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)


  1. It's hard to see how discussion of brain-mind relations can be anything other than speculative. The B-M connection can hardly be "dug into", even if the neuroscience can be.

    Bickle seems to want to treat the B-M problem as entirely a scientific matter. But the neuroscience gives us no direct knowledge of the mental dimension, I would say. The step from brain to mind is all a matter of (non-scientific) inference.

  2. I would agree to the extent that human consciousness exists only where there are embodied brains which have developed in a social context. You wouldn't deny, would you, Alan, that every thought and feeling we have has a neural correlate? And I think it is reasonable to believe that the physical organism (plus social, linguistic etc. context) is all that is required to generate thoughts etc. Exactly how it does so may not matter (except for potential medical applications); *that* it does seems clear to me.

    It does seem amazing (and suggestive?) that a physical universe evolves conscious beings (or becomes conscious of itself) and I would very much like to understand 'what it all means'! [Of course I don't expect I ever will, but it may have something to do with information being a more fundamental concept than matter or energy.]

  3. Neural correlates are no doubt a dime a dozen, in humans and right down to worms. But so what? What do they do? True, we'd be insensate without them. But beyond that, what can we say about their causal role?

    Maybe I'm admitting to be an ignoramus here. But what does Damasio say? Apparently he "offers an intriguing link between the evolution of consciousness and the brain's propensity to create 'maps' - networks of neurons that represent body states". Excellent! But what is this intriguing link? Is it merely a correlation of some sort?

  4. I'm checking in to let you know I've read this post several times and do harbor some thoughts on the subject at hand, which might be called generally the "nature of consciousness." I've hesitated to comment so far because the post itself is a review of a review, and since I haven't read the new Damasio book at the center of the discussion, it's impossible for me to assess the value of the review you are reviewing, and by extension then, the value of your response.

    What I can offer at this point is an observation about the context: previous work of Damasio; ie, where he's coming from. He is a medical doctor a professor of neurology, and the author of Descartes' Error [ISBN 0399138943/9780399138942, (c)1994] (subtitled "Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain), and his essential interest is in "the neural underpinnings of reason."

    The title of that book tells us a lot about Damasio's point of view. Philosophers have spoken for many generations about "Cartesian dualism," aka Descartes' classic discussions of the "mind/body" problem. That is exactly the issue Damasio's life work addresses: how "consciousness" arises from the physical brain. Obviously, Damasio can be called a physicalist: he approaches mind by investigating the brain.

    To properly object to Damasio's work, then, requires a critique one (or both) of two things: either find fault with the physicalist approach to consciousness which informs the work, or find shortcomings in the execution of his arguments. The first is a strategic issue; the second a tactical issue. In Descartes' Error the "error" Damasio wants to demonstrate is the dualism developed by the old philosopher -- a clearcut goal, certainly. Damasio does this convincingly by bringing to bear a huge body of brain science Descartes could not access because it did not exist in his time. In this sense, Descartes' Error is intended as a "correction" to philosophy, which can no longer discuss concepts of "the soul," (for instance) in the ancient manner Descartes did, through introspection.

    This bit of context should help us understand the value of Bickle's essay on Damasio, at least. And thus, from what (little) I know on the subject at hand, it appears from your presentation of it that Bickle's review is more about nitpicking than a substantive critique, especially since Bickle actually shares Damasio's neurological interest in the matter.

    Along the way, in Descartes' Error, Damasio makes the point that "the self" or "mind" is not a generic entity, but a constructed one. This book has influenced my thoughts on "moral agency" to a very large extent; in fact it is one of the mainstays or anchor points in my moral philosophy (probably to be published posthumously at this rate -- LOL).

    So now I have convinced you, at least, that I do pay attention in here. My silence has not been disregard.

  5. Alan, I've never really gone into the philosophy of mind in any rigorous way, so I'm not sure exactly what the problems are. My perhaps naive view is that it does make sense to speak of the processes of the brain (and associated organs etc.) generating thoughts, feelings etc. I can't see what else could be generating (=causing?) them.

  6. That's OK as far as it goes.

    Imagine that you had all the relevant neuroscientific information at your fingertips. Given only that, how much could we say about the mental life of the person whose brain was being tracked?

    My guess is that we could say just about nothing. However, I don't know what Damasio would say on this point, and I don't rate my opinion as worth anything at all.

    In general, in my opinion, the language of neuroscience bears little or no relation to the language of human experience, even if does provide the causal background to the human world.

  7. On the question of the apparent discontinuity between the "language of neuroscience" and the "language of human experience", here are a few thoughts. (I deleted my previous response, and will resist the temptation to delete this! The topic is a huge one and deserves much more than I can at the moment give it.)

    I see no reason to doubt that all my memories and dispositions etc. are physically encoded in my brain, an organ which is involved in all my actions. Thoughts and feelings are always tied to me-living-in-the-world-through-time, to an acting me (even if that action is sitting in a chair). One thing that neuroscience has confirmed is that most brain activity happens 'below' the level of consciousness. It has also of course revealed much specific detail about the workings of the brain, much of it surprising, some of it useful (in medical contexts, etc.).

    The "language of neuroscience" will never be equivalent to the working brain but it can help explain human experience and human action. In a sense it is a part of the language of human experience.

  8. Mark, all you say may be right but you didn't answer the question I posed.

    If the brain encodes the mind, then in principle it can be decoded and we can read another mind using only a decoding process of some sort. This supposes a one-to-one correspondence between mental items and brain happenings. But is the brain anything like this? Maybe it is, but we seem a very long way from really knowing, I think. It's an article of faith, at best.

  9. Yes, Alan, I was challenged by your question and didn't feel I could answer it directly. I am inclined to think that what I said above may commit me to the one-to-one correspondence you speak of. I wouldn't see this in terms of an article of faith however. I don't see any alternative which is consistent with physicalism. And my physicalism is not an article of faith, it's just part of my attempt not to multiply entities unnecessarily.

  10. In 1777 Joseph Priestley argued for physicalism from Newton's First Rule of Reasoning in Philosophy: "We are to admit no more causes than such as are both true and sufficient to explain appearances".

    (Just thought you'd like a bit of history thrown in.)