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Science and Philosophy meet to tackle the mysteries of the human mind

13.08.2008
World leaders in the science of the mind gathered in Edinburgh recently for a pioneering conference on understanding the mystery of human consciousness.

The conference was organised as part of the European Science Foundation's EUROCORES programme. The programme supports a multi-million Euro project designed to explore Consciousness in a Natural and Cultural Context (CNCC).

Leading scholars converged on the city with the hope of sharing knowledge and carving out a new common territory for dealing with one of modern science's most persistent mysteries. The event allowed specialists from the fields of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy of mind to tackle age old problems such as free will, the mind-body problem, and how a scientific understanding of the world can account for human agency.

Conference organisers were seeking to build on a growing culture of knowledge sharing as the international research community continues to break down academic barriers in the study of human cognition. A diverse range of speakers were included on the schedule, from experimental cognitive scientists to world leaders in the theory of mental agency.

Edinburgh University's school of philosophy, psychology and language sciences has become a leading centre for interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the mind.

Edinburgh's Professor Andy Clark said: "I think that these sorts of discussions, which bring together philosophers, neuroscientists, biologists and ecologists, that try to analyse the fundamental issues in these areas using philosophical tools, are very important if we are going to understand what the science is telling us."

Among the central puzzles explored throughout the conference, was the importance of consciousness in human agency. Most philosophers agree that a degree of self reflection is key part of what it means to be a human being. On the face of it, a materialist, scientific account of human reality threatens such common sense understandings. The task of an interdisciplinary approach is to marry core philosophical concepts like free will and the quality of experience, with cutting edge empirical research in psychology and neuroscience.

Speaking after the conference Professor Shaun Gallagher, from the University of Central Florida and the University of Hertfordshire, explained that dismissing our intuitions about free will and consciousness is no longer an option for a serious explanation of human cognition.

He said: "I think the conclusions of the papers that have been presented here are much more nuanced than just the broad claim that conscious will is an illusion. Some of the papers were trying to make room for a concept of free will that is larger than something measured in milliseconds, even if it is just a sense that we have some control over the way we are doing something or acting."

He added that any complete explanation will have to account the way consciousness feels to the individual.

"Despite certain interpretations of the neuroscience, this is something at a very pragmatic and personal level, which we need to think about, and for which we need to find some kind of explanation," he said.

As well as using complex philosophical concepts to help form a better understanding about scientific findings, the conference sought to emphasise the importance of experimental research in a complete account of consciousness. Philosophers such as Joelle Proust, Till Vierkant and Tim Bayne explored the difficulties in accounting for directed human action. Bayne's paper, for instance, focused on the intuitive beliefs we have about our own agency and their relationship with consciousness. Current research questions the strength of this link so the challenge for philosophy according to Bayne, is to account for our intuitions in the face deeper scientific knowledge about human agency.

Experimental scientists such as Lars Hall and Ezequiel Morsella, on the other hand, gave detailed accounts of their ongoing research showing the practical, empirical challenges for further investigations about agency and consciousness. Hall's presentation outlined new methods for altering the speech feedback of subjects and the effect this can have on the relation between their internal states and their behaviours. Morsella rounded off the conference with a radical proposal for explaining consciousness. He explained that research points to the notion that consciousness is the result of competing demands on our skeletal muscle system, and is thus an advanced form of mediation between the various systems which constantly seek to control the body.

The EUROCORES CNCC programme seeks to understand consciousness as both a cultural and biological phenomenon. Despite the range of issues covered by the conference, its chief success was in creating a common ground for scientists and philosophers to share their research.

Professor Clark added, "I think one of the overarching things going on here is we are trying to work out what it is we should be talking about, when we try to talk about conscious experience.

"The kinds of conversations we have had here have been very unusual, because people from very different disciplines kind of felt that they understood what the others cared about, and if we can get that, it might not be a common territory, but it is a pretty big condition for it."

The conference in Edinburgh marked an important step in the EUROCORES project. Understanding consciousness in a natural and cultural context requires the will to collaborate, and integrate conceptual and empirical perspectives. The CNCC conference displayed a new climate of partnership among world experts towards the problem of consciousness.

For more information on CNCC please go to www.esf.org/activities/eurocores/programmes/cncc.html

Thomas Lau | alfa
Further information:
http://www.esf.org/eurocores
http://www.esf.org/activities/eurocores/programmes/cncc.html

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