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Related Topics
ConsciousnessReview - Consciousness
A User's Guide
by Adam Zeman
Yale University Press, 2003
Review by Liam Dempsey, Ph.D.
Nov 13th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 46)

The study of consciousness has truly become an interdisciplinary endeavor. In perhaps no other domain of study is the theoretician and philosopher so informed by the empirical sciences. This is evidenced by Adam Zeman's Consciousness: A User's Guide. Written from the perspective of a neurologist, this book is both accessible to, and of interest for, the theoretician and philosopher of consciousness as well as the more empirically minded scientist.

Zeman begins with an interesting analysis of a number of closely related consciousness concepts, including various senses of "self-consciousness." While some readers might complain that Zeman focuses too much on "cognitive" or "doxastic" senses of "consciousness," and does not say enough about conscious experience, the so-called hard problem of conscious is addressed in some detail in later chapters, especially chapter nine. The second chapter provides a useful primer for those unfamiliar with the basic biology of the human central nervous system. The third chapter explores the biology that underpins one of our most basic senses of "consciousness," wakefulness. The arousal of the waking state, Zeman contends, is a precondition for conscious experience. Continuing on from chapter three, the fourth chapter considers a variety of neuropsychological syndromes that diminish or obliterate arousal and wakefulness. Consciousness, Zeman concludes, is a fully physical affair that is both fragile and open to fragmentation under stress. The fifth chapter takes up a discussion of the neurophysiological basis of vision, and also considers various visual phenomena including binding and constancy. Zeman emphasizes two important themes here: perception is an activity that always involves a search for meaning and perception is shaped by our past experiences. The sixth chapter considers a number blindness related phenomena including blindsight and various agnosias, with the aim of uncovering the neural basis of conscious sight. The seventh chapter considers some of the issues surrounding the evolution of conscious organisms. Of particular interest in this chapter is Zeman's discussion of the vexed issue of the possible uses or functions of consciousness; some of these issues are considered again in the Epilogue. In the penultimate chapter, Zeman considers in some detail the neural correlates of consciousness. Outlining some of the approaches for determining the neural correlates of consciousness, Zeman considers a number of theories noting some of their shared assumptions. But can any theory of consciousness tell us that certain sorts of neural activity should feel as the do, or indeed, that they should feel like anything at all? This question brings us to the final chapter which focuses squarely on the philosophical issues surrounding the nature of conscious experience. Specifically, Zeman seeks answers to the following sorts of questions: what is the relationship between conscious experiences and the neurological activity with which they are associated? Is it, in principle, possible to build a conscious machine? What are the implications of the close relationship between consciousness and activity and the brain for the notions of free will and responsibility? The first query, of course, concerns the metaphysical status of consciousness. Although Zeman is uncertain as to the ultimate answer to this question, he is, not surprisingly, attracted to views that emphasizes the inseparability of conscious experiences and the neurophysiological properties and processes with which they are associated. On the other hand, Zeman, like many, worries that the consciousness-mind identity thesis "leaves out the mind," that is, leaves out the subjective, personal, and qualitative aspects of one's own conscious life. And, like many, Zeman is impressed by the seemingly important differences between standard examples of empirical identities like water = H2O and the identity of conscious experiences with certain neurophysiological properties of the central nervous system. For one thing, while the chemical theory of H2O provides insights into the macro properties of water -- it explains why, for example, water is colourless -- there is not the same epistemic ascent from the neurophysiology of the brain to the qualitative aspects of a given conscious experience.

I believe these are interesting and compelling problems for the identity theorist, and I will briefly outline one avenue of response. We should accept that the identification of consciousness with certain sorts of neural activity is not analogous to the water/H2O identity. Instead, the identification of conscious experiences with neurophysiological properties should be construed as perspectival identity, as when one discovers that two things are really one thing perceived or accessed from two different perspectives. The objects of neuroscientist's study -- the neural correlates of consciousness -- are, in fact, experiences for their owners. In other words, certain sorts of neural activity are conscious experiences for the subjects of that activity. I, as the owner of my brain, am the subject of my brain's neural activity. My neuroscientist's access to that same neural activity is less direct; it is mediated by her sense organs and her instruments, and indeed, her own conscious experiences. And while she cannot have my experiences, in so far as she can't be the subject of my neural activities, she can still observe, study, and refer to them. In this case, I believe, the demand for the sort of epistemic ascent had in the case of water/H2O -- where one can appeal to the chemical theory H2O to explain the macro features of water -- is misplaced, and thus, this particular "explanatory gap" is resolved. What's more, on such an account the subjective and experiential aspects of consciousness are preserved as irreducible components of the explanandum.

Adam Zeman's Consciousness: A User's Guide provides an excellent introduction to many of the scientific and philosophical issues surrounding the study of consciousness. As such, Consciousness: A User's Guide is an important resource for anyone interested in consciousness and related issues.

 

2003 Liam Dempsey

 

Liam Dempsey is an Assistant Professor in Dalhousie University's Department of Philosophy.


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