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Blindsight & The Nature of ConsciousnessReview - Blindsight & The Nature of Consciousness
by Jason Holt
Broadview Press, 2003
Review by Christina Behme
Aug 7th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 31)

Jason Holt set himself the goal to write a book on consciousness and the phenomenon of blindsight. He intends to illuminate philosophical questions concerning the nature of consciousness, the theory of knowledge and perception, and the philosophy of mind.

The introduction offers a short but comprehensive "crash course in the mind body problem" (p.9ff) that can be highly recommended to the beginning student of philosophy of mind and familiarizes the reader with the different positions.

Chapter 1 and 2 explain the phenomenon of blindsight and other disassociation cases. Holt defines blindsight as "residual vision in a blind field without concomitant awareness" (p.26). That means patients with localized damage to the primary visual cortex (V1) experience cortical blindness in part of their visual field. But even though they are not consciously aware of any stimuli in this blind field they have access to some visual information about these stimuli. When forced to guess about the shape, color, orientation of objects in the blind field they perform well above chance. Holt distinguishes blindsight from degraded forms of normal vision such as subliminal perception and peripheral vision. The main difference is that blindsight, or rather the loss of conscious visual experience, is caused by damage to V1. Degraded normal vision occurs in healthy individuals. Even though conscious experience is absent in blindsight the visual information that is accessible to the patient is highly reliable. In this regard blindsight is similar to disassociation cases of other sense perception such as "blind (numb) touch", "deaf hearing", and of visual perception such as inability to see color, to see motion, to see the orientation or shapes of objects. In all these cases the patient has some localized brain damage and subsequently lacks conscious awareness but has access to some information about stimuli. In Holt's words: "The system [brain] gets it but the subject does not" (p.36).

Holt urges the reader to resist the temptation to accept radical explanations (such as the notion of unconscious consciousness) to account for the phenomena or to trivialize them (maybe consciousness does not play any role in sense perception). Instead he suggests that a distinction between informational and experiential sensitivity can account for the rather puzzling disassociation cases.

Chapter 3 presents a rebuttal of eliminative materialism, which is proposed by Pat and Paul Churchland. Holt explains that on the Churchlands' view blindsight is just one more piece of supporting evidence for the claim that consciousness has no role to play in the explanation of human neurophysiology. They assert that folk psychology has lost with color vision one of the main pillars of support for the need to invoke consciousness in the explanation of natural phenomena. If it turns out that one can have reliable access to information about colors without being consciously aware of color, then what role is left for consciousness to play? In defense of the causal efficacy of consciousness Holt points out that it is one thing to inquire into the causal role of consciousness but quite another to deny that the phenomenon exists. He is confident that both consciousness and folk psychology can survive the eliminativist attack.

In chapter 4 we enter the world of thought experiments Holt explains: "A thought experiment is an imagined scenario invented to test theories, theoretical commitment, and intuitions for conceptual integrity" (p. 57). He introduces us to Daniel Dennett, one of the most prolific thought experimenters,. Dennett uses the real cases of blind sight as a springboard into a world of super blindsighters (imaginary subjects that learn to guess what is in their blind field without being prompted to guess). This thought experiment is designed to support Dennett's intuition that qualia (the "what it is like" aspect of consciousness) do not make any difference that makes a difference in explaining sense perception. A normal perceiver (with qualia) and a super blindsighter (without qualia) are functionally equivalent. Therefore, according to Dennett, qualia are superfluous. Holt demonstrates that Dennett frequently equivocates and glosses over important distinctions to keep his "intuition pumps" pumping. Still it seems that he is not able to undermine Dennett's contention that qualia do not exist in normal subjects: Dennett's thought experiment was not designed to "destroy" qualia (rather he claimed they never existed) but only to undermine our belief in qualia. This shows how difficult it is to battle thought experiments with empirical data: we are operating in virtually different worlds.

In chapter 5 Holt turns the tables and uses blindsight to argue for conscious realism. He suggests that blindsight helps to reveal the neural correlates for consciousness: because V1 damage causes loss of conscious visual experience without loss of all visual functions it is reasonable to assume that V1 plays a role in conscious experience. But for Holt the "mechanics" of consciousness are less important than the arguments that can be given before we have a full grasp of the neurological basis of consciousness. He defends the introspective accounts of patients who report that there is a difference in experience between blind-field "vision" and normal vision. Further, Holt points out that blindsight poses a serious problem for the behaviorist phenomenology because it is not clear that blindsight patients lack a disposition to discriminate stimuli in their blind field. Rather, the assumption that they lack qualia can account for their behavior (for their correct guesses as well as for their denial to see anything). On page 79 Holt provides a concise summary of the arguments for conscious realism.

Chapter 6 is an attempt to use blindsight as supportive evidence in the case against epiphenomenalism (the belief that even if qualia exist they do not play any causal role). Holt introduces several well-known thought experiments (for example phenomenal zombies, Mary the black and white color expert) and demonstrates that clever arguments about logical possibility and/or conceivability of worlds in which qualia play no causal role are no proof for the claim that qualia play no causal role in the actual world. If we assume the causal closure of the physical world, then it becomes impossible to maintain that qualia are mere correlations to brain states.

Chapter 7 supports Holts own metaphysical view: identity theory, a form of reductive materialism. Here Holt demonstrates that neither the dualist suspicion nor a non-reductive token identity form of materialism can survive detailed analysis. Following an argument by Kripke dualists rely on the apparent disanalogy between "acceptable" physical identities (between temperature and mean kinetic energy) and "suspicious" identities (between brain-states and pain). Holt shows that the disanalogy is caused by our intuitions rather than by a metaphysical difference: we are willing to trust the evidence accumulated by science that temperature is mean kinetic energy but we are hesitant to accept the still incomplete psychological story about the identity of brain states and pain. Similarly, non-reductive materialism relies on our intuitions and on a rather coarse grained analysis of psychological phenomena. Holt offers convincing examples to undermine these intuitions and to keep the door open for type-identity between brain states and mental states.

Chapter 8 contains Holt's response to the "hard problem" of consciousness and suggestions for how to close the "explanatory gap". These arguments have been introduced by David Chalmers who holds that the "hard problem" is the problem of explaining why and how the neural correlates of consciousness give rise to consciousness. Holt rejects Chalmers' suggested solution, which is a "radical metaphysical rejigging" (p.106) that requires us to accept a form of panpsychism. According to this view information is the only fundamental substance (mind and matter are just different aspects of this substance). Holt points out that it is not evident how this rather counterintuitive view can solve the hard problem. He admits that there is a conceptual gap between consciousness and its neural correlates but he expresses confidence that the gap can be closed as neurosciences progresses. His explication of the Nagel/Akins debate about the importance of the "what is it like" aspect of consciousness illuminates that focus on either first or third person perspective is the difference that makes a difference.

Chapters 9 and 10 are dedicated to the philosophical applications of blindsight to the theory of knowledge and the conceptual foundations of vision science respectively. Holt attempts to persuade the reader that blindsight patients do have perceptual beliefs, not just subdoxastic states. Holt's subtle points about justification, warrant and reliability not withstanding, I remain unconvinced that blindsight patients do in fact have perceptual beliefs and knowledge about the stimuli in their blind field. A simple method to decide whether we are justified in attributing "blindsight-beliefs" to patients would be to test whether they are able to defend their guesses when challenged. We should remember here that the patient depends on either the experimenter or his intact visual field to confirm that his guess was in fact correct. How would he react if the experimenter lies to him about the stimulus in the blind field? If he were to trust the experimenter's claim more than his own guess then he would not have knowledge.

The concluding chapter illuminates some issues about theories of perception that are mainly of interest to philosophers. Holt suggests that blindsight can support inferential theories of perception. Furthermore, it might be possible to use the dorsal/ventral stream model for processing of visual information suggested by Millner and Goodale to support the view that at least some visual perception is direct.

Overall Holt's book is an excellent contribution to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind. He offers solid empirical evidence in support of his arguments and -- as an added bonus -- his writing is a pleasure to read.

 

© 2005 Christina Behme

 

 

Christina Behme is in the process of obtaining a MA in Philosophy at Dalhousie University.


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