Archive for March, 2004

Picture: The James boys. Looking at Dan Lloyd’s recent book “Radiant Cool” has reminded me once again how consciousness gurus and novelists have a kind of fascination with each other, or at least, with each other’s work.

Lloyd himself must be very aware of this – I believe one of the courses he teaches is “philosophy in literature”. The first part of his book is a kind of detective story, albeit dominated by cognitive problems: it’s followed by a more straightforward account of his own theory of consciousness (which we’ll look at another time). Lloyd is certainly engaged in a curiously personal way with his work: he puts himself into his novel as a character, and on his website he includes a bogus forum where Miranda Sharpe, the heroine of the story, supposedly communicates with him.

A kind of interplay between the study of cognition and fiction isn’t such a new development, of course: it goes back at least to the days when the James brothers (Henry and William) set up a kind of pincer movement around the nature of conscious human experience: on one side, sensitive, reflective novels, on the other, pioneering works of psychology. The relationship between the two projects and the two brothers sounds as if it might be the basis of an interesting story itself.

It comes as no surprise, of course, to see that Dan Lloyd has written a “cautionary critique” about William James. It’s interesting to observe how highly William James is rated these days by many cognitive scientists. He is, I suppose, about the only eminent figure from the history of psychology who isn’t committed to some theory which has since been discredited. Most of the grand theories are in ruins these days, so the Jamesian viewpoint seems modern, almost prescient. When behaviourism was in full flood, he must have seemed just a boring Victorian.

In fact, it may be that at one time his influence on literature was greater than his impact on psychology – it was William James, after all, who first came up with the ‘stream of consciousness’, a theory which inspired one of the great literary movements of the twentieth century and retains an influence today. Authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf put unmediated consciousness at the centre of their narratives. (Or at least, they tried. You could see the stream of consciousness in literature as comparable to earlier efforts to write ‘the way people really speak’ – the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example – which in the end merely established new literary conventions). It comes as something of a shock to discover (as highlighted by Bernard Baars in a recent JCS article) that BF Skinner, the leading behaviorist, was himself an enthusiastic reader and author of stream of consciousness novels (he also chose the medium of fiction for one of the main expressions of his theory, ‘Walden II’) . This is a man, after, all, whose whole professional life was devoted to denying not just the importance, but the very existence, of internal conscious states. For him to be interested in the stream of something he didn’t believe existed seems to some to imply hypocrisy, as though it had suddenly been discovered that Richard Dawkins had actually been going to confession every week.

Bitbucket It’s not the same, though, is it? It’s more as if an eminent physicist turned out to like writing fairy stories – hardly worth a raised eyebrow really. You’re a bit unfair to Skinner, too, if you ask me – it wasn’t that the point of his life was to deny consciousness, he just didn’t think science should waste time on waffly stuff about how people they thought they felt while there were good objective experiments waiting to be done.

- Baars suggests that there is a strong connection between the novels and the cognitive theory – that failure with the novels may have helped motivate Skinner’s antipathy to the whole idea of consciousness. But I grant that it’s possible to be a behaviourist scientist who just happens to like novels, more or less the way you might happen to like golf or Haydn. That may be how it is in a few cases. Colin McGinn, for example, had a novel published which was not, so far as I know, a vehicle for his philosophical opinions (He has also, as he points out in his recent autobiographical book ‘The making of a philosopher’, appeared as a character in a novel by Edward St Aubyn).

Generally, though, the fiction produced by the consciousness experts tends to be illustrative of their theories. There is a noticeable tendency for the authors of books on consciousness to include short stories in their work. I don’t mean the kind of elaborate examples quoted on these pages as ‘bedtime stories’ – Mary the colour scientist and her like, though these too have a curiously literary quality – but actual distinct stories. Roger Penrose brackets ”Shadows of the Mind” with a short story for example. John McCarthy includes a short story ‘The Robot and the Baby” on his web-site (‘Should I publish it conventionally?’ he asks). At the end of ‘Brainstorms’ , Dennett includes the story of what happened to him when his brain was removed and his body sent to defuse a nuclear reactor.

Dennett’s view of the self as a centre of narrative gravity obviously gives fiction a special relevance. He notes, in “Consciousness Explained”, how David Lodge’s fictional character Robyn Penrose (Penrose?) reached, by an entirely different intellectual route, conclusions about the reality of the self which resemble Dennett’s own. After all, he concludes “we are both, by our own accounts, fictional charaters of a sort, though of a slightly different sort.”

In “Thinks”, David Lodge gave the consciousness scene a professional literary treatment, including parodies of a couple of the ‘bedtime stories’ in the style of famous authors (including, perhaps inevitably, Henry James). Apart from being a very readable novel, “Thinks” gives quite a good overall impression of the field, including a realistic sense of the yawning gap between ambition and achievement in certain areas.

Another serious contemporary novelist who has dipped his toe into consciousness theory is Ian McEwan. In ‘Enduring Love’ he notoriously invented a mental syndrome – ‘de Clerambault’s’ – which nearly found its way into the academic literature as a medical reality. His hero reads an account, supposedly in a 1904 letter to Nature, of manipulative behaviour on the part of a dog. This dog is said to have got its master out of his favourite chair by the cunning ruse of scratching at the door, only to treacherously take his place. McEwan’s hero points out how easily the dog’s behaviour can actually be explained in the simplest behaviouristic terms, without requiring a marvellous canine ability to plan ahead and read the minds of human beings. How amusing, he says, that the appeal of a good story can lead people to accept arguments which are scientifically worthless. I haven’t succeeded in tracking down the reference, but I believe this anecdote, and the related argument, don’t in fact come from an old copy of Mind, but from a paper by Dennett .

The field of consciousness studies is a meeting point of many disciplines, of course. At the one end of a kind of spectrum we have engineers and programmers; somewhere in the middle are neurologists and psychologists, and at the other end the philosophers. Perhaps after all the spectrum continues with novelists? I think at the moment I’d have to say that the novelists do a better job of writing cognitive science than the cognitive scientists do with fiction.