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The major thesis of The
Conscious Self is that the self -- specifically the human self -- actually
exists and is reflexively conscious of its own subjective existence.
Not only is the conscious self
real, Lund asserts, but it has agency. That is, the self has real free will
and can make real choices, and this freedom is not just a chimera or artifact
of our neurology. Our experience of self as conscious agent is not merely a
useful illusion or a by-product of an evolutionary process that mechanically selected
for this particular feature of our brain structure and function.
For many lay people, these
assertions -- that consciousness, self, and free will exist — will seem
self-evident, certainly not assertions that should require a complex argument and
over 400 pages to demonstrate. After all, even if we concede that our sense of
self arises from neurological processes, it seems obvious to us that we are
something much more than the entrained firing of billions of neurons.
However, the majority of
philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and academics, reject this folk understanding
of the self. Points of view that condone Cartesian dualism (i.e., that the
mind is of a different quality or substance than the material world) are widely
anathema among scholars, and the very notion of a homunculus, a center of the
self or controlling function of the mind, has become especially suspect as
For example, Daniel Dennett, perhaps
the best known of American philosophers and a prolific writer with nearly a
dozen books and hundreds of articles, papers and transcripts, seems to view the
self as merely a "self-serving meme" (as Nicholas Humphrey
put it). In Consciousness Explained (1991) Dennett provoked
readers with the assertion that "Nobody is conscious" (p. 406).
Although perhaps proclaimed mainly to grab his audience's attention, this stark
statement also serves to illustrate the strict materialist position:
consciousness and self arise and exist only as extensions of our neuropsychophysiology,
which in turn is not only grounded in but consists exclusively of molecules,
atoms and so on. If this is the case, then agency and free will are
necessarily problematic ideas -- so challenging in fact that a recent Dennett
book, Freedom Evolves, was written in part to show that the concepts of free
will and a deterministic universe can in fact be reconciled.
In contrast, relying on logic and
rational thought processes but also incorporating empirical support when
possible, Lund's The Conscious Self takes a dualist position, analogous
to that of René Descartes. Lund frames his principle subject matter for this
book by posing three questions: (1) Does the "I" that experiences its
own existence actually exist? (2) Does this "I" have continuity --
that is, does it persist from moment to moment and day to day? And (3) is this "I"
non-material, that is, categorically different from the material world?
The book then proceeds to demonstrate how each of these questions can be
The everyday importance of these
issues may not be immediately evident to non-scholars, but Lund provides a very
good overview of all sides of the debate, though many sections of the book will
require several readings. For example, Part II of the book is rather dauntingly
titled, "Diachronic Unity, Diachronic Singularity, and the Subject of
Consciousness." Despite the reader's understandable apprehension at this
title, the section actually addresses Lund's second question (above) about
whether the sense of "I" is singular in the sense that it endures
across time. Some of the lesser-known philosophical terms used in the book
may also put readers aback at first, but Lund does an admirable job of
explaining them without watering them down. Likewise, some of the more complex
philosophic logic may seem daunting, but the book actually makes it easy to
follow the arguments.
Readers interested in consciousness
per se might wish the author would elaborate more extensively, perhaps in a
future work, on the unconscious and its function in our lives. Clearly
many mental operations occur outside the direct control or guidance of the "I"
and yet are consistent with our selfhood. The book does touch on these issues.
For example, Lund describes William James' account of Baldy, a man who after
suffering a fall from a carriage continues to be conscious and to have
awareness that people have internal mental states (even to be curious about
those inner states), but is unable to perceive that he himself is one of those
people. Lund dismisses the theory of a "noumenal" self-nature that
is unknowable but implies a foundational self (that includes the unconscious) in
his observation that "I am equipped to exist when unconscious, even though
my conscious state is not" (p. 349). The implications of these discussions
for the role of the psychological unconscious in the experience of identity,
agency and consciousness are profound, and will eventually need to be
reconciled with our understanding of the conscious self. Lund, who has written
so meaningfully about consciousness, would certainly be among those who could move
such a reconciliation project forward.
In summary, the lay reader (i.e., a
non-philosopher) will find this work a valuable contribution to the debate
between hard materialism and dualism. While the book is quite accessible, many
readers will need to cover some of the material several times to fully follow
the author's arguments.
© 2006 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D.,
is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino
County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for
mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by