In brief: Questioning Consciousness

Questioning Consciousness
April 5, 1996

This book's title is a three-way pun. The author not only asks many questions about consciousness, he also questions many received views on it, and goes on to claim that a "questioning process is at the heart of consciousness". It all makes for an exhilarating and informative read.

He takes imagination as the basic building block of consciousness. The initial brain processes are the same for imagining, remembering and actually seeing: in each case a mental image is formed and "looked for". Only if these "outflowing" signals from the prefrontal cortex are matched by "incoming" signals from the retina, is the object "seen" rather than just imagined or remembered. But - and this is crucial - it is not sufficient merely for light rays from the object to fall on the retina and be passively received: one must already be "looking for" the thing in order to see it. This is why Ellis claims that questioning is at the heart of consciousness. The incoming sensory information has to be "questioned" by the brain, and only if it matches something "looked for", will it enter consciousness.

This brings us to the mind-body problem, to which there are three familiar solutions. One is dualism, where consciousness is a feature of a nonmaterial mind which interacts with and controls the physical brain. The alternatives are both materialistic: either the conscious mind is an epiphenomenon caused by brain function, or it is to be identified with brain function. Ellis rejects all of these and offers instead a further possibility, that consciousness is a process which takes the functioning of the brain as its substratum. An analogy would be a wave travelling across the sea: the wave and the water are not identical, nor is one the cause of the other, but they are inseparable (a key term). Similarly consciousness is neither identical with nor caused by brain functioning, but it is nonetheless inseparable from it. Where consciousness goes beyond the wave analogy - and this gives it its unique character - is in its ability to create, replace and reproduce elements of its substratum as required.

Questioning Consciousness: The Interplay of Imagery, Cognition and Emotion in the Human Brain

Author - Ralph D. Ellis
ISBN - 90 2 5122 3
Publisher - John Benjamins
Price - $34.95
Pages - 260

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