The Race for ConsciousnessThe Race for Consciousness Review of John G. Taylor's
The Race for Consciousness.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
[Pp. ix + 380]

Review by
Nigel J. T. Thomas.

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[Published in Mind, (110) October 2001 pp.1127-1130. © Oxford University Press.]

This ambitious work apparently has two main aims. The first is to provide a survey of the currently burgeoning field of "Consciousness Studies", presented via the extended metaphor of a horse race whose winning post is a full scientific explanation of consciousness. The second, which receives much more space, is to present Taylor's own cognitive/neuroscientific theory, dubbed "relational consciousness", and to persuade us that it should be the odds-on favourite to win. Neither aim is very well realized.

To be fair, to make anything like a comprehensive and equitable survey of the state of "consciousness studies" would be difficult, and would probably require much more space than the handful of chapters that Taylor devotes to it. Those claiming to be working in the field come from a very diverse range of intellectual backgrounds and disciplines, ranging from analytical philosophy to Transcendental Meditation, cognitive science to quantum mechanics, æsthetics to anæsthesiology, and neuroscience to Buddhism. Given that Taylor's primary purpose is to situate "relational consciousness" theory amongst its likely allies and rivals, he is probably justified in confining his attention largely to neuroscience (including artificial neural network modeling), cognitive psychology, and scientistic analytical philosophy. Even in these areas, however, the discussion is quite selective. (Quantum mechanical theories of consciousness are also considered briefly, but authoritatively dismissed.)

Taylor, it should be said, is not and would not claim to be a professional philosopher. He is a onetime physicist who has transformed himself into a neuroscientist, and he makes it clear that the reason why, for him, the race for consciousness has become exciting is that he believes that recent advances in neuroscience, and particularly in brain imaging techniques such as EEG, PET, fMRI, and MEG (magnetoencephalography), have at last brought the winning post into clear sight. Taylor expects the solution to the problem of consciousness to come out of neuroscience, not philosophy, but he does recognize the need to take recent philosophical work on the subject seriously. From his perspective, philosophers have largely been responsible for establishing the geography of the racecourse, and for setting up some of the highest jumps to be cleared: in particular, the notorious hard problem. This is (roughly) the problem of understanding how physical events in the brain (or anywhere) could possibly be, or give rise to, qualitative experiences: prima facie, any physicalist account of cognitive or neural functioning could apply just as well to zombies, non-conscious beings, as to conscious humans, and could thus never give us any insight into the nature of qualitative consciousness.

Taylor divides all contemporary philosophers of mind (or the famous ones) into three groups: "negativists", who think that the hard problem is insoluble, or soluble only extrascientifically, by making special metaphysical provisions for mind (Chalmers); "pessimists", who think that any solution is a very long way off (Nagel, Searle); and "eliminativists", who think there is no hard problem (Dennett, the Churchlands). But many of us, I would venture, are better characterized as guarded optimists: we think the solution may be almost within reach, but that it will require significant work on conceptual as well as on empirical problems. Taylor probably knows the empirical situation well enough, but his grasp of the conceptual issues may not be sufficient to bring his horse past the winning post. Indeed, I rather wonder whether Taylor really understands what is meant by the hard problem. He argues (p. 51) that the problem must "inevitably" be soluble by the methods of neuroscience because, given sufficient funding, scientists could create an artificial brain functionally identical to a real one, and there would be no good grounds for denying consciousness to it. But a "negativist" might readily accept the premise here, for the conclusion simply does not follow. Being able to construct a conscious brain does not entail (or require) having an understanding of what makes it conscious, any more than being able bake a soufflé entails having an understanding of what makes it tasty, or even what makes it rise.

Another symptomatically weak argument is that given in support of the book's guiding methodological principle: "it is solely in the brain that we must look for consciousness" (p. 51: cf. pp. 19, 21, 25). This is forcefully asserted on the basis of a few brief descriptions of people suffering cognitive, emotional, and behavioral abnormalities due to brain damage. But it has been well known since the time of the Hippocratics that brain damage affects the mind, and this fact has never given much pause even to outright dualists. Nor should it. Almost nobody, certainly neither Descartes nor Chalmers, would deny that the brain plays a very important role in determining the content and quality of people's conscious experience, but it by no means follows that "consciousness depends solely on brain activity" (p. 21, emphasis added). And it is not only dualists who would resist this claim: it is also unacceptable to those (quite numerous) materialists who hold that facts about people's embodiment and/or their modes of interaction with their environment will play a large and vital role in any successful explanation of consciousness.

I think it is fair to say that, without Taylor's direct assault on the hard problem, "relational consciousness" would be just another theory of cognition: one that might apply as well to zombies as to conscious beings. Its chief merit, as such, is that it comes supplied with fairly detailed and empirically informed suggestions as to its neural realization. However, it is mostly painted with a broad brush, and clearly most of the neuroscientific hypotheses are quite speculative. The theory is "relational" (if I have understood correctly) because Taylor thinks that the representational content of the neural states that embody consciousness depends upon their causal or similarity relations with other states, such as those representing memories of past experiences or actions. If this is read merely as the claim that the quality of current experience is coloured by past experience, then it is surely true, but rather trivial. If, on the other hand, Taylor means to claim that the contents of mental states are fully determined by inter-state relations, the claim becomes interesting but implausible, or, at the least, highly problematic, as evidenced by the past twenty years of philosophical wrangling over mental representation. Taylor obviously does not think he is saying something trivial, but he shows scant awareness of the conceptual problems that would have to be faced in cashing-out the stronger position.

But in any case, the relational account of mental content only becomes a theory of consciousness inasmuch as Taylor makes good on his promise to solve the hard problem, to explain how this content comes to have a qualitative feel. Like many psychological theorists before him, Taylor, in effect, identifies the current contents of consciousness with the current contents of "working [or short-term] memory". He then proposes quite a detailed neurological model of how this function might be realized in the brain, and, in perhaps his strongest chapter (14), suggests that there are special properties of the neural representations involved that make it apparent how they can be, or embody, qualia. These neural representations are referred to as "bubbles of activity" in the cortex, the idea apparently being that small groups of reciprocally connected neurons might mutually activate one another to attain, for a while, a self-sustaining state of excitation. Such bubbles, it is claimed, could have properties that are similar or analogous to characteristics that the philosophical literature has ascribed to qualia, such as: "presence", "transparency", "ineffability", and "uniqueness". Thus, qualia can be identified with these bubbles.

But if qualia do indeed have such characteristics, they have them essentially. The list is the result of attempts at analysis or elucidation of the concept of qualia, not of empirical or phenomenological investigation of them. Qualia do not have empirically discoverable properties (that is what is meant by "transparency", I think). Conversely, brain states could, at best, have the allegedly analogous properties (and I was not convinced the analogies were terribly close) only contingently: their occurrence would have to be empirically established. Furthermore, no bubble would seem to have anything analogous to the defining characteristic of a quale: the actual felt quality it embodies (redness, sourness, whatever). No neural bubble is going to be sour. The case for the direct identification of qualia and neural bubbles fails. Taylor might be on somewhat stronger ground if he were to argue that there are no qualia (in the sense that philosophers use the term), but that philosophers have been misled into positing these ineffable entities because of the very singular empirical qualities of neural bubbles. However, he repeatedly rejects such qualia eliminativism.

The book shows many signs of hasty writing, or perhaps slipshod editing. Although Taylor's prose can be fluent and lucid, and he has a gift for vivid metaphor, many passages are marred by ambiguous pronouns, abrupt transitions, non sequiturs, and, occasionally, outright ungrammaticality. Also, the metaphors seem often to carry far too much of the burden of the argument. If there is a race for consciousness, "relational" theory has not got off to a flying start.

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