Thinking about consciousness / thinking about thought

How can researchers co-create with with community members and "thought leaders" to explore philosophical questions on thought and consciousness?

What do we think we are doing when we think? This project seeks to develop a new ‘citizen natural philosopher’ approach to the science and philosophy of consciousness. The recent progress in neuroscience has relied on reductive methods that are ill-suited to big existential questions that interrogate subjective truths: we cannot define consciousness but we are all certain we are conscious. This project “TaC/TaT” will investigate the personal experience of consciousness by collaborating with the community to collect individual account of the mind. This will empower people to value their own experience as conscious beings, pilot a novel methodology, and provide scientists and philosophers with insight into these experiences.

What will the project involve? 

This project will engage the Bristol community in a conversation about the nature of consciousness and thought. This will require the co-creation with the community of an approach to structured conversations and interviews suitable for these difficult abstract issues and will result in a web-based collection of source material describing the lived experience of existence.

The project will engage a pilot directed discussion with the Bristol community. The framework for this discussion will, itself, be co-created in collaboration with the community and will involve input from thought leaders such as religious figures, poets and musicians. Their views could be translated into snippets of video and used as an interview prop. Intrinsic to this project is the notion of the citizen natural philosophers; those interviewed will in turn become interviewers, interviews will become conversations, testimony gathered early in the project will be used as a prompt for conversations later. Where possible and with suitable consent material will be gathered on a website and curated there along with reflection and discussion of the project itself and of the methodological stratagems that have been developed. This is a project whose key theme is introspection and evaluation, reflection and learning will not only be supported, but will form part of the project itself.

The project intends to run two pilot workshops which will address two key questions already formulated by the research team. One question explores the process of our own consciousness and the manner in which we experience thought processes. The second question will explore the participants opinion on the consciousness of non-human entities and non-entities. Each workshop will run in a space kitted out with audio and video recorders, each will start with short statements by “thought leaders” and a panel discussion, followed by an open microphone discussion. These will be small workshops with only four or five participants; the goal is not to inform the non-academic participants about academic research, it is for academic and non-academic participants to work together.

Based on the experience from these workshops, along with questionnaire data gathered at the workshops and through online recruitment, the team will design further workshops addressing for example the consciousness of machines, the history of conscious thought and religion, the soul and consciousness. The researchers hope that this will provide a demonstration and a plan they can use to attract subsequence support, either from granting agencies or through public engagement funding.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Conor Houghton (Engineering Mathematics and Technology, University of Bristol) is a computational neuroscientist with an interest in the neuroscience of language and the cognitive science of decision making.
  • Aisling O’Kane (Computer Science, University of Bristol) is a computer scientist with expertise in human computer interaction and experience in the sort of co-created research methods appropriate to `difficult conversations’.
  • Tuomas Tahko (Philosophy, University of Bristol) is a philosopher who specialises in epistemology, teaches the philosophy of the mind and has written an influential textbook which describes historical approaches to our understanding of our access to metaphysical knowledge
  • Bruce Hood (Psychological Science, University of Bristol) is an experimental psychologist with an interest in how ideas of consciousness develop as we reach adulthood, he is well known for his work on “magical thinking” in children.

What is to come?

The project has three objectives:

  • To empower people to value their own experience as conscious beings. The researchers believe we are all experts on our own mental processes, we have all confronted the mystery, and indeed the dread, entailed by our conscious existence. However, many people feel excluded from the academic debate about consciousness and the scientific investigation of the mind. This project will welcome the involvement of the community, not as spectators, or indeed, as subjects, but as active collaborators with valuable testimony to provide.
  • To pilot a novel methodology for qualitative participant-based research into complex abstract topics. The meaning and status of thought and consciousness pose difficult questions which have preoccupied humankind since time immemorial without producing definite answers. They are questions whose responses tend to involve metaphorical speech, anecdotal analogy and even gesture and body language. The researchers will work with the community to invent a methodology to support and document these conversations and seek the community’s input into the best methodology to communicate about these issues.
  • To provide scientists and philosophers with insight into the human experience of thought and consciousness. The personal experience of consciousness and thought is extraordinarily diverse; some people describe an internal picture show, for others, the visual world disappears when their eyes are closed, some feel that trees are as conscious as they are, others that they were not conscious as children. This project will document these divergent views, a resource which will suggest new, testable, ideas about the nature of consciousness