Of Darwin, Freud, and Cranial Fire: The Origins of the Way We Think
By Robert Ornstein
Prentice-Hall, 306 pp.

By Daniel C. Dennett
Little, Brown, 511 pp.

Here’s a puzzler: Why is it that thinking pleasant thoughts (erotic reveries, say) can produce tingles of tangible pleasure, while imagining pain (picture slamming your fingers in the car door) is not in itself painful?

Or what about this: How are we able to recognize that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character – a figment who never existed – and yet at the same time insist that there were no jet aircraft in Holmes’s world, despite the fact that, as Daniel Dennett points out, “this is not asserted explicitly or even logically implied in the text?”

The point here is not to solve these riddles (answering the second is a good deal easier than explaining the first) but to illustrate a double irony of meditations on human cognition: it is only given the fact of consciousness that thinking about it is even conceivable; and yet the very possibility of introspection seems simply to lead to conundra, bedevilment and confusion. It’s like trying to map a hall of mirrors from the inside.

Which isn’t to say it can’t be done. In disciplines ranging from psychology to philosophy to neurophysiology the thinkers about thinking have been hard at work on some extremely tough nuts: what is consciousness, exactly, and how does it work? What does it mean to be aware of being aware? How is it possible for the human brain (a mere bag of biochemical slush, after all) to be self-reflexive, to possess a sense of identity, to speak to itself in the first person singular?

Simultaneously demanding, frustrating and fascinating, these two books are progress reports from the frontlines of cognitive inquiry. Their authors are both prolific and pedigreed. Robert Ornstein, the author or co-author of some 15 previous books, teaches at the University of California Medical Centre and at Stanford as well as heading up something called the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge. Dennett is a distinguished arts and science professor and director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, with five previous books to his credit.

Their respective volumes this time around couldn’t be more different. Where Dennett’s is meticulous, methodical and serious – a book aimed primarily at graduate students and fellow philosophers – Ornstein’s is light, user-friendly and plentifully illustrated, a coffee-table book for inquiring minds. But in the end they both argue much the same thing: you do not exist. Or, rather, “you” do not exist in the way “you” imagine.

Lest one shun Dennett’s more difficult offering in favor of Ornstein’s, let it be said that Consciousness Explained is the superior work. Yes, it requires more of the reader, but by the same token the return is that much greater. Both books are packed with examples of the tricks of the mind – hypnotic states and multiple personality disorders and illusions of perception – but where Dennett’s builds slowly and carefully toward a coherent and encompassing theory, Ornstein’s stalls at a picture of psychology as a jumble-box of nifty observations.

Indeed, Ornstein’s work is misnamed, since he not only doesn’t explain The Evolution of Consciousness – how humans, unlike lobsters or spiders, came to adaptively acquire self-awareness – but doesn’t even try (Dennett includes a chapter of exactly the same title that is infinitely more satisfying). In fact, the best portions of Ornstein’s volume are those devoted, not to consciousness, but to the evolution of the brain, which is not quite the same thing. It would appear that the massive growth of pre-humans’ thinking organ some two million years ago had to do with keeping the cortex cool in the mid-day sun of the African savanna. The wondrous machinery that would make possible language, fire, the wheel, agriculture, may have begun simply as a radiator in the noggin.

It is to Dennett that one turns, then, for detailed explication of the new insights. The arguments and the evidence he musters are too rich to reproduce here, but their upshot is the overthrow of nothing less than all that we commonly believe about our “selves.” Dennett aims to demolish the last vestiges of residual Cartesianism – the notion that there is a “mind” in each of us that is more than simply a network of neural shunts; that there is an entity called self that is the co-ordinator of consciousness, a Master Witness to life’s events.

Hogwash, says Dennett. The sense of self is merely a convenient, if comforting, fiction – an abstraction that arises from the orchestration of unthinking cranial activity, the ultimate trick of the mind. The self no more exists in reality than a termite colony has a personality. Notice that this is not the “divided self” of psychoanalytic theory. This is no self at all.

The idea that we are all carrying the equivalent of termite colonies around in our heads is not an altogether appealing one. The bad news, according to this view, is that when death comes there is no soul to depart, no ectoplasm that leaves its corporeal container. The lights simply go out. The good news is that, if consciousness arises as a result of increasingly complex unthinking procedures, it shouldn’t be that difficult to engineer artificial intelligence. Star Trek fans, meet Commander Data.

There is one last irony in all this, and it has to do with the arguments of a field that couldn’t be further removed from cognitive science: namely, literary theory. The latest rage is a school of thought known as deconstructionism, which has been loudly proclaiming “the death of the subject” for years now. There are no individual authors of literary texts, no unified and coherent “selves.” There are merely mouthpieces for socially specific and historically contingent discourses of power, sex and so on, which speak through respective “authors.”

And when in the course of human inquiry, distant disciplines arrive at the same counter-intuitive conclusions, something, as Holmes would say, is

  • Montreal Gazette February 15, 1992