Monday, May 21, 2007

Two New Books on Consciousness

Two new books on consciousness that seem worth the read.

First up, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? by Galen Strawson and et al · Imprint Academic, 285 pp, £17.95. ($34.90 at Amazon)

Reviewed in the London Review of Books by Jerry Fodor:

Consciousness is all the rage just now. It boasts new journals of its very own, from which learned articles overflow. Neuropsychologists snap its picture (in colour) with fMRI machines, and probe with needles for its seat in the brain. At all seasons, and on many continents, interdisciplinary conferences about consciousness draw together bizarre motleys that include philosophers, psychologists, phenomenologists, brain scientists, MDs, computer scientists, the Dalai Lama, novelists, neurologists, graphic artists, priests, gurus and (always) people who used to do physics. Institutes of consciousness studies are bountifully subsidised. Meticulous distinctions are drawn between the merely conscious and the consciously available; and between each of these and the preconscious, the unconscious, the subconscious, the informationally encapsulated and the introspectable. There is no end of consciousness gossip on Tuesdays in the science section of the New York Times. Periodically, Nobel laureates pronounce on the connections between consciousness and evolution, quantum mechanics, information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and the activity of neural nets. Everybody gives lectures about consciousness to everybody else. But for all that, nothing has been ascertained with respect to the problem that everybody worries about most: what philosophers have come to call ‘the hard problem’. The hard problem is this: it is widely supposed that the world is made entirely of mere matter, but how could mere matter be conscious? How, in particular, could a couple of pounds of grey tissue have experiences?

Until quite recently, there were two main schools of thought on this. According to one, the hard problem is actually very easy: the answer is that consciousness ‘emerges’ from neural processes. This succeeds in replacing ‘what is consciousness and how is it possible?’ with ‘what is emergence and how is it possible?’ But it doesn’t seem to get much further; many find it less than satisfactory. According to the other view, the hard problem is so hard that it can’t be real: consciousness must be some sort of illusion. Many of this persuasion tried hard to convince themselves that they are, in fact, not conscious, but few of them succeeded. Centuries ago, Descartes suggested, plausibly, that the attempt is self-defeating.

There is, I should add, another way to respond to the hard problem. One might hold that the world isn’t made entirely of matter after all; there is also a fundamentally different kind of stuff – mind-stuff, call it – and consciousness resides in that. Notoriously, however, this view has hard problems of its own. For example, if matter-stuff and mind-stuff are of fundamentally different kinds, how are causal relations between them possible? How is it possible that eating should be caused by feeling peckish or feeling peckish by not eating? For this and other reasons, mind-stuff has mostly fallen out of fashion. I won’t dwell on it here.

That, then, sets the stage for Galen Strawson’s Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, which consists of a lead essay by Strawson, commentaries by 18 other philosophers, and Strawson’s extensive comments on the comments. The book is very rich. On the one hand, Strawson has the kind of expansive metaphysical imagination that used to be at the heart of philosophy, but which positivism and analysis succeeded for a long while in suppressing. Also, the commentaries are, almost uniformly, insightful, informative, sophisticated and excellently argued. It is very rare for a book with this sort of format to be so complete a success, or so much fun to read. I must warn you, however, that Strawson’s way with the hard problem is wildly at odds with the views current in most of philosophy and psychology. Many readers will find them too wild to swallow; I’m not at all sure that I don’t.


Read the whole review.

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The other book, Irreducible Mind, is reviewed by Jeffrey Mishlove at his Zaadz blog:

One of the main problems with psychology, during the past 100 years, is its general failure to deal with the deepest and most important problems concerning the very nature of mind itself. Academia, instead, has almost universally operated on the assumption that the mind is a product of the activity of the brain and nervous system.

However, there are serious problems with this epiphenomenalist view. These issues were clearly understood – in the late nineteenth century – by such great thinkers as William James and F. W. H. Myers (author of the 1903 classic, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death). But, for a century, in order to establish itself as a scientific discipline, psychology turned away from these profound issues – in favor of behavioralist, positivist paradigm of thought.

In recent decades, however, a new wave of interest within consciousness is swelling up – both within and without of academic. Certainly, for example, over a hundred books have now been published on the topic of physics and consciousness. In fact, it's fair to say that physics has been in the forefront of asking the deep questions concerning mind and body. Psychology and biology have been lagging behind.

Irreducible Mind addresses this lag. The authors bring to bear a wealth of empirical evidence from many disciplines: psychoneuroimmunology, psychopathology, studies of hypnosis and creativity, memory, near death experience, mystical experience, studies of genius, evidence for survival after death. They point out that the reductionist vision of the human mind is generally incapable of accounting for these observed and reported experiences.

They also point out that there is an interesting alternatives in which one views the brain, not as the originator of consciousness, but (like a radio receiver) a receiving, filtering and transmissing consciousness. In these models, consciousness arises from another source. In some models consciousness is as basic to the universe itself as is time, space, energy and matter. It is simply a given.

The authors suggest that psychology in the 21st century will be the further refinement of this second vision of consciousness. Their logic is compelling. Their scholarship is broad and inclusive. And, of great importance, this work is historically grounded. I consider it “must reading” for all serious students of consciousness.

This work, incidentally, originated from discussions sponsored by the Center for Theory and Research of the Esalen Institute. The primary authors, Edward and Emily Kelly, are affiliated with the Department of Psychiatric Medicine and the University of Virginia.

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