New directions for a science of consciousness

Consciousness is what we most intimately know, yet its relationship with the physical world has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries.


In this public-engagement event, sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy, we asked three experts to tell us about recent developments in the science and philosophy of consciousness.

Davinia Fernández-Espejo - More Than Meets the Eye; Searching for Consciousness After Brain Injury

We can only infer whether somebody is aware by looking at their behaviour and how they interact with us. But what would happen if you were not capable to control your behaviour to show that you are aware? Patients in a vegetative state are clinically considered to be entirely unaware. And while this is the case for the majority of them, brain imaging has revealed that a subset of these patients are actually, and unexpectedly, aware despite appearing entirely physically unresponsive. I will discuss how we can uncover awareness in unresponsive patients and what current research tells us about the cause of such paradoxical abilities.

Jack Lyons - Phenomenal Consciousness and the Real Problem of Other Minds

The familiar philosophical problem of other minds is a skeptical problem; it’s the problem of how I can be sure anyone else besides me has conscious experiences, given that the only mind I have introspective access to is my own, and since all the relevant behaviour that might serve as third-personal evidence seems producible in an experience-less automaton. Even if we discard these worries as hyperbolic, there is still a “real problem” of other minds deriving from the well known distinction between phenomenal consciousness (roughly, “what-it’s-like-ness”) and access consciousness (reportability, availability to central executive functions). Although access consciousness clearly does something for the organism, and we can therefore acquire evidence that a creature has access consciousness, there is a remaining problem concerning phenomenal consciousness, unless we can specify what it does for the organism. I offer a speculative proposal about the function of phenomenal consciousness, one that would allow us to adduce empirical evidence for or against the claim that a certain class of animals is phenomenally conscious.

Heather Browning - Assessing Animal Sentience

Animal sentience is relevant to public policy and ethical decision-making, and determining which animals are sentient helps us decide which animals to protect and how to treat them. In this talk I will discuss the current best available methods for assessing the sentience of animals, drawing on the framework recently used to evaluate the sentience of cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans for their inclusion under the UK’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.