You can’t argue with a novel

Jerry Fodor

  • Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness by Dan Lloyd
    MIT, 357 pp, £16.95, December 2003, ISBN 0 262 12259 6

The philosophical novel is a well-established genre. Comp. Lit. 102: readings in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Sartre (and Martin Amis if time permits); little or no philosophical sophistication required. In the paradigmatic instances, the form is used to show how things look when viewed from the perspective of some or other philosophical assumptions, the philosophy itself being exemplified rather than propounded. What’s hard to imagine is a novel (as opposed to, say, a myth, fable or allegory) that is the exposition of a philosophical theory. No successful examples come to mind. If there were one, it would seem a sort of trick, like novels that encode chess games, or leave out the letter e. It would fill, as they say, a much needed gap. This isn’t surprising. For one thing, practically by definition, theories traffic in abstractions; they purport to see where the eye does not. Novels, by contrast, tend to be concerned with the surfaces of things; in particular, with how the surface of behaviour can reflect, exhibit, shape, express or stand for an underlying geography of emotions and motivations. So, in one of Henry James’s novels, much is revealed when the heroine, out of character, overfills a cup of tea.

Philosophical theories are worse candidates than most for novelistic treatment. The whole function of a philosophy is to be argued with, pro or con, and it is churlish to argue with a novel: ‘Call me Ishmael.’ I won’t! ‘About two in the morning he returned to his study.’ In fact, it was nearer 3.15. You can’t talk back to a novel: ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ and ‘Why should I believe that?’ are out of place. But these are the queries that philosophers want to test their theories on; not just because philosophers are churlish by profession, but also because theories to which such questions aren’t posed can get away with murder.

So the prospects for a novel of philosophical exposition aren’t promising. That, however, is what Dan Lloyd has written in Radiant Cool. Or rather, Lloyd supplies both the novel and a commentary; the latter is supposed to fill in aspects of his philosophical psychology that the former only partially articulates. The intention is that if you put the fiction and the philosophy together, you get a theory of consciousness that integrates phenomenology with connectionist nets, semantic dimensions, fMRI data and a lot of trendy cognitive science. It’s an awful lot to put between two covers and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. But I don’t propose to argue that here. The discussion in Part 2 is, to a considerable extent, technical; and anyhow, the upshot is a bit of a let down. ‘It’s not clear whether having these equations would lead to a satisfying understanding of consciousness. They are simply too complicated to be grasped.’ I’ll stick to the novel.

Here’s the plot, so far as I can make out. Philosophy professor Max Grue is (or isn’t) discovered dead at his desk by his graduate student Miranda Sharpe. (‘Grue’ as in Nelson Goodman’s famous puzzle about induction; Miranda as in ‘O brave new world’; ‘Sharpe’ approximately as in Becky. Lloyd thinks it’s amusing to salt his text with references that professional philosophers are expected to catch. It’s as though a plumber were to write a novel in which he names his protagonist Mr Flush, thereby exhibiting his bona fides.) Professor Grue is (or was) a philosopher of the phenomenological persuasion. I’ve never been quite sure, but I think phenomenology wants to describe consciousness as it is in itself, experience as experienced; hence prior to the corrections and distortions that the intellect imposes. I’m uncertain what the point of this programme might be, and I doubt very much that it can be carried out. Suffice it to say that everybody in Lloyd’s novel is worried about consciousness in one way or another; some of the characters even describe themselves as ‘consciousness scientists’. Professor Grue holds that ‘until consciousness is fully mapped, no theory of what it is made of can fly . . . That’s why Max won’t deal with psychology, with nonsense syllables and flashing lights. Too thin, too thin.’ So, the theory of consciousness starts with phenomenology and ends in neuroscience. ‘Put in phenomenology at one end and get spiking neurons at the other.’

Now, Professor Grue has made a discovery: each experience, as experienced, is a sort of palimpsest. Somehow, it contains all of one’s past and present conscious states and thereby incorporates the whole of one’s conscious mind; theories, beliefs, memories, expectations and the like included. This is a dark doctrine; just how it could be true isn’t clear (though there’s a deal of loose talk about superpositions). But part of the idea is that a glass of water actually looks different if you’re thirsty. The emphasis is on ‘looks different’; that’s where the phenomenology comes in. ‘Aleph. It’s from a short story by Borges. The aleph is a plane where the entire universe comes together . . . Last night Max said: "I have seen the aleph of consciousness.” He said something about its being a blurry image, but a whole one. . . He was tremendously excited.’ I suppose what Max had in mind is a kind of psychology that’s familiar from ‘New Look’ theories of perception, from the Gibsonian doctrine of ‘affordances’, and from Kuhnian accounts of the history of science. Since, according to all three, what you see is saturated with what you believe, none of them recognises a sharp boundary between perception and cognition. I think the current professional consensus is that, quite likely, no such theory is true. But this is supposed to be fiction; suspension of disbelief is part of the contract. Either the reader grants the premises or he stops reading. If Max says consciousness is an image that’s blurry but whole, then so be it.

The trouble is, it’s awfully hard to figure out just what the premises are that one is being asked to grant. At one point, Lloyd (he turns up in his own novel; very postmodern) speaks of ‘this pronoun, I, reverberating here and now with the echoes of every instant of my conscious past’. One does want to ask Lloyd: do you really hold that literally every instance of my past experience shapes my present consciousness? Wouldn’t that mean that I can’t have the same experience more than once? And that no two people can have the same experience ever? Lloyd doesn’t consider these sorts of objection (or any others), though they are frequent rejoinders to the sort of mental holism he appears to endorse. In fact, his treatment of standard philosophical issues and theses is generally cursory. Thus his summary solution of the problem of other minds: ‘If you did or didn’t exist, it would make no difference to me . . . and it can’t make a difference to you either.’ (Actually, that isn’t so; it makes a lot of difference to me whether I exist, and I’ll bet that whether you exist makes a lot of difference to you, too. But, as I say, you can’t argue with a novel.)

Well, then, Grue may or may not be dead, and his death may or may not have been a homicide. Sharpe proposes to find out. (It doesn’t enter her calculations that philosophers get murdered only very rarely. They generally lead exemplary but unexciting lives and, much more often than not, they die in bed. It’s one of the perks of the profession.) Sharpe’s first problem is to establish a motive; why would anybody bother to kill a phenomenologist? The answer, it appears, is that Grue and the consciousness scientists are on the verge of discovering ‘what consciousness is made of’. This is supposed to involve neural nets, brain scans and multidimensional scaling in semantic space, in ways that Part 2 will explain. I didn’t understand it very well. Anyway, somebody is prepared to go to any lengths to stop consciousness science from further progress. Who? Would you believe it: a Russian spy, with an ‘ironic smile’ and ‘frozen eyes’. There are passages in which the spy explains at some length why the Russians want to disrupt our consciousness research, but I’m afraid I didn’t understand those very well either. It has something to do with bringing down the internet and thereby coming to rule the world.

On balance, this aspect of the story struck me as not very plausible, what with the Cold War having ended some time back. The Russian spy is, however, of some interest in his own right. Like the chap in Gilbert and Sullivan, he’s an inadvertent source of merriment. Lloyd’s dialogue rarely strikes the ear as convincing. (‘Your theory of transient lesioning is a masterpiece of theoretical neuroscience. Its application in this machine will be a great achievement.’ ‘Thank you.’) But he has, in particular, the strangest ideas about how Russians talk. For example, the Russian persistently refers to himself in the third person: ‘You ask, why does Porfiry come to me? Yes, yes, that is a good question.’ ‘This shows us what is possible, and what is wish only. But old Porfiry will explain all.’ And he is prone to arbitrary (and not very consistent) deletions of articles, pronouns, prepositions and the like: ‘Now I tell you about . . . statistics for higher dimensions. In Russian detective science, mind has many hundred dimensions. We look at all’; ‘We must send you to Moscow in professor exchange. You are big in question-asking dimension.’ Maybe it’s only Russian spies that Lloyd thinks talk that way. Part of their cover, the rotters.

There is also a mad psychiatrist (Dr Clare Lucid; get it?) who talks in an unlikely mixture of Freudian jargon and computer-speak. She says things such as: ‘The worry that your thoughts are not legitimate is typical in graduate students. But of course this would be a painful text to send to the monitor screen of consciousness. So your unconscious mind sends something else instead, a feeling that attaches to the world, and that distracts you from the painful truth about yourself.’ At least one can’t accuse Lloyd of trying to write like Hemingway.

Enough; I don’t want to give the plot away entirely. Let it suffice that a crucial CD is decoded in the nick of time, various people get shot at, Max reappears briefly, and everything ends with a late-night philosophical conversation between Sharpe and Lloyd in a diner called Godot’s. (This allows Lloyd to get in a pun that I’ll bet he’s been wanting to make for years. To the waitress: ‘How long have you been waiting for Godot’s?’) Here is a sample of the dialogue in the diner: consciousness is ‘not one stuff . . . Each state of consciousness is made of its own something . . . Patterns galore. Each one an experience. Each one different . . . the patterns are . . . based on the brain . . . Each pattern is the entire intentional package, subject and object together. The pattern is the image of your relations to everything . . . The patterns are the world.’ I’m afraid we won’t have time for questions; please address yours to the author.

The besetting fault of didactic novels is, well, being didactic. Correspondingly, the art in writing them is tactfully to gild the philosophic pill. Lloyd’s novel suffers very badly from didacticism. Everybody lectures at everybody else all the time. By page 19, for example, we have already sat through an undergraduate philosophy class that touches, lightly, on phenomenology, superposition, perception, Schrödinger’s cat, the concept of an affordance, the nature of an experience, objectivity, subjectivity, monadology, the interactions between perception and belief and, of course, consciousness. This lecture is only the first of many. Many too many. At one point, the ironical Russian drops in for tea and delivers, at great length and entirely unsolicited, a set piece on meaning and multidimensional scaling. It’s pretty old hat, actually, but the Russians seem not to have caught up with research on what used to be called the ‘semantic differential’; it was the latest news in experimental psychology fifty years ago.

So much for the novel. Just a little about ‘consciousness science’. In a word, ‘old Porfiry’ has nothing to worry about: there is no such thing. Nobody has the slightest idea what consciousness is, or what it’s for, or how it does what it’s for (to say nothing of ‘what it’s made of’). The currently fashionable brain scanning research is no help in finding out; the best it could do is to discover which brain structures consciousness depends on. This is of some use if you’re thinking of cutting some brain structure out (say, for therapeutic purposes). But it’s no more a theory of consciousness than the observation that, whatever consciousness is, it happens north of the neck.

There are several reasons why consciousness is so baffling. For one thing, it seems to be among the chronically unemployed. It’s been increasingly clear, since Freud, that psychological processes of great complexity can be unconscious. The question then arises: what does consciousness add to what unconsciousness can achieve? To put it another way, what mental processes are there that can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? Nobody has an answer to this question for any mental process whatever. As far as anybody knows, anything that our conscious minds do they could do just as well if they weren’t conscious. Why, then, did God bother to make consciousness? What on earth could he have had in mind?

Second, and closely related: as far as anybody can see, resolving the current large-scale cognitive science disputes would throw no light at all on consciousness. For example, there’s much ado at the moment about whether brains are like computers or like connectionist ‘neural nets’. My own bet is that they aren’t much like either, but put that to one side. Even if we knew for sure that the brain were a neural net, it’s utterly unclear how the sorts of operation that a neural net performs could be conscious. Since it’s equally unclear how the sorts of operation that a computer performs could be conscious, it’s hard to see a common ground between the problems that Lloyd is worried about and the ones that cognitive science actually works on. There is, to repeat, no science of consciousness. Nor is there any understanding of what a science of consciousness would be like. Nor is there any understanding of what an account of what a science of consciousness would be like would be like. And so on, all the way up. Bigger and better fMRI machines wouldn’t help.

By the way, Lloyd repeatedly misquotes The Tempest. It’s ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’, not of.