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The World in my Mind, My Mind in the World

by Igor Aleksander
Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK, 2005
200 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $34.90
ISBN: 184540-021-6.

Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


Igor Aleksander is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, London, and presents in this his third book concerning the Mind, converging viewpoints on contemporary enquiries into consciousness from the perspectives of cognitive science, philosophy, neurology, and psychology. Much of this information will be familiar to interdisciplinary researchers but brings together for the undergraduate student, as he has in other formats for the engaged public, an informative and entertaining introduction to this richly essential domain. His approach is axiomatic and assumes argument in the seminar room will flow from the questions raised through the wide range of references in the discourse presented. Frequent use of headings reinforces the sense we are encountering slides as part a previous lecture series, doubtless lively events: ‘the altruistic vampire bat’; ‘the clock watching pigeon’; ‘the octopus with a stomach ache’.

The five axioms provide a framework for his exposition and bring together current focus points for consciousness-machine research in the hot – as well as cooling – science and engineering areas of AI, robotics, complex systems and neural nets. How does the sensation and internalisation of being in-the-world happen? What mechanisms make us entities in time, with a remembered past and abilities to imagine a future? How does attention work to produce individual experiences of being conscious? How does the mind efficiently organize the body’s resources to physically interact with the world? What part do the emotions play in directing this interaction?

An opening chapter summarises several descriptions of the unconscious, from Freud to more recent science, managing to assure that the author’s desire is to understand more about modern humans than ways of building machines. The description of dreaming as a reset of the human mind, its relation to the unconscious and memory, inform the second of the axioms, (though this reader is left with a preference for the vivid description of identity by Philip K Dick in Blade Runner.)

In the following chapter the octopus image and others introduces the consciousness of the non-human. Where does this take us? Essentially on a tour of animal cognition some of which applies to humans but skates uncomfortably close to the anthropomorphic. Less of a hot area of research, Higher Order Thought (HOT) helps remind us that consciousness is determined by need and that need is subject to evolutionary change within complex environments.

Chapter five takes on the huge area of our perceptual apparatus, concentrating primarily on processes unaided by machine augmentation. It uses as a touch stone Alva Noe’s book, Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion? in the discussion of representation (or depiction as the author prefers) or the reconstruction, (constructions as a group at Irvine prefer) of foveal exploration and indexation of the visual sensation, or ‘sensorimotor contingency’ – the blindnesses of the visual cortex are a necessary part of the brain’s function to encompass attention-producing inputs of which visual memory is a part.

The book concludes with a move away from mechanisms to descriptions of consciousness and desire as expressed by a raft of Western thinkers, from the Greeks to the Modern Europeans, before swerving briefly into recent qualitative experiments related to intention and will. Almost by way of apology, particular place is then given to the Australian David Chalmers’s refutations of science-based description of consciousness, against which the author defends – this turns into quite a ride.

The five axioms are referred to consistently throughout the eight chapters and require of the reader an ability to absorb the subtle differences and carry the forward rather than to dive back into the chapter that establish the principles. Posed as questions, they necessarily remain dynamic throughout as viewed by the author from several disciplinary perspectives and the counter-arguments he poses on their behalf, a productive enough challenge. These facets reinforce the necessary conclusion that whilst there is much evidence to support the overarching description of how consciousness happens, there is no final truth in the matter beyond provisional cartoons of how consciousness is constituted within the sentient presence. It could be that the act of reading this book itself effects the second of the axioms, informing our past and providing perspectives to enable ". . . a few guesses about the future."

As a broad survey of consciousness, mainly from the science perspective, this book will be useful to some. My preference would be to immerse in the thoughts of someone like Andy Clark (who is cited here) where a less distinct line is drawn between biology and technology, where emergent behaviours define a description of consciousness which, whilst having an even core, is simultaneously provisional, liminal and dynamic.




Updated 1st July 2006

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