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Topoi (2017) 36:119125

DOI 10.1007/s11245-014-9262-7

Explanatory Perspectivalism: Limiting the Scope of the Hard


Problem of Consciousness
Daniel Kostic

Published online: 3 August 2014


 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Abstract I argue that the hard problem of consciousness functional explanations of memory, cognition, information
occurs only in very limited contexts. My argument is based integration in the brain, reportability of mental states,
on the idea of explanatory perspectivalism, according to attention, etc. The hard problem (hereafter HP) is that even
which what we want to know about a phenomenon deter- after we provide a complete structural or functional story
mines the type of explanation we use to understand it. To about the easy problems, we can always ask how is it that
that effect the hard problem arises only in regard to ques- they produce consciousness, that is, why consciousness
tions such as how is it that concepts of subjective experi- arises from these processes.
ence can refer to physical properties, but not concerning In his second paper on the hard problem, Chalmers
questions such as what gives rise to qualia or why certain explains what is hard about the hard problem:
brain states have certain qualities and not others. In this
What makes the hard problem hard? Here, the task is
sense we could for example fully explain why certain brain
not to explain behavioural and cognitive functions:
processes have certain subjective qualities, while we still
even once one has an explanation of all the relevant
dont have a viable theory of concepts that explains co-
functions in the vicinity of consciousness discrim-
referentiality of phenomenal and physical concepts. Given
ination, integration, access, report, control there
this limitation, the hard problem doesnt pose a problem for
may still remain a further question: why is the per-
the empirical study of consciousness.
formance of these functions accompanied by experi-
ence? Because of this, the hard problem seems to be a
Keywords Hard problem of consciousness  Explanatory
different sort of problem, requiring a different sort of
perspectivalism  Topological explanations  Transparency
solution. (Chalmers 2003: 104)
of explanations  Conceptual analysis  Conceivability
arguments  Semantic view of explanations  Descriptions It is very important to distinguish two very different sets
of the causal roles of questions which are central to the formulation of the HP,
and that they require different explananda. On the one
hand, we can ask: what gives rise to qualia? Or why are
1 The Hard Problem performances of certain brain functions accompanied by
experience? These seem to be straightforward empirical
In two very influential papers, Chalmers (1995, 2003) questions. On the other hand, we seem to be able to ask a
divides problems of consciousness into the easy and the further nontrivial question why physical processes in the
hard. The easy problems concern the structural and brain give rise to consciousness? We can ask a further
question because of the substantive and determinate cog-
nitive content associated with the subjective experiences
D. Kostic (&) that cant be cast in terms of descriptions of the causal or
Institute for Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy, University of
functional roles. Therefore it is not clear how a theoretical
Belgrade, 18-20 Cika Ljubina Street, Old Building, 1st Floor,
11000 Belgrade, Serbia sentence containing terms which refer to physical proper-
e-mail: daniel.kostic@gmail.com ties and terms referring to properties of subjective

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120 D. Kostic

experience can possibly be true. Understanding a phe- problem of consciousness I introduce the problem
nomenon in terms of the a priori analysis of theoretical without ever mentioning zombies or the knowledge
terms and theoretical sentences containing them is the argument. In my 1996 book I use zombies and the
matter of conceptual analysis, and this is why it plays such knowledge argument to argue against materialism in
a prominent role in formulating the HP. Here I refer to the chapters 3 and 4, at a point where Im already taking
so-called Canberra plan account of conceptual analysis for granted that there is a hard problem. (Chalmers,
(which is mostly used in formulating the conceivability 2012)
arguments and the HP), according to which we first a priori
Although the CA play no role in formulating the HP, the
analyse certain folk concepts or macrophysical concepts,
CA are based on conceptual analysis, and conceptual
such as water, heat, pain or consciousness, to
analysis seems to be central to formulating the HP. As we
determine what would be the best role fillers that satisfy the
shall shortly see in more detail, the reason why we seem to
descriptions of the (a priori) assigned functional or causal
be able to ask a further question after all the easy problems
roles. In the second step we find those role fillers.1
are solved, is that we dont understand how can qualia be
The fact that two sets of questions about the HP require
integrated into the scheme of descriptions of the causal or
different explananda is central to understanding the idea of
functional roles (Dowell 2008: 101). My strategy will be to
explanatory perspectivalism.
argue against conceptual analysis as the main epistemo-
To get this point across it is very important to under-
logical assumption in the structure of explanation in the
stand the relation between the HP and the conceivability
formulation of the HP. To this effect I argue that concep-
arguments.
tual analysis cant really answer any of the most interesting
There is a common temptation to associate the HP with
questions about the HP, e.g. what gives rise to qualia, why
the conceivability arguments, knowledge argument (Jack-
are certain brain processes always accompanied by certain
son 1982, 1986), zombie argument (Chalmers 1996), and
quale and not by the other, etc. Conceptual analysis can
two-dimensional argument (Chalmers 2010), (hereafter all
only tell us how certain concepts fit the explanatory scheme
referred to as CA). For example, one can think that these
based on the descriptions of the causal or functional roles,
arguments use the HP as a premise, but as we shall shortly
and why the explanation is necessary true, given such a
see, that would be wrong. The idea of conceivability
scheme. But conceptual analysis cant help us discover
arguments is the following: if physicalism were true, then
what gives rise to qualia or answer any similar questions.
certain counterfactual scenarios, such as the possibility of
This is what I will call the explanatory perspectivalism.3
zombies,2 would not be possible. The CA are purported to
According to this view the HP then seems to be limited in
show that such counterfactual scenarios are possible (not
scope only to a theory of concepts.
merely conceivable) thus it is concluded that the physi-
We can think of explanations in terms of conceptual
calism is false. However, as Chalmers made it explicitly
analysis, realization, supervenience,4 function, mechanism.
clear at the recent online conference (Chalmers 2012), the
But is there any method of deciding whether some of these
HP does not figure in these arguments in any direct sense.
approaches are better suited for certain domains of phe-
The link between the HP and all these arguments is the
nomena? It seems that it depends on what we want to
shared tacit assumption that conceptual analysis is the basis
know. For example, Chalmers thinks that structural or
of explanations. In this sense the HP, as Chalmers himself
functional explanations cant explain consciousnessthat
puts it (Chalmers 2012), is based on a mere intuition. He
they are not very well suited for explaining the phenome-
says that for him it is enough that he can see it, along with
non because of the special substantive and determinate
many other philosophers and even neuroscientists.
cognitive content associated with the concept of conscious
He puts it in the following way:
experience from the first person perspective.
Glenn and Liz take me as arguing that there is a My argument is based on the idea of explanatory per-
hard problem of consciousness by using zombie spectivalism, i.e. a view according to which what we want
arguments, the knowledge argument, and so on. But I to know about a phenomenon determines the type of
never argue in this way. In my 1995 paper on the hard

3
Id like to thank Peter Machamer for introducing a very similar
notion of investigator perspectivalism to me in the context of
1
For more details on the Canberra plan style of conceptual analysis, philosophy of experimentation.
see (Jackson 1998) and (Chalmers and Jackson 2001). 4
Realization and supervenience are relations that hold between
2
The creatures who are functionally, structurally, behaviorally properties in the world, they are not explanations themselves, but
indistinguishable from us humans, but who unlike us do not have explanations based on these relations normally explain by showing
subjective conscious experiences. how the realization and supervenience bases are individuated.

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Explanatory Perspectivalism 121

explanation we use to understand that phenomenon. On this physical concepts, in contrast to cases with natural kind
view, certain explanations explain a very limited aspect of concepts where we can do that.
a phenomenon, but the dialectic of certain positions is such Epistemically transparent explanations consist of a
that they are presented as if they are explaining much more. scheme that makes it obvious or self-evident why and how
For example, conceptual analysis is used in arguments the explanans explains the explanandum, i.e. how the ex-
which allegedly show that there is a dis-analogy between planandum fits the explanatory scheme. The debates in the
explanations based on the analysis of natural kind concepts philosophy of mind normally use only descriptions of the
(water is H2O) and concepts of qualia (pain is some neural causal roles as such a scheme (Chalmers and Jackson 2001;
process). Such an analysis enables us to understand why Chalmers 2010). Once we have the scheme of the causal
water is H2O, but not why pain is some neural process. To roles and we find the role fillers, we have semantically
that effect, it would be reasonable to expect such a dis- transparent explanation.
analogy between explanation of easy and hard problems of On Chalmers and Jacksons view (Chalmers and
consciousness. However, just as conceptual analysis helps Jackson 2001; Chalmers 1996, 2010), epistemic transpar-
us understand why information integration is some brain ency of explanations is understood in a priori terms.
process, it does not actually explain how the information is According to these philosophers, epistemically transparent
integrated. By the same token, conceptual analysis cant explanations have a form of an argument and require three
tell us what gives rise to qualia or why certain brain pro- crucial premises: the first premise is the semantic one and it
cesses have particular qualities and not others. is a priori; the second premise is an a posteriori claim or
In this sense, the limits of conceptual analysis are empirical discovery; and the third premise, which is usually
determined according to what we want to know; we can use tacit, tells us why the conclusion is true, given the first two
it if we want to know why sentences containing macro and premises. For example:
micro concepts in a theory are true, but not to explain how
(a) Water is actual watery stuff (semantic premise based
things actually work. This is what I call explanatory
on the conceptual analysis of the word water)
perspectivalism.
(b) H2O is actual watery stuff (a posteriori premise or an
Based on that, I argue that the HP rests on a misguided
empirical discovery)
view of semantic explanations. I propose that the topo-
(c) Water is H2O (by transitivity of identity). (Dowell
logical approach is much better suited for explaining con-
2008: 101)
sciousness and more likely to be the right approach given
that network analysis, which is the basis of topological The conclusion in (c) follows a priori from (a) and
explanations, is used very successfully in explaining vari- (b) because of the logical principle of transitivity of iden-
ous aspects of brain functioning that are thought to be tity. That is why this explanation is epistemically trans-
central for understanding consciousness. Such relevant parent, or in Chalmers terms, why it is a priori true. What
aspects of brain functioning are, for example: multisensory is epistemically transparent about this argument scheme is
perceptions (Anderson et al. 2010; Grossberg 2007; Rubi- that it is gapless, i.e. the scheme leaves no room for a
nov and Sporns 2010), attention (Buchel and Friston 1997; rational doubt as to how steps of the inference follow from
Corbetta et al. 1998; Grossberg 1999; Raj and Chen 2011), one another and also makes it obvious how, given the
and memory (Basar et al. 2000; LaBar et al. 1999; Rubinov premises, the conclusion must be true (Dowell 2008: 101).
and Sporns 2010). In cognitive neuroscience, the network This argument scheme is epistemically transparent because
analysis is heralded as a distinctly new tool that will rev- its gaplessness is based on an a priori conceptual analysis
olutionize our understanding of the brain and conscious- of the term water. That is to say, it would not be gapless
ness (Seung 2009; Sporns 2012). if the truths about macro-physical properties of water were
not a priori derivable from micro-physical descriptions.
Dowell summarizes it nicely:
2 Structure of Explanations and the Epistemic
Transparency The water example illustrates these ideas. Its
because the first, semantic premise tells us what
To understand the role of conceptual analysis in formu- something has to be like in order to be in waters
lating the HP, it is important to discuss the issue of trans- extension that were able to see that water just is
parency of explanations. On this background, the HP seems H2O. (That premise tells us that water just is what-
to appear because an explanation of qualia in terms of ever the actual watery stuff is and that stuff turns out
conceptual analysis is not epistemically transparent. That to be H2O.) Because water just is H2O, the water-
is, on Chalmers view, we cant a priori understand how the truths are made true by what makes the H2O -truths
concepts of qualia could be co-referential with some true. (Dowell 2008: 102)

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122 D. Kostic

In the case of qualia, this pattern of explanation concepts strategy may save materialism but at the price of
wouldnt work because the concept pain is not concep- accepting that phenomenal qualities are inexplicable, and
tually analysable in terms of causal roles of C-fibre firing5, this brings us back where we started.
and this is what generates the HP of consciousness. That is More precisely, conceptual analysis would be useful
why physicalist explanation of qualia is not epistemically only in explaining how is it that the content of a phe-
transparent, or for Chalmers, this is what opens the onto- nomenal concept, e.g. the reddish quale when I have sen-
logical gap. sory experience of red, has as a referent a description of a
The reason why this sort of analysis is not available for brain process. It is in this sense that the hard problem
qualia is because there is a determinate and substantive concerns only the semantics of our concepts.
cognitive content associated with qualia, which cant be To be clear that I am not conflating easy and hard
explained in terms of descriptions of the causal roles. The problems here, I should note that the HP in its various
substantive and determinate cognitive content associated formulations claims not only that we dont understand the
with qualia is the reason why Chalmers and others who semantics of our concepts of consciousness, but further-
accept the HP can ask a further question after all the more that we dont understand how certain brain processes
functional, structural and causal story has been told. give rise to qualia, or why a brain process X is accompa-
The problem with this view is that it generates explan- nied by a quale Y (Chalmers 2003: 103104). These are
atory gaps and hard problems not only with qualia but strictly speaking very different questions, i.e. they have
everywhere, even in familiar cases of natural kinds. Very different explananda. Conceptual analysis is independent
convincing argument is provided by Block and Stalnaker from the structure of theories that we use to answer the
(1999), in which they argue that the explanation of the term latter two questions.
water in terms of conceptual analysis is neither a priori Such an approach to explanation clearly does not reflect
nor derived from microphysical descriptions, and thus the actual scientific explanatory practice in areas that are
generates the hard problem for natural kinds just the same relevant to the philosophy of mind (such as biology and
as with qualia. Other philosophers argue that the HP is just neuroscience). In terms of explanatory perspectivalism it
an appearance, which generates an intuition that physicalist only tells us how certain concepts work in very constrained
explanations of qualia require some further explanation contexts.
(Papineau 2002, 2007). In order to understand better the notion of perspectiv-
alism, take for example the brain or physical processes that
give rise to qualia6. Those physical processes are not more
3 What is Wrong with the Semantic View According cognitively accessible to me than the motion of molecules
to Explanatory Perspectivalism when explaining the heat, or light refraction when
explaining the rainbows. The fact that there is something it
Explanatory perspectivalism can be applied at different is like for me to have conscious experience does not make
levels. For example, if one accepts the view that to truly the neural underpinnings of conscious experience any more
understand a phenomenon we must be able to see how the transparent to me, i.e. when I have a certain conscious
content of macro-physical concepts satisfies the micro- experience, what it is like subjectively for me to have it is
physical descriptions of the causal or functional roles of not represented as some brain process in my consciousness
brain processes, then it would only amount to under- but rather as a subjective quality or a feel. In this sense
standing of how the indexical or demonstrative concepts indeed, what it is like for me qua subject of experience to
from the first person perspective work. In that case, maybe have certain experience might be explained better in terms
the proponents of the phenomenal concept strategy (Stoljar of conceptual semantics, i.e., in terms of armchair analysis
2005) are right, i.e. all we need to do to solve the HP is to of how we are able to posses and apply the concepts from
show in what ways phenomenal and physical concepts can the first person perspective and refer to some physical
be co-referential. But it would not really help us to processes. However, if we wanted to know what gives rise
understand what actually gives rise to qualia or why I have to qualia, in terms of physical processes, an explanation in
this particular quale when certain brain process takes place terms of the substantive and determinate cognitive content
and not some other quale. In this sense the phenomenal that I have as a subject of experience should be epistemi-
cally irrelevant as it is when we are explaining the heat, for
5
This is a historical toy example. C-fibre firing stands for example. Here we see that we have two different per-
whatever actual neural mechanism of pain is. It is used as an analogy spectives on the explanation of qualia. One is about
of the identity of macro concept of water and microphysical
description H2O. In this toy example with qualia, the concept
6
pain is a macro concept and C-fibre firing represents a Assuming for the sake of discussion that it is true that physical
microphysical description. processes indeed give rise to qualia.

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Explanatory Perspectivalism 123

interdependencies of various aspects of conscious experi- The topological approach is based on network analysis.
ence and the other is about concepts of subjective experi- Network analysis is used to describe real-world systems,
ences. To make my point even more explicit, the their elements and their interactions as graphs and then to
conceptual analysis can only tell us how it is that phe- analyse them using various topological metrics (clustering,
nomenal and physical concepts are co-referential (how it is betweeness algorithms) in order to discover new elements
possible that they both refer to the same thing), but the of the system, to analyse and explain its dynamics or to
conceptual analysis cant explain the phenomenon. From explain some of its emergent properties, e.g. stability,
the perspective of what we want to know, the scope of resilience, robustness, functional features. A graph is
conceptual analysis is then limited only to a theory of defined simply as a set of nodes (vertices) linked by con-
concepts and should not be relevant to an empirical theory nections (edges), cf. (Newman 2010; Fortunato 2010).
of a phenomenon. In this sense there is the HP, but it is The same approach may be used for qualia. The qualia
limited to a philosophical theory of concepts. could be a result of certain topological features of the brain
and explanation of synchronization may play a significant
role in this regard (Kostic 2014a, b). In cognitive neuro-
4 Topological Approach and Explanatory science, there are already many studies of topological
Perspectivalism features of the brain, which use network analysis to explain
different kinds of emergent properties in the brain
I should make it clear at this point that I am not arguing that (Bassett and Bullmore 2006; Bullmore and Sporns 2009;
the topological approach can solve the HP. In my view the He et al. 2007).
HP concerns only our theory of concepts, so any other Unlike the semantic view of explanation (Chalmers
approach which is not based on the conceptual analysis is a 1996, 2010; Chalmers and Jackson 2001; Levine 2001), in
very good candidate for answering the most interesting topological explanation the higher-order properties are not
questions about the HP, e.g. what gives rise to qualia or why explained by referring to some lower-level or microphys-
performance of certain brain processes has a subjective ical descriptions, instead they are explained by making
quality or feel. What I would like to point out here is that reference to some (macro) topological features of the sys-
topological explanations are most likely the right approach tem or set of properties.
given the explanatory perspectivalism. After all, according Following this point we can look into many studies of
to explanatory perspectivalism we might have a successful graph theoretical analysis of brain connectedness, which
empirical explanation of various interesting aspects of the purport to show that brain has small-world topological
HP, and still not have a viable theory of concepts. features (Bullmore and Sporns 2009; Bassett and Bullmore
Someone might object that what constitutes the HP is 2006; He et al. 2007; Sporns et al. 2005). If it were possible
precisely that we dont understand in what ways the neural to give a description of qualia in terms of topological or
or physical processes are, or give rise to, subjective expe- graph theoretical features of its set of relevant constituent
riences. But if pressed into being less vague about sub- elements, then the conceptual analysis wouldnt matter to a
jective experiences, we can only find that they are physicalist explanation of qualia. In that case, the qualia
constituted by other various aspects of brain functioning, are realized by macro-topological properties of the brain,
attention, memory, perception, emotion. And this is a very and not by micro-physical descriptions as the conceptual
important point in my argument because in increasingly analysis presupposes.
successful approach used in cognitive neuroscience, each In this sense, the topological approach might indeed be
one of these aspects are explained in terms of topological better suited for qualia. In the topological explanation,
properties of the network of their interaction (Rubinov and properties are explained by various metrics of connectivity,
Sporns 2010; Raj and Chen 2011; Kaiser 2011). Thus in i.e. by features embedded in the network topology. For
terms of explanatory perspectivalism, it seems more likely example, resilience, stability or robustness of ecological
that the topological, and not the semantic approach will be communities, metabolic economy of small-world topolo-
the right one for explaining consciousness. Conceptual gies such as the brain, can all be explained in terms of
analysis, which operates at a very general level, cant tell graph-theoretical properties or topological features (He
us anything about intricate and interdependent relations et al. 2007; Huneman 2010; Sporns et al. 2005; Sporns
among these various aspects of the brain or their role in 2012). Some neuroscientists also call it the connectomics
producing consciousness. One such unifying example (Sporns 2012; Seung 2012). Sebastian Seung writes, with,
could be an explanation of synchronous neural firing which in all fairness, exaggerated enthusiasm about network
enables communication among different brain regions and analysis: If its true, then curing mental disorders is
further enables any brain function to take place (Kim 2004; ultimately about repairing connectomes. In fact, any kind
Eytan and Marom 2006; Strogatz 2001). of personal changeeducating yourself, drinking less,

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124 D. Kostic

saving your marriageis about changing your connec- processes when using phenomenal concepts, but in prin-
tome (Seung 2012: 8). ciple it cant tell us why these processes give rise to qualia
Huneman (2010, pp. 219222) provides a nice illustra- or why, given the particular brain process, I have one quale
tion of topological explanation of stability in ecology. He rather than the other. Explananda of conceptual analysis
claims that if we specify a network of relationships of and topological explanations are different. Explanandum of
species in a community, with each interaction being rep- conceptual analysis based explanation in this case is what
resented as a link, we can then infer some properties of this makes a theoretical sentence involving phenomenal con-
network such as resilience, robustness or stability (Hun- cepts true in a priori terms. The explanandum of the latter
eman 2010, p. 219). To do this we can consider some questions is a description of topological property found in
causal relations in the ecological community. For example, the network metrics.
A can prey on B, or be prey to B, or be parasitic on B, etc. In short: the explananda of questions, such as what it is
The causal interactions between the species are relevant to like to have a conscious experience from the first person
topological explanation of the stability of ecological perspective and why certain brain states are always
community inasmuch as we can define graphs upon them accompanied by certain mental states like qualia, should be
by representing each species as a node, that has a lesser or a strictly distinguished. In the case of the former, it is the
higher degree of connectivity (nodes with very high degree issue of conceptual semantics or metaphysical speculation
are called hubs), and then based on their distribution, we where phenomenal concept strategy might be the best
can construct a proper network that will have specific option, whereas in the latter case it is the issue of model-
graph-theoretical or topological properties, such as high ling, in which topological explanations are the best answer.
clustering coefficient and long path length. Now, in eco- The issue, as I see it, is ultimately about explanatory per-
logical communities, hubs are the omnivores, and isolated spectivalismwhat we want to know about certain
nodes are highly specialized species; it appears that eco- phenomena.
logical communities with fewer hubs and many more iso- Taking all this into account, it would be possible to give
lated nodes will be more stable than others. Moreover, in a fully satisfactory topological explanation of what gives
this sense any two networks belonging to the same rise to qualia or why certain brain processes are accom-
equivalence class that have the same path length between panied by certain qualia and not the other, and at the same
the nodes and high clustering coefficient, will have their time still have the HP, because the HP concerns only the
stability properties explained by the same topological question of how it is that the concepts of subjective
features, regardless of the different species or causal experience from the first person perspective refer to some
interactions that are specific to any of these networks, e.g. physical process, structures or mechanisms. In this sense,
one can be an ecological community and the other can be a we might not be able to solve the HP, but at least we can
computer network, brain or a monetary system. constrain it.
One might raise a familiar doubt about applicability of
topological explanation of the following sort: when think- Acknowledgments I am very much indebted for their tremendously
helpful discussions and comments on various versions of this paper to:
ing about rainbows, air pressure or heat, how they look to Philippe Huneman, Carl F. Craver, Paula Droege, Stephen Laurence,
me, or what it is like for me to experience them, doesnt Peter Machamer, Joseph Levine, Raphael van Riel, Liz Schier and
affect the concepts that we use to explain them or to think Dusko Prelevic. I would like to emphasize my enormous gratitude for
about them. But when I have a conscious experience, what their encouragement and support to: Paula Droege, Philippe Huneman
and Carl F. Craver. My special thanks goes to Paual Giladi and Zorana
it looks like to me or what it is like to undergo it is all that Todorovic for their meticulous job at proofreading the manuscript. I
matters. As it is often put, there is a determinate and sub- would also like to thank to two anonymous reviewers for their very
stantive cognitive content associated with our concepts of useful comments that helped me greatly improve this paper. The
consciousness from the first person perspective that we research in this paper is done within the project Dynamical Systems in
Nature and Society: Philosophical and Empirical Aspects (project
dont find when explaining rainbows, heat or boiling of number: 179051) which is supported by the Ministry of Education,
water. This is why an explanation of consciousness must be Science and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia.
based on conceptual analysis. In this sense topological or
any other approach to explanation that doesnt address the
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