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Child in the BalanceZombies and Consciousness
The Concepts of Consciousness: Integrating an Emerging Science is a record of the papers presented at a conference and subsequently published in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. The conference and the special issue of the journal were devoted to a critical concern in the study of consciousness. Namely, is it possible to integrate the knowledge that arises from different areas of inquiry when each area seems to be as informationally encapsulated and as cognitively impenetrable as the modular structures proposed by Jerry Fodor for the human mind (1983)? The question is particularly critical to the study of consciousness because, ultimately, the understanding of this complex faculty so central to human life will depend on the integration of knowledge from disparate sources (e.g., brain research, computer simulations, philosophical questioning, etc.).
The Concepts of Consciousness: Integrating an Emerging Science is a recognition that the study of consciousness has attracted and will continue to attract a variety of curious minds with dissimilar knowledge backgrounds. The nature of the field is unmistakably interdisciplinary. Hence, J. Scott Jordan and Dawn M. McBride, the editors of this collection of essays, recognize the richness and variety of the contributors to the field and justly admit that the basic problem resides not in the absence of interest to communicate and share information but mostly in each area having its own linguistic labels, semantic universe, and unique approaches. Namely, the fundamental problem is "communication". Whereas the modular structure of the mind as envisioned by Fodor (1983) leads to efficiency of processing, the modular structure of the field devoted to the study of consciousness is intrinsically inefficient. The reason is that there is no encompassing device whose function is to interpret the output of each area (module), and this leads to a Tower of Babel where the confusion of tongues (languages) emerges as one of its most damning weaknesses.
Did the anthology of essays collected by Jordan and McBride make a step forward in the direction of transparency in the exchange of ideas that may occur between/across scholars from different areas of inquiry? Most regrettably, the answer seems to be negative. Each paper or cluster of papers appears to be mostly focused on one aspect of the mystery of consciousness with its narrative and related linguistic choices unable to create the bridge that Jordan and McBride described as the objective of the conference that originated the essays in the book. Not surprisingly, in the introductory chapter, Jordan and McBride cleverly shy away from the issue of directly and openly assessing whether the essays presented at the conference can be integrated under a common framework.
I will not address the specific merits of each essay. All the essays have merits and they all elegantly summarize the existing knowledge and wisdom of specialized areas of inquiry. Some are more empirically driven than others. Indeed, if there was any need to organize the chapters of this collection, I would propose two categories of essays, one centered on empirical observations and their possible interpretations, and another focused mostly on conceptual frames within which empirical observations are seen as pillars to the edifice of knowledge. Jordan and McBride appear to prefer a different and rather obvious categorical structure for the essays they assembled. Namely, they contrast studies of consciousness whose focus is "states" with studies whose focus is "dynamics", highlighting their differences in the way consciousness is conceptualized and investigated. They then propose either that these different approaches to consciousness can be treated as capable of coexisting within an ontological/epistemological framework involving different levels of analysis or that one may eventually win over the other through methodological advances in the empirical arena. At the present time, the possibility of coexistence is no more than a "politically correct" proposal that has yet to yield real and fruitful "conceptual integration". Although it is by no means the encompassing device whose function would be to interpret the output of each area of study and coalesce it into a coherent conceptual framework, it is (regrettably and undeniably) what is presently available.
In summary, the array of essays collected by Jordan and McBride is a good read for individuals who want to become familiar with the challenging enterprise that is the study of consciousness. Yet, they should not expect to gather the fruits that Jordan and McBride envisioned as resulting from bringing together scholars with diverse expertise and skills. Of course, integration of knowledge is a rather cumbersome and prolonged process that cannot be expected to resemble a chemical reaction produced by diverse elements coming into contact. Indeed, one of the most captivating features of the book is that although each "element" remains largely separate from the others, there appears to be plenty of fireworks in the making. Hence, it is only reasonable to expect that The Journal of Consciousness Studies will play a relevant role both as the continuing motivating force and as the unwavering recipient of any foreseeable "integration of knowledge" in the field of consciousness studies.
© 2008 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.
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