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by Peter G. Grossenbacher (Editor)
John Benjamins, 2001
Review by Constantinos Athanasopoulos, Ph.D. on Feb 16th 2002

Finding Consciousness in the Brain

“Seek and thou shall find” is the motto of both science and philosophy (as well as of a number of religions across the globe). The problem with this motto however, is that it cuts both ways: if you do not know what you are looking for, your quest after truth will definitely lead you to untruth and (self-) deceit. And if you do have a pretty much definite idea of what you are looking for, then, almost certainly, you will never find anything new. This epistemological predicament which characterizes all efforts in mapping the human mind from the time of the Ancient Greeks (most notable of whom in this direction I may cite the early platonic Socrates) still haunts the scientific and philosophical endeavours of today. The main problem with the book I am reviewing is exactly this: a lack of philosophical awareness of the general epistemological framework within which it is called for to provide answers related to important problems in human consciousness. In his Apology as the General Editor of the Series, Maxim Stamenov stresses the fact that it was not his wish to have a book published in this area five years after the scheduled publication date (1995-6). This apology is understandable taking into consideration the general drive of research into the human sciences to produce and present an as up-to-date research as possible. It misses the point however, that this research must be valid not only on temporal terms, but on logical and methodological ones as well.

However, please do not let these philosophical worries with the general context of the book cloud the enormous benefit any reader interested into the problem of the “how is” and the “what is” of consciousness will have upon the completion of reading this book. The research scope and depth of the studies included in the book is both remarkable and far-reaching. Even for post-doc researchers into human consciousness (such as I) the discussed material is definitely something which should not be missed or taken lightly. Let us see what are the generally good points of the book in more detail. One of the most important advantages of reading the book is the general overview of many areas of research into human consciousness: Section I (chapters 2 and 3) presents research having to do with the borderline cases of consciousness, the cases which after all map the territory related to what we are consciously aware of (and in particular the cases of visual masking and autism); section II (chapters 4, 5 and 6) present research related to aspects of the content of consciousness (and especially the technicalities of visual mental imagery such as identification and visualization of objects and the neural bases of mental imagery), integration of multisensory input and their underlying neural mechanisms, and implicit perception in action and the neurological technicalities of motor representations of space (such as the semantics and pragmatics of the perception of space and movement); section III (chapters 7 and 8) presents research which is related to what generally may be regarded as the subjective element of consciousness (it examines issues such as the neurophysiology of arousal and the influence of arousal on perception and sensory input, and the psychological and neurophysiological influence of anxiety on perception and action); and finally section IV (chapters 9 and 10) examines the issue of how the study of human brain evolution can help us in the justification of a distinction of the possible content of human from non-human consciousness, and of how multisensory co-ordination such as the one that exists in human consciousness is endemic only to human life forms, and in general life forms which have the brain evolution which only humans have (as far as current biological evidence suggests so). With such a broad outlook on human consciousness, it is evident that it has definitely interesting things to say to all specialists into human consciousness. In addition, some psychological and neurophysiological studies presented in it are definitely a model for the related disciplines: chapter 6, which contains the study of Yves Rossetti on Implicit Perception in Action, is a very good experimental analysis of the related issue (with informative details on experimental double controls etc.); chapter 7, which contains the study of Roger Whitehead and Scott Schliebner on Arousal, and chapter 9 which contains the study of Phan Luu, John M. Kelley and Daniel J. Levitin on Consciousness (as a preparatory and comparative process) are very good examples of fine presentation and review of related literature as well as in the quite comprehensive mode of presentation of their findings. In the same direction are the two studies by Grossenbacher (chapter 1 and chapter 10) with a definite improvement of analysis on chapter 10.

The good points of the book however, cannot overshadow the bad ones: the lack of a glossary and of a unified use of terminology is evidenced through-out the book, as is also quite evident a general disregard for the needs of the reader for visual cues such as diagrams and explanatory figures (a good example of this is Mark Price’s study in chapter 2). Also the careful reader will also evidence a general opposition of the findings contained in the study of chapter 3 (Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Consciousness of the physical and the mental: Evidence from Autism”) to the ones contained in the study of chapter 4 (Stephen M. Kosslyn’s “Visual Consciousness”) in relation to their account of the content and mode of consciousness existing in humans. Finally, some (very few) studies show lack of sensitivity in relation to proper methodological assurances such as elaborated experimental double controls etc. (a good example of this is the study and related experiments presented in chapter 8 (Douglas Derryberry’s “Emotion and Conscious Experience”).

By far however the most problematic aspect of the book is its insistence (probably under the general pressure of Grossenbacher’s own agenda) to maintain that consciousness is an aspect of the neurophysiological processes contained in the cells of our body. This insistence is understandable within a monistic and reductivistic account of consciousness, but by far does not accord with the current advances in philosophical psychology. For example there are many questions which the book leaves unanswered and which would bother all careful students of philosophical psychology, such as a) why a neurophysiological damage to one part of the brain may not indicate a damage to the organism as a whole (in relation to the research of Berti, Papagno and Vallar, 1986, as presented by Grossenbacher in chapter 1), b) how “independent” of observer bias can be the “objective” psychophysical measures which are used to prove some of the main theses of the book (as evidenced for example in chapter 2), c) what is the precise causal potential of emotions to evidenced neurophysiological behaviour, d) if we do not actually know how animals and plants perceive and what do they perceive, then how can we know that their modes of consciousness is radically different from the one we have (examples of such a logically flawed comparison is evidenced through-out the book but mainly in chapters 9 and 10), e) if people do commit suicide in their full capacity of their consciousnesses (and they do, even Grossenbacher does not deny this), then what validity has the evolutionary account of consciousness (since evolution maintains that what we have we have for our survival as a species, a possible scenario where all members of a species, or even a large proportion of them, commit suicide is logically impossible).

I think from the above it is evident that the book is definitely a “must” for every library which has a section on consciousness. It leaves however the reader not convinced for the findings it purports to accumulate into the direction of a reductivistic and evolutionary neurophysiological account of consciousness.

 

© 2002 Constantinos Athanasopoulos

 

Dr.Constantinos Athanasopoulos has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow (on the topic of The Metaphysics of Intentionality in the Philosophy of Language and Mind of Sartre and Wittgenstein). He has also studied philosophy, psychology and religion at Brandon U., Canada, and Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews. His many research interests include metaphysics, philosophy of mind and language, Continental and Analytic, and Medieval and Byzantine Philosophy, moral psychology, ethics, environmental philosophy and ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of education, philosophy of psychology and psychiatry.  Parallel to job-hunting his other hobbies include Byzantine Music, Orthodox Theology and going to the movies.