Partisan review: the Shadow of Consciousness

Peter Hankins recently published a book: The Shadow of Consciousness (A Little Less Wrong). In case you don’t know, Hankins has been blogging about consciousness for more than ten years: his Conscious Entities blog covers both scientific and philosophical approaches and provides regular, consistent, no-nonsense commentary on recent papers, essays and/or major theoretical efforts. Hankins’ approach is mostly philosophical, but in a refreshing manner: he obstinately refuses to follow any line of reasoning without questioning the key turning points, always in very pragmatic ways. By releasing a book, Hankins has (finally!) allowed his readers to learn about his own views, generating a good amount of excitement and debate: this is an important result in itself, because Conscious Entities is one of those rare places where scientists, philosophers and interested people (like me) can openly and friendly debate about consciousness; it is a place where otherwise insular approaches meet each other and get a chance to cross-fertilise.

[Spoiler warning: this article may contain a couple of minor spoilers]

The following is a short Partisan Review of Hankins’ book. Why Partisan? There are several reasons: first of all, I’ve been studying the subject of Consciousness (both the scientific and philosophical streams) for some years, and I’ve been doing so because I have my own very strong opinions about consciousness. Furthermore, because of my interest, I got in touch with Peter, and I now consider him a friend. Finally, I’m lazy: if I decide to write about something, it is always because I have my own point to make. This post is no exception: reviewing Hankins’ book allows me to explore an issue that interests me. Thus, I can’t and do not wish to claim that what follows is an unbiased review. I am hoping that my own bias is what can make the review interesting.

Short Summary.

The Shadow of Consciousness is divided in three parts. The first section goes under the heading of “Selective History”. Hankins provides a brief historical overview, where the selective element is explicitly stated: he will build a coherent narrative that is going to be instrumental to develop his own contribution. Namely, he will use the historical frame to propose a new outlook and a new classification of what makes the study of consciousness particularly difficult. This in turn will allow Hankins to propose his own (partial) solutions.

The second part is about the (supposedly) Easy Problems. To me, this was the most interesting part of the book, probably because his own discrimination between the Hard and Easy problems of consciousness doesn’t coincide with my own. In particular, he puts Meaning and (philosophical) Intentionality inside the class of Easy problems. I wouldn’t, but I also see that it worked very well for Hankins: his approach is philosophical, he does not ignore science, not at all, but he uses scientific results to inform (and sometimes constrain) his reasoning. My own inclination is quite the opposite, I would start with scientifically defined problems, and search  the (existing) philosophy to see if it can provide some promising way to tackle the problems that act as roadblocks to scientific progress. Anyway, the classification is once more instrumental: it allows Hankins to isolate a class of problems, lumping them together under the “Inexhaustibility” banner. This sort of problem “[deals] with lists of alternatives which are indefinitely long or even undefinable“. I find this approach very promising, but disagree with some of the treatment it gets. I will not discuss the disagreements in detail, this is not the place to do it; if you want the details, you should read the book and then dive into the discussion here.

The third part deals with the Hard Problem itself, and is therefore the most philosophical side of the book. I was expecting to strongly disagree with whatever I would find in there, but instead, to my unmitigated surprise, I found myself with nothing at all to complain about. Hankins does not even try to provide final answers; instead, he defines the problem in his own terms, and uses the resulting point of view to expose some more common errors. For example, he points out that:

Talk of the laws of nature, or the laws of physics, is metaphorical. When a string stretches, no calculation takes place inside it to determine how far. Stuff just exists, stuff just happens; the laws are our description of the observable regularities of stuff.

The quote above exemplifies the best and rarest quality of the book (and of all of Hankins writings in general). He is impermeable to nonsense (can I say bullshit?). His ability to spot, isolate and describe errors in reasoning makes him stand out from the crowd of consciousness scholars. More than that, he is also a very good writer: his points are always expressed in clear and succinct language. Envy is my own reaction.

Should you read this book?

Yes! Seriously. If you’ve managed to read thus far, you will find The Shadow of Consciousness delightful. Hankins’ prose is witty and direct, his scholarship is eclectic and thorough, his thinking straight. Unlike most scholarly books, you will never be dragged inside avoidable rabbit holes, you will not have to endure long defensive arguments that serve the sole purpose of meeting academic standards. Reading this book is both informative (even if you are already reasonably well-informed) and enjoyable. Where else would you read expressions like “effing the effable“, grin and simultaneously recognise that the underlying point is indeed valid and useful?

Having said this, I do also need to point out that The Shadow of Consciousness is not a textbook meant to inform students. If you are just approaching philosophy of mind, you will still need to read long and tedious monographs. As far as I can tell, no single book is (or will ever be) able to cover all the different approaches to Consciousness studies. However, the book does provide a fresh insight, and has other merits as well, so I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in philosophy of mind (especially the professionals). On the other hand, if you are a neuroscientist, and in particular a cognitive neuroscientist, you really should read this book. Why? Because it is an enjoyable read, and neuroscience needs to be informed by philosophical discourse. Collecting more data will not in itself provide generalisable answers: one needs to develop meaningful and reasonable theories that allow to interpret scientific results in a well-grounded way. You should feel free to disagree with the outlook provided by The Shadow of Consciousness, but at the same time, this book scores two important meta-points:

  1. Philosophy doesn’t necessarily equate with self-serving sophistry. Some philosophers are well-grounded, their work can and should be useful.
  2. Studying Consciousness scientifically, without a decent understanding of the philosophical conundrums can only produce “small”, very localised answers.

My own axe to grind

If the above wasn’t partisan enough, there is one more thing I need to say. This book was self-published: as far as I know it was not peer-reviewed, and therefore we should (according to the orthodox scholarly stance) look at it with the highest level of scepticism. Give me a break! We should read everything with the highest possible level of scepticism. We should also feel free to publicly criticise whatever published argument we find to be criticism-worthy. This is what is happening on Hankins’ blog right now, literally while I am writing this, and is a good thing. On the other hand, I frown at how the book would have been transformed if Hankins had the unhealthy ambition of seeking the badge of approval from proper academia (e.g. publish a peer-reviewed book through a specialised academic publisher). I am sure that the result would have been deprived of all the freshness and would have been a boring and effortful book to read.  This would be OK if the added pain was compensated by some additional value. Unfortunately I don’t see where this added value would be coming from: all scenarios I can envisage simply require to make revisions in order to make your claims more defensive. But there is very little value in this. Philosophical arguments always require charitable reading: initially, you need to actively attempt to see the strengths underneath any philosophical argument. Only after recognising these strengths, and having translated them into your own terms, should you poke the result and try to find weaknesses. Failing to do so almost always results in attacking straw men, and importantly, gives you no chance at all to see the straw in your own counter-arguments.

Thus, writing a philosophical argument in a defensive way does not (in general) add value: it makes the argument less direct, unnecessarily longer, and possibly makes it harder to identify the key turning points. If I can indulge in an IT metaphor, it is equivalent to “security through obscurity” which is known to be a questionable approach.

In other words, I see reasons to believe that The Shadow of Consciousness is a good book (also) because it was not peer-reviewed.

The scientific community, and in particular mind and brain science branches (see also here) are currently engaged in long-term and arduous discussions on the effectiveness of current practices. The whole debate revolves also around the supposedly indispensable added value of peer review. I’ve touched this topic already here (comments) and here, but the discussion is happening everywhere, and very few people claim to have solutions to propose (with exceptions). In this context, Hankins’ book testifies in favour of solutions that rely on Post Publication Peer Review. It doesn’t allow us to conclude anything definitive, but I can say that it is enough to question my own approach. I have been (and currently am) trying to get my own views on Consciousness published on one or the other peer-reviewed scientific journal. So far, this led me to do some useful legwork in writing the first drafts. How about the actual peer review? The only effects I can identify are negative: I’ve become defensive, my prose is even less fluid than usual, and I can’t be completely sure that I do believe every single little detail of my argument. As one would expect, some details have been inserted because of the suggestions of peer reviewers, and since I have tried hard to make sure I wasn’t adding anything that I would not want to defend, the result feels muddy to me: I can’t separate my own points from the “external contributions” and subsequently I can’t answer the all important question “do I really wish to make this particular claim?”.

Apologies for the self-serving rant: in short, this is a call for help. If you have opinions about the dangers of peer review, the opportunities of self-publishing, or anything in between, I would be glad to hear your thoughts.

Bibliography:

Ioannidis, J. P. (2014). How to make more published research true. PLoS medicine, 11(10), e1001747.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Neuroscience, Philosophy, Review, Science
2 comments on “Partisan review: the Shadow of Consciousness
  1. […] on TheEGG ). After 11+ years of blogging, Peter published an entire book, which I’ve reviewed here. For my own contribution, Peter even went through the trouble of drawing the “feature […]

  2. […] of my aversion to standard academic publishing? [I.e.: my claim that peer-reviewed monographs frequently spoil the joy of reading by being overly cautious and […]

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