Thursday, October 16, 2008

Arguing for Embodied Consciousness

I thought I would pass along portions of a review in Science by Harold Fromm which has the title of this post, of Edward Slingerland's new book, "What Science Offers the Humanities - Integrating Body and Culture."
...his overall task is to address the befuddled dualism that still dominates most of our intellectual disciplines...Slingerland's central theme is that everything human has evolved in the interests of the materiality of the body. He identifies objectivist realism and postmodern relativity, both insufficiently attentive to the body, as the major epistemologies to be swept away, followed by the dualism of body and soul. For Slingerland, the presiding genii behind such a cleansing are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, with heavier debts to Johnson [whose terse summary of embodiment in (1) appeared too late for Slingerland to reference]. They view all thought and human behavior as generated by the body and expressed as conceptual metaphors that translate physical categories (such as forward, backward, up, and down) into abstract categories (such as progress, benightedness, divinity, immorality). These body-driven metaphors, Slingerland writes, are a "set of limitations on human cognition, constraining human conceptions of entities, categories, causation, physics, psychology, biology, and other humanly relevant domains."

The supposedly objective world is not "some preexisting object out there in the world, with a set of invariant and observer-independent properties, simply waiting to be found the way one finds a lost sock under the bed." All we can ever see or understand is what our own bodily faculties permit via the current structure of the brain.

In opposition to objective realism, postmodern relativity regards language and culture as constituting the only "real" world possible for us. It posits an endless hall of mirrors with no access to outside--epitomized by Derrida's notorious remark that there is nothing (at least for humans) outside of texts (i.e., culture). This view, which dominated the humanities for several decades, is mercifully beginning to fade as the cognitive sciences have matured and are increasingly promulgated.

Even though the knowing human subject is itself just a thing and not an immaterial locus of reason, the universe it experiences is as real and functional for us as any "thing" could possibly be. We do get some things "right," even if we can never know the noumenal genesis behind our knowledge. And the very concept of noumena (things in themselves independent of any observer) now seems somewhat obsolete, given that the intuition of discrete, self-bounded "things" is as built-in to the human psyche as the Kantian intuitions of space and time, grounding all experience.

Our million billion synapses produce a "person" with the illusion of a self. Slingerland holds that "we are robots designed to be constitutionally incapable of experiencing ourselves and other conspecifics as robots." Our innate and overactive theory of mind (that other people, like ourselves, have "intentions") projects agency onto everything--in the past, even onto stones and trees. The "hard problem" for philosophy of consciousness (to use David Chalmers's phrase) remains: what are thoughts, cogitations, thinkers, qualia? Chalmers's solution, alas, swept away Cartesian dualism only to sneak his own magic spook, conscious experience (for him, on par with mass, charge, and space-time), in through the back door (2, 3).

Slingerland starts with Darwin and eventually follows Daniel Dennett so far as to agree that consciousness can be done full justice through third-person descriptions that require no mysterious, unaccounted-for, nonmaterial, first-person entity as substrate. Thus the famous "Mary," who intellectually knows everything there is to know about color despite having been sequestered for life in a color-free lab, will recognize red the first time she steps outside (4). And Thomas Nagel's famous bats don't know anything about bathood that we can't figure out for ourselves from observation (5). No first-person construct, no locus of consciousness, need be invoked.

The next step, if you want to go so far (the jury is out), is to eliminate consciousness altogether, because there's nothing for it to do that can't be done without it. And with it, you need a spook to keep the show on the road. Choose your insoluble problem: eliminate consciousness altogether as superfluous or explain it (if there's really a you who makes such choices). Slingerland prefers the first option.

His conclusion, which I can hardly do justice to here, is relatively satisfying. He notes that although we don't have great difficulty knowing that Earth revolves around the Sun while feeling that the Sun is rising and setting (Dennett's favorite example of folk psychology), "no cognitively undamaged human being can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free"--however nonsensical the notion of agencyless free will (i.e., "choices" without a self to make them). Still, once the corrosive acid of Darwinism [to use Dennett's figure from (6)] has resolved the body-mind dualism into body alone, some but not most of us are able "to view human beings simultaneously under two descriptions: as physical systems and as persons."


1. M. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007).
2. D. J. Chalmers, J. Consciousness Stud. 2, 200 (1995).
3. D. J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1996).
4. F. Jackson, Philos. Q. 32, 127 (1982).
5. T. Nagel, Philos. Rev. 83, 435 (1974).
6. D. C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1995).


  1. Thanks Deric for this excellent peace offering to C. P. Snow's culture war. Just one correction: the book review came from Science Magazine, not Nature. Science 10 October 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5899, pp. 195 - 196

    Take care, Tom

  2. Opps, thank you. I will correct.

  3. Anonymous9:03 AM

    It seems science is getting close to reinventing Buddhism - no objective world, no self :-)

    But I think it's an error to think that because the self does not exist, consciousness does not exist either. Consciousness is simply beyond the realm of science, because science can examine objects, but consciousness is a subject. Everything you find by science is an object - so it's just an outer layer around the subject, not the subject itself.