William H. Calvin, "Introducing Antonio Damasio" at the University Book Store series in Seattle. (4 December 2000). See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/2000/DamasioIntro.htm
Webbed Lecture Collection
William H. Calvin
University of Washington
C word has been much in evidence in the last decade, with several new journals
and many new books devoted to consciousness.
But in most of the century since William James wrote about consciousness,
not too much more was said on the subject because of behaviorism’s emphasis on
avoiding what you couldn’t study in the overt behavior of rats and pigeons.
you were curious, however, and went and asked the experts, you got answers about
consciousness that really led nowhere beyond their local applications, they
weren’t roads. Actually, they
seemed like roads but they led you down a garden path. Let me give several examples.
a working neuroscientist about consciousness, and we’d start talking about
directing attention. Now attention
is indeed one of about a dozen connotations of the C word that you’ll find in
an English dictionary, but there surely isn’t just one unitary mechanism
behind all of them – be careful about the reification fallacy, making a thing
out of a word – and indeed these dozen connotations would be sorted into
somewhat different words in a French or German dictionary.
however useful and appropriate the emphasis on attention, it nonetheless led us
down the following garden path. Surely
dogs are conscious, people said, and even a bacterium will “pay attention”
if you poke it, and so some people could imagine all living things having
irritability would have some form of consciousness. And if this dilution of the C concept wasn’t bad enough,
just try striking two rocks together and watch the sparks fly. See, they too are irritable!
Even rocks have consciousness! So
much for that garden path.
we turn to the other experts, the neurologists and neurosurgeons who deal with
unconscious patients all the time. They
don’t necessarily talk about consciousness; they talk about arousibility and
alertness and being oriented to time and place, except switching to use the C
word when responding to a relative’s question.
Their practical concern is with whether a brainstem injury is getting
better or worse, and sleep and wakefulness are dramatically influenced by
brainstem projections to cerebral cortex. So
some people say that the brainstem is the “seat of consciousness.”
And others, like Walter Freeman, quip that this is confusing the light
switch with the light. Like attention, important in and of itself, the brainstem is
but another garden path for anyone wanting bigger answers about consciousness.
reminded of the famous quip of Francis Crick about what science will eventually
do with the consciousness concept. Crick
reminds us of fifty years ago, when the big debate seemed to be about the
boundary between the living and the nonliving:
Just what properties did it take to be rated “alive”?
Observe, said Crick, that this boundary disappeared into just so much
molecular biology. Nobody much
worries about the living-nonliving boundary anymore, just about complicated
replication schemes that molecules and cells have.
Well, Crick quipped, the same thing is going to happen to consciousness,
that it will disappear into so much neurobiology.
I don’t take this as a reductionist putdown.
Just as “living” is still a useful word, so the C word will remain
useful, but Crick is telling us that we will have a much more nuanced set of
notions about what constitutes consciousness and what the mechanisms are.
problem is, how to talk about the varieties of consciousness in such a way as to
avoid the beginners’ mistakes like the “little person inside” watching a
theater supplied by the sense organs. Dan
Dennett did a nice demolition job in his 1991 book, but we really needed a nice
creative job by someone really knowledgeable about the neural substrates.
I had tried my hand at contemplative neural circuitry using Darwinian
processes, in my Cerebral
Code book, but it was about a working-memory superstructure and I became
acutely aware that my proposed mechanism needed a better foundation in the old
memories that we amalgamate as feelings and leanings, those
six-on-a-scale-of-ten ratings we give our impressions.
when the New York Times sent me Damasio’s new book to review, I was
immediately taken by it. It filled
the foundational gap that I had inarticulately sensed a few years earlier.
Feeling of What Happens is a title that really highlights the key point,
but even better, it is exactly such a nuanced view of the varieties of things we
call consciousness. This is clearly
a must-read book for anyone wanting a neurologist's perspective on one of the
ways in which our consciousness exceeds that of the other apes.
Damasio is the Portuguese-educated professor of neurology at the University of
Iowa. Within the field, he is known
as the person who best combines the older techniques of carefully studying
stroke and brain-tumor patients for what they can and can’t do, with the newer
functional imaging techniques. But
he is more widely known – and to a half-million readers -- as the author of Descartes'
©2000 by William H. Calvin, University of Washington, Seattle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
William H. Calvin, The Cerebral Code (1996)
William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton,