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Conscious experience must, in the last resort, be identical
to neurological events and processes in the brain. The problem is to understand
how this can be so. Dan Lloyd's book Radiant Cool. A Novel Theory of
Consciousness is an important contribution to this endeavour.
The book is split into two parts. The first is a philosophical
novel in which Lloyd's theory of consciousness is interwoven with the
mysterious disappearance of Professor Grue and a sinister plot for world
domination. The second part is non-fictional, and it is here that Lloyd
develops his ideas in more detail.
He starts by rejecting the classical premise of cognitive
science, i.e. that neurons are detectors. According to the 'detector theory',
your having a conscious visual perception of, say, a firefly is explained in
terms of the neurons in your brain currently detecting the presence of the firefly.
Lloyd uses the insights of the philosopher Edmund Husserl to argue that simply
detecting the presence of an object cannot be sufficient for being conscious of
that object. Being conscious of either a moving or a stationary object implies not
only a consciousness of the object's present appearance (as 'detector theory'
maintains) but also a simultaneous consciousness of its immediate past appearances
and its immediately anticipated future appearance.
This means that any current state of consciousness must
contain the tripartite distinction of past, present and future. Importantly, if
conscious experience is identical to neural activity in the brain, then any
current brain state must also contain information about its own immediate past
states as well as its own anticipated future states. From a philosophical
premise about the structure of conscious experience, Lloyd has thus developed a
hypothesis about how conscious experience is implemented in the brain. He goes
on to test this hypothesis.
There are three methods for investigating activity in the
brain: i) EEG (electroencephalograph), ii) Single Unit Recording, and iii) fMRI
(functional magnetic resonance imaging). With the help of a simple artificial
neural network, Lloyd demonstrates the limitations of i) - iii), showing how none
of them can accurately capture the activity of the network. The EEG is too general,
Single Unit Recording is too specific and, although fMRI promises a middle way between
the other two, traditional fMRI analyses cannot adequately capture the complex
interaction of all the network units due to averaging and smoothing of the original
In light of this, Lloyd proposes a new way of analysing fMRI
data - MDS (Multi Dimensional Scaling). He first of all shows how MDS is better
suited for measuring the activity in the artificial network. Importantly, MDS
techniques enable Lloyd to construct an experiment that reveals how the current
state of the network contains information about both its immediate past states
and its anticipated future states.
These techniques are then applied to the human brain. Lloyd
uses original images from fMRI scans, i.e. images without the distorting averaging
and smoothing. MDS analysis, when applied to this data set, suggests that
current brain states do indeed incorporate the tripartite distinction necessary
for conscious experience.
Although these results are impressive, one important
reservation needs to be mentioned. Lloyd says that he is tackling the so called
'hard' problem of consciousness. This is the problem of understanding how
neural activity can produce an experience with a particular qualitative
content, e.g. the experience of seeing a red object (as opposed to a blue
object), or of being in pain (as opposed to having a pleasant tickling
sensation). Lloyd's philosophical analysis of perceptual experience shows that
it has the tripartite structure of past, present and future, and his empirical
investigations promise the hope of understanding how this structure is
implemented in the brain, but this does not help us to understand why being in such
a brain state produces experiences with a particular qualitative content.
Rather than tackling the 'hard' problem of consciousness, Lloyd actually addresses
the 'not quite so hard' problem of explaining how certain structural features
of conscious experience can be identical to neural events and processes.
Nonetheless, Lloyd has taken us an important step further with
respect to the 'not quite so hard' problem and, with its interdisciplinary approach,
Radiant Cool will be of interest to professionals from all fields working
on the problem of consciousness.
2003 Alan Monahan ††
Alan Monahan has recently completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy
at The University of Reading, England.