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Philosophy, Neuroscience and ConsciousnessReview - Philosophy, Neuroscience and Consciousness
by Rex Welshon
McGill Queens University Press, 2011
Review by Michael L Anderson
Nov 6th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 45)

A metaphor that strikes me in reading Rex Welshon's Philosophy, Neuroscience and Consciousness (PNC) is that of a team of trapped miners, deep underground, struggling mightily with spades and buckets, as a corresponding team of rescuers struggles to dig downward.  Philosophers are the miners, equipped with their analytic tools, and appealing ultimately to consciousness to adjudicate arguments about consciousness.  Digging downward are the neuroscientists.  They use a radically different vocabulary, tools and body of theory. They are constrained by technology, by measurable, empirical evidence, which must be interpreted, and standards of objective consensus.  This constraint seems to disallow a priori the very phenomena that the miners pursue, and which most persons consider our best claim to humanity.  Indeed, the two approaches seem as conceptually different, as 'orthogonal,' as any two things may be imagined.  

We feel that it must be possible for the two teams to come together and shake hands, because physical reality and consciousness somehow come together in everyday life.  What would this look like?  The ability to describe the internal world in terms one-to-one of the external world, and vice versa.  That is what we want.   The description must be as obvious and interchangeable as, for example, that 'heat is strictly the mean kinetic energy of a collection of molecules' and 'fireplace heat warms my toes on a chilly night'.  Or, failing complete one-one description, it must be must be possible to interdescribe a significant intersection of the two worlds.  Yet even that is lacking today.   Strong drugs, trauma and death have a gross effect upon consciousness, but this is not news.  The consciousness of the neuroscientist is like explaining Rothko to a goldfish.  Still, we feel that the reconciliation must be possible.  We rule out magic, which includes 'quantum explanations'; natural phenomena generally tend to have rational explanations, or we learn to comfortably dismiss them as hooey.  At a high Darwinian level, we know that we have evolved to take advantage of molecular processes to be more philoprogenitive (long story short).  Along the way one species picked up this odd habit of self-reflection and doubt and demand for lucid explanation.  Of course, the two approaches may not ever be reconcilable, but to assume so is a terminal position.

Welshon has written previously on Nietzsche, who makes no appearance in PNC.   Nonetheless, PNC shows remarkable historical depth in its philosophical passages, juxtaposed with text that could be found in the Journal of Neuroscience.  It is a curious combination.  A persistent theme in PNC is the three criteria, or essential residua they may perhaps be termed, for consciousness.  It may be disputed why these three are so enshrined, but they are a fair summary of what the neuro-critics hold out for.  Welshon's three irreducible elements of consciousness are:

  • Intentionality.  Consciousness always attends to an object; it is directed; it deals with concerns; it works toward a solution. This would seem to make evolutionary sense.  This is of a different order than merely causally interacting with the world, which any physical object does.  Or algorithmically interacting, which a robot or spider do.
  • Qualia.  There is always a 'What it's like' experience.  Why actually being there in a situation is different from reading about it in a book or watching a movie.  Or, more to the point, why reading a neuroscience description of how the retina, visual cortex, and other components, process red light photons will never put one in the same experience context as watching a sunset or nicking oneself with a razor.  The two worlds are incommensurate.
  • Subjective.  These are my experiences.  They cluster around me and define my me.  Intersubjectivity is certainly possible, but this is still an inference:  'the way X describes her beetle in a box is exactly how I would describe mine.'

These are recurring themes in PNC.  "We assume that any account of consciousness must provide a place for these properties or explain why they are not provided a place." It is a reasonable set of criteria. These are the elusive features that must somehow 'come out' of the neural block diagrams and fMRI images and lesion studies.  Welshon sees "reliable correlations" between the two worlds, although they seem nascent at best.

PNC is a critical review, covering a wide expanse of both the philosophic state of the art, and also

the neuroscientific.  The level of detail is often exacting, and for this reason PNC may appeal more to those already well-versed in neurophilosophy.  It would work as an introductory text, as long as time is budgeted for close reading of many passages.   Welshon eschews any form of substance dualism, eliminativism, or other easy solution.  Working within the broad outlines of functionalism, he emphasizes the persistent explanatory gaps, which are large.  He is sympathetic to those who emphasize externalism, that is, the degree to which the detailed contents of consciousness are borne, not in some intricate running internal model, but in the actual world in which one is embedded.  Welson suggests that, as technology improves, as we understand the daunting complexity of brain processes, we actually do seem to be converging upon plausible parallels with the internal world.  The rescuers hear shovel-clangs from the trapped miners.

 

© 2012 Michael L Anderson

 

Michael L Anderson holds advanced degrees in applied physics, EE and philosophy.  He consults in industry. 


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