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Consciousness is an unusual phenomenon to study scientifically. It is defined as a subjective, first-person phenomenon, and science is an objective, third-person endeavor. This misalignment between the means—science—and the end—explaining consciousness—gave rise to what has become a productive workaround: the search for ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ (NCCs). Science can sidestep trying to explain consciousness and instead focus on characterizing the kind(s) of neural activity that are reliably correlated with consciousness. However, while we have learned a lot about consciousness in the bargain, the NCC approach was not originally intended as the foundation for a true explanation of consciousness. Indeed, it was proposed precisely to sidestep the, arguably futile, attempt to find one. So how can an account, couched in terms of neural correlates, do the work that a theory is supposed to do: explain consciousness? The answer is that it cannot, and in fact most modern accounts of consciousness do not pretend to. Thus, here, we challenge whether or not any modern accounts of consciousness are in fact theories at all. Instead we argue that they are (competing) laws of consciousness. They describe what they cannot explain, just as Newton described gravity long before a true explanation was ever offered. We lay out our argument using a variety of modern accounts as examples and go on to argue that at least one modern account of consciousness, attention schema theory, goes beyond describing consciousness-related brain activity and qualifies as an explanatory theory.


This article was originally published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, volume 2022, issue 2, in 2022.


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