Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

How to Crack Consciousness: It's What Makes Us Human-But despite the Best Efforts of Philosophy and Science, the Nature of Our Experience of Reality Remains Elusive

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

How to Crack Consciousness: It's What Makes Us Human-But despite the Best Efforts of Philosophy and Science, the Nature of Our Experience of Reality Remains Elusive

Article excerpt

Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness

Tim Parks

Harvill Seeker, 312pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling]

When I read philosophy at Oxford in the early 1980s there wasn't a lot of talk about consciousness. There was a course you could take called Philosophy of Mind, which involved a certain amount of psychology--and I was one of those who read Gilbert Ryle's Concept of Mind (1949), a book that damned Cartesian dualism as a category error, while explaining the weirdness that went on between our ears as a cascading series of intentional acts, in no way different to bodily movements. Mind was to be understood by analogy with purely physical processes, although Ryle--himself a linguistic philosopher --also wished to guard against any reduction to the absurdity of a merely behaviouristic explanation of consciousness. Why an absurdity? Because if your ineffable existential thoughts are simply a function of universal instinctive drives and processes, it's hard to see what consciousness adds to the business of being human, beyond a lot of useless agonising. My personal feeling is that consciousness is indeed distinctly overrated--although this would seem belied by the burgeoning literature on the subject.

The 20th century was not great for philosophy generally: the linguistic turn taken by Bertrand Russell, Ryle (the man who coined the term "the ghost in the machine" to describe Descartes's mind-body dualism) et al, ended in a cul-de-sac, where these tinder-dry logicians were confronted by that fiery Viennese, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Russell--together with his wing-man, Alfred North Whitehead--wanted to reduce mathematics to a system, so that the existence of God, or the nature of consciousness for that matter, could be computed. For the later Wittgenstein, language, rather than being some sort of representation of the external world we formulate in our heads, is instead part of a collective undertaking: crucially, for him the meaning of a word is a function of the way it's actually used.

Wittgenstein believed that metaphysical problems--and I would accord the nature of consciousness to be one of these--cannot be solved by philosophy, and anyone who obsesses too much about her qualia (the technical term for a quality, such as the particular redness of a given apple, experienced by a given individual), is more in need of psychotherapy than philosophising.

But soon after the so-called "prince of disciplines" suffered this touchy-feely assault, another more technical one was mounted on its left flank: the massive increase in computer processing speeds, allied to new imaging technologies--notably positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging--seemed to be ushering in an era in which it would be possible to see thoughts; or, at any rate, our thought processes. At last, the brain box was to be fully prised open, and subjectivity itself would be subject to proper analysis.

It's this vision--and for once, this does seem to be the mot juste--that's led to a great splurge of books on consciousness over the past 30 years. And not just books but entire subject areas and fields: cognitive studies, cognitive science, and of course neuroscience itself, which has become the go-to field for those seeking to "crack" the problem of consciousness, quite possibly by creating a conscious machine.

Unfortunately, things haven't quite turned out that way. Just as sequencing the human genome failed to result in our physical nature becoming fully legible, so the vast amount of data provided by these scans has proved incommensurate with my--or anyone else's--experience of the redness of a particular apple.

Tim Parks, in his book on consciousness, clamps this conundrum to the laboratory bench where it originates. First, he quotes from the summary of a 2016 paper in the journal Nature, entitled "Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Progress and Problems": "When the content-specific NCC neurons in this example [face recognition] are activated artificially . …

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