Tuesday, January 4, 2011

John Bickle on Antonio Damasio on consciousness

Late last year, John Bickle, a professor of philosophy and neuroscience at Mississippi State University, wrote a review* of Antonio Damasio's new book, Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain (Pantheon). Unfortunately (as with many such pieces) this review tells us more about the reviewer's beliefs and convictions than we need to know and consequently less about the book in question than it could do. Here is the first sentence:

"When combining neuroscience and philosophy, one popular strategy is to present many surprising neuroscientific results and then breathlessly assemble them into a grand speculative claim about 'what it all means'."

This bad strategy is contrasted with a second, and supposedly good, strategy (on which more in a moment), so that Bickle is setting up a simplistic dichotomy - as our brains are wont to do, but you would think a philosopher of neuroscience would resist the temptation. "Popular" obviously has a negative connotation for Bickle. (This in itself says a lot. I suspect his books don't sell as well as Damasio's.) Furthermore, breathlessly assembled facts and "grand speculative claims" are clearly out; and, whatever you do, don't ponder "what it all means"!

The second strategy, the one Professor Bickle follows, is "to roll up one's sleeves and dig into a specific area of neuroscience, presenting not only the eye-opening results but also the methods and rationales behind them to argue precise philosophical points."

Self comes to mind is, Bickle claims, an example of the first strategy. But is it?

Grudgingly admitting that Damasio's book is "an interesting read", the reviewer characterizes a central hypothesis (regarding homeostasis) as being "worthy of serious investigation". He also admits that Damasio "offers an intriguing link between the evolution of consciousness and the brain's propensity to create 'maps' - networks of neurons that represent body states... I was grateful to see Damasio apply real neuroscience to this often hand-waving notion of 'embodied cognition'."

Hang on. Isn't this book supposed to be of the hand-waving kind involving breathlessly assembled facts etc.? Not entirely, it seems.

The book provides "a nice continuation" of Damasio's previous writings on the role of emotions in consciousness, but has a new focus on memory: "... the brain's evolved capacity to store vast records of motor skills, facts and events, combined with its ability to process memory records while continuing to perceive the present moment, result in the fully human 'autobiographical' self - the key ingredient, he argues, that allows for the mysterious leap from mind to conscious awareness."

But, unfortunately, "[w]hen the philosophical going gets tough (that is, interesting), Damasio often switches topics." What is interesting for a philosopher may not be interesting for a general audience. And note the "often".

Bickle concedes that, "... when fleshing out a 'synoptic vision', it is not practically possible to explain all of the scientific processes that formed the basis of one's speculative reach. Still, there's something deeply worrisome about books like this. Expounding on scientific results and using them to engage in philosophical speculations without explaining or criticising the processes that generate the data can create a dangerous intellectual conformity paraded as 'scientific'." Books like this? Does he mean this book? As Bickle notes: "Damasio knows his science ..." Nonetheless, "... he and others would do well to remember that many readers don't." Really?

Bickle continues: "A little explanation of the scientific process lurking behind the philosophy would go a long way." Maybe, but then it would be Bickle's book and not Damasio's.

So, if ever you feel like rolling up your sleeves and digging into a specific area of neuroscience and making a minute examination of the methods and rationales that generate the data and using this as a basis to address precise philosophical points, you will know whose books to turn to.

*New Scientist (Nov. 27, 2010)