Top critical review
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Great research but understandably poor philosophy
on 21 April 2015
I would like to start by saying that this is an excellent book because I have a particularly harsh criticism of it and I would not like to give the impression that the book is not worth reading.
It is the same criticism that can be levelled against Antonio Damasio. Despite the arrogance of Stephen Hawking that informs us that "philosophy is dead" (The Grand Design page 1) it is very much alive and scientists like Dehaene and Damasio show us why. As with any top academic or scientist they are excellent in their specialist field and the five star reviews here testify to that. Unfortunately, since the mysteries do still abound (despite Dehaene's various attempts to pretend they do not or are almost solved) philosophy has a great deal to offer and the almost laughably daft attempts by scientists to do philosophy in their books makes this clear. To try and refute the positions of Ned Block and David Chalmers in less than two pages at the end of this book is an unworthy and cavalier approach that no philospher would engage in. Dehaene's arguments here are unstructured and poorly presented in contrast to his writing on topics within his field of expertise. Read the philosophers in the field of studying consciousness and you will find that the way they work is far more systematic, thorough and clearly referenced than the "let's do a bit of philosophy now" that finds its way into these books that are meant to be informing us about the state of the art in the research field. If you want to know about the research this book is excellent but be very wary of the attempts at theorising and philosophizing that go beyond the researched evidence base. If you read "The Character of Consciousness" by David Chalmers carefully and understand it better than Dehaene, which sadly isn't difficult, you will see that Chalmers has set up the goalposts for our understanding of consciousness in the challenge to provide a proper explanation for subjectivity. The scientists are not taking this seriously and continue, as in this book, to "explain away" subjectivity instead of providing a proper explanation for it. Appeals to natural selection, correlations, behaviourism even do not provide a proper explanation, they just allow for avoiding the fact that we do not have one. As I see it, David Chalmers has pushed for dualism as a challenge to provide such an explanation or at least stop this arrogant pretence that "we will get there" when such certainty is not possible. Dehaene also seems very keen on the idea of the "language of thought" idea proposed by Jerry Fodor way back and which has in recent years been subject to some quite harsh criticism.
I strongly recommend that readers be very wary of the philosophical elements in this book and read the philosophers referred to instead. A list of names would be something like Chalmers, Block, Carruthers, Prinz, Fodor, Clark, Dennett and Searle but there are others. You will soon see that they approach the arguments with a detailed logic and clarity that is missing in the philosophizing attempted by researchers like Dehaene.