Ned Block -- whose views on consciousness and the mind-body problem are, like those of David Chalmers, close to my own (and far from those of Daniel C. Dennett) -- is not impressed with Antonio Damasio's new book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.Damasio makes the same sorts of desperate moves typical of those determined to jerry-rig a scientific solution to a philosophical problem: he makes consciousness dependent on self-consciousness (and seems by implication to deny it to animals, despite other claims to the contrary); and rejects the scientific evidence that consciousness does not depend in any way on behavioral manifestations. Unfortunately, it's just a brief review; for a full dose of Block, see his excellent critique of Jerry Fodor's What Darwin Got Wrong.
As far as I'm concerned, attributing "consciousness" to the brain as a property -- as Damasio does in his subtitle -- is the kind of category mistake that would simply prevent me from picking up a book on the subject in the first place. Damasio is (sometimes) conscious. His brain is white and gray, weighs a few pounds, and is composed of neurons. While Damasio's consciousness depends importantly on Damasio's brain, calling this a property of the brain in some typical sense simply seems wrong to me. Calling the brain "consciousness-causing" I think would be closer to the truth; better still would be to talk about a relation -- such as supervenience -- between two sets of properties. But then again all of this goes for identity theories of mind as well: for such theories mental states are at least token identical with brain states. Regardless of my theory, I would never say the brain processes involved in looking at a red apple are themselves conscious of a red apple. This may all seem like a quibble, but I think calling the brain conscious leads the sorts of confusions that pervade popular books on this subject and popular talk about it -- including the idea that the brain "makes decisions."
Argh, there seems to be something wrong with the comments.
Karl Miller says
Since you guys are willing to spend time on Dennett, live to regret it, and then spend more time on Dennett, may I ask if you’ve ever come across Julian Jaynes, even just to swat him down? I find his name nowhere on your site, but his grand 1976 book gets a jab by Block in the link above and seems relevant to so many of your discussions of selfhood and consciousness.
I recently discovered the Jaynes book and have been searching for a definitive take down of his theory, which led me to Block, whose objections fail to persuade. Block’s rebuke in the link above is just hearsay and it doesn’t jive with the Jaynesian inquiry, as I understand it. In any case, since you seem willing to dip into more popular fare like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and the shelf of neo-atheist garbage, maybe you’d consider bundling some of Jaynes into the discussion sometime?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, I have the Jaynes book sitting on my shelf, though I can’t recall at this point if I ever read any of it. Certainly I’m familiar with the thesis and would not mind reading this at some point. I think an episode with essays by Block and others is more likely, though. We’ve got to get back into mind somehow w/in the next six months…
Karl Miller says
That would be lovely. You can get quite a lot out of the first few chapters of Jaynes (what constitutes Book One) — at least enough to start arguing about. And he’s a fluid and supple writer to boot. It would bundle easily with Block or someone else on a related subject. I know he fell out of fashion, but I still haven’t found a thorough counter-argument for his theory. Your podcasts on Lacan, Sartre Block’s “p-consciousness” and “a-consciousness” strikes me as a fruitless formulation, so I await an episode on him.
Keep up the great work, gentlemen. I’ve been drinking up the archive hour by hour. Have you considered transcribing them via Mechanical Turk or some such? Might cost some money up front, but would then turn into another merchandising opportunity, so … run it by the PEL exchequer, please.