Magazine article AI Magazine

Consciousness Constrained

Magazine article AI Magazine

Consciousness Constrained

Article excerpt

Here is Huckleberry Finn at the opening of Mark Twain's great novel: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." I haven't even gotten my reading light adjusted, and already I am stuck in the conundrum that is present on every page of David Lodge's generous novel. Who is talking here? More importantly, whom should I believe? Huck? "Mr. Mark Twain" disguised as Huck? However I slice it, there's a problem. If the author, posing as the narrator, commenting on the author's honesty, is telling the truth, then the narrator himself is a liar; in which case, our Mr. Mark Twain might well customarily be honest. It's an old story: Epimenides, a Cretan, declares that all Cretans are liars. Whichever meaning I assign his words, I am forced to admit that Huck's report on his inner state might be more nuanced than a boy's adventure story would normally warrant. I am also on to what Lodge's scientist antihero, Ralph Messenger, calls the central problem of consciousness: "How to give an objective, third-person account of a subjective, first-person phenomenon" (and its implication: the experience of consciousness is private), to which Helen Reed, novelist and the champion of prescientific knowledge, immediately replies: "Oh, but novelists have been doing that for the last two hundred years." The battle has begun. In the words of the old Union song, "Which side are you on?" (1)

To paraphrase Huck, you don't know about David Lodge without you have read Small World, a wonderful and zany romp through the academic conference circuit. There we met Morris Zapp, a thinly disguised Stanley Fish, professor of English at Euphoria State, an even more thinly disguised Berkeley. I read these lines as a new and quite untenured professor:

   Morris was shown into his well-appointed suite on the second floor, and
   stepped out on to his balcony to inhale the air, scented with the perfume
   of various spring blossoms, and to enjoy the prospect. Down on the terrace,
   the other resident scholars were gathering for the pre-lunch aperitif. He
   had glimpsed the table laid for lunch in the dining-room on his way up:
   starched white napery, crystal glass, menu cards. He surveyed the scene
   with complacency. He felt sure he was going to enjoy his stay here. Not the
   least of its attractions was that it was entirely free. All you had to do,
   to come and stay in this idyllic retreat, pampered by servants and lavishly
   provided with food and drink, given every facility for reflection and
   recreation, was to apply. Of course you had to be distinguished by, for
   instance, having applied successfully for other, similar hand-outs, grants,
   fellowships and so on, in the past. That was the beauty of academic life,
   as Morris saw it. To them that had had, more would be given (Lodge 1986, p.
   172).

A few pages later, Professor Zapp reflects on a letter to a colleague: "Morris read through the letter. Was it a shade too fulsome? No, that was another law of academic life: it is impossible to be excessive in the flattery of one's peers." I was sold.

Thinks ... is David Lodge's latest visit to the wilds of academe, although this time not to the English Department--that's an easy trip for a novelist--but to a fictional University of Gloucester, anchored, like a dying shopping mall, by the Humanities Tower at one end and the Holt-Belling Center for Cognitive Science at the other, with not much beyond hope and a decimated English education budget in between. Here we meet Ralph Messenger, cognitive scientist, television personality (he's a regular on the British version of the Discovery Channel), and womanizer extraordinaire. Messenger, as his wife calls him, is the rare fictional scientist that is neither heroic nor mad. …

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