An Overview of the Science of Consciousness with Axel Cleeremans
Axel Cleeremans is a leader in the science of consciousness. Cleeremans is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he heads the Consciousness, Cognition & Computation Group and the Center for Research in Cognition & Neurosciences. In addition, Cleeremans is Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers in Psychology, which has an excellent Consciousness Research section, and soon-to-be President of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC). His biographical sketch on his website concludes with this entry:
2047 Death by stroke right after having solved consciousness
Clearly he has a sense of humor. I recently spoke to Cleeremans to get a better sense of the field and where it is going.
Driven by questions
How does consciousness work? And why are we conscious at all? Is there an evolutionary reason to make it so that we are aware of our mental states in ways that many other organisms are probably not? These are some of the questions Cleeremans likes to spend his days thinking about.
Cleeremans first encountered consciousness research as its own object of investigation at the inaugural ASSC conference in 1996. He said, “Meeting all these people interested in consciousness itself was extremely stimulating and engaging. It’s a great community because it is one of the rare societies where there is true interdisciplinary work.” That interdisciplinary work is hard won. Cleeremans said, “A genuine interdisciplinary dialog takes a lot of time, at least ten years.”
When asked to define consciousness, Cleeremans referenced the hard problem. Philosopher David Chalmers first wrote about the hard problem, which is the strange truth that there is something it is like to be you, in 1996. What it is like is your personal, phenomenal experience. How can we understand the felt qualities of subjective experience? “In my view the problem stays intact today,” Cleeremans said. “Specifically the problem of phenomenal experience. Why is it the case that it feels like anything to be us? Nobody has a good theory of how or why the biological activity of the brain produces our mental states and the subjective qualities that are associated with wakefulness.”