Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett“Daniel C. Dennett, the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, is one of a handful of philosophers who feel this quest [to explain consciousness] is so important that they have become as conversant in psychology, neuroscience and computer science as they are in philosophy. “Consciousness Explained” is his attempt, as audacious as its title, to come up with a scientific explanation for that feeling, sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating, of being alive and aware, the object of one’s own deliberations.

“Ever since Emil Du Bois-Reymond demonstrated in 1843 that electricity and not some supernatural life force travels through the nervous system, scientists have tried to explain mental life biologically. It’s been a long, slow haul. An important step was taken in the early 1940’s when the neurologist-philosopher Warren McCulloch and the teen-age prodigy Walter Pitts showed how webs of neurons exchanging electrical signals could work like little computers, picking out patterns from the confusion buzzing at our senses. Inspired by this metaphor, neuroscientists have been making the case that memories are laid when the brain forms new connections, linking up patterns of neurons that stand for things in the outside world.

“But who, or what, is reading these neurological archives? The self? The ego? The soul? For want of a theory of consciousness, it is easy to fall back on the image of a little person — a homunculus, the philosophers call it — who sits in the cranial control room monitoring a console of gauges and pulling the right strings. But then, of course, we’re stuck with explaining the inner workings of this engineer-marionette. Does it too have a little creature inside it? If so, we fall into an infinite regress, with homunculi embedded in homunculi like an image ricocheting between mirrors.

“The great success of cognitive science has been to point a way out of this fun house. As Mr. Dennett explained in an essay in his 1978 book, “Brainstorms,” the reason we get the regress is that at each level we are assuming a single homunculus with powers and abilities equal to those of its host. Suppose instead that there are in the brain a horde of very stupid homunculi, each utterly dependent on the others. Make the homunculi stupid enough and it’s easy to imagine that each can be replaced by a machine — a circuit made of neurons. But from the collective behavior of all these neurological devices, consciousness emerges — a qualitative leap no more magical than the one that occurs when wetness arises from the jostling of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

“The information processing carried out by the homuncular hordes need not be a particularly orderly affair. In the late 1950’s a computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Oliver Selfridge unveiled a model called Pandemonium, in which homunculi — he called them demons — shouted at one another like delegates in a very democratic parliament, until they reached a consensus on what was going on outside the cranial chamber. In a more recent theory, called the Society of Mind, Selfridge’s colleagues Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert call these homunculi agents. The psychologist Robert Ornstein calls them simpletons, perhaps the most appropriate name of all.

“Some homunculi might be dedicated to such basic tasks as detecting horizontal and vertical lines, or identifying phonemes. Their reports would be monitored by other homunculi (shape recognizers, word recognizers) that are monitored by still other homunculi. Suppose you are watching a play. Tripped by reports from various line and shape detectors, the homunculus that recognizes bilateral symmetry might fire, and its signals (along with those of other homunculi) would activate the person detector. There is someone on stage. But before that final flash, other parts of the brain might be entertaining rival hypotheses — what Mr. Dennett calls multiple drafts. Spinning tops and pine trees can also appear bilaterally symmetrical. But the minority committees of homunculi considering these interpretations would be contradicted by reports from various motion detectors (trees don’t move, people don’t spin) and finally by the sighting of moving columns generally agreed by yet other homunculi to be arms and legs.

“Considering all this hubbub, maybe it’s a blessing that we are not more conscious than we are. Usually it is only the winning interpretations that we become aware of. But occasionally we get to eavesdrop on the behind-the-scenes debate. Sometimes in winter, I glance out the back window of my apartment in Brooklyn and am startled to see an old Indian woman in a shawl, like a figure from an R. C. Gorman painting, standing on the terrace of the building behind mine, huddled against the wind. It takes a second longer before a rival, more convoluted interpretation emerges: the shape is really a tree wrapped in burlap to protect it until spring. Sometimes, driving fast with the window down, you might find your word detectors, fed by your phoneme detectors, misfiring, picking voices out of the wind.

“But what exactly is happening when these subliminal judgments shove their way into consciousness? As Mr. Dennett explains, if the result of all the homuncular discussion is that a winning interpretation is presented for appreciation by some central self, then we have solved nothing. We’re back to the image of an intelligent, fully conscious homunculus sitting in a control room, which Mr. Dennett calls the Cartesian Theater.

“His way out of this mess is to propose what he calls a Joycean machine, a kind of mental operating system (like the computer programs Windows or MS-DOS) that acts as a controller, filtering the cacophony of inner voices into a silent narrative — a stream of consciousness. To avoid the problem of infinite regress, he hypothesizes that this master controller is not a fully cognizant marionette but a “virtual machine,” created on the fly from temporary coalitions of stupid homunculi. It is because of this mental software, he proposes, that we can not only think but reflect on our own thinking, as we engage in the step-by-step deliberations that occupy us when we are most aware of the plodding of our minds.

“For someone who is encountering this kind of theory for the first time, that is probably not a very convincing summary. But Mr. Dennett’s argument is not easily compressible. At a time when so many nonfiction books are just horribly long magazine articles, he makes use of just about every one of his 500 pages. As he readily concedes, it is practically impossible — for him or anyone else — to keep from lapsing into a deeply grooved mental habit: thinking that there is some kind of ego inside us, peering out through the ocular peepholes. To break us of these assumptions, he makes his argument cumulatively, using thought experiments and anecdotes to build up his case piece by piece. For 50 pages or so, he attacks his subject from one angle, until we start to get a glimmer of what he means. Then he retreats and attacks from another angle.

“In his best seller, “The Emperor’s New Mind,” the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose dismissed in a few pages the possibility that consciousness can be explained by thinking of the brain as a kind of computer. If there is any justice, everyone who bought a copy of Mr. Penrose’s far more difficult book will buy a copy of Mr. Dennett’s and marvel at how, in the hands of a master explicator, the richness and power of the computer metaphor of the mind comes shining through. A JOYFUL KILLER OF SACRED COWS”

So this is where philosophy is these days: helping scientists out who’ve got themselves into an awful conceptual muddle. Dennett admits, in one of the book’s appendices, that all he’s been doing his whole career is taking the lesson he learnt from Wittgenstein – to which most of his contemporaries were virulently resistant – and he “put it to work”. And that’s how this book works – he’s tackling the big messy metaphors that have beset neuroscience – and the other sciences of the mind – as well as all the other common sense ways of thinking that have bedeviled this particular branch of science – and turning them inside out and giving the reader’s thinking – as well as that of the scientists themselves – a thorough good seeing to. Thanks Mr Dennett. 

This is a good introduction to the philosophy of mind, though I imagine there are better ones – more accessible and less of a slog. But any more than that? I’m not sure what Dennett achieves in the end, or indeed what any branch of philosophy can – other than clearing the way for the scientists to come in with their big cumbersome microscopes and their computers that beat Grand Masters. I suppose he does point the way for the philosophy and science of consciousness, but for all that he might just as easily be guilty of muddy thinking as those he throws mud at. Though it’s a pretty convincing narrative. And maybe he will paint the picture that will shape, for good or ill, the way we think of consciousness for the next few years of our scrabbling about.

Mr A




10 Experimental Novels That Are Worth the Effort

Today marks the US publication of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, a highly experimental, Joycean novel that, despite the fact that modern readers often eschew difficulty, has been heaped with awards. It is, in fact, a difficult book — but it’s totally worth it. And it’s not the only one. After the jump, ten experimental novels that are worth the effort it takes to parse them. Take a look, and since this is only a list of one reader’s favorites, add your own to the bizarre pile in the comments.


A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

McBride’s widely lauded novel is full of fragmented, floating sentences that sometimes feel like only gestures at sentences, like gestures at the things under thoughts, that real, pre-language stuff. It’s hard going at first, but once you let the language wash over you and form a rhythm, the book blossoms into a gorgeous, brutal stream of word and thought.


C, Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s second novel is gorgeous and devastating, a search for patterns in the phenomenal world and a warning against the same; a book of just-missed connections, wireless communication and full-on joy. As Jennifer Egan wrote, “C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. Gone is the minimalist restraint he employed in Remainder; here, he fuses a Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs to create an intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.”


Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

This is book that can be read in any order, with chapters that can be left out or left in, depending on the mood of the reader. It sounds easy to screw up this literary labyrinth, but you really can’t: every page hums with life and language, and however you make your way through, you’ll be glad you did. As Pablo Neruda famously wrote, “People who do not read Cortazar are doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease.”


Notable American Women, Ben Marcus

Marcus’ sophomore novel is totally weird, but also pretty gorgeous. Like another, later novel of Marcus’, language is weaponry here, and the protagonist of this book (“Ben Marcus”) is a child whose mother belongs to a cult of Silentists, obsessive verging on abusive. This novel constantly asks its reader to re-evaluate the real, both the absolute real and the relative real, and the difference between the two. For instance, the two blurbs on the back of this book are these: “Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world.” — George Saunders; “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” — Michael Marcus, Ben’s father. Point and case.


The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

This entire novel takes place over the length of an escalator ride. No, no, it’s about 140 pages of minute details, imaginings, footnotes, and lists with columns like “Subject of Thought” and “Number of Times Thought Occurred per Year (in Descending Order).” There are times when the amount that Baker can focus on one tiny thing threatens to drive one mad, but in the end, the novel is a deeply moving meditation on change and life and, of course, language.


Speedboat, Renata Adler

Adler’s mostly plotless first novel is stunning, hilarious, vivid, vital. Let go of what you think a novel should be, and let this novel be what it is, and you’ll be rewarded by waves of pleasure on every page, both emotional and intellectual.


Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

This novel is organized as a long series of notes written continuously on a typewriter by the last woman on earth — a woman who is obsessed with art and philosophy and literature, but keeps forgetting, or confusing, or willfully misrepresenting things. Again, the book is sort of plotless and (especially for sticklers for facts) frustrating, but it’s also a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking ode to loneliness and the world of the mind.

83.Ali Smith-How to be both jacket

How to Be Both, Ali Smith

Smith’s newest novel, just recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, can be read two ways — depending on which version of it you happen to pick up. Some copies of the book begin with one of its interconnected stories, some with the other. In both structure and subject, Smith is investigating duality and the relationship of surface to substance. “It’s about fresco form,” Smith told The Guardian. “You have the very first version of the fresco underneath the skin, as it were, of the real fresco. There’s a fresco on the wall: there it is, you and I look at it, we see it right in front of us; underneath that there’s another version of the story and it may or may not be connected to the surface. And they’re both in front of our eyes, but you can only see one, or you see one first. So it’s about the understory. I have the feeling that all stories travel with an understory.”


JR, William Gaddis

This novel is long. This novel is almost entirely made up of untagged dialogue. This novel is brilliant and will suck you in and keep you forever.



The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald

Sebald’s writing is at the easy end of experimentalism — that is, there are no bizarre sentence structures, no choose-your-own-adventure-style tricks, no tomfoolery. But at its heart, his work is deeply experimental — after all, what is it? Novel, travelogue, essay? Some combination of these, complete with badly reproduced and sometimes doctored black and white photographs and the specter of Nabokov following us through all the complicated pages? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

10 Experimental Novels That Are Worth the Effort

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio“Nescio’s earliest stories seem prelapsarian a century later. In “Young Titans,” a youthful hero wonders what good wisdom will do him — “the wisdom that taught me that nothing would ever change.” That line was written in January 1914, five months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand changed Europe forever.

“Nescio captures well what it is like to be young, with every sense tingling. “It was as though my head was filled with golden light and blue water, and wonderful shivers ran up and down my spine. I felt the world that lay around me.” This is the stuff of ecstatic adolescence, the belief that “the world was ours for as far as our eyes could see, and farther.” Sadly, the writing has the tedium of romantic youth, too. It worries at the same themes and challenges, returning again and again to descriptions of sunsets and natural beauties. Perhaps because Nescio (a k a Jan Hendrik Frederik Gronloh) was drawing so heavily on his own youth and his own friends, most of the characters are faceless and indistinguishable. It’s as if he assumes we know them as well as he does, and so he need give us only their names to bring them fully to life. Or perhaps his tongue-in-cheek pen name — nescio is the Latin for “I don’t know” — is a nod to his own imaginative haziness.

“Later stories chronicle the fallen world of the mid-20th century, “the hell of cars”; and the last was written in 1942, when the Nazis ruled the Netherlands and a famine was looming. Nescio frequently, and rightly, laments the chopping down of trees. Nowhere does he mention the disappearance of Dutch Jews. He is too consumed with the challenge of describing a sunset.

“Damion Searls’s translation is very good. But the gulf between a good translation and a great one is wide. Great translations require the translator’s total ownership of a text. As I made my way through “Amsterdam Stories,” I rarely forgot that I was reading a translation. Slips of register kept on breaking the spell — like the character who wonders, before the First World War, “what kind of guy” someone is.

“In “Little Poet,” we see the stirrings of actual characters: people whose humanity we can believe in. There is a wonderful moment when a young woman realizes, without putting it into words, that she wants to sleep with her sister’s husband. And there are snatches of a narrative voice that might have been well worth listening to: “The devil always has a good time with adorable, unaffected young women who love their lawfully wedded husbands very much.” If only there had been more of this and fewer mawkish descriptions of golden sunsets.”

I think ‘The Freeloader’, ‘Young Titans’ and ‘The Poet’, the longer early stories that Nescio wrote, are great stories. The shorter pieces are curious (if only for their inclusion in any volume) and the later story doesn’t seem to be as polished. But for an author to have written so little is in itself curious, considering how well he writes, and how well the three longer stories work. They have a great deal of charm, as well as being thought-provoking and, in the case of The Freeloader’ very funny.

Mr A

‘I’m tired of fiction, I no longer see a reason to go hunting for anecdotes’

Elena Ferrante: The bestselling author of the Neapolitan novels muses on the confluence of reality and fantasy

writingcan’t trace a line of separation between fiction and nonfiction. Let’s say I have an idea for a story in which, at the age of 48, in an empty country house in winter, I am locked in the shower cubicle, I can’t turn the water off, the hot water is used up. Did that really happen to me? No. Did it happen to a person I know? Yes. Was that person 48? No.

Why then do I construct a story in the first person, as if it had happened to me? Why do I say it was winter when, in fact, it was summer, why do I say the hot water was used up when it wasn’t, why do I make the woman’s imprisonment last for hours, when the actual person got out in five minutes, why do I complicate the story with many other events, with feelings, anxieties, frightened reflections, when the event recounted is a small, unimportant episode? Because – I could answer – I am trying to make fiction by following a course that Gogol summarised like this: Give me any small everyday event and I will make a five-act play.

But I don’t intend to answer like that. I want to offer the opposite example. I’m tired of fiction, I no longer see a reason to go hunting for anecdotes from which to make five-act plays. So I talk to my friend who was locked in the shower for a few minutes with the intention of recounting faithfully what happened. I go there with my iPad and I even make a video, I want to stick as closely to the facts as possible.

Then I go home and set to work. I read and reread my notes, I look again and again at the video, I listen over and over: and I’m baffled. Why does my friend get muddled when she talks about the defective cubicle? Why are the first well-considered sentences followed by faulty clauses, an accentuation of the dialectal cadence? Why, when she reports to me her trivial experience, does she look insistently to the right? What is there on the right that I can’t see in the recording and didn’t see in reality? How will I work when I move on to the writing? Will I clean up that language? Will I imitate her confusion? Will I lessen the confusion in order to minimise it, will I exaggerate it to make it very obvious? Will I try to hypothesise what’s hidden on the right? And what if nothing is hidden?

In other words, my effort at faithfulness cannot be separated from the search for coherence, the imposition of order and meaning, even the imitation of the lack of order and meaning. Because writing is innately artificial, its every use involves some form of fiction. The dividing line is rather, as Virginia Woolf said, how much truth the fiction inherent in writing is able to capture.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe“might be the most French novel I’ve ever read”

Oh, wow!

“On holiday in the south of France, a Parisian woman, Marie, devotedly in love with her husband of six years, Jean, meets a younger man, also on holiday. She seeks him out on a solitary walk, and finds him; he tries to force himself on her, and she rebuffs him; he gives her his phone number in Paris. When she gets back from the holiday, her husband has to go away on business for three days, which makes her weep; but after she has seen him off, she calls the number …

“Marie, originally titled A la Recherche de Marie, in conscious homage to Marcel Proust, was written in 1940; but with Paris occupied by the Germans, it took three years for Madeleine Bourdouxhe to find a publisher she was happy with – that is, one uncontaminated by fascism. (The publisher, perhaps surprisingly given the year, was in her native Brussels.)

“This is one of the most French novels I have ever read. Bourdouxhe was friends with Simone de Beauvoir (who quotes from Marie several times in The Second Sex), and the book’s concerns are, to put it broadly, existentialist. The novel is about Marie’s state of mind, as it develops from the acte gratuit of her liaison with the young man: increasingly alert, engaged, sensitive almost to the point of synaesthesia. Here she is after having done the dishes:

“She has finished her household task and before going into another room to rest and read, she lingers in the kitchen for a while. Sitting at the table, head in hands, she hears the sound of her blood, beating loudly, powerfully, rapidly, at her temples … These muffled, rhythmical shocks are accompanied by an unusual sound, like a buzzing or a reverberation. She compares it to the sound of insects’ wings – smooth, shiny.”

“At first I thought this a somewhat overwrought reaction to housework, but then reconsidered: all of us have such moments when, like Marie at other times, we are suffused with joy or fascination at our surroundings, and can’t account for any proximate cause. This is a novel about such experiences, about “the simple grace of being alive”.

“There are times when Marie’s state of mind makes me want to say, “Oh, come on.” The book is almost self-parodically French, ruminating on the grand questions of life in a way most English novels do not. But then events – Marie’s sister Claudine’s suicide attempt, the menacing backdrop of approaching war – encourage such speculation, and Bourdouxhe is confident enough in her ability and purpose to bring up these questions without apology or irony.

“Proust may have been Bourdouxhe’s primary influence but there is also a lot of Virginia Woolf here – without the occasional whiff of social snobbery. It is also feminist in an understated way, not declaring any feminist agenda as such, beyond allowing an intelligent woman full agency. It is a grown-up novel about ordinary lives, and many thanks to Daunt Books for rediscovering it for us.”

Not sure it’s as French as Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” or Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” – but then how is one thing more French than another, one work of literature more or less French? I’m not sure such statements begin to make sense. But I agree with this review in that this is a beautiful novel and a great representation of a woman as protagonist: she thinks, she loves, she desires, she feels, she exists, not as a woman, but as a protagonist who fully consumes the reader. And men are the marginal figures that figure in her thoughts and experiences; she wonders about these men; but as is always the way, this is a novel about he/she who wonders, who writes, who thinks, not about the men/women he/she navigates through.

 Mr A

Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis

Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis“The spirit of Donald Barthelme lives on in the pen of Lydia Davis. One of the most interesting and playful of American experimental writers, Davis is a maker of miniatures, elliptical exposures of anguish, desire and dread. In this latest collection of 51 stories, some are no longer than 15 or 20 lines. To appreciate Davis, a reader must enter into the author’s obsessive interest in minutiae and accept her postmodern fascination with language as the subject, not merely the medium, of fiction.

“In “”Foucault and Pencil,”” she writes: “”Sat in subway car, took out Foucault and pencil but did not read, thought instead about situation fraught with conflict, red flag, recent argument concerning travel: argument itself became form of travel, each sentence carrying arguers on to next sentence, next sentence on to next.”” But, particularly in “”The Professor”” and “”The Cats in the Prison Recreational Hall,”” Davis displays a deadpan humor. This and a gift for the swift delivery of menacing details–notably in “”The Fish Tank””–ally Davis with Barthelme (himself a descendant of Kafka), with whom she shares a suspicion of the unexamined mundane and a delight in stealthy jokes.

“In three longer tales, she showcases a comfort with narrative storytelling. “”Lord Royston’s Tour”” starts out as parody of a premodern travelogue, complete with surreal descriptions of imperial cities, desert crossings, dead Cossacks and a shipwreck, but it quickly morphs into an arch-literary spoof in which the absurd layering of mannered information provokes unexpected laughs. At their best, these stories are as entertaining as they are formally exquisite.”

Entertaining? Sometimes. Crafted? Always. But to what end? The reader will be wondering what are these stories for? No one wonders at the stories of Roald Dahl or Henry James or Ernest Hemmingway. SO why might the wonder at Lydia Davis’s stories? IN the same way the reader wonders at the stories of Kafka? Not quite. Borges? Not at all. Or the stories of Barthelme? Perhaps.

Though whilst Barthelme always seems to be up to something, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, often Davis seems like she’s not up to anything much, leaving the suspicion that the reader too isn’t up to anything. Which kind of undermines the reading experience.

 Mr A

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder“There are books that haunt you down the years, books that seem to touch and stir something deep inside you. It’s as if they have been with you since you were born.

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is of this kind. The first sentence – spare, precise and matter-of-fact – plunges the reader into the heart of the book as surely as its characters are plunged into the gorge beneath the bridge: ‘On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.’ Immediately you are there; you see the little bodies hurtling ant-like to their deaths. As yet you know nothing at all about them. But you want to know: who were these unfortunate five, and why did this appalling thing happen to them?

“The idea of the novel could hardly be simpler. Brother Juniper, who happens to witness the accident, determines to establish some correlation between the five deaths and the nature of the five lives that led up to them. Believing as he does in a good and sovereign God, he convinces himself that, given sufficient examination and analysis, the righteous purposes of that God must emerge from what would seem to be simply a haphazard event. He embarks, in short, on a rigorous exercise in applied theodicy – the attempt to justify the ways of God to men – and the Bridge of San Luis Rey becomes his laboratory.

“He fails, of course. And his efforts lead directly to his own death – planned, premeditated and engineered; yet, one could say, as meaningless as those of the other five. Not only his inquiries, but also his own fate, serve to deepen the mystery, not to resolve it. If there is indeed a God, then his ways are truly beyond finding out – as, no doubt, Brother Juniper would have known anyway had he taken his Bible with more seriousness.

“Wilder himself comes across as a believer, though of a rather hesitant type, lacking any very real structure of belief. There is, according to his final paragraph, a supreme love of which all other loves are offspring; there is a bridge that cannot and will not break, and that bridge is love.

“Whether we agree with the writer or not, we can only be thankful to him for forcing upon us the kind of questions we usually prefer to push from our minds. Why are we here? Is there a purpose and meaning to life? Who or what made us? Why do we die when we do and not at some other time? What happens to us after death?”

Well. It is one of those kind of magical books. A bit like a Borges story. But it promises more than it delivers. But it’s hard to go very far without putting a foot wrong. Which this little novel does not. A curious little book. The kind of book you come upon by accident and then find that you love, but you’re never sure why. It’s charming, I guess.

Mr A