Nothing could be more scientifically fundamental than our own consciousness.
Everything we experience and know passes through that window.
Here is a book that squarely tackles the problem head-on,
and it is written by a well-known, widely respected director
of a major center of neuropsychological research in Paris.
I myself have been fascinated by this topic since my undergraduate days
fifty years ago and have returned to studying it full-time at Stanford,
following careers in AI and in clinical medicine.
I was plodding through a detailed paper on the ventral and dorsal
visual pathways by O'Regan's co-director Andrei Gorea, when I discovered
this popular work and rushed to read it. Now, having spent days with it
and with the author's online publications, I will comment
on both the book and the theory it propounds.
I'm always astounded when a book like this attracts so few commentators.
What's going on?
One obvious detail is that the book is overpriced.
I attribute that to Oxford University Press's unfamiliarity with
the world of online publishing a la Kindle.
OK, academic libraries will buy a copy
no matter what the price, but ordinary mortals won't.
Until a few week ago, the hardcopy cost 45 bucks
that's about 25 cents a page - yes, it's packed with valuable,
fat memes but they're in a skinny volume.
I resorted to biking onto campus to read in situ Stanford's only copy.
There are none in dozens of local public libraries. At minimum,
the Kindle price needs to be dropped substantially.
Before transitioning from the topic of availability,
Kevin O'Regan (hereinafter = KOR),
does want the ideas to be widely disseminated,
and here's how to get them for free.
1) There are notable online book excerpts above (those whet my appetite).
2) See KOR present the ideas in his excellent hour long video
presented in Israel at the ELSC-ICNC (google it).
3) Go to his website and read about sensorimotor theory and,
in particular, his slide presentation on how to
imbue robots with qualia (actually, no one knows how).
4) If, after doing the above, you are as disconcerted
by the theory as I was, then go to the 2001 article
"A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness"
by KOR and by Alva Noe that appeared in
Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS)and skip to the end.
Laudably, BBS takes a controversial treatise like this,
and distributes it planet-wide for comment.
The theory engendered a maelstrom of criticism:
the critics and their comments are world-class.
Now, on to the book and then the theory itself.
The book itself is engagingly written for laymen
who want to understand consciousness.
The explanations are beautifully clear, easy to follow,
and charmingly illustrated. This is a lay presentation
of sensorimotor theory, which I first heard about
when KOR's collaborator, Alva Noe (=AN), presented it on a book tour.
(Some audience members were noticeably hostile to the ideas.)
I cannot do sensorimotor theory (SMT) justice in this review,
but I need to at least summarize it.
It stands in contrast with the standard view
of vision that prevails in neuroscience.
Characterizing the latter - you can SEE because
your brain makes A MODEL or REPRESENTATION
of the OUTSIDE WORLD encoded by neural impulses.
SMT, in contrast, states that there is
NO MODEL NOR REPRESENTATION of the outside world in your brain.
Rather, SEEING is a process of actively exploring/ engaging the outside world.
OK. So, why were the rabid dogs at
Alva Noe's book presentation so enraged
(and he's such a nice guy)? What about dreams?
What about hallucinations?
How about perceptions in paralyzed people?
These all seem like obvious counter examples to SMT.
Consider dreams. There is no outside world
to interact with, and what's more
you're paralyzed in hypnogogic sleep.
KOR and AN retreat (or explain) by saying
they don't really mean that continuous, real-time
motor exploration of the outside world is needed.
It may be enough (as in dreams) if it happened
in the past and left traces of the interaction.
But those engrams are just used nonconsciously,
they would argue, and do not comprise the current visual percept.
(Unfortunately, I'm running out of room - but
what's a detailed review of a neurophilosophical
theory doing anyway amidst the detritus of
baby diapers and consumer gizmos at Amazon.
I'll discuss this at greater length on my website.)
My bottom line: I would definitely have bought
this book if it was priced right.
It was obviously a labor of love as can be
appreciated from the author's online materials.
There are many aspects to sensorimotor theory,
not all of which are as controversial as the one
I discussed. For example, its emphasis on grappling
the real world has a celebrated history from Henri Bergson
to J. J. Gibson's affordances and is
now being rediscovered by roboticists.
I am firmly not persuaded by KOR's expositions that
qualia reside only in the external world; however, there are
many delights here (eg. his co-discovery of change blindness)
that merit reading this work.
The issues of whether qualia have been explained and
the mechanism by which the brain generates them
(yes, I adamantly disagree with KOR) could not be of greater importance.
Qualia are the mind's currency that it uses
to evaluate all its decisions. Robots without qualia
may become psychopathic, homicidal unconscious automata.
Whether we wish it or not, decisions that
profoundly affect humanity will increasingly be made by machines
(as they now are by machine-like corporations).
Qualia are essential to wisdom. Without understanding qualia in ourselves,
there is little hope of imbuing robots with qualia.
It is essential to get this right.
I cover neuroscience and AI at my website, bobblum.com .