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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: The Matter with Mind

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

If the "two cultures" fracture lies anywhere, it is between academic analytic philosophy of mind and just about everything and everyone else. Attending a conference on the philosophy of mind and cognitive science last week, as an outsider to the discipline I was struck by just how occlusive all of the papers were, some to the point where - over their hour long delivery - I was unable to understand the gist, barely even a phrase, of what was being argued. As academics in the humanities have a tendency to do, people spoke about other philosophers in an ideological manner, locating them firmly in a particular camp by attaching -ists and -isms to their work: he's a neutral monist, that philosopher is a logical positivist, that position demonstrates a bias towards existentialism. As for myself, I guess I am a too much of a liberal subjectivist to enjoy such absolute interpretations of other people and their works.

Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Continental theorists such as Derrida and Baudrillard, literary criticism went through phase of using a dazzling array of jargon drawn - some would say plundered - from the sciences, in an attempt to assert itself as a discipline as objective and thus worthwhile as physics or mathematics. Since then, and in the wake of the Sokal hoax, many literary critics have stepped away from the elitist style of writing and interpretation and have tried instead to forge (or, rather, rediscover) a more intuitive and creative approach (see, for example, The Arts and Sciences of Criticism). The style of philosophy I encountered at the conference, however, was situated where literary criticism was thirty years ago.

Functionalist diagrams purporting to explain how the mind operates abounded (although the popular philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, has cautioned against the habit of "boxology") . They reminded me of the old nursery rhyme about the body - "the thigh bone's connected to the hip bone, the hip bone's connected to your back bone..." - only in this case the connections were between short term memory (STM) and feedback loops and input conditions (IC) and Spatio-Temporal Imaginations (STI). As you can tell, acronyms abounded, giving the papers the feel of a scientific approach. But "feel" is the crucial word; the methods in this philosophy of mind were highly scientistic, but not scientific. Apart from a couple of papers given by psychology students, no one tried at length to validate their complex diagrams through reference to empirical studies of the physical brain, behavioural traits or computational simulations of intelligence.

With Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) rapidly improving in resolution and response, I wonder whether this is not going to catch the pure philosophers unawares. As they dispute amongst themselves about what the imagination is, or what memory is, the MRI scientists are going to be able to present them with a conclusive map of the brain, its technicolour detail mapping precisely where imagination acts, where memory resides. In a final blow for dualism, it becomes possible to say that the imagination is the firing of synapses x, y and z and memory the activation of v, w and x, and to leave it at that. Philosophers may respond by saying that a map of the "where" does not explain the "how" or the "why" of the experience (to use their terms, MRI data is a necessary but not sufficient solution to the problem). But literature has already been dealing with these issues of the "qualia" (the sensation of experience) for hundreds of years; as Freud acknowledged when he wrote about the unconscious, creative writers got there first, and provide the sensual framework for what it is like to access another mind better than anyone else. David Lodge's Thinks..., perhaps the most accessible - because fictional - introduction to studies in consciousness, evidences this.

In most of the other humanities lectures I have attended, questions tend to be either precise points of factual contention, or they raise interesting points of connection that might have been overlooked by someone working in a particular historical area ("that comment about modernist x reminded me about what Greek poet y had to say..."), or they take the form of an open request ("I was very interested in that, perhaps you could say more about this aspect..."). This room, however, seemed filled with intellectual testosterone, the hot blood of eager young scholars wanting to make their marks with their peers and faculty superiors (the combatative assertiveness exacerbated by the fact that about eighty-percent of the participants were men, an unusually high majority for the conventionally female dominated humanities). Their questions were not so much probes as wrecking balls. For five, sometimes ten minutes, a questioner from the audience would systematically demolish the speaker's entire argument, and assert his own as the ultimate and perfect consideration of the topic.

That the atmosphere of the conference was so hostile and non-dialectical was a shame. A couple of days ago, I was speaking to a friend who is marking philosophy A-level papers this year. She said the best responses came on topics surrounding philosophy of mind; it is not hard to see why this should be the case, since the questions surrounding it are so engaging and have potentially extensive implications for our moral and social lives: at what point does a machine simulating intelligence become sentient? Is consciousness something shared by all higher animals or unique to humans? How do we know that other people see the world in the same way we do? Though tricky, as the popularity of The Matrix shows, they are not problems that only the elite few can start to address or discuss. However, any outsider attending this conference on philosophy of mind would be left with the impression that the only proper answers are those which are so complex, that few can understand or evaluate them, even as they make ultimate claims to knowledge.

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