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ConsciousnessReview - Consciousness
Creeping Up on the Hard Problem
by Jeffrey Gray
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Liam Dempsey, Ph.D.
Sep 9th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 36)

It is uncommon for empirical scientists to take up philosophical issues, applying their findings and hypotheses to the puzzles that so interest philosophers.  But the philosophy of mind is one area that lends itself to joint efforts, and Jeffery Gray's Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem is a work that exemplifies the utility of just such an interdisciplinary endeavor.

The scope of the text is impressive; in twenty chapters, Gray takes up many of the most pressing issues in the philosophy and science of consciousness. The first six chapters set the groundwork for Gray's account of what he (correctly) takes to be the central puzzle of consciousness: the problem of epiphenomenalism, a problem which we will consider in some detail below.  According to Gray, the biological underpinnings of conscious experience are (cybernetic, feedback) servomechanisms that mediate our interactions with our environment.  Chapters 7-9 present Gray's account of consciousness efficacy, as well as other aspects of his overall account, including the provocative suggestion that the world we perceive is constructed by, and within, the brain.  In Gray's words: "The whole of the perceived world, extending to its most substantial features (solidity, three-dimensional extension, etc.), is a construct of the brain" (p. 89). The tenth chapter presents a critique of various forms of functionalism, especially from the perspective of the phenomenon of synaesthesia, while chapters 11 and 12 consider the prospects for a "global workspace" approach, one that can successfully navigate the pitfalls of the "Cartesian Theater."  Ultimately, however, Gray expresses skepticism over the adequacy of such an approach.  In the next several chapters, Gray considers, in some detail, the neural correlates of consciousness, differentiating top-down from bottom-up approaches, and focusing, in particular, on the comparator (see below) functions of the hippocampus and the parietal lobes.  The sixteenth chapter considers recent work in physics, especially quantum mechanics, which may provide insight into the nature of the consciousness-brain relation.  Chapters 17-19 take up the tricky questions surrounding the nature of the self (that is conscious).  Of particular importance here are 1) accounts of the self that require an egocentric model of the external world versus ones that focus more on (internal) body sense, and 2) the relation of the self to moral responsibility and agency.  The final chapter provides a comprehensive overview of the many issues and positions taken up in the text.   

It should now be clear that Gray considers a great many of the philosophical and theoretical puzzles and problems surrounding conscious experience and its relation to the natural world.  I now wish to consider one such problem in more detail.  To his great credit, Gray recognizes that it is the problem of epiphenomenalism that is the central challenge of the so-called hard problem.  How are we to account for the (apparent) causal efficacy of conscious experience?  And what will such an account imply about its ultimate nature?

It is useful to distinguish two forms of epiphenomenalism, what I will call "folk psychological" and "metaphysical" epiphenomenalism.  According to folk psychological epiphenomenalism, conscious experience does not play the causal roles in perception and decision-making that that we commonly take it to play.  Perhaps it has no survival value at all.  Gray presents a powerful case for this problem; while the fast and fluid activities of everyday life are mediated by (unconscious) neurophysiological servomechanisms, mechanisms that operate in the frame of tens of milliseconds, conscious experience, it would seem, comes only after several hundred milliseconds as a consequence of this unconscious neurophysiological activity.  So, for example, a tennis player returns a serve before she is conscious of it.  Contrary to common sense, the servomechanisms that mediate this activity discharge their function hundreds of milliseconds before she consciously experiences the serve (p. 72).  Likewise, we often engage in pain behavior well before we are conscious of the pain (p. 76).  Even in paradigmatic cases of volition, "decisions are taken a long time before the subject is consciously aware of having made the decision" (p. 21).  

So the problem of folk psychological epiphenomenalism stems from the apparent slowness with which the brain "generates" conscious experience; the servomechanisms that mediate an organism's interaction with its environment are considerably faster.  Given this counter-intuitive result, Gray suggests several possible functions of conscious experience.  In particular, he argues that when conscious experience does come, it is seemingly most concerned with novelty and error: "the unexpected has an especially privileged chance of 'gaining access' to consciousness . . . .  So the proposal is that consciousness acts as a late error detector" (p. 76).  In order for error to be detected, then, there must be unconscious servomechanisms that act as a "comparator system," a system that compares expectations about what is the correct state of affairs with how things are.  Hence, the elements that enter consciousness, a subset of the outputs of the comparator system, are those which are either "(a) unexpected or (b) provide salient feedback for ongoing motor programs" (p. 79), and "consist in a re-representation of variables . . . initially controlled unconsciously by the brain's servomechanisms" (p. 275).

This account, then, suggests that the function and survival value of conscious experience "lies in the provision of a mechanism to take a second look (one or two hundreds of milliseconds after on-line behavioral responding becomes possible) at something which, in the immediacy of action, has just gone wrong" (p. 92, my emphasis).  Gray's late error detection account of the efficacy of conscious experience is an interesting and potentially useful tonic for the epiphenomic.  However, its details, implications, and potential limitations go beyond the scope of our present discussion.

Metaphysical epiphenomenalism, on the other hand, is a quite different problem requiring a different sort of solution.  This is the problem of accounting for how conscious experience has any causal powers at all, a problem which is especially (or uniquely) acute for dualists who take conscious experience to be, say, non-physical, or, say, a product of the brain which goes beyond its neurophysiological properties.  In the first case, it appears that no account of their causal relevance in a physical world will be forthcoming.  In the second case, consciousness is seemingly located outside the causal economy of the subject's central nervous system.  The neurophysiological goings-on of the subject's body and brain are seemingly sufficient to account for its behaviour, and thus, conscious experience is, so to speak, left entirely out of the loop.  Note well that any solution to the problem of folk psychological epiphenomenalism presupposes a solution to the problem of metaphysical epiphenomenalism; Gray's late error detection account assumes that, whatever conscious experiences are, they are the sorts of things that can, in principle, be part of the causal economy of the subject.

There is a straightforward, if under-appreciated, solution to the problem of metaphysical epiphenomenalism, a solution that situates conscious experiences within the subject's central nervous system by identifying them with some subset of their neurophysiological correlates.  On this view, the "qualia" of a subject's consciousness are, as a matter of fact, a small subset of a subject's neurophysiological properties.  According to the most plausible version of consciousness-body identity, Herbert Feigl's dual-access theory, conscious experiences admit two levels of access: the third-person access had by, say, a neurosurgeon observing a subject's brain, and the first-person access had by the subject of the neurophysiological activity in question; from the first-person point of view, this activity is "lived through, enjoyed or suffered."[1] Again, such a view has the great advantage of directly integrating conscious experiences into the causal economy of the subject.

But while he expresses skepticism toward both neo-dualism and functionalism, Gray refuses to make this move.  Indeed, he criticizes what he calls "dual aspect theory" (p. 111, my emphasis) which I take to be a version of dual-access theory.  (Dual aspect theory is, strictly speaking, a property dualism.)  Gray recognizes that such a view "would escape both epiphenomenalism and dualism" (p.111), but objects that the claim of identity is an as yet un-explained and (therefore) unjustified position.  In other words, Gray is apparently impressed by the so-called explanatory gap between conscious experience and brain activity.  While other empirical identities admit such an explanation, this one does not, and thus, dual-access theory "expresses no more than an pious hope" (p. 111).  Gray's skepticism here is, I believe, misguided.  I have argued elsewhere that the explanatory gap does not challenge the identity thesis; indeed, according to dual-access theory, neo-dualists are demanding the wrong sort of explanation.[2]  What's more, once the objections of the neo-dualist and non-reductive functionalists are met, there are powerful reasons for accepting the identity thesis, in the case of consciousness.  Not only does it provide a straightforward account of the efficacy and reality of conscious experiences by situating them within the causal economy of the subject, it is also parsimonious and explanatorily fruitful; and this, I contend, represents more than a "pious hope."

Such critical reservations notwithstanding, Gray's Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem is an impressive text.  In few books are so many of the philosophical and theoretical puzzles surrounding consciousness considered, and considered from the perspective of a wealth of contemporary empirical data.  In sum, I recommend this book to anyone interested in the metaphysics and science of conscious experience.

 

© 2005 Liam Dempsey

 

Liam Dempsey, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia CA

 



[1] Feigl, H.  (1967).  The "Mental" and the "Physical": the Essay with a Postscript

Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, p. 37, my emphasis.

[2] Dempsey, L.  (2004). Conscious Experience, Reduction, and Identity: Many Explanatory Gaps, One Solution, Philosophical Psychology, Vol. 17, no. 2, 225-245.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716