Art of Psychiatry Society

Consciousness explained – Reading the Mind. The Maudsley Book Group. 26 July 2011
August 15, 2011, 11:18 am
Filed under: Books, Reading the Mind

And so to philosophy… We dived in headfirst and found the waters, well, rather murky. Consciousness Explained is Daniel Dennett’s 1991 book on the most difficult conundrum facing philosophy and science today – the phenomenon of consciousness.

As a group, we started by thinking a bit about this. How would you study it? How would you define it? Hang on, what actually is it? The more we thought about it, the more difficult it seemed. Thankfully, despite our guest expert falling ill on the day of the event, we had a great turn out to make (ahem) light work of this weighty topic.

Consciousness Explained is divided into three parts. Dennett uses the first section to outline his project, method and goals. Here he introduces ‘heterophenomenology’, his ‘neutral’ method aimed at getting clear on what the phenomena that need to be explained actually are. The second part develops his model of consciousness, the ‘Multiple Drafts Model’, which he contrasts with the ‘Cartesian Theatre’ which it is so hard to think oneself out of. This is presented as an empirical theory, drawing on evidence from evolutionary theory as well as Artificial Intelligence, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The third and final part focuses on the philosophical challenges that consciousness poses in the form of some entertaining thought experiments.

Dennett aims to ‘break the spell’ of our way of thinking about consciousness which makes consciousness seem unexplainable. He does this by providing an alternative way of thinking – an alternative set of metaphors.  Few people would claim to be Cartesian dualists – to believe that the mind is made of a completely different kind of stuff than the body – yet we seem to fall into the trap of imagining consciousness as something that is played out in the brain for another observer in the brain: as if the light waves that impinge on our retinas are transduced into neural signals only to be transduced again for our real selves to ‘see’. This manifests as much in scientific as lay thinking about consciousness. His alternative metaphor is the ‘Multiple Draft’: the self exists rather as a scientific paper exists – circulating in multiple drafts – with no final, authoritative version.

Discussion focused on the book and its wider implications e.g. the mind/brain divide, the implications of materialism, is consciousness an epiphenomenon? (we thought not), is there a social definition of consciousness as opposed to individual? (we got stuck on that one!), whether Dennett believes in free will or not? (yes he does). Artificial intelligence and Turing’s famous Test came up, – a machine indistinguishable from a human being. Could a robot have a mind? What about philosophical zombies? Zombies are similar to us in appearances and behaviour but, supposedly, lack subjective conscious experience. Sadly, the zombie discussion didn’t go very far as the group were sceptical (probably rightly) about the contribution that fantasy zombies could make. It did, however, lead us to the one of the key difficulties: qualia. Qualia are the subjective ‘feel of things’, what it’s like to feel pain, to smell fresh coffee. Labelled elsewhere as ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, how can these be explained?   Dennett attempts to show how the whole way of thinking in these terms is a ‘mess’, ‘best walked away from’.

Philosophy often uses thought experiments (such as zombies) to help with complex problems like this. So we thought we’d give that a go with Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment Mary’s room. Mary is a sci-fi colour expert in the future kept in a black and white room for her whole life. Mary has never seen colour although is world expert on colour red (she knows everything! Refraction, chemical components, wave-length, subjective reports from others). One day she is released, she steps outside and sees a red-rose. Does she learn something new about the colour red? Intuitively, you might think yes. Not our group, hardcore materialist Maudsley Trainees that they are! A straw poll saw ‘no’ as the majority – albeit a narrow majority – view. They were quite happy to do away with qualia but still felt that Dennett hadn’t fully convinced them with his theory.

Well-written, witty, direct and peppered with useful footnotes and anecdotes, Explaining Consciousness was, nonetheless, an ambitious and challenging book and choice for our group. The grand project of the book and the value of philosophy in shaping ideas and questions for modern scientific exploration of consciousness were widely remarked on. The study of subjective conscious experience and the ideas of what the mind may be seemed so relevant to our practice that we wondered why the MRCPsych Course hadn’t touched upon it. Consciousness is an area the book group will return to.

The next meeting of Reading the Mind will be on Tuesday 20th September at 6pm in Seminar Room 2, Institute of Psychiatry. We will be reading Opening Skinner’s Box by Lauren Slater – an interesting run through ten of the 20th century’s most relevant psychological experiments. See you there!

Dr Lisa Conlan, ST6 Psychiatry Trainee and Simon Harrison, ST4 Psychiatry Trainee

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