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Monday, January 10, 2011

Consciousness: Are dreams not a form of consciousness?

Antonio Damasio, Wikimedia Commons
Reviewing Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain ("What Was I Thinking", New York Times November 26, 2010), philosopher Ned Block is left with questions about the author's materialist perspective, as opposed to heartily endorsing it:
Damasio also stumbles over dreaming. In dreams, phenomenal consciousness can be very vivid even when the rational processes of self-consciousness are much diminished. Damasio describes dreams as “mind processes unassisted by consciousness.” Recognizing that the reader will be puzzled by this claim, he describes dreaming as “paradoxical” since the mental processes in dreaming are “not guided by a regular, properly functioning self of the kind we deploy when we reflect and deliberate.” But dreaming is paradoxical only if one has a model of phenomenal consciousness based on self-consciousness — on knowledge, rationality, reflection and wakefulness.
Many people find that dreams represent their emotional experiences in stories and pictures, so it is unclear why they do not represent a form of consciousness, except that that would interfere with Dr. Damasio's theory. Block notes,
Damasio’s refusal to regard phenomenal consciousness (without the involvement of the inflated self) as real consciousness could be used to justify the brutalization of cows and chickens on the grounds that they are not self-conscious and therefore not conscious. Damasio, in response to those who have raised such criticisms in the past, declares that in fact he thinks it “highly likely” that animals do have consciousness. But this doesn’t square with the demanding theory he advances in his book, on the basis of which he denies consciousness in dreams and in “vegetative state” patients who can answer questions. He owes us an explanation of why he thinks chickens are conscious even though dreamers and the question-answering patients are not.
Yes, I'd say so. There's lots of evidence that some types of animals exercise some types of consciousness. It's good to see reviewers raising these questions about materialist works. Too often all we've heard from ompliant reviewers is predictable social noise: "Wow! Astonishing! Right on! Preach it, brother!" on behalf of a highly conventional materialist tract.

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