual frameworks are primarily taken from the empirically respectable and well-established branches of cognitive science and neuroscience. The problem, however, is that the science of consciousness is not simply a trivial further branch of those fields: Standard mainstream cognitive science and neuroscience largely ignore consciousness; they will not provide us with adequate levels of description for handling phenomenal experience.

I suggest that the science of consciousness needs to develop a phenomenal level of description that systematically captures the phenomenal level of organization in the brain. This level of description cannot be imported from any other existing branch of science—it must be contributed by the science of consciousness itself.

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