Dr. Michael Dash
Position: Honorary Research Fellow
Office: Room 510, Main Building
Birkbeck College, Malet Street
Phone: 020 7631 6468
Fax: 020 7631 6312
Email: m.dash@psychology.bbk.ac.uk


Research Interests

I am a philosopher of science with a special interest in the ontogenetic emergence of consciousness. My theoretical position is realist - that is, I believe that there exists a distinctive set of properties commonly labelled under the term 'consciousness' which arise as concomitants of the developmental process in humans and some other species. I believe that these properties including, for example, those of phenomenal-consciousness, deserve to be treated as developmental variables in their own right, and that developmental psychology cannot be descriptively complete unless they are taken into account.

My general approach relies on using both empirical results from scientific research and ideas and analysis from philosophy. In our current (extremely limited) state of knowledge about the brain and mind, I believe that advances in understanding are best served by making seamless transitions in our thinking from science to philosophy and back again - both are required.

I plan to conduct research on a series of topics related to the emergence of consciousness in the period covering the foetus, neonate and infant. I am currently engaged in research in the following areas:

(1) I wish to make a case (as an empirical claim) for the presence of consciousness in a rudimentary form from at least a short time before normal term birth. I think that there is a range of evidence that supports this conclusion, and it is worthwhile systematising a scientific position that defends it. I have recently developed an argument that seeks to use evidence of newborn perceptual abilities to infer the presence of the same abilities (including the capacity for accompanying conscious experience) shortly prior to birth (Dash, forthcoming).

My next task is to bring together evidence from a wider variety of sources to argue that the foetus from at least a short time before full-term birth has the capacity for a range of conscious experiences. These conclusions have implications for how we should view the development of consciousness in human beings, the level and nature of cognitive development of foetuses and neonates, and the nature of the process of socialisation following birth. In addition, they are relevant for the debate on whether or not foetuses can experience pain, and the question of whether babies can experience the process of their birth as stressful or traumatic.

(PLEASE NOTE: I currently have no professional interest in the debate on abortion and am unable to advise on it.)

(2) I am trying to understand how meaning (or meaningfulness) arises during development as a distinctive cognitive capacity, and how it relates to the emergence of overt linguistic ability (during, approximately, the first 12-18 postnatal months). My provisional hypothesis is that meaning in its primary sense is not possible in the absence of consciousness, and that it is closely linked to the development of consciousness (possibly, to access-consciousness). I also hypothesise that there is a type of precursor cognitive state (which I call Quasi-Meaningful Significance, or QMS) which is present before the onset of overt linguistic ability, such that the baby cognises aspects of its experiences in a way that has some meaningful significance for it, even though this is sub-linguistic. This is a philosophical theory of meaning, but one which has to be consistent with the empirical facts about linguistic and cognitive development. Hopefully, it will also yield some testable predictions.



(i) I was the research assistant for: Worrall, J. (ed.) (1994). The Ontology of Science. The International Research Library of Philosophy; Dartmouth (ISBN 1 85521 494 6)

(ii) Burns, T., Marshall, M., Catty, J., Lockwood, A., Dash, M. & Roberts, C. (2005). Variable outcomes in case management trials - an exploration of current theories using meta-regression and meta-analysis. Report for the Department of Health. University of Oxford publication.

(iii) Burns, T., Catty, J., Dash, M., Roberts, C., Lockwood, A. & Marshall, M. (2007). Use of intensive case management to reduce time in hospital in people with severe mental illness: systematic review and meta-regression. British Medical Journal, 335, 336-342.

(iv) Dash, M. (2008). A strategy for inferring the presence of consciousness before birth. (Forthcoming)


Recent Presentations

Is the Human Foetus Conscious? - presentation given at the Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences (CPNSS), London School of Economics and Political Science, 6th October 2008.


Academic Background

I was introduced to both philosophy and developmental biology by Brian Goodwin while I was studying biochemistry as an undergraduate at Sussex University. I think this pays tribute to the interdisciplinary ethos of Sussex, and to the intellectual range of Brian, a leading developmental biologist. My teachers at Sussex were excellent, and included other inspiring ones such as John Maynard-Smith and Harry Kroto. However, I left Sussex deeply puzzled about two issues: (i) I realised that although I had been 'doing' science I did not understand what science was; (ii) although I had acquired a special interest in developmental biology, it seemed to have absolutely nothing to say about the developmental appearance of the mind and consciousness which, in humans at least, seemed very real to me.

I embarked on a study of philosophy, first at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and then at Bristol University where I studied phenomenological epistemology in the hope of finding through it a method for studying the subjective aspects of experience. At that time, as now, I did not believe that these aspects could be reductively eliminated from psychology. However, this led me into a state of crisis over methods. I concluded that phenomenology (in the Husserlian sense) could not be applied systematically as a 1st-person counterpart to the 3rd-person methods of the natural sciences. I now felt that I did not know where I stood: I could not deny the reality of subjective experience; natural science with its 3rd-person epistemology skirted round this; and phenomenology's promise of providing a 'scientific' method for studying experience failed.

I decided the best practical step would be to go back and study in detail the nature of science, which I had always taken for granted. This also gave me the opportunity to tackle head-on the first of the big issues that puzzled me (see above). I enrolled as a Master's student in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. After a lengthy period of study which included a Ph.D (on Psychiatry and Scientific Method) I felt my suspicions were confirmed - science is actually a stranger beast than most practising scientists seem to be aware of, and its logical foundations at the deepest level are by no means simple, clear or fully justified (it's best that practising scientists don't think about this too much!). However, during this philosophical exploration of science I gradually evolved a philosophical position which I felt best reconciled some of the difficulties I had earlier encountered (though I think that, at a deep level, it is an intellectual fudge as are, I believe, all attempts at developing comprehensive ways of interpreting reality). I like to call my philosophical position neo-Aristotelian, a term I borrowed from Nancy Cartwright who used it to describe her own approach (Nancy was one of my Ph.D supervisors, the other being John Worrall). In brief, I regard consciousness, in particular qualia, as natural properties of embodied nervous systems in environments, and do not treat these properties as ontologically distinct from the material substrate that engenders them. Epistemologically, we have to exploit whatever natural means are available for acquiring knowledge of these properties, and there are undoubtedly specific limitations as well as opportunities in the pursuit of such knowledge.

The icing on the cake of my intellectual development so far has been the opportunity to study selected courses from the psychology degree at Birkbeck College, especially Brain and Cognitive Development. These have allowed me to give substance to my rather abstract thoughts and have made my current research possible.



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