Alison Gopnik, author of an excellent book about baby consciousness, has written an interesting review of Self Comes To Mind, Antonio Damasio’s latest book. The review itself provides a useful brief sketch of the state of play on consciousness, but it dismisses Damasio’s book as a set of minor variations on what he’s already said: neither more up-to-date nor clearer than earlier books. He has, she suggests, jumped the shark.
In all fairness it may be worth repeating true conclusions: as we know David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature ‘fell dead-born from the press’, attracting only a handful of buyers; it wasn’t until he had repeated himself in the Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding that his views even began to gain traction.
Are Damasio’s views worth another outing? They are distinctive in giving a fundamental role to the emotions. To me it seems most likely that our emotional systems have been overtaken by consciousness. Emotional systems – anger, love, fear – were what controlled our behaviour before we got consciousness, leading us into fight, flight, or the other f-word as appropriate. They didn’t do a bad job: animals still rely on them, and so, to a lesser extent, do we: steering our daily lives without emotional responses would be an intensive and hazardous business as we had to work out from first principles who to trust, what to eat, and so on. If there could truly be an emotionless race like the Vulcans of Star Trek it’s hard to see what would ever make them get out of bed in the morning. That point of view suggests that emotions are more like a substitute or a junior partner for consciousness than the stuff of which it’s made.
Emotions are certainly of interest, though, and perhaps they are somewhat neglected as qualia – if they are qualia. Our emotional reactions are certainly accompanied – or is it constituted? – by vivid internal experience. Typically when we discuss qualia we talk about perception: the sight of redness, the sound of music, the smell of grass – and that may tempt us into considering them representational. Feelings of happiness or anger are not so directly about anything but they seem equally valid phenomenal experiences.
Gopnik throws in the suggestion that self-aware, self-conscious thought is just the icing on the cake and that the basis of consciousness is that state where we take in information without consciously reviewing it (I imagine this fits with her view that adults develop a searchlight of focused attention in contrast to the widely scattered illumination of infant awareness); this is a view she attributes to David Hume (him again) and to Buddhists. In fact she thinks Hume might have got some of his views from Buddhism. This is not implausible historically: quite apart from the detailed case she makes we know that popular medieval stories were versions of Buddhist texts, even leading to Gautama’s informal recognition as a Christian saint. But Hume of all people relies on no authority and describes in full detail the genesis of his own ideas in his own brain: I think it’s more plausible that radical scepticism sometimes produces similar results whether entertained by an Indian prince or a Scottish philosopher.
Anyway, I don’t think Gopnik’s sharp review persuades me that Self Comes To Mind isn’t worth reading: but it certainly convinces me that Gopnik’s own books are worth a look.