In their recent book, How the Mind Uses The Brain, Ralph D. Ellis & Natika Newton, provide a daring, enactive (or: self-organizational) approach to consciousness and cognition. In the authors' own words, the purpose of this exciting book is twofold. They aim to: "...develop and defend a coherent action-centered and self-organizational theory of consciousness and intentionality that emphasizes emotionally motivated action imagery, and to show how such account can resolve the many facets of the mind body problem" (p. viii). By "intentionality" and "self-organizational" account of consciousness, the authors mean that: "...1. Understanding of objects and concepts is primarily in terms of the possible actions they afford, and 2. Active, self-organizational brain processes subserve this understanding" (p. ix). This publication is an important and fresh voice in current debates on embodiment and enactivism. Furthermore, the authors' mastering of analytical methods and refined style of writing makes their solid and informative argumentation also worth recommending.
The following review offers a short overview of this insightful book, introducing briefly authors' argumentation. The book consists of ten well-crafted chapters, the content of which I briefly describe. Finally, I will indicate the scope of readers that might be especially interested in the reviewed study.
The opening chapter of Ellis and Netwon's thesis is aimed to break down "the hard problem of consciousness" into its constituents. Additionally, it also involves a discussion of mixture of epistemological methods needed to sufficiently address the problem of consciousness. It is noteworthy that, given authors tendency to deeply analyze the discussed issues, How the Mind Uses the Brain might be recommended as a great, deeply informative introductory read for those interested in action-centered theories in philosophy of mind. Chapter 2 is focused on how conscious and mental processes are grounded in action in the broader sense of self-initiated bodily movements (p. xxvii). After recognizing the differences between action and mere reaction, authors argue that workable mind-body theory must be grounded in intertwining of action in both "micro" (in which "...organism as a whole can appropriate and reorganize its own parts...") and "macro" levels (the entire organism functioning in relation to its environment). Interestingly, the claim here is that the recognition of the role of action imagery is the key to understanding the nature of this integration. Correspondingly, the third chapter is designed to spell out Ellis & Newton's view on representation. While discussing the traditional theories of representation (understood as neural groups or isomorphic patterns in the brain), they propose the concept of representing the environment by forming action images (that are grounded in action imagery). Chapter 4, takes on the difficult problem of action vs. reaction (as drawn in the chapter 2) distinction in the "micro". Next, in Chapter 5 readers are being shown how causal structure of self – organizational systems makes room for mental causation. In Chapter 6 authors draw the initial phenomenological characterization of conscious experience, in order to identify those features of consciousness that will most facilitate a coherent explanation (p. xxix) for dilemmas introduced in the first chapter (i.e. the "explanatory gap" argument, claiming the impossibility of fully describing consciousness in terms of physical brain processes). Seventh chapter is focused on the discussion over enactive theories of conscious intentionality (i.e., Varela et al. 1993) in order to provide extensive (empirically-based) argumentation that intentionality is rooted in our capacity for goal-directed actions. This chapter also argues that i.e. problem of mental causation can be entrenched by action model thus developed. In the remainder of their book, Netwon & Ellis examine in greater details the role of imagery in consciousness and brain mechanisms subserving it. Chapter 8 is driven by the argument that a correct understanding of imagery in work in conscious activity explains introspection and its limits. Accordingly, Chapter 9 is set to provide how the activity of brain seems to be central to make conscious imagery possible. In this chapter, their view is contrasted with traditional accounts of mental imagery, useful for readers interested in this topic. Finally, the last chapter (Chapter 10) provides a fine summary of the general problems faced by those intending to connect physiology with phenomenology, drawing on works of Merleau – Ponty and more recent accounts (such as Shaun Gallagher's one). The in-depth of their argumentation and the explicit richness of their work becomes apparent once again.
Ellis & Newton's book seems to be both intellectually rewarding for professionals and approachable for those who seek creative yet suitable discussion with reappearing issues (i.e. the "hard problem" of consciousness or questions concerning the nature of mental imagery) in the science of mind and the informative survey of related neuroscientific data. Their approach seems to be not only coherent, but also thought provoking for the opponents of active, self-organizational approaches to the science of mind and consciousness. The book is thus a highly highly recommended read for those wanting to be up to date with the interdisciplinary research in the science of mind.
© 2011 Jakub Matyja
Jakub Matyja (MSc in Philosophy) works in embodied, enactive and extended music cognition. Website: avant.umk.pl, email: firstname.lastname@example.org