Magazine | March 14, 2016, Issue

Inside Man

The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness, by David Gelernter (Liveright, 320 pp., $26.95)

Those familiar with the work of David Gelernter have come to expect both penetrating insight and a graceful, inviting presentation. This most recent book fully satisfies such expectations, even if the uncovering promised in the subtitle tends to be more analogical than evidentiary.

The author sets down his major claims in a concluding chapter pleasingly direct and economical. Mind has (occupies?) two separate regions: conscious mind and memory. The latter is unconscious in a rather idiosyncratic sense. As the conscious mind deals with the now, memory deals with the then. “Conscious mind is a spectrum from pure thinking about to pure feeling . . . from pure acting to pure being. . . . A mind requires a body and a brain.” Neither these main points nor others in this section reach beyond synonymy, analogy, metaphor, and simile. In these respects, the book joins a crowded company of essays and volumes devoted to philosophy of mind. At least Gelernter eschews the widespread tendency to reduce the mental to events in the brain, and engages in no silly talk about minds being the software that runs brains.

Perhaps the first feature of the book likely to surprise readers is the imaginative melding of concepts drawn from artificial intelligence (AI) and psychoanalytic theory: Seemingly incongruous with each other, both of these domains are in fact capable of hosting a dynamic and adaptive system that narrows or widens its focus to meet the demands posed by one or another problem.

Gelernter writes of a spectrum of consciousness ranging from disciplined rational thought to the ever less constrained realm of imagination, emotion, dreams, and other states in which the once-commanding “self” retreats to the margins. He refers to the disciplined thought as “upstream” and emotions as “downstream.” But the lines he draws between thought and feeling are too sharp. He writes: “Thoughts are always about something. . . . Feelings are ways of being and are about nothing.” Which is too casual: One can plausibly say that the sensation of “tickle” is about nothing, but it would be odd to claim that passionate love has no object. Gelernter’s account of Chateaubriand’s imaginary girl makes quite clear just how emotions are very much about their objects or targets.

The author draws a similarly sharp line between inner and outer consciousness. The former refers to an awareness of one’s own internal states, the latter to conscious awareness of events in the external world. In giving us these two fields of consciousness, he ignores influential and cogent Kantian arguments to the effect that the “inner” depends centrally on the “outer.” Naturally, there are good reasons to spare readers a march into the Kantian weeds, but this is best achieved by avoiding generalities that seem sound only to those solicitously shielded from the weeds.

Professor Gelernter is right, of course, in savoring the richness of mental life even in the face of scolds who underscore its poor design and its evolutionary wrong turns. However, he might have given closer attention to evolutionary accounts. If we grant (solely for the sake of argument) that mind is the product of evolution (a transparently untestable claim, given the protean nature of “mind” as a word and mind as a fact), it is plausible to assume that a fair amount of evolutionary capital was invested in the process. How profligate! Surely much — even most — of what creatures do in the name of survival can be achieved without consciousness. A zombie could save babies in burning buildings and even serve tea and scones later in the day, just before defeating a chess grandmaster.

All this inevitably raises the sort of question Aristotle demanded of any allegedly complete explanation. Regarding the event or object in question, what is it for? Was the famous chess computer Deep Blue “conscious” of the match and the moves? Its opponent surely was. Of what value would the addition of consciousness have been to Deep Blue? Of what value is it to us? My own poor attempt to answer the question (in my 2007 book Consciousness and Mental Life) begins with what I take to be an uncontroversial claim, viz., that the imputation of conscious mental life to others requires that one be in possession of the same. Only by way of thinking can I attempt to think of what you might be thinking. So, in the end, consciousness may have justified the evolutionary investment as a small price to pay for creatures now able to hold fellow members responsible and to join them in an irreducible form of civic life. Professor Gelernter’s appraisal of such notions would be instructive, and his book would have been all the richer for engaging them.

If evolutionary accounts are left in a sort of limbo, psychoanalytic accounts are at center stage in Gelernter’s book. He is more eager to explore than to challenge Freudian theories. With Freud, Gelernter would have dreams serve as the via regia to the unconscious, where time and place occupy a home of their own, obeisant to no commands from “upstream.” The onset of sleep yields a parade of distinct hallucinations that come together in such a way as to reveal the “real theme” — a blocked emotion.

This is vintage Freud and therefore heir to enduring praise and devastating criticism. Professor Gelernter correctly castigates textbook writers who dismiss Freud’s dream theory, but then defends the theory on the basis of individual clinical cases. He seems surprisingly unaware of that burden borne by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: It can be assessed only by presupposing its validity. An illustration: We cannot find our keys. Two explanations are on offer: 1) People forget things and we just forget where we put the keys. 2) The keys include car keys to be used to visit the ever dreaded Uncle Mortimer, and we have blocked the emotion of resentment but, in the process, have repressed our awareness of the location of the keys. Is it not clear that the second can explain forgetting as repression only if it assumes the validity of this theory? Alas, the staff are outstanding, the cuisine excellent, the appointments lavish, but one still won’t get far on a beached ocean liner.

Mild and perhaps overly pedantic scolding aside, the book is filled with gems. When so celebrated a figure in the world of high technology as Gelernter can also present credentials as a Biblical scholar, the following passage stands as a manifesto: “Modern-day relations between science and religion are all wrong. ‘Science’ has no more right to pontificate about religion than it does about field hockey or dog shows.”

And it’s also true that the history of science has gained much through the use of simile, analogy, and metaphor. Perhaps Newton should be our guide: With negligible exceptions, he never claimed to know the cause or essential nature of gravity, only the law that accurately tracks its effects. I stop here with an analogy of my own: The mind is known solely by its achievements, as gravity is known by the behavior of falling bodies. What the physical cosmos is in relation to the laws of physics is what human culture is in relation to the powers and preparedness of mental life. Put another way, “upstream” is where the rational work is done — and where the intellectual fun is.

– Mr. Robinson is a fellow of the faculty of philosophy, and an adjunct fellow of Linacre College, at Oxford University.

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