A catfight over consciousness

Ignoring all the piss and vinegar about Ted Honderich and his difficult personality, is his book On Consciousness any good? Well, yes and no.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Politics

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This review is republished from the March 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here

I don’t, as a general rule, like to read other reviews before I write my own. Doing so can be distracting and potentially allows someone else’s voice to get in the way. For Ted Honderich’s book On Consciousness, however, avoiding one previous review was impossible.

The July 2007 edition of the Philosophical Review included a review of On Consciousness, written by Colin McGinn, a philosopher at the University of Miami and former colleague of Honderich (1). Described as probably the most negative book review ever written (2), McGinn begins: ‘This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.’

And so it continues, variously describing Honderich’s book as sly, woefully uninformed, amateurish, preposterous, easily refuted, unsophisticated, uncomprehending, struggling in its understanding of simple distinctions, banal, pointless, excruciating, unwilling to see obvious truth, confused, absurd and, finally, shoddy, inept and disastrous.

It’s fair to say that McGinn doesn’t think much of On Consciousness, but the strident tone of his review rather suggests that McGinn doesn’t think much of Honderich either. Speaking to the Guardian at the end of last year, McGinn confirmed as much. ‘Ted is not very good at philosophy’, he baldly stated.

Honderich and McGinn were once colleagues at University College London, and in the same Guardian article Honderich speculates that McGinn has a personal vendetta against him because of some crass comment that Honderich made about McGinn’s girlfriend being plain. McGinn, inevitably, denies this and points as evidence to a review pre-dating the girlfriend spat where he described Honderich’s work as ‘ill-written, plodding and faintly nauseating in places’.

Honderich has also attacked the journal that carried McGinn’s review, suggesting the editors only accepted it because of ‘my moral defence of Palestinian terrorism against neo-Zionism’ (3). The editors, inevitably, deny this and claim that they had no idea Honderich had ever written anything political.

Honderich has certainly managed to create an avalanche of personal animosity. Trusted colleagues seeing me with Honderich’s book over the past month have felt compelled to tell me how much they hate the guy. Roger Scruton apparently described Honderich as the ‘thinking man’s unthinking man’, and a blog discussing the McGinn review has described Honderich as ‘a rambling, bumbling, bombastic, and as it happens intemperate in the extreme, excuse for a philosopher’ (4).

I have never met Honderich but have seen him speak in public. Certainly, he came across as bombastic and pompous and I can imagine he makes enemies easily, but that isn’t so unusual in academia. Honderich, it seems to me, might have a point when he suggests McGinn is on some sort of personal crusade. Interestingly, Honderich acknowledges McGinn for his contribution to chapters one and two of On Consciousness. There are many reasons to acknowledge a colleague but it is unlikely that Honderich would have acknowledged McGinn had McGinn denounced those early chapter drafts as pointless, confused, absurd, preposterous and so forth. Either McGinn engaged in some sort of pretence back then, or he engaged in some sort of pretence when he wrote his scathing review last year.

Ignoring all this piss and vinegar about Honderich, is On Consciousness a book worth reading? I can agree the book is not a joy to read. The following is a representative and randomly plucked quote as an example of the obliqueness awaiting Honderich’s readership: ‘It seems all too plausible that in speaking of unmediated awareness of a content we refer as effectively to the very same fact as we do by speaking of a subject and a subject-content relation. I am inclined to think that is true.’ I have snatched that out of context, of course, but it is no more obvious in context what it is that Honderich is inclined to think is true.

Nevertheless, there is value in Honderich’s work. He does, as even McGinn comes close to conceding, at least understand the limitations of a neural-only view of consciousness. Much of the first half of the book is concerned with dismissing various philosophical theories of mind that depend on identities between neural activation and mental experience. Theories of mind that equate neural and mental states run into all sorts of problems. For example, if a neural state really dictates a given mental state then creating that neural state will create the mental state even if it is completely unknown and alien to the person. Thus I can come to understand special relativity, tort law and what it is like to be a bat merely by rearranging my neural tissue even if I have never before even heard the relevant terms or been close to the relevant situations.

Honderich argues, more plausibly, that a certain pattern of neural activity can only result in a certain mental event in an individual with the suitable history and background of experience. Normal conscious experience is where neural activity is part of the activity of a pre-experienced whole subject within a living body. To suggest otherwise is to border on absurdity.

Honderich further points out, correctly, that neural theories of consciousness tend to dismiss precisely what it is that needs to be explained. An inherent problem of neural theories is that they ‘explain’ consciousness in terms that just don’t feel like conscious subjective experience. Whatever conscious experience is, it certainly doesn’t feel like the activity of neurons. Honderich explains: ‘To linger a last time at this crux, real physicalism or materialism runs up against the most resilient proposition in the history of the philosophy of the mind. It is a simple one you know about, that the properties of conscious events aren’t neural ones, or aren’t only neural ones. Consciousness isn’t cells.’

Conscious experience is in a relationship with neural activity, neural activity is necessary, but consciousness cannot be reduced to neural activity because neural activity is not by itself sufficient for conscious experience. Although it is apparently obvious that consciousness must depend on stuff beyond our heads, those that discuss the mind have tied themselves in knots trying to avoid anything outside our heads. As Honderich explains in a footnote:

‘Think of the immaterialist family of answers that what it is like for you to be conscious of this room now is for there to be a thing or substance and stuff out of space, but somehow still in your head. Really? Will anyone say that that is what it is like to be aware of the room? Think of another family of answers. What is it like for you to be conscious of this room now is for there to be a neural instantiation in your head of a computational or functional sequence. Or an electromagnetic field. Or, God help us, what your consciousness of the room seems to you to be is a generating in your head of macroscopic quantum coherence, with Bose Einstein condensates combining and microtubules microtubuling.’

Faced with the need to deal with the world out there and its relation to our subjective experience, philosophers of the mind have moved in several directions, some sensible and some, like the appeal to microtubules, less so. A common strategy is to reject mental existence as just an illusion, which Honderich rightly denounces as a failure or refusal to deal with the fundamental question in front of us. Less common is a collapse into the mystery of consciousness by either celebrating that mystery as proof of a non-material thinking world or by throwing in the towel and proclaiming that we cannot understand the mystery. McGinn, incidentally, is in the latter camp.

Also less common is to embrace the problem and argue that if we wish to understand consciousness, and surely we do, then we need to deal with consciousness using language that reflects what it actually is, a subjective experience. This is Honderich’s stance, I think, when he argues that consciousness is somehow of or about things. Conscious experience is always about something – it has content – and for human beings that content is largely about people, objects and language. These things are, in the first instance, outside us and so they must be brought inside. If they are brought inside then conscious experience is dependent on more than just neural activity; it is also dependent on, at least, stuff that is outside and our relationship with it. All the way to here, Honderich seems to me to be on pretty solid ground and I applaud his efforts.

Honderich’s explanation of the relationship between us and the outside world, however, is much more difficult to applaud. Honderich argues that what it is for you to be aware of your surroundings ‘is for a world somehow to exist. It is not for a world somehow to exist – of which you are conscious or aware or the like… what that existence-claim comes to is that a collection of things, reasonably referred to as chairs and the like, are in space and time, have other properties, have certain dependencies, and are not exactly physical. They are, so to speak, what exactly physical things are made out of.’

It is not obvious what Honderich means, which is a recurring problem, but he seems to be arguing that consciousness is, in a sense, the physical world outside us. A lot, of course, is hidden by that ‘in a sense’ because it is true, in a sense, that our consciousness is dependent on the world. If the world were different then our conscious experience would be different also. Honderich is making an appeal that we take the world seriously as a constituent part of our conscious experience and that we resist collapsing into a view of reality being merely subjective. But he must be doing more than making the case for external reality.

Honderich claims more by arguing that it is not just the physical world that constitutes perceptual consciousness, but it is also the world of perceptual consciousness. If this is an attempt to get us to take seriously not just the physical, but also the ideological, then I can, again, edge towards some sort of agreement. Tort law is not a physical thing but it is no less real for that. A complete theory of consciousness will include physical objects but also our collective attempts at engaging one another, of which tort law is just one example, that cannot be boiled down to the physical or to an individual.

McGinn, however, reads Honderich as arguing that consciousness is identical with the world outside your head, which is easy to ridicule because the world exists regardless of whether you do and so cannot be your consciousness. McGinn might be being awkward, but Honderich opens the door to this ridicule by lacking clarity and by viewing consciousness as a static entity needing explanation in itself: ‘Our problem is the nature of consciousness, an analysis of consciousness, not an explanation of how it or any part of it comes about.’

The best we can hope for from this position is a good description of consciousness, which Honderich has, at least, made some progress towards. An explanation of consciousness, however, would view it as something that is developing, evolving and always becoming. McGinn makes a similar point when he asks if Honderich ‘simply decided to call a state of affairs in the environment “consciousness”? In which case, the obvious reply is that this is not what we call consciousness, and we’d like a theory of that.’ This question, however, came in the final part of McGinn’s review and, by that juncture, I somehow doubt that Honderich was in the mood to answer.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, England.

On Consciousness, by Ted Honderich is published by University of Pittsburgh Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This review is republished from the March 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here

(1) McGinn on Honderich, Philosophical Review 2007 116(3): 474-477

(2) Enemies of Thought, Guardian, 21 December 2007

(3) The nature of reasons: Two philosophers feud over a book review, New York Times, 21 January 2008

(4) Colin McGinn Did Not Like Ted Honderich’s Book, Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog

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