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Wider than the SkyReview - Wider than the Sky
The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness
by Gerald M. Edelman
Yale University Press, 2004
Review by Wesley Cooper, Ph.D.
Aug 15th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 33)

The title of Edelman's book comes from a poem by Emily Dickenson that celebrates the brain ("The brain – is wider than the Sky – "), from which the reader who is new to Edelman's work will correctly infer that he is not a Cartesian dualist. The Preface relates that his books and articles on consciousness over the past twenty-five years prompt him "to present an account of consciousness to the general reader" (xi). He adopts James's distinction between science and metaphysics and undertakes "to avoid extensive discussion of metaphysical matters, [hoping] to disenthrall those who believe the subject is exclusively metaphysical or necessarily mysterious" (xiii). In Chapter 1, "The Mind of Man: Completing Darwin's Program," he undertakes to establish the causal efficacy of consciousness and "to show how a neural mechanism entails a subjective conscious state, or quale, as it is called" (3). In Chapter 2, "Consciousness: The Remembered Present," he salutes what he calls the Jamesian properties of consciousness, including James's point in "Does Consciousness Exist? " that consciousness is a process rather than a thing, but also the points James makes in the famous chapter "The Stream of Thought" in The Principles of Psychology, about privacy, continuity, "aboutness", selectivity, having a "fringe," and so forth. He introduces some technical terms. Primary consciousness "is the state of being mentally aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present," whereas higher-order consciousness "involves the ability to be conscious of being conscious, and it allows the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts and affectiuons" (9). He introduces some dramatic tension by announcing that qualia are to be understood as "high-order discriminations that constitute consciousness". Does Edelman mean that qualia are constitutive of consciousness in the high-order sense but not the primary sense?  Chapter 3, "Elements of the Brain" is an engaging Brain Science for Dummies exercise that includes such colorful thoughts as

•    "If the cerebral cortex were unfolded (making the gyri, its protrusions, and the sulci, its clefts, disappear, it would have the size and thickness of a large table napkin." (15)

•    "[The thalamus] is only somewhat larger than the last bone in your own thumb." (19)

•    "The hippocampus [is] lined up like a pair of curled sausages [and] each sausage looks like a sea horse, hence the name 'hippocampus'." (21)

•    Inability to convert "short-term memory of events into a permanent narrative record [is] a condition that was depicted dramatically in the movie Memento." (23)

The chapter ends with the argument that it "would seem unlikely" that the brain is a computer because the development of the brain quickly becomes epigenetic or not-hardwired, resulting in "highly individual networks in each animal" (29). He concludes, "This is no way to build a computer, which must execute input algorithms or effective procedures according to a precise prearranged program and with no error in wiring" (29). He does not reveal in this chapter what he understands a computer to be, though his remark about building one suggests he has in mind something like a desktop PC. But proponents of the view that the brain is a computer – cognitivists in John Searle's terminology, or language-of-thought theorists in Jerry Fodor's – have in mind a much more abstract conception of a computer, one that draws on Alan Turing's work in 1930s: what we call a universal Turing machine. The prospect that the brain is a computer in that sense is not undercut by Brain Science for Dummies. For consider: Edelman would presumably agree that for every brain event there is a cause, and that these causal relationships instantiate a causal law. But such law-governed processes will be algorithmic in the sense that's relevant to describing the brain as a Turing machine. He will be entitled to his point that each of these machines will be importantly different because of epigenesis, and that any such machine would be a bad blueprint for building a desktop PC. But brains might still be them.

Chapter 4, "Neural Darwinism: A global brain theory," begins by stipulating that "neural Darwinism or the theory of neuronal group selection" is incompatible with a model of the brain as a computer or Turing machine (33). (If the argument above is correct, that is not true.) Neural Darwinism accepts that neural variability as fundamental and that the population of variants in each brain exhibits a pattern because of some constraint of value or fitness (35; and see 25 for technical notion of value, a value system being a pattern of activity related to rewards and responses necessary for survival). He also continues his attack on the computer model, dismissing as unlikely "an a priori program" (37). But the program hypothesized by AI theorists is not a priori (whatever Edelman means by that), but is brought into being and molded by evolutionary forces. This suggests that neural Darwinism and the computer model should not be regarded as incompatible, but rather as, respectively, more and less specific descriptions of the brain. He also refers skeptically to the computer model's "fixed template" or "predetermined algorithms" (38), but the algorithms need be predetermined only in the sense that there are causal laws governing the brain, and if a fixed template is something like a PC's silicon chip, nothing like that is presupposed in the Turing-machine conception of a computer. He objects that a computer uses formal rules governed by explicit, unambiguous instructions, but that is no bar to the computer's generating the sort of neural selection that Edelman's Darwinism predicates. Connectionist systems have comparable complexity, but those systems are virtual machines running on computers with formal rules. Edelman also introduces in this chapter the key idea of reentry, "the ongoing recursive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time" (41). He is at pains to show that reentry is not feedback, "not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop," but reentry looks very much like a complex (nonsimple) system of the sort that systems theory describes, hence a kind of computer, one with a PDP (parallel distributed processing) architecture. Chapter 5, "The Mechanism of Consciousness," declares that the sufficient condition for consciousness, is the following evolutionary event: the emergence of massively reentrant, reciprocal connectivity in the thalomocortical system (54), an event which dynamically linked value-category memory to perceptual categorization. This raises the mind-body analog of Hume's famous question about getting from IS to OUGHT: how do you get from BRAIN PROCESSES to QUALIA?  Chapter 6, "Wider than the Sky: Qualia, Unity, and Complexity" makes the attempt, but when he asserts, "Qualia are these discriminations" (high-order discriminations enabled by activity in the thalamocortical system), this seems like saying, on the basis of a particulary thorough police investigation, "The butler ought not to have done that." The police investigation begs Hume's question, and arguably neural Darwinism begs the qualia freak's question. Chapter 7, "Consciousness and Causation: the phenomenal transform," addresses the other question Edelman set himself, about the efficacy of consciousness. He asserts that consciousness C is "entailed" by C', his neural Darwinist account of brain processes, but evidently he is not clear about the difference between logical entailment, as in "It's raining" entails "It's not not raining", and the looser relationship in which accomplishing some goal, for example, would entail a lot of work. The latter gestures at the physical necessity of working in order to achieve the goal, and is compatible with the logical possibility (magic, say) of achieving the goal without working; there is no logical entailment. By the same token, zombies who have C' without C are logically possible, even if neural Darwinists are right in thinking that the invariant association of C' and C is physically necessary; there is no logical entailment. I don't see that Edelman has established the efficacy of consciousness. In fact he seems to admit that he hasn't, in passages like this one. Talking about people like us, he writes

But such individuals can exchange information even on the basis of the mistaken belief that their C states are causal. The belief is safe, even if scientifically false, for evolution has set up reentrant circuits to yield C states as properties of C' states. (137)

I don't see how this amounts to anything over than a form of epiphenomenalism: belief in the causal efficacy of consciousness is safe but false. Edelman may be leaning very hard on his statement that qualia "are" high-order states of the thalomocortical system, turning it into assertion of identity, but he disavows that approach (125) in favor of understanding qualia as properties of that system.

In short, Edelman's little book fails to do what it sets out to do, and it is of little use to the general reader, unless that reader wants a sketchy tour de horizon of Edelman's oeuvre.

 

© 2004 Wesley Cooper

 

Wesley Cooper, Ph.D., Dept Philosophy, University of Alberta, Canada


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