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A connectionist theory of phenomenal experience

  • Gerard O'Brien (a1) and Jonathan Opie (a1)

When cognitive scientists apply computational theory to the problem of phenomenal consciousness, as many have been doing recently, there are two fundamentally distinct approaches available. Consciousness is to be explained either in terms of the nature of the representational vehicles the brain deploys or in terms of the computational processes defined over these vehicles. We call versions of these two approaches vehicle and process theories of consciousness, respectively. However, although there may be space for vehicle theories of consciousness in cognitive science, they are relatively rare. This is because of the influence exerted, on the one hand, by a large body of research that purports to show that the explicit representation of information in the brain and conscious experience are dissociable, and on the other, by the classical computational theory of mind – the theory that takes human cognition to be a species of symbol manipulation. Two recent developments in cognitive science combine to suggest that a reappraisal of this situation is in order. First, a number of theorists have recently been highly critical of the experimental methodologies used in the dissociation studies – so critical, in fact, that it is no longer reasonable to assume that the dissociability of conscious experience and explicit representation has been adequately demonstrated. Second, classicism, as a theory of human cognition, is no longer as dominant in cognitive science as it once was. It now has a lively competitor in the form of connectionism; and connectionism, unlike classicism, does have the computational resources to support a robust vehicle theory of consciousness. In this target article we develop and defend this connectionist vehicle theory of consciousness. It takes the form of the following simple empirical hypothesis: phenomenal experience consists of the explicit representation of information in neurally realized parallel distributed processing (PDP) networks. This hypothesis leads us to reassess some common wisdom about consciousness, but, we argue, in fruitful and ultimately plausible ways.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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