Book Reviews by Steve Minett

 

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‘Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness’,

by Nicholas Humphrey, Quercus, London, Hardcover, 2011, 243 pages, £25

ISBN 978-1-84916-237-1

Can Consciousness be ‘Magical’ but not Quantum-based?

Nicholas Humphrey occupies an intriguing, ‘bridging’ position in the field of consciousness theory: on the one hand, he’s a card-carrying, reductive, materialist who believes that mind and consciousness are entirely dependent on classical physical processes in the brain. On the other, he’s a ‘qualiophile’; he clearly delights in, and is enchanted by, the phenomena of raw sensory experience. Far from denying, or ignoring, qualia, like many of his fellow materialists (such as Daniel Dennett) Humphrey’s latest book is replete with literary and artistic quotations extolling the virtues of everyday sensory experience.

Moreover, qualia are key to his explanation of the biological function of consciousness: Humphrey very cleverly side-steps the pitfall of most attempts to explain consciousness, which try to link it to the carrying out some biological skill or function. No, according to Humphrey, we have consciousness not to enable us to do something we could not otherwise do, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do: to make us take an interest in, and mind about  things and to set ourselves goals, which we otherwise wouldn’t. In other words, consciousness is about motivation not performance! This culminates (in Humphrey’s theory) in natural selection tricking us, via consciousness, into the delusion that we have immortal souls, again purely for the beneficial, biological side-effects that this generates.

‘Soul Dust’ is much more about what consciousness is for than what it is: when Humphrey does stray into the territory of what causes consciousness, he nods in the direction of Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ theory, which, while emerging from some extremely esoteric mathematical thinking, is still physicalist and deterministic. What is missing for me, and I suspect for many others interested in consciousness theory, is any reference to quantum mechanics. Why should this matter?

It matters because I see Humphrey’s argument as an analogue of the ‘God-created-the-fossil-record’ position against Darwinism. As many a good Victorian bishop argued, the evidence of the fossil record was not to be taken seriously: it was simply God’s way of testing our faith in the biblical creation story. In a similar way, Humphrey is now arguing that ‘the Magic of Consciousness’ is not to be taken as indicating any connection between human beings and any trans-biological world. Except, that is, as an evolutionarily useful delusion – a trick played on us by natural selection to promote the biological success of our complex but potentially fragile species. This position neatly corrals the wild phenomena of consciousness safely within the paddock of classical physics, fenced in by the tight bounds of functionalism.

Let me be clear: in questioning Humphrey’s position, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the fact that we all experience phenomenal consciousness ‘guarantees’ that we all have personal, immortal souls, in the style of monotheistic  theology. (I personally doubt this.) But what the ‘magic’ of consciousness may be indicating is the narrowness and limitations of functionalist theory: maybe our strange experience of qualia should lead us to suspect a causal connection with the bizarre and ‘magical’ world of quantum mechanics. Patricia Churchland once complained to Stuart Hammerhoff that even if consciousness did turn out to have a quantum explanation, this would still be a reductive explanation. Hammerhoff replied, yes, but it would directly link our consciousness with the fundamental laws and processes of the universe, rather than reducing it to a local phenomena of classical physics. Any account of consciousness which ignores this possibility has, in my view, to be described as a case of premature closure.

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‘Black Earth, the Holocaust as History & Warning” by Timothy Synder, 2015

Review by Steve Minett, PhD

As its title implies, this is a very dark book about a very dark subject; the Holocaust and its causes. Snyder’s innovative theory is that the immediate cause of the terrible, and almost unimaginably massive, slaughter of human beings which took place in Eastern Europe during the Second World War, was the destruction of the legitimate states which had existed in the region before the war; namely, and especially, Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Austria and the Western Soviet Union. For many of these states this was a ‘double destruction’; first by Soviet and then by Nazi invasions. Snyder’s thesis is that this destruction created ‘zones of statelessness’ in which the millions of people who lived within these areas were stripped of any concept of citizenship.

This disappearance of citizenship made these populations vulnerable to the murderous racial ideology of the Nazis: “When there was no state, no one was a citizen, and human life could be treated carelessly.” (p.220) The vast majority of those who were murdered were, of course, Jews and Snyder briefly considers a contending cause; anti-Semitism. He uses statistics, however, to refute this as the principle cause: in France, where there was a long and entrenched tradition of anti-Semitism, a sizeable majority of Jews survived the war, whereas in the Baltic states (which, in the pre-war period, were period renown for their tolerance toward Jews) virtually their entire Jewish population was wiped out during Nazi occupation.

There is, however, something I find both wrong and disturbing about this explanation: in Snyder’s model, the Jews of Eastern Europe needed protection from effective states because (in the Nazi worldview) races will (inevitably and continually) engage a a merciless, life-and-death struggle with each other and the ‘morally correct’ outcome is that the strongest race should wipe out the weaker ones. I can agree with Snyder that at the particular historical conjuncture when the holocaust took place, this ‘state-protection’ was a practical necessity which clearly failed. What I find disturbing, however, is that Snyder appears to assume that there is something ‘natural’ (or perhaps ‘biological’) about this worldview, although he clearly condemns it from an ethical point of view.

He says, on the one hand, that the Nazis applied ‘the law of the jungle’ and on the other that Hitler conflated politics and science: he posed, “ … political problems as scientific ones and scientific problems as political ones.” (p.321) Snyder also says that; “to characterise Hitler as … [a] racist underestimates the potential of Nazi ideas. His ideas about Jews and Slavs were not prejudices … but rather emanations of a coherent worldview that contained the potential to change the world.” (p.321) Snyder states that, “ … if states were destroyed …., few of us would behave well.” (p.320). He also records the consistency of Hitler’s worldview: when the tide of the war turned against the Germans, “Hitler decided, ‘the future belongs entirely to the stronger people of the east.’” (p.242)

What’s wrong with all this? Well, it seems to imply that there’s something ‘biologically natural’ about Hitler’s racist worldview which only law and citizenship, backed up by powerful states, can protect us from. This is a very Nineteenth-Century, Social Darwinist view of ‘nature’: firstly, in modern times, there is no ‘scientific concept of race’  – ‘race’ is a social construct, based on ethnic divisions of culture and religion. Rather than protecting ourselves from the ‘natural aggression’ of other human groups behind the ramparts of Law and the state, we might rather ask; what makes people want to engage in mass murder of members of their own species?

The answer, I think, lies in centuries of pathological child-rearing. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support this view. Pathological child-rearing practices were particularly prevalent in pre-war, Germanic Europe, and indeed, Hitler’s own childhood was an extreme example of such appallingly negative parenting. Here, I believe, we can find the real and ultimate cause of the holocaust: pathological parenting had stripped the wartime generation of Germans of their instinctual aversion to the mass murder of members of their own species. Hitler’s ideas about what was ‘biologically natural’ did not represent a ‘coherent worldview’ – they were the nightmares of a tormented psychopath.

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Improving Child-Rearing: Great Ideas – But No Policy!

‘The First Idea: How Symbols, Language & Intelligence Evolved from our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans’, by Stanley I. Greenspan. M.D. & Stuart G. Shanker, D.Phil., 2004

This (as they say in literary circles) is a book of two halves: the first half promotes the thesis that what makes us human is not pre-programmed information embedded in our genes, but the quality of the attachment relationship between caregiver and infant. Where this is good enough, it enables us to avoid what they call ‘catastrophic’ emotions, which would lead to immediate action, often of a violent nature. This gap between emotional reaction and action, this period of affect regulation, is (the authors claim) the origin of symbols. Symbols are generated by ‘prolonged chains of emotional signalling’ (not necessarily linguistic) between caregiver and infant. The invention of symbols enabled human language and many forms of human intelligence to develop.

To continue the literary theme, I found myself frequently punching the air in agreement with this thesis, which has the potency to crack the hegemony of the vulgar forms of genetic determinism, so often found these days in the mass media. This jubilation was, admittedly, tempered by the authors’ (to me, curious) lack of reference to a number of scientific developments which (in my view) would strongly support their thesis: in the 450+ pages of their text, I could find no reference to; a) epigenetics, b) affect researchers, such as Jaak Panksepp & c) developmental psychologists, such as Daniel Siegel. A possible explanation for this could be the authors’ commitment to cultural-religious conservatism, as in this quote: “At their personal core, children will require a very strong grounding in their immediate cultural and/or religious values. This core will need to be strong enough to sustain and support cultural and/or religious values …” (p.454)

The disappointing second ‘half’ of the book consists of the authors’ efforts at so-called ‘policy’ recommendations. Towards the end of the book they simply list a variety of highly desirable circumstances in regard to child-rearing; children and families should not be subject to stress, parents should have the time and space to engaged in ‘prolonged chains of emotional signalling’ with their children, relations between caregiver and infant should be nurtured and protected by the wider society, etc … You don’t have to be a radical social critic to recognised that these ideal goals are very rarely, if ever achieved in modern Western societies. What is profoundly disappointing is that the authors appear to believe that the act of listing desirable outcomes contributes in some way to their achievement. It’s the equivalent of a deeply indebted person announcing that from now on they’re going to earn £300,000 a year – but having no idea where this income is going to come from.

Review by Steve Minett, PhD

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‘The Ancient Origins of Consciousness’, Tod E. Feinberg & Jon M. Mallatt, The MIT Press, 2016, ISBN 9780262034333

This book about the origins of consciousness promotes three theses which are significantly heterodox within consciousness studies: firstly, the notion that the phenomenon of consciousness is almost exclusively embedded in biology. Secondly, the authors want to push the origin of consciousness back in evolutionary history much further than any conventional accepted approach. They specifically cite a date of 520 million years ago for the appearance of basic consciousness in vertebrates and imply a possibly earlier origin in other, more ‘primitive’ groups of species. And this is their third heterodoxy, the thesis that consciousness is much more widespread across the biological world than would be accepted by conventional theories.

The authors promote these theses via a strategy of emphasising diversity on two fronts: they deconstruct the concept of consciousness into three distinct varieties; 1) ‘Affective’, i.e. the conscious experience of emotional states, 2) ‘Interoceptive’, meaning internal states of mental self-awareness, and 3) ‘Exteroceptive’, conscious awareness (and perhaps internal modelling) of the external environment. Their second ‘diversity’ front involves a multi-disciplinary approach. Specifically they argue for a combination of neurobiology, evolutionary theory and ‘neuro-philosophy’.

By way of critique, let me say that I’m a great fan of diversity on both their chosen fronts. However, no matter how bold their championing of diversity in these areas compared to conventional ideas – it’s not bold enough for my tastes! Their major lacuna on the multi-disciplinary front, is (in my view) their explicit ruling out of any role for quantum mechanics in explaining consciousness: the authors tersely comment; “… consciousness is consistent with generally accepted and known scientific laws, so no new ‘fundamental’, or quantum-level, or ‘mysterious’ properties are required to explain it.” (p.195) There are a lot of hubristic assumptions in this curt dismissal. The most obvious one being an easy solution to the famous ‘hard problem’, namely how the mechanistic processes of classical physics can ‘magically’ produce the ‘how it feels’ of conscious phenomenology. They explicitly claim to have solved this problem at the end of their book. I (and I suspect many others) will not be so easily convinced. (Personally, I believe that the hard problem’s solution will require a resort to quantum theory, see below.)

As regards the authors’ account of the diversity of levels of consciousness (as above) this emphasis is (for me) a definite bonus in their theory. However, once again they don’t, in my view, go far enough. They mention the consciousness categories of Edelman and Damasio (‘primary’, ‘core’ and ‘autobiographical’) but not those of Gray (public and private qualia) and Humphrey (the ‘sensation’/‘perception’ distinction). Given that the first two are essentially biologists, as are the authors, while the second pair are psychologists, this does not sit well with their advocacy of a multi-disciplinary approach. My critique of all these of all these multi-level models is that; a) they are not consistently or coherently hierarchical, and b) (maybe as a consequence) they lack any base-level ‘raw material’ out of which the progressively higher levels of consciousness can be constructed. I, along with Henry Stapp and others, find this base-level in Whitehead’s proto-conscious ‘occasions of experience’.

Ultimately, the authors explain the generation of consciousness as a product of complex neural processing: “Consciousness stems from unique neural interactions within and between discrete chains of neurones, … each chain usually requiring four or more levels, and with the chains arranged as hierarchically organised, modality-specific pathways that merge to form a ‘neural map’ that simulates the real world, or else feed into affective circuits, and ultimately serve sustained processing and behaviour.” (p.198) They claim that the almost infinite diversity of qualic experience can be accounted for by ‘complex neurohierarchies’. They also claim that simple biological reflexes ‘evolved into’ subjective experience. In commenting on the subject/object divide, they assert that there is an inescapable ‘ontological barrier’ to our understanding of the causes of consciousness because: “… from the outside viewpoint the brain is observable but not the experience, whereas from the inside the experience is observable but not how the brain constructs that experience.” (p.222) Despite all this, at the very end of their book, they criticise Crick’s famous dismissal of human experience as “.. nothing but a pack of neurones!” as being ‘too strictly reductionist’.

It seems that the extremes of reductionism are in the eye of the beholder. Let me conclude this review by challenging the authors’ view that there is a real and inescapable ‘ontological barrier’ to our understanding of consciousness because (as they claim above) there is only a subjective or an object view of the brain and experience. For example, the science writer David Hodgson has offered a quantum explanation of consciousness based on the idea that; “… mind and brain are both manifestations of the same underlying reality. Mind can to some extent be said to be a function of the brain, but only if the brain here is understood not as the detectable macroscopic object, but as the quantum reality underlying both this object and the mental events of consciousness. Mind and brain are two manifestations of, and viewpoints towards, a single reality; but with important differences, in particular in relation to the development over time of this reality and (specifically) the causes and explanations of such development.” (Hodgson, ’91,p.381)

Steve Minett, PhD

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Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change Our Brains (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) by Louis Cozolino, 2016, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-10: 039370905,1ISBN-13: 978-0393709056, 288 p, hardcover £ 15.99

Reconciling Neuroscience and Talking Therapy?

Review by Steve Minett, Phd

I found this a very rich and engaging book, filled with the creative tensions generated by at least two fault lines which run through it: at a practical level the objective of the book is somewhat ambivalent. At one level, it can be read simply as a manual for practitioners of psychotherapy, especially of the ‘talk’ variety. On the other hand, the statement in its title, ‘Why therapy works’, certainly implies an ambition to grapple with the scientific and philosophical problems of consciousness studies (which is my particular area of interest), such as whether our behaviour is totally determined by our genes, our environment (especially in early infancy) plus an element of chance, or whether there’s scope for us to exercise some element of free choice. (The amount of space Cozolino devotes to the novel therapeutic technique known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming, despite conceding that he has no idea how it works, definitely weighs on the practitioner manual side.)

The second fault line is more concerned with theoretical perspectives. It seems to me that, in this book, Cozolino is trying to reconcile two distinct, long-standing and antagonistic traditions in human psychology; firstly, the psychodynamic tradition (starting with Freud) which empathises the overwhelming impact which infantile trauma has on the course and quality of adult life. Secondly, the cognitive, neuroscience tradition (which grew out of behaviourism). This seeks to account for the human brain and behaviour from a rigorously positivist, ‘hard’ science perspective. (On the issue of infantile trauma, the book does a very good job of re-educating us regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: we customarily think of this as only affecting adults who’ve been exposed to combat, accident or disaster scenarios. Cozolino, however, asserts that abuse and neglect in infancy can have just as devastating an impact.)

To start with this second, and perhaps more productive fault line, Cozolino has long promoted an understanding and integration of modern neuroscience with psychotherapy. An example in this book is his explanation of neurosis via ‘an unfortunate twist of evolutionary fate’; namely, the fact that, “the amygdala is mature at birth while the systems that regulate and inhibit it take many years to develop and mature. Thus, we enter the world totally vulnerable to overwhelming fear with no ability to protect ourselves.” [p.192]  (He suggests that an effective therapist needs to become ‘an amygdala whisperer’.) Following this reference to the well-established neuroscience finding that the amygdala is the organ of instant fear, warning and alarm, however, he goes on to resolve this evolutionary dilemma via a thoroughly psychodynamic solution; namely that, “… we are capable of attuning with caretakers who can regulate our fear circuitry until our own brains are ready to take on the job.” [p.192]

I’m personally convinced that Cozolino’s explanation is the correct solution to the dilemma. (Neurosis arising, of course, where the quality of attunement is inadequate.) I also, however, think that; a) this ‘attunement’ solution would not be widely accepted in the cognitive neuroscience community and b) Cozolino does not do any of the theoretical ‘heavy-lifting’ necessary to justify it. While Cozolino devotes a lot of effective time to explaining individuals’ denial and resistance to the impact of infantile trauma on their personal lives, he doesn’t refer to the paradigm-based, cultural and institutional denial and resistance to this phenomenon. (See below for further explanation.)

A second example of the contradictions raised by Cozolino’s appeal to would-be ‘hard science’ explanations is his division of people into ‘alphas’ and ‘betas’ (essentially, ‘natural’ leaders and followers). This is, I assume, taken from evolutionary psychology and, again, I can agree with a lot of it, especially when Cozolino introduces a nuanced four category version; 1) naturally confident and competent leaders who enjoy being the centre of attention (charismatic is probably the right term) 2) naturally passive and content followers who are happy to abide by the rules and avoid the burdens of responsibility (I’m most dubious about this category) 3) ‘Pseudo-alphas’ who believe that they have all the qualities necessary for leadership but really don’t (Trump would be a classic example) 4) Aspiring Alphas who find themselves trapped in beta social roles but feel frustrated and under-valued.

As Cozolino very correctly points out, the people who voluntarily enter psychotherapy are almost exclusively Aspiring Alphas. (Pseudo-alphas sometimes are ordered into therapy because of the problems they cause for other people.) However, having set out the alpha/beta categories as ‘natural’ (and possibly, thereby, opening himself to accusations of American cultural bias), Cozolino then proceeds to a chapter entitled, “Helping clients become alphas”: many an evolutionary psychologist might well argue that converting aspiring betas into alphas via the therapeutic process amounts to subverting the ‘natural order’ of society. Again, this strikes me as another example of Cozolino having his hard science cake while eating his humanist therapeutic role.

I find these paradoxes fascinating because I agree whole-heartedly with the interpretations of the human mind-brain and behaviour which Cozolino articulates so clearly: he goes so far in the right direction, but without any safety net of theoretical justification. But what would such a ‘safety net’ consist of? It would, in my view, have to entail tackling head-on the nature and function of consciousness. At one point Cozolino (veering to the side of practitioner-manual) avers that consciousness is, “too big a question for me”. However, if your ambition is to explain why talking therapy works, you have to assume that certain conscious states of mind, as induced by therapeutic dialogue, have the causal power not only to heal the mind, but also (as Cozolino explicitly claims) to restructure the brain. (He has a chapter on ‘The Power of Coherent Narratives’.)

Explaining the causal efficacy of consciousness is of course a vast and controversial topic, but I hope I can conclude by saying a couple of things that can point us in the right direction: many philosophers reduce the problem of consciousness to the two component issues of ‘qualia’ and the self: qualia can be summed up in what’s become known as the ‘hard problem’; “why should anything feel like something?” In relation to Cozolino, let’s apply this question to the emotions. Why should the observable and measurable neurophysiological processes that generate human emotions, also produce ‘affect’, the subjective experience of emotion? For many decades the very existence of affect was flatly denied by the scientific and philosophical communities and still is by some prominent representatives, such as Daniel Dennett, who states that; “we seem to have qualia, but really we don’t!”

As to the self, the work of Jaak Panksepp opens up some highly ‘therapy-friendly’ perspectives. Panksepp argues that affect and the self are natural outgrowths of the physiological process of homeostasis. They exist in order to regulate the neurophysiological emotions, which for infants can manifest themselves in catastrophic forms. The self and its affects are the interlocutor to whom the good parent (and the psychotherapist) is whispering. (The amygdala is, after all, only a biological organ!) Greenspan and Shanker argue that this affect nurturing of infants by caregivers has a crucial and evolutionarily significant role for the human species. I could also mention Sarah Hrdy and many others. My point is that the theoretical structure for Cozolino’s safety net has now become available. If his book is, in fact, just a handbook for practitioners, it’s probably too big an ask for him to have incorporated it. That book remains to be written.