My readers might have noticed that Antonio Damasio’s new book Self Comes to Mind has been under attack by Ned Block at the New York Times Book Review and by Allison Gopnik over at Slate. Block and Gopnik level the exact same argument against Damasio: he has conflated the minimal self with the reflective self and mistakenly claimed that the minimal self depends on the reflective self. This much is clear when Block says
Damasio argues that a creature without sensory integration and control of thought and action would be unconscious. But even if that is true, it does not show that phenomenal consciousness requires self-awareness, reflection, wakefulness, or awareness of one’s existence or surroundings. This argument conflates the minimal self with the inflated self.
And Gopnik accuses Damasio of making the same conflation:
Damasio suggests that phenomenal awareness depends on the sense of a self. But, actually, there is evidence that the two types of consciousness may even be in tension with one another. For example, Rafael Malach and colleagues have studied what happens when people watch an absorbing Clint Eastwood movie in a brain scanner. In those circumstances, the frontal “self” network actually shuts down while the more purely visual parts of the brain are activated.
But has Damasio really made such a simplistic mistake? I think a closer reading of Self Comes to Mind reveals otherwise. The key notion in Damasio’s theory that both Block and Gopnik overlook is the proto-self and the core-self. The proto-self is Damasio’s attempt to account for phenomenal consciousness, the so-called “raw feels” that philosophers like Block so love to emphasize and accuse neuroscientists of missing. The core-self is what we could call the “habitual self”. Although Damasio isn’t always clear in this respect, when he claims that consciousness depends on a self-process there are two ways to read this. The weaker reading is that consciousness, of any kind, always depends on the presence of a proto-self process. The stronger reading is that self-reflective consciousness depends on the autobiographical, narratological self, which in turn depends on the core-self and the proto-self being intact. But these two readings aren’t in conflict with each other so long as we recognize that, for Damasio, the “self-process” includes a continuum of both nonreflective and reflective cognition, and not just the latter as Block and Gopnik assume. For Damasio, the proto-self process and the generation of primordial feels is shared with nonhuman animals but the autobiographical self is evolutionarily recent and restricted to humans.
So has Damasio really missed phenomenal consciousness? Not at all. Damasio’s theory of the proto-self and the more precise core-self and how their interaction generates primordial feels through neural mapping is meant to capture exactly the “what it is like to experience“ that Block insists Damasio has missed. So, while Gopnik is right to say that “Damasio suggests that phenomenal awareness depends on the sense of a self”, she has unfortunately missed the proto sense of the self that Damasio claims is the foundation upon which the higher forms of self-hood are constructed. As per Damasio’s own theory, it is entirely possible for there to be a proto-self and a core-self without there being an autobiographical self. Gopnik and Block’s insinuation that Damasio has unwittingly conflated minimal self-hood with reflective self-hood and claimed that the former depends on the latter is absurd. I don’t know what book they were reading, but it is obvious that both Block and Gopnik were overly quick in their reading and probably under deadline to come up with a inevitably critical review. If Block and Gopnik had slowed down and carefully digested Damasio’s theory, they wouldn’t have made the mistake of claiming Damasio conflates reflective consciousness with phenomenal consciousness, when he has done no such thing.
Block made the same quick reading of Julian Jaynes back in 1981 when he reviewed The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In my recent paper in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, I respond to Block and defend Jaynes against Block’s criticisms. Oddly enough, Block devoted a whole paragraph to reraising these criticisms of Jaynes in his recent review of Damasio (Perhaps this is because Damasio admits he is sympathetic to Jaynes’ theory of consciousness in his new book). Block pins the same conflation problem on Jaynes:
The philosopher W. V. Quine once told me that he thought Jaynes might be on to something until he asked Jaynes what it was like to perceive before consciousness was invented. According to Quine, Jaynes said it was like nothing at all — exactly what it is like to be a table or a chair. Jaynes was denying that people had experiential phenomenal consciousness based on a claim about inflated self-consciousness.
I feel like this story is highly unfair to Jaynes, who was likely not aware of developments in the philosophy of mind during the 70s, particularly Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” When Jaynes says that there was “nothing it is like” to be preconscious, he certainly didn’t mean to say that nonconscious animals are somehow not having subjective experience in the sense of “experiencing” or “being aware” of the world. When Jaynes said there is “nothing it is like” to be preconscious, he means that there is no sense of mental interiority and no sense of autobiographical memory. Ask yourself what it is like to be driving a car and then suddenly wake up and realize that you have been zoned out for the past minute. Was there something it is like to drive on autopilot? This depends on how we define “what it is like”. If we follow Block and standard philosophical definitions, there is a clear sense in which the zoned out driver is still phenomenally conscious yet not meta-conscious. But if we read Jaynes’ charitably, we can see that there is a sense in which there is no “autobiographical what-it-is-like” for the zoned-out driver. There is no subjectivity in the sense of meta-subjectivity, or meta-awareness. I think it is plausible to assume that meta-consciousness bestows a qualitative sense of narratively grounded, autobiographical thinking that is experienced as distinctive kind of abstract, subjective interiority (For moderns, this subjectivity is largely felt to reside behind the eyes and between the ears). So insofar as the table and chair lack autobiographical consciousness, preconscious people are like tables and chairs. But insofar as table and chairs lack a proto-self and a core-self, as well as homeostasis and biological value, there is a distinct qualitative difference between the life of tables and preconscious animals. On any charitable reading of Jaynes, this difference is accounted for with his concept of “behavioral reactivity”, a capacity quite lacking in tables and chairs.
But Block isn’t interested in charitable readings. He foists his conceptual schema and terminology onto Jaynes and Damasio and critiques them for not making sense of his distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. But if Block moved past mere terminological disputes and understood the deeper theory underlying Jaynes’ and Damasio’s account, he would see that the resources are already there to make sense of the dissociation between “phenomenal experience” and reflective self-awareness.