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by John G. Taylor
MIT Press, 1999
Review by Paul Bohan Broderick, Ph.D. on May 26th 2002

The Race for Consciousness

John Taylor’s The Race for Consciousness is successful as a guided tour of many important topics in neuroscience and related disciplines. It is not successful in every regard. The Race for Consciousness is not the final word on either this model or in consciousness in general. It does not really provide any evidence that the race for the final explanation of consciousness has begun in earnest.

The text is not limited to the exciting results of the moment. Taylor’s broad experience in neuroscience, coupled with an obvious respect for the history of the study of conscience, makes for a respectable reading experience (so long as one does not expect a book of “pop” science). Along the way various proposals are put forward to lend support the Relational Theory of Consciousness (henceforth, RTC). Taylor originally proposed this model in 1973 and this book provides a useful introduction for the non-specialist.

There are significant books that chronicle particular races in the history of science. As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that I didn’t know of any books on the history of science that focused on the concept of a scientific race. There have been many instances where the race metaphor has been appropriate, where there were competitors who were aware of each other shared a goal and a general approach to that goal (though perhaps disagreeing on the details of how the course should be run). Taylor uses the race metaphor throughout his book. In this case, the metaphor was poorly chosen. Perhaps a metaphor based on touring would have been more appropriate. There no indication that someone might soon break free from the pack and cross the finish line hinted at in the title. There are however a great number of things to be seen along the way that are great opportunities for learning, for those unfamiliar with the material, or wonder, for those who are revisiting this material.

Although the many research teams working on various approaches to consciousness are clearly aware of each other, they don’t aren’t all racing to the same finish line. This reflects that there isn’t really a single “problem of consciousness” ripe for solving. Instead there are a number of problems of varying degrees of difficulty and independence. Although Taylor identifies the finish line of the race for consciousness with what David Chalmers calls The Hard Problem, he tends to redefine it in a way that makes it not nearly as difficult as the problem that Chalmers presents. Taylor’s project is to discover the features that neural events possess when they cross the threshold from brain state to brain state with consciousness, in his words “what are the sufficient conditions for consciousness?” The hard problem is much closer to “why are these the sufficient conditions for consciousness?” Given that this is not the same thing as explaining consciousness, Taylor’s presentation is bold, detailed and, as far as this non-scientist can judge, stands a fair chance of being correct.

For example, by discussing zombie arguments as empirical questions, Taylor avoids the force of these thought experiments. The strongest defenders of the zombie argument, Chalmers in particular (as presented in The Conscious Mind, 1996, Oxford University Press), admit that there are probably no zombies, and that any entity functionally identical to a conscious entity will probably be conscious. The problem is that the inference from structures and functions to consciousness can at most show that some structures correlated with consciousness experience. These states may have some Darwinian explanation, in the sense that having the functions enabled by those structures provides some survival advantage. What’s lacking is an explanation of why another set of qualitative, first person predicates can also be associated with those particular structures and functions. This is not to say that a scientific explanation is impossible, just that the tools necessary for the explanation are not currently available. Taylor’s theory does not seem to provide the missing pieces either.

One of Taylor’s most prominent goals is to propound the Relational Theory of Consciousness. The theory concerns a suitably constrained set of relations between memories and occurrent “inputs” (including, but not limited to direct inputs from sensory modalities). Although presented in occasionally dry prose, the relation theory has a poetic idea at its core: consciousness is a intricate fusion of memory and perception. Neither all perceptions nor all memories become conscious, but when the two work together in just the right way then qualitative experience becomes possible. The impact of sunlight on the retina does not cause a consciousness of sunlight. Consciousness arises only because that shade of light evokes specific memories. Of course, the beauty of the ideas involved does make suspect that explanatory sufficiency is not the only criteria at work in the development of Taylor’s theory. I make the RTC sound much softer than it is. The relation between memories and occurrent thoughts and perceptions is both specific and complex. Taylor presents the details of these relations as explicitly as possible within the scope of a 400-page book.

The RTC is a theory of relations that are not themselves brain states. Taylor asserts that the theory does limit consciousness to being purely reducible to brain states. In one sense, it meant to be internalist since the position of the brain in the larger environment is not taken as being at all constitutive of consciousness. Specifically the relations are between neural events that encode memories and those that are occurrent thoughts and perceptions. Memories are taken to be the traces of prior contact with external objects, so there may well be a stealth externalism hidden within Taylor’s explicitly and strongly asserted internalism.

One nice feature of Taylor’s tour of contemporary neuroscience is the attention given also the history of the field. Not only does Taylor use references to the history of philosophy to add color, he uses somewhat detailed discussion of the history of neuroscience to add depth. The discussion of the development of imaging technology was usefully place. Taylor’s discussion of clinical investigations into the neural correlates of consciousness performed during the 1960s and 70s presents interesting material that is often not as well known as it should be.

The detailed presentation is the great strength of this book. In a relatively small number of pages, this book covers a great variety of topics in neuroscience without loosing too much detail. The discussion never falls into a breathless exultation of recent ground breaking results. History is not ignored, nor is the philosophical importance of these results. While the relational theory of mind might not be the final theory of consciousness, it does make for a nice unifying theme to the discussion. Many well-chosen illustrations enhance the text. Some readers might consider the text hard going, others might complain that the treatment of important issues is superficial. There is only so much that can be achieved in 380 pages and Taylor has does a nice job of balancing these competing demands. While The Race for Consciousness does not deliver what its title promises, it does deliver a great deal.


© 2002 Paul Bohan Broderick


Paul Bohan Broderick, Department of Philosophy, Kent State University, OH.