Inside the essence of internal life

Max Planck, the German Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and father of quantum theory, was not a man given to flights of supernatural fancy, and yet he became convinced that consciousness – “a conscious and intelligent Spirit”, as he put it – was the universal essence from which all matter sprung.

Planck’s musings on the numinous – politely dismissed by later quantum physicists as mysticism – is a good example of the broad spectrum of positions that emerge whenever evidence-based materialism is pressed into defining, and confining, the relationship between brain and mind. 

In Consciousness and Science Fiction (Springer), Damien Broderick – Texas-based award-winning author of fiction and non, critic, and, many years ago, the science fiction editor of Cosmos – takes us on a highly detailed excursion through many attempts by many writers to get to the nub of what is, perhaps, unnubbable: the essence of internal life. 

Although his primary mission is to explore the topic by examining the work of science fiction authors, he starts by laying solid real-world foundations. Through his introduction and opening chapters, he traverses ancient history, neuroscience, physics and philosophy to provide a thorough grounding in the trials and tribulations of consciousness research. 

Two key sources quickly emerge. The first is the work of Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers. In 1995 Chalmers characterised the task of understanding the relationship between the physical hardware of the brain and the consciousness that seems to arise from it as “the hard problem”.  

The second is Thomas Nagel, an American philosopher concerned with the fundamentally unknowable nature of otherness. It is impossible, Nagel notes, for any person to know the internal reality, the qualia, of another. 

In 1974, however, he went further, producing a paper called “What is it like to be a bat?”. In it, he argued that materialist approaches to defining “mind” ignored consciousness, and thus “the subjective character of experience”. 

“In short,” writes Broderick, “what Nagel sought was the specifics of subjective experience in any given organism, in order to account for its consciousness.”  

The author is clearly very familiar with his sources and the debates that spring up around them. They are waters in which he very much enjoys swimming, even if, at times, his love of the labels and jargon that characterise philosophical discussion render them turbulent for the heavy-lidded reader taking in a few pages before bed.

“One amusing aspect of the neuroscience story,” he tells us, “is that it closely mimics the account evolved by poststructuralist philosophy, semiotics and psychoanalysis. Those uptown intellectual boulevardiers – with their difficult and frequently derided jargon of antihumanism, subject positions, discourse formations, deconstruction and dissemination – turn out to have an eerie resemblance to [Daniel] Dennett’s down-home empiricists.” 

Well, quite. I was saying much the same thing last week, waiting in line at supermarket. 

“Even if no current approach is correct,” Broderick states at the conclusion of his opening section, “mind will continue to be the proper, if baffling, study of an enhanced humanity – and of the science fiction that here and now projects multiple paths into those baffling and exciting futures.” 

Then follows the meat of the book, a series of short critical assessments of dozens of science fiction novels. Each one takes an openly Nagelian approach, headed “What is it like to be … ?”. 

Thus, a selection. What is it like to be a fish, a beast-man, a mutant, debugged, a soulbot, a fungus? 

Broderick’s assessments are never less than stimulating, combining just enough intellectual and narrative scene-setting to draw focus on each author’s approach to imagining the consciousness of something Other. And while his intent is explicitly not to render literary judgements, sometimes, in a wry and passing manner, he simply can’t help himself. 

Whether he is successful, over all, in his aim of revealing the intricacies of a genre’s attempts to explore qualia is open for debate. After a while, his deliberately repetitive approach to constructing each mini-essay starts to dampen the sense of critical enjoyment the first few produce. 

That said, however, Consciousness and Science Fiction is well worth the price of entry. 

In one sense, it shares affinity with another critical survey of authorial approaches to big ideas, albeit in a very different realm – historian Mary Beard’s Confronting the Classics (2013). 

Both provide, at the very least, spirited and serious interrogations of more books in their respective fields than any non-scholar could ever hope to read. As such, therefore, they have a secondary, and most welcome function: as a critically annotated wish-list of writers earmarked for further exploration. 

In Broderick’s genre, this is particularly welcome. Science fiction offers a vast harvest of novels, some stimulating and insightful, others vapid and trashy. This reader, for one, now has several new names to look out for while scanning the shelves at the book store – a process always more rewarding when done with consciousness to the fore. 

This is an extract from the next issue of the Cosmos quarterly print magazine, to be published on June 6. To subscribe to Cosmos, click here.

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