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Understanding ConsciousnessReview - Understanding Consciousness
Second Edition
by Max Velmans
Routledge, 2009
Review by Keith Harris, Ph.D.
Dec 22nd 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 52)

This new edition of Velmans' earlier work (of the same title) has been updated to include recent empirical and philosophical advances in the very challenging field of consciousness studies.

Some of the challenges are straightforward: how to define consciousness, how to make sense of our concurrent experience of both an external and subjective reality, and how to address the question of whether consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, or whether it is merely epiphenomal.  (Velmans explicitly states he does not subscribe to the notion of epiphenomenalism.)

The first section of the book critically but charitably evaluates, in great detail, the claims and assertions of the various theories of consciousness, with hundreds of references to current works and thinkers.  The second section launches into Velmans' own analysis of consciousness-as-experienced, basing this in our personal phenomenology but aligning this theory within the context of discoveries in neuroscience and neuropsychology.

In the third and final section of the book, the author explains in detail his own well-considered and innovative ideas, collected under an umbrella referred to as reflexive monism. He believes this approach to be much more likely to be fertile than the directions of other modern-day dualists, reductionists, and hybridizers.

Discussions of what reflexive monism actually means requires much of the latter part of Velmans' book and cannot be neatly summarized here.  However, one paragraph is suggestive of the direction this approach takes:

In this vision, there is one universe (the thing-itself), with relatively differentiated parts in the form of conscious beings like ourselves, each with a unique, conscious view of the larger universe of which it is a part.  In so far as we area parts of the universe that, in turn, experience the larger universe, we participate in a reflexive process whereby the universe experiences itself.  (p. 298)

Regarding self, agency and free will, reflexive monism may appear to contain some ambiguities, perhaps in part because it seems at times to straddle various fences.   For example, the reader must interpret for herself or himself such assertions as the following:

... the feeling that we are free to choose or to exercise control is compatible with the nature of what is actually taking place in our own mind/brain, following processes that select amongst available options, in accordance with current needs, goals, available strategies, calculations of likely consequences and so on.  While I assume that such processes operate according to deterministic principles, the architecture that embodies them has degrees of freedom that allow us to exercise the choice, flexibility and control that we experience -- a form of determinism that is compatible with experienced free will.  (p. 346)

In sum, I find myself inclined toward Velmans' views in this book, as I currently understand them upon first reading. (Which views, it must be said, do not always directly conflict with those of other major thinkers in this area).

Certainly, though our understanding of what or why it exists is limited, consciousness is not only part and parcel of human nature; it is our sine qua non, without which our existence would be wholly without meaning.  Consciousness cannot be merely a useful evolutionary adaptation of our species, the purpose of which is to increase the odds of our species' survival.  All solid reasoning and evidence (and subjective experience) points to it as the essential foundation of our existence, in the absence of which nothing else matters at all.  (If consciousness were merely a transient evolutionary adaptation, or epiphenomenal rather than foundational, then it wouldn't matter, at least not in the same meaningful way.)

To bring this point home, Velmans offers an interesting thought experiment:  Imagine you're a young adult, as yet without offspring but (in line with the reproductive imperative) with the hopeful expectation of producing children in the future.  And you've just found out that you have a fatal illness with only two treatment options.

In the first option, one medication can surely save your life but will leave you without human consciousness in the way we naturally experience it, and without the agency that you currently enjoy; however, this treatment will otherwise wholly preserve the appearance of normalcy, and other people won't even realize that you are no longer conscious.  You'll become what some philosophers of mind have labeled a zombie -- you will appear to others to be conscious, but you'll actually be a flesh-and-blood robot. 

Most importantly from an evolutionary point of view, however, if you accept this treatment, you will retain the ability to produce offspring, to contribute your genes to the future gene pool.

The second option, a different medication, is also certain to be effective:  it will save your life and leave you exactly the same as you are now -- a conscious agent -- but with one important difference -- you will lose all possibility of having children, either by natural or artificial means.  Your particular genome will stop with you.

Velmans reports that he has played out this thought experiment with many students over the years, and the overwhelming majority opt for the second solution -- that is, they will forgo the possibility of passing on their genes in favor of maintaining the type of consciousness that is necessary to our sense of self and agency.

To reiterate, the point here is to show that consciousness is the trump card of human nature.  If consciousness is merely an adaptive byproduct of our evolution, and if the survival of our genes were our prime or sole directive, then we should of course choose the first option, to choose reproductive success over personal consciousness of being our "selves" as such.

Velmans work over the past two decades has established his rightful place among the most important philosophers of mind in the area of consciousness studies.  This updated edition of his book is especially thought-provoking.  It both summarizes and critiques the current literature, and offers innovative directions for future thinking.  For those with interests in this area, it will warrant several readings.

 

© 2009 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 evolutionary forces.


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