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History of Disciplines: Consciousness studies as merging Philosophy and Neurosciences[edit]

The Study of Consciousness demonstrates well how different disciplines, with diverging methodological approaches, can work together to arrive at new insights. Consciousness studies is a domain of study that lies at the intersection between Philosophy and Neuroscience. It entails investigating subjective experience, referred to as qualia, and includes any experience from emotion to thought to attention and more. Until the date the question what Consciousness consists of, and how it can be defined is still unresolved. However, there are many theories about the nature of Consciousness. The two main strands, which both include a significant number of subtheories about the mind, are Materialism and Dualism.

Materialism holds that Cosnciousness is ultimately reducible to matter. That is to say that cognition, or mental states, are identical to the neural activity in the brain. It is, thus, the biological makeup that gives rise to conscious subjective experience. By contrast, Dualsim argues that the mind is irreducible to the brain, or any physical matter[1]. Maybe the most well-known dualistic view is Descartes' Interactionist Dualism. It argues that mind and body are two fundamentally different entities that are independent of each other but interact. The nature of the body is to be extended in space and is material. The mind, however, is not material, not extended in space and its nature is to think[2].

Neuroscience and Philosophy as disciplines[edit]

Neuroscience, on the one hand, is concerned with the Nervous System and covers the biological basis of cognition and behavior[3]. It is a Natural Science that relies on rigurous scientific inquiry. As such it usually applies quantitative methodologies and often uses randomized contol trials. Good research output thereby depends on validity, reliability, and replicability. Philosophy, on the other hand, is - broadly speaking - interested in understanding the nature of the world and existence itself. Its methodological approaches differ greatly from those applied in the Neurosciences, as Philosophy uses mainly logic and reason to arrive at conslusions about an inquiry[4].

Interdisciplinary approach to Consciousness[edit]

With Philosphers and Neuroscientists still debating the nature of Consiocusness and approaching it with very divergent methods, David Chalmer, a philosopher and Neuroscientist, illustrates how approaches from both disciplines can be integrated to provide a (more) unified theory of Consciosness. Such a theory uses both third-person data and first-person data - the former being traditionally used in the Neurosciences and the latter being an essential tool within Philosophy.

Third-person data refers to information that is accessible to someone else than just the person experiencing a specific event. It is independently measurable and as such includes behavior, language, or brain processes. First-person data, in contrast, refers to subjective conscious experience. As such it is only accessible to the person having this experience and it is the central data that the Science of Consciousness is interested in.

Chalmer argues that in order to fully understand Consciousness, it is necessary to connect first-person data and third-person data and to therewith find the Neural Correlates (the brain states correlating to subjective experience) of Consciousness. However, connecting first-person data with third-person data only works through interpretation. Chalmer, thus, proposes bridging principles that are determined pre-experimentally and those include (but are not limited to) verbal report, and goal-directed behaviour: He argues that Consciousness can be inferred by a person verbally reporting a certain subjective experience, or by someone performing a specific action in response to a certain event (goal-directed). Thus, the third-person data (language, brain states, etc.) combined with the bridging principles enables researchers to make inferences about Consciousness and indeed research shows that such a combination of approaches can be fruitful: For instance, researchers were able to determine cosnciousness in vegetative patients by combining goal-directed behavior, verbal report and brain activity measurements[5][6]. This illustrates that explicitely stating the philosophical assumptions underlying conscious experience (e.g. by inferring consciousness through subjective verbal reports) and combining these types of data gathering with neuroscientific methods (e.g. analyzing brain activity) is a promising way of two very different academic disciplines to work hand in hand . Iterdisciplinary approaches seem, thus, to be able to generate new knowledge and to make progress in solving problems that are difficult to tackle when disciplines work in isolation.


  1. Gennaro, R. J. (Ed.). (2018). The Routledge Handbook of Consciousness. Routledge.
  2. Robinson, Howard, "Dualism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta,
  3. Koch, C. (2018). What is consciousness? Nature 557, pp. 8-12. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05097-x
  4. Why Study Philosophy (2019). Retrieved from
  5. Owen, A. M., Coleman, M. R., Boly, M., Davis, M. H., Laureys, S., & Pickard, J. D. (2006). Detecting awareness in the vegetative state. Science, 313(5792), 1402-1402. doi: 10.1126/science.1130197
  6. Chalmer, D.J. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3), pp. 200-219. Retrieved from