When I saw that renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio had a new book coming out I was immediately excited. When I saw that the title was Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, I was doubly excited and preordered it, for this sounded like the sociocultural approach to consciousness that I have recently been arguing for. Although I am only about halfway through, I wanted to go ahead and post some brief thoughts on the introductory chapter. When I get done with the book, perhaps I will post a proper review of the whole book.
On the sixth page, Damasio writes the following:
I have been studying the human mind and brain for more than thirty years, and I have previously written about consciousness in scientific articles and books. But I have grown dissatisfied with my account of the problem, and reflection on relevant research findings, new and old, has changed my views, on two issues in particular: the origin and nature of feelings and the mechanisms behind the construction of the self.
I am particularly interested in his thoughts on the “construction of the self”, as this is closely related to my own research on Julian Jaynes and the sociocultural development of self-reflexive cognition, narratological cognitive control, and subjective feelings of interiority when introspecting. Like me, Damasio says that “in approaching the conscious mind, I privilege the self. I believe conscious minds arise when a self process is added onto basic mind process” (8).
Now, it is important to note that Damasio distinguishes between two kinds of selves: the self-as-object and the self-as-knower. The self-as-object is simply the living body. Philosophers like to call this self a “minimal self”, a prereflexive bodily self-consciousness. The self-as-knower is that self which is capable of reflective rumination, autobiographical narratological cognition. Damasio’s strength as a theorist is that he is a developmental thinker. In order to understand the mind, we must understand how it evolves in both phylogeny and ontogeny. Similar to my own account based on Julian Jaynes’ views, Damasio looks at human evolution in terms of reflexive introspection being constructed “on top of” or “out of” the underlying subpersonal, prereflective mind. Moreover, “the self-as-subject-and-knower is not only a very real presence but a turning point in biological evolution” (9). This is a very Jaynesian point. Jaynes and Damasio would probably disagree about the dating of the emergence of the self-as-knower, but both would probably agree on this point: “Conscious minds begin when self comes to mind, when brains add a self-process to the mind mix, modestly at first but quite robustly later” (22).
Speaking of Jaynes, I was very excited to see that Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness was cited by Damasio. It wasn’t a very interesting citation, but I was glad to see it and know that respected neuroscientists take Jaynes seriously. Given Damasio’s emphasis on theoretically “starting over”, I am curious as to know if reading Jaynes caused him to reconsider the “mechanisms behind the construction of the self”.
A lot of Damasio’s points are echoed in the paper on neuroplasticity and consciousness that I just finished with Micah Allen. For example, Damasio says “There is no dichotomy between self-as-object and self-as-knower; there is, rather, a continuity and progression. The self-as-knower is grounded on the self-as-object” (10). In our paper, Micah and I argued that consciousness must be understood in terms of a dynamic interaction between prereflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. I take this to be compatible with Damasio’s distinction between the protoself and the autobiographical self, what he calls the “self as witness”.
The one place I think Damasio falters is on the issue of whether you need neurons to “have a mind”. Damasio is quite clear when he says that “Organisms make minds out of the activity of special cells known as neurons”. (17) This is because Damasio places a great deal of emphasis on the capacity for neural networks to form maps of the internal bodily milieu and the external world. Without neurally grounded representational maps, Damasio doesn’t think you have “raw feels”. I find this to be an interesting position but I think it is open to philosophical inconsistencies. Rather than saying unicellulars lacking nervous systems don’t have any subjectivity proper, we should say that membrane bound, autopoietic, dynamic systems display online intelligence, what Jaynes called behavioral reactivity. As Michael Wheeler defines it, “A creature displays online intelligence just when it produces a suite of fluid and flexible real-time adaptive responses to incoming sensory stimuli”. So while Damasio is right to say that neural mapping constitutes a computational shift from nonneural systems, this shift must be understood in terms of degrees of online intelligence, not ontological kind. That is, the difference between a nonneural organism and a neural organism is not a difference in consciousness. Their consciousness is exactly the same: nonreflective (what I have called “nonconsciousness”). What they differ in is degrees of online intelligence. The neural system simply allows for much more effective and functionally adaptive online intelligence. But this is a matter of degree, not kind.
For those who think that Wheeler’s definition of online intelligence rules out unicellulars since he emphasizes “sensory stimuli”, consider this: does not a white bloodcell biochemically “sense” the presence of an enemy bacterium? On the most parsimonious metaphysical account, the white bloodcell is making a categorization judgment between invaders and noninvaders. This surely counts as an instance of sensory perception. To “sense” something means to “make sense” of it i.e. to make an interpretation. Unicellulars are surely capable of interpreting the world as either being nutritious or toxic. Sucrose is encountered as nutritious, for example. Heidegger made this point quite well. Any organism that “uses” the environment in the way unicellulars “use” sucrose demonstrates the structural ecstasies of temporality: retrospectivity (having-been) and prospectivity (futural). Perceiving an affordance involves perceiving an opportunity, which is futural. But what the world affords you depends on your entire past history of structural coupling (your having-been). Where the past meets the future is the present: the dynamic unfolding of action out of the virtual realm of opportunity.
Damasio is so close to getting it right on this point. He recognizes that biological value is rooted in the basic homeostatic life regulation we share with even unicellular organisms. Indeed,
What is not commonly appreciated, although it is well known, is that long before living creatures had minds, they exhibited efficient and adaptive behaviors that for all intents and purposes resemble those that arise in mindful, conscious creatures. Of necessity, those behaviors were not caused by minds, let alone consciousness. In brief, it is not just that conscious and nonconscious processes coexist but rather that nonconscious processes that are relevant to maintaining life can exist without their conscious partners. (31)
I agree wholeheartedly that unicellular life regulation is nonconscious. But I don’t think adding neurons bootstraps you into consciousness either, unless you mean prereflective bodily self-consciousness or phenomenal consciousness. But Damasio isn’t precise enough in his terminology and often seems to conflate prereflective consciousness and reflective consciousness. His distinction between nonminds, minds, and conscious minds just seems confusing. I suggest a continuum of online intelligence starting from unicellulars to higher mammals, with humanity’s offline autiobiographical intelligence being the qualitative evolutionary shift based on symbolic language and highly complex social inheritance mechanisms.