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Consciousness: Creeping Up on the Hard Problem by Jeffrey Gray

Norman Bacrac becomes conscious of the merits of Jeffrey Gray’s new book.

Philosophy Now readers wishing to keep abreast of current thinking on the nature of consciousness will find this lavish book by psychologist Professor Jeffrey Gray, who sadly died shortly before its publication, to be full of diagrams, colour illustrations and crystal-clear expositions of the latest findings in neuroscience. The results of brain research, Gray rightly insists, should be known and taken into account by anyone philosophising on the mind. Some of these results call into question common intuitions concerning the active role consciousness plays in human activities.

For example, careful time measurements have shown that to return a fast serve, a good tennis player has unwittingly already judged the direction the ball will take and activated the appropriate muscles before the ball has even left the server’s racket. Laboratory experiments have shown that the brain may begin to give effect to a decision a quarter of a second before one is conscious of it as one’s free choice. Gray discusses the implications of this for human responsibility.

Experimental results further indicate, Gray believes, that two important abilities often considered to require the alleged extra power of consciousness may actually be capabilities of entirely unconscious brain processing. They are: how the mind can unify information from different sources scattered over the brain, and its ability to respond to the meaning of data and symbols i.e. what they’re about. In philosophy, these are termed ‘the binding problem’ and ‘intentionality’ respectively.

However, Gray is reluctant to concede that there are no jobs for consciousness to do and has proposed two: if the (unconscious) detectors of the brain’s performance present its mistakes or ‘errors’ to consciousness, future performances can benefit by making suitable adjustments. Secondly, raw visual data fluctuates too rapidly to be of much use but ‘we’ are not aware of its jerkiness. Gray says this is because consciousness smoothes it out. Both of these abilities are clearly biologically useful – showing, according to Gray, that consciousness has survival value. I might point out that these abilities would still be biologically advantageous even if they were adaptations achieved by the brain unaided by consciousness.

Gray recognises the inevitable riposte to all proposals such as his two above. Most neuroscientists, including Gray, have a strong antipathy to the dualism of Descartes – that consciousness exists independently of the brain and can act on it; instead they believe consciousness is somehow the consequence of underlying brain processes, termed the ‘Neural Correlates of consciousness’. As soon as these NCs are actually found in the brain, or even postulated, they can be seen to shoulder the work formerly assigned to consciousness, which is what happened to the supposed functions described at the start of this review. That has the great advantage of preserving the continuity of physical events in the brain (which the intervention of immaterial ‘mind-stuff’ would disrupt) though at the cost, as some would see it, of making consciousness redundant. Could not a discovery of their NCs send to their doom Gray’s two proposed functions for consciousness?

Even so, Gray is ready with three more human attributes requiring a causal role for consciousness: our language, our science and our appreciation of beauty. Both language and science need public consensus which, he asserts, must rely on conscious perceptions. (Gray believes that some animals, without language or science, are conscious: what could it do for them?) Appreciation of a painting, a sonata, or a poem, Gray feels, seems to be nothing but appreciation of their qualia (the elementary units of conscious experience). Agreed, but he admits that those very qualia that are aesthetically appreciated are the product of brain activity, so why may not the qualia of the appreciation experience itself be similarly a brain product? It is not clear here whether Gray is claiming that the ‘beautiful’ qualia cause the ‘appreciation of beauty’ qualia directly or via causing the latters’ NC. Perhaps though future brain research will answer this question by exposing a causal path between the NCs of each set of qualia.

So much for Gray’s struggle to escape “from the epiphenomenalist trap without falling into the dualist pit.” (p.111)!

How does consciousness arise in the brain, given that it does and is not a property of all matter? David Chalmers has called this the ‘hard’ problem, and Gray discusses the various proffered solutions. He has rejected dualism; nor does he think consciousness can simply be considered to be identical to its NCs. As for the widely held notion of functionalism, that any setup, whatever it’s made of, which performs a given function, will, merely by virtue of that, generate specific qualia – this idea, says Gray, should be ‘ditched’. This is because of synaesthesia phenomena – cases where the qualia are different although the function is the same. Gray goes into considerable informative detail about the highly speculative Penrose-Hameroff quantum consciousness theory, which involves microtubules generating consciousness. He is non-committal about its prospects although approving its methodology. All in all I believe he succeeds (with one exception, mentioned below) in his aim of clearing the ground of misconceptions, creeping up on but not dissolving the hard problem.

Gray admits that reconciling a causal role for consciousness with the completeness of physics is “difficult”. I would say “impossible”. His book is unusual, though, in devoting considerable attention to the question of the efficacy of consciousness. Everyone who believes that continued research will throw light on the nature of consciousness – including those who deny its causal efficacy – can meanwhile acknowledge its supreme value and enjoy language and science and appreciate beauty.

© Norman Bacrac 2004

Norman Bacrac is the Editor of the Ethical Record.

Consciousness: Creeping Up on the Hard Problem by Jeffrey Gray (Oxford University Press 2004). ISBN 0198520905 341pp £29.95/$54.50 hb.

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