Barbara Hannan: A Review of Ted Honderich's book On Consciousness

Professor Hannan's reflections appeared in the journal Mind in 2005. On Consciousness is published by Edinburgh University Press.

    Ted Honderich and I share certain convictions.  One of those convictions is that analytic philosophy, when it is good, really does help us to get clear on things.  As Honderich says in the Introduction to On Consciousness, the peculiar virtue of analytic philosophy as opposed to empirical science is its logical hard-headedness.  Scientists know more about how the physical world works, but philosophers are better at seeing the whole forest despite the trees.  Good philosophy "struggles really to be clear, does not lose sight of the subject, say consciousness, or confuse questions, or operate with circular or elusive notions.  It separates a thing from the relations it is in, and doesn't run things together.  It doesn't mistake other connections between two things for the things actually being identical…It is intolerant of nonsense, even when it is adventurous theory, and skeptical of standing and repute, including the standings and reputes of other disciplines.  It attends closely to making all of its propositions consistent, to giving a complete picture…"  (p. 2).

    Another shared conviction is that a paradigm-shift is needed in contemporary philosophy of mind.  Philosophy of mind as we know it is, to borrow Lakatos's terminology, "a degenerating research program."  Something new and different is needed --- an approach that doesn't try to reduce mental phenomena such as subjectivity, consciousness, voluntary causation of action, etc., to something else, or eliminate them as "folk psychology," but takes them seriously at the get-go, as the data to be explained.  As Honderich says, "…change is needed in the plodding industry of our current philosophy of mind.  A lot of it is only philosophy of mind so-called.  It has or aspires to strengths other than those of philosophy, more or less scientific strengths.  It is not good logic in a large sense.  While the essential science goes on, we need to get back to the philosophy and start again."  (p. 202).

    In On Consciousness, Honderich returns to various papers he wrote over the past twenty years or so, revisits and revises them so that they present the progression of his thought on the mind-body problem.  He conceives of the mind-body problem as that of explaining the relation of mental events to simultaneous neural events (p. 49).  From dissatisfaction with the "property dualism" that was the fashionable position in the early 1980s, Honderich moved to his own Union Theory and then to a newer theory, which he calls Consciousness as Existence of a World, or simply Consciousness as Existence.

    Honderich, like many of us, examined Davidsonian "anomalous monism" back in the 1980s, and concluded that it accorded too little causal relevance to mental properties in the causation of action.  The upshot of anomalous monism seems to be epiphenomenalism --- neural properties do all the causal work, and mental content just hangs around doing nothing.  We all know from first-person experience that this isn't so; in real life, what we believe and want determines what we do.  So, anomalous monism is not a satisfactory theory.

    The first impulse is simply to deny the alleged "anomalousness" of mental properties --- that is, to insist that mental properties are in some strong lawlike relationship with underlying neural properties.  According to Honderich, a picture like this is held by most neuroscientists.  He calls the view "Mind-Brain Correlation with Non-Mental Causation."  As is betrayed by the view's awkward title, the move of insisting that mental properties are in lawlike correlation with neural properties doesn't obviously solve the epiphenomenalism problem.  Honderich also points out what he takes to be a contradiction in the view.  Suppose I notice a bowl of olives on the table, and reach for an olive.  The causal story accounting for this sequence, accepted by most neuroscientists, will feature an earlier neural event (correlated with the mental event of noticing the olives) serving as a determining or necessitating condition for a later neural event (correlated with reaching for an olive).  Now, the later neural event needs only one determining or necessitating event, not two.  Yet, our intuitions tell us that the later neural event (correlated with the reaching) would not have occurred unless the earlier event had had the mental property of being a noticing of the olives.  Which is really the necessitating condition, the neural property or its correlated mental property?  The neuroscientist can't very well say "both."

    Honderich's Union Theory was intended as a variety of physicalism with advantages over simplistic identity theories of mind and brain.  Honderich's account of what it is to be physical is as follows:  either in space-time and perceived, or in space-time and unperceived but in causal relations with things that are in space-time and perceived.  According to the Union Theory, mental/neural events are physical in this sense.  The Union Theory dealt with the perceived contradiction in the neuroscientific view by insisting that simultaneous mental and neural events constitute one effect rather than two.  Thus, reaching for the olive, and the neural event realizing this action, are one and the same effect.  The neural event could not be caused without the mental event also being caused.  So, in place of just the proposition that there is an earlier necessitating condition of a later neural event that also has a simultaneous mental necessary condition, we have it that the earlier circumstance also necessitates the later mental necessary condition.  (p. 64).  I must admit, I don't really understand this.

   Maybe it doesn't matter that I don't understand the Union Theory, since Honderich eventually rejected the Union Theory himself.  His grounds included uneasiness about epiphenomenalism, but the main ground was that the Union Theory is like a lot of the rest of contemporary philosophy of mind in not really trying to give, or not succeeding in giving, an actual account of the nature of mental events, or consciousness itself.  There isn't just the mind-body problem; there's the mind problem.  Honderich was dissatisfied with the writings of John Searle; Searle seemed to be trying to explain subjectivity merely by stating humble truths about the mind.  Honderich was also dissatisfied with his own earlier attempt to explain mental events in terms of two components, subject and content, both physical but not neural.

    Consciousness as Existence, Honderich's most recent theory, whether or not it works, certainly attempts a paradigm shift.  It is not more of the same old plodding industry.  While it doesn't owe much to the externalism of Putnam and Burge, it is a kind of externalism.  It goes against what Honderich calls "cranialism," the attempt to locate mental content inside the head.

   Honderich divides consciousness into three kinds:  perceptual (for example, my current awareness of my physical environment); reflective (for example, my current thinking about philosophy of mind); and affective (for example, my current slightly depressed mood, mild headache, desire to quit writing and go for a walk, and so on).  The account of perceptual consciousness is taken to be primary; accounts of the other two types of consciousness will depend on it.  Therefore, Consciousness as Existence is first and foremost a theory of perceptual consciousness.

   I agree with Honderich that any theory of the nature of perceptual consciousness must accord with certain ground-level convictions and intuitions.  One such intuition is that perceptual consciousness just is what it is like to experience one's environment.  Another is that being conscious of the world is something subjective or personal.  Also, there's the cast-iron truth of causal interaction between consciousness and the physical world.  You can't have a theory, such as spiritual dualism, that makes such interaction problematical.

   Consciousness as Existence supposedly meets these desiderata.  It isn't easy for me to state the theory, but I'll try.  What it is for you to be conscious of the room you're in isn't for there to be anything going on in your cranium.  Something going on in your cranium is necessary to your being conscious, but the cranial goings-on cannot be identified with your awareness of the room.  What it is for you to be aware of the room is for there to be a certain state of affairs outside your head.  This state of affairs, outside your head, is your phenomenal world, your mental world.  It is in space; it is physical; therefore, it can interact causally with other physical stuff.  It is related (in some unspecified way) to the perceived part of the extra-mental physical world.  This phenomenal world thus depends on neural goings-on in your cranium, and on the extra-mental world.  But it itself exists independently of what it depends on.

   There are at least two problems with this.  First:  it's not at all clear how a person's phenomenal world can be both subjective/mental and objective/physical.  This looks like a contradiction.  Second:  the theory looks circular.  It looks as if Honderich is saying:  for a person to be conscious is for there to exist an external, physical world, and for the person to be conscious of it.  This is not helpful.
    Honderich's book does not solve the mind-body problem, but it has the merit of raising central philosophical problems in a bold and provocative way.  Unfortunately, as is all too common with recent philosophy books, there are some printing errors that certainly don't help the reader.   In the seventh line from the top on p. 20, the first occurrence of the word 'Causation' should be 'Correlation.'  In the third-to-last line of Ch. 3, the first occurrence of 'M2' (for a mental event) should be 'M1.'  The 13th line on p. 205 should have a 'not' in it.  And so on.

   Some philosophical musings in closing:  it occurs to me that Honderich's attempt to locate the subject in space-time, so as to lend it physical reality, causal power, and scientific respectability, may be an error.  Perhaps Kant and Schopenhauer were right after all, and the subject is precisely not in space-time; as the subject is the metaphysical limit of a world, space-time (and causality) exist only for it, only within its representation.  If this were true, we would not have to explain how mental content depends on the physical world; the dependence would be the other way around.  A return to transcendental idealism?  Now that would be a paradigm-shift indeed.

For much more discussion of this theory of consciousness, go to Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed.
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