Thursday, 24 May 2018

Consciousness and Fundamental Reality

This blog post is by Philip A. Goff.

I am currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, although from next year I will take up a post at the University of Durham. My main area of interest is the problem of consciousness, the challenge of understanding how consciousness fits into our scientific picture of the world. In fact, I think that the problem has been already been solved.

I believe that Bertrand Russell’s 1927 book The Analysis of Matter did for consciousness studies what Darwin’s Origin of the Species did for the life sciences. Tragically, Russell’s novel contribution to philosophy of mind was pretty much forgotten about for much of the twentieth century, although it has recently been rediscovered leading to the view that has become known as ‘Russellian monism’.

The starting point of Russellian monism is that physical science tells you a lot less than you think about the nature of matter. In the public mind, physical science is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of space, time and matter. However, it turns out upon reflection – at least according to Russellian monism – that physical science is confined to telling us about how matter is disposed to behave and is silent on the features of matter that underlie its behavioural dispositions, generally referred to as its ‘categorical properties’.

To put it simply, physics tells us what matter does not what it is. Physicalists have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to explain consciousness in terms of the dispositional properties of physical science. But according to Russellian monism, consciousness is to be explained in terms of the categorical properties of the brain. In this way, Russellian monists can explain the perennial failure of physical science to explain consciousness, without turning to the dualist view that consciousness is beyond the physical realm. The result is an elegant middle way between physicalism and dualism, which retains the attractions of each whilst avoiding their problems.

In my recently published book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, I bring together and critically evaluate much of the wealth of recent literature that has been published on Russellian monism, before defending a distinctive form of the view. Russellian monism is more of a general framework than a completed theory, and it will take decades of interdisciplinary work to fill in the details.

To set things in motion, I have, since finishing my academic book, spent a lot of time trying to reach out to a broader audience: scientists as well as the general public. I have published a number of popular articles and encyclopedia pieces on the topic, and I am currently writing a book aimed at a general audience, Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness, which will be published in August 2019 (Rider in UK, Pantheon in US).

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

On the Power Threat Meaning Framework

birthday cake

Five years ago I started this blog with a post by Kengo Miyazono... 
Happy birthday Imperfect Cognitions! 
I am very grateful to all the people who have worked hard during this time to keep the blog active and engaging: Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Kathy Puddifoot, Andrea Polonioli, Sophie Stammers, Magdalena Antrobus, Valeria Motta, and Anneli Jefferson. 
And special thanks to our regular contributors and assiduous readers.

To the next five years!
Lisa 💛


On the 5th birthday of the Imperfect Cognitions blog Michael Larkin (Aston University) considers some conceptual propositions of the Power Threat Meaning framework, arguing that the framework is both a step towards a more humanising concept of mental health problems, and a missed opportunity to be more inclusive. Enjoy this very rich and thought-provoking celebratory post!

Often we are disappointed because we want the thing presented to us to be the thing we hoped to receive, and not the thing that someone else wanted to give to us. 
The Power Threat Meaning framework (PTM) is a manifesto for thinking differently about mental health. It has been produced by a relatively large working group, co-ordinated by two lead authors (Lucy Johnstone and Mary Boyle). The framework is described in two documents (a ‘short’ and a ‘long’ version). Both of them are actually very long.

To me, they have the feel of being unfinished: there are contradictions and omissions; there are claims which seem overstated or inflammatory. At the same time, the document has some aims, sources and insights which speak very directly to some of my own thoughts and priorities about mental health. It involves some contributors whose work I admire very much. It is a conundrum.

I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this conundrum, and more specifically, what we might want to notice about it from a conceptual point of view, because this is a blog which is concerned with conceptual things. To get to that conceptual material, we need to first notice some context.

Something which anyone following mental health on social media will have noticed is that the PTM has been very effective as a means of generating... activity. I’m not sure that it is quite clear what that activity should be called. 

If we were feeling generous, we might call it a debate: an exchange of views, certainly, but rarely in the spirit of progress towards some sort of accommodation of positions. There is a lot of talk. It seems like there is some constructive debate within this talk, but also a lot of entrenchment. There are 'sides', sadly, and the entrenchment is evident on both of them.

From a conceptual point of view, I think we should treat the PTM as a proposition, and that what should follow is a series of conversations about the validity of that proposition, and whether it can be supported. If it can, what are the implications? If not, how should it be revised? To edge us towards that point, it may be useful to consider some of the areas of disagreement around the PTM, and the questions and claims which are raised about it.

Who is speaking?

It’s a policy.   
It’s representing the British Psychological Society. 
It’s representing the way that psychologists will work in future.
It isn’t a policy of the BPS; the framework has been produced by a working group; the working group have received some funding from the BPS. This doesn’t make it an official policy. The BPS funds a range of projects and activities.

Some psychologists have been very positive about the PTM; some have not. Many more will be completely unaware of it. It is difficult to see how it will shape practice (see below) in its current iteration.
It represents survivors/service-users.
It excludes survivors/service-users.
It excludes some service-users.
The two lead authors are psychologists. Several experts-by-experience have contributed to the development of the framework. Many experts-by-experience have since come forward to say that they feel very positive about the framework; many others have come forward to say the opposite. There is a substantive conceptual problem in the PTM which underpins this division in one of its core audiences, so let’s consider that next.