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Matter and Consciousness (3rd Edition)

by Paul M. Churchland

The MIT Press, 2013

288 pp. Trade, $25.00

ISBN: 978-262-519588

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Director, The Diatrope Institute

Berkeley, CA



When I read the second edition of Matter and Consciousness (1988), sometime in the 1990s, consciousness was a blossoming field of study. There was much excitement around the topic and I was delighted to find a short and well-organized overview.  The pivotal year was 1994, when the group now known as the Center for Consciousness Studies [1], at the University of Arizona, organized their first conference on the subject. [They will have a conference in April that celebrates twenty years since that event.] One outgrowth of Tucson I was the formation of The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC). This group, which is still active today, saw itself as a forum for transdisciplinary research, comprised of researchers who were directed toward understanding the nature, function, and underlying mechanisms of consciousness.  Thus, ASSC aimed to encourage research on consciousness in cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy, and other relevant disciplines in the sciences and humanities. The Journal of Consciousness Studies also began publication in 1994. Moreover, these events were not happening within a vacuum.  In the United States, for example, the growing interest in consciousness and cognitive studies was increasingly connected with the rapid expansion of brain research.  Indeed, it was common to hear people associate the developing consciousness awareness with President George H. W. Bush's calling for The Decade of the Brain (1990-1999) "to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research" through "appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities" [2].  

Many have jumped onto the consciousness bandwagon in the twenty-five years since the second edition of Matter and Consciousness was published. Since consciousness in not my primary academic interest and I've not really kept up with all the ins and outs in the field, I was excited to see that an updated version of Paul Churchland's 1988 Matter and Consciousness was available. The book had become a classic introductory text due to its clear, concise, and readable format. It seemed like a perfect way to see what the field now looks like. 

The new book retains the structure of previous editions. Since Churchland is a well-known philosopher and consciousness specialist, it is probably not surprising that he begins with a philosophical discussion.  Here Churchland is concerned with traditional philosophy of mind topics as they relate to ideas about consciousness.  These include: the Ontological (Mind-Body) Problem, the Semantical Problem, the Epistemological Problem, and the Methodological Problem. Sections on artificial intelligence and neuroscience follow, with a closing chapter on expanding our perspective.  All of the philosophical chapters follow a similar pattern: Each chapter has sections providing overviews of each topic, followed by sub-topical sections that offer the pro and con of each argument. There are short bibliographies after most sections, each with about five or six references.  The chapters on artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience are also organized topically but, rather than offering pros and cons, the discussions are expository in nature, with useful diagrams to enhance the text.  Like the philosophical chapters, those on AI and neuroscience are divided into sections, with suggested readings at the end of most of the sections. The book also includes an index of five pages. 

As Churchland states in the short preface, he has added notations about key thought experiments that have tried to move the debate forward since the last edition was published. These philosophical are an important update in the book.  They include more text on Thomas Nagel's bat and entries about Frank Jackson's neuroscientist Mary who studies colors but cannot see them, David Chalmers' humanlike zombies, and John Searle's Chinese room.  In addition, Churchland has also deleted some of the discussion on Behaviorism and there are a few paragraphs about Siri and AI, including a nice comparison of Weizenbaum's Eliza and Siri.  The sections on artificial intelligence and neuroscience now include new sections on Churchland's work with 3D vision and color.  There is also a new entry in the philosophy portion of the book in which he asks what it is to be conscious of anything at all. Overall, the newly added philosophical material has become so basic to the field that I can't imagine a current treatment without these sections.  The revisions in the AI and neuroscience sections seemed to be intended to support his inclination toward reductive and eliminative versions of materialism.  

In many ways, however, and despite the word consciousness in the title, the book now feels as if it is more about philosophy of mind problems as they relate to cognition than consciousness itself.  This is because Churchland retained much of the earlier text unchanged. Instructors can provide supplemental materials for topics that are missing, so I think the third edition is sufficient for classroom purposes. Unfortunately, while the second edition offered a nice overview of what was then a fledgling field, the third edition is not an update of the field and thus is less valuable for the general reader. I found it most disappointing that Churchland failed to provide a worthwhile overview of significant developments in the field in the past quarter century and I believe that these omissions diminish the value of the book. 

The book's dated quality is most evident in the suggested readings sections.  The bibliographic citations were hardly updated from those in the 1988 edition.  Although there are about 100 citations, only eight are dated later than 1988.  Of these, only two are by people outside of the Churchland family. One, The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers (1996), while a classic, is almost twenty years old. (Churchland's citation is also inaccurate. Chalmers' book was published by Oxford, not Cambridge [3].)  I suppose S. M. Sherman's 2005 article on "Thalamic Relays and Cortical Functioning" [4] should win some kind of prize for its inclusion since it is from a thinker outside the Churchland family and less than ten years old. In other words, despite all the publications on consciousness since 1988, key bibliographic suggestions are not included in this revision.  

The question of why he neglected so much of the post 1988 research trajectory in terms of self-consciousness, the mind-body problems, etc. is never explained.  I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether this or the minimal re-writing mattered. I think it does matter in terms of a critical review since the book no longer surveys work related to matter and consciousness in the same way. I don't know precisely what recent topics an introductory book on matter and consciousness should mention, but it does seem odd that research on phantom limbs and mirror neurons were not considered for inclusion, particularly since he claims that experimental results in neuroscience and cognitive science are important for a philosophy of mind. Another reason to explain the omissions is that he asserts in the Preface that "the intellectual situation is now even more engaging and taut with controversy than it was thirty years ago, when the issues compelled me to write the first edition of this text" (p. viii). This reads like a throw away line given how much I was able to identify as missing, even without being a consciousness aficionado. One that stood out is that, although both Daniel Dennett and John Searle publish frequently, and their older work is included in the bibliographies, none of their recent work is cited.  Others who are omitted despite being important players in the field of consciousness today include Stuart Hameroff , Roger Penrose, Christof Koch, Giulio Tononi, Bernie Baars, and David Eagleman. 

Other limitations were also striking. It was amusing to see that sentences with phrases like "recent studies" or phrases like "as this book is written" are in paragraphs that are identical in the 1988 and 2013 editions.  Because the book is intended as an introductory text, much of the material is generalized and superficial, so perhaps the failure to revise time frames doesn't matter on that level. What does matter, at least to me as a reader, is when information that a revision should include is omitted and thus gives the wrong impression. For example, even though Chalmers zombie thought experiment is added, there is no reference to his naturalistic dualism, an idea Chalmers put forth after the publication of the Matter and Consciousness second edition.  More specifically, at one point Churchland asks the reader a number of question related to what dualism does not do and concludes that dualists can do none of the things he mentioned in his questions because no detailed theory has ever been formulated.  He writes that this is an "empty space waiting for a genuine theory of mind to be put in" (p. 31). If Chalmers' proposal of a naturalistic dualism  (Chapter 4, The Conscious Mind, 1996) [5] does not fill this empty space, Churchland should explain why.

An overview at the end of the book, one that teased out some of the issues since 1988, would have sufficed if he didn't want to do a more complete revision. As it stands now, twenty-five years later, the text still ends with a chapter called "Expanding Our Perspective," and it ends with the same final paragraph found in the last edition, with the word undoubted added, as follows:

I would suggest, then, that the genuine arrive of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our undoubted inner life is eclipsed or suppressed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed–even, if we apply ourselves, in self-conscious introspection. (p. 282)

Let me end by saying that I absolutely have no objection to books that feature an author's work rather than the field as a whole. Most books present an author's research and/or point-of-view, rather than offering an exhaustive survey.  My problem here is that Churchland's revision seemed to compromise the book's value.  It is no longer a representative introductory text of the field of consciousness as a whole, although perhaps "philosophy of mind" is not consciousness. While the second edition did reflect philosophy and the inroads of cognitive science into philosophical studies at the end of the twentieth century, the third edition does not reflect the lay of the land today.  An analogy might be when politicians in the two-party political system of the United States switch parties. On these occasions, they almost always say that they didn't leave their party because they changed. Rather, the standard line is that they switched parties because their party changed and no longer represented their views. Churchland's revision gives me the sense that he thinks current consciousness fashions are moving the field away from the kind of materialistic approach he favors.  Indeed, as he writes in the preface, "the philosophical literature has become enriched . . .  but, perhaps surprisingly, away from materialism, in one direction or another," (p. viii).


[1] Center for Consciousness Studies, see http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu/

[2] Library of Congress, Project on The Decade of the Brain, see http://www.loc.gov/loc/brain/, accessed February 27, 2014.

[3] Chalmers, David J. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Philosophy of Mind Series). Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.

[4] Sherman, S. M. (2005). "Thalamic Relays and Cortical Functioning." Progress in Brain Research 149: 107–126.

[5] Chalmers [3].

Last Updated 7 March 2014

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