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Conversations on ConsciousnessReview - Conversations on Consciousness
What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human
by Susan Blackmore
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Gert-Jan C. Lokhorst, Ph.D.
Mar 11th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 11)

This book is a collection of twenty-one interviews about the nature of consciousness. The interviewed people are well-known philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, namely Bernard Baars, Ned Block, David Chalmers, Patricia Churchland, Paul Churchland, Francis Crick, Daniel Dennett, Susan Greenfield, Richard Gregory, Stuart Hameroff, Christof Koch, Stephen LaBerge, Thomas Metzinger, Roger Penrose, Kevin O'Regan, Vilayanur Ramachandran, John Searle, Petra Stoerig, Francisco Varela, Max Velmans, and Daniel Wegner.

The result is a lively, readable, and accessible introduction to the contemporary discussion about consciousness. I particularly enjoyed the interview with the Churchlands, although this may be a matter of personal taste. One the other hand, I missed David Armstrong, Peter Hacker, and Jaegwon Kim.

Since the positions of the interviewed persons are well-known from their earlier publications, I will not rehearse them here. It might be more useful to consider the book as a whole and to try and see whether it increases our understanding of consciousness. On this, I have my doubts, and Susan Blackmore seems to share them. As she says in her Introduction: "Do I now understand consciousness? I certainly understand the many theories about it a lot better than I did before, but as for consciousness itself--if there is such a thing--I am afraid not" (p. 10).

In fact, I think that the book is mainly useful as an illustration of what is wrong with the current debate on consciousness. It does not so much increase our understanding of consciousness as our understanding of the nature of the debate about it. It shows us how we should not talk about this phenomenon--if there is indeed such a phenomenon, which one may doubt if only because nobody talked about consciousness before the sixteenth century and the concept still does not exist in France (see Lewis (1967), chapter 8, for an interesting account of its recent invention).

If there is anything that can be learnt from this book as a whole, it is mainly that the "problem of consciousness" has many of the features of problems that Rittel and Webber (1973) have famously described as "wicked problems." These problems have the following ten characteristics.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

If we ignore the features that are specific to planning, it is evident that the so-called problem of consciousness has most of these features. Let us mention only a few. First, there is no definitive formulation of the problem: indeed, there is a clear lack of agreement on what the key subject matter should be. For example, Koch defines the problem of consciousness as follows: "the problem is to explain why sometimes I see something and sometimes I don't." However, Searle sees the problem in a broader light: "consciousness is our life; it is the precondition of everything important." In contrast, O'Regan simply states that "it is a pseudo-problem." Second, there is no stopping rule: at the point where Koch may be satisfied, Searle might only want to start. The debate might go on forever. Third, because the problem is unclear, we have no idea about what a satisfactory solution should look like. Everyone may have different requirements in this regard.

What should we do when faced with wicked problems? Reformulate the problem? Run away as fast as we can? Divert attention and solve a related clear problem instead? Say that it is just like problem X, which has already been solved? All these responses are visible in the debate on consciousness, and none of them is satisfactory precisely because of the wickedness of the problem. The best thing that can be said about wicked problems is that they may make us think of different but related problems that might be capable of solution. This can be seen in the debate on consciousness, too: there are many insightful passages in the book about memory, perception, knowledge, action, attention, the brain, emotion and personality, rather than consciousness itself. If Conversations on Consciousness shows us anything, it is that it is more useful to discuss such tangentially related issues than the very problem of consciousness itself.

As Charles Darwin noted 170 years ago: "Experience shows the problem of the mind cannot be solved by attacking the citadel itself" (Darwin, October 3, 1838, in Barrett (1980), p. 71). Conversations on Consciousness brings out that this remark applies with equal relevance to the contemporary debate about consciousness.

REFERENCES

Barrett, P. H., ed., 1980, Metaphysics, Materialism, and the Evolution of Mind: The Early Writings of Charles Darwin, The University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, C. S., 1967, Studies in Words, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press.

Rittel, H. W. J., and Webber, M. M., 1973, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, pp. 155-169.

© 2008 Gert-Jan C. Lokhorst

 

Gert-Jan C. Lokhorst PhD, Delft University of Technology

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