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Whatever the difficulties of his theory of consciousness, Dennett’s book is astonishingly rich and will introduce you to most of the key ideas in the terrain he strides energetically across — the intersection of evolutionary theory, cognitive science and consciousness studies. Is his route, then, the sub-personal route to the mind, the Royal Road? Or should we, after all, trust to first-person experience, and the deeply private intuitions favoured by Roger Scruton? I favour trusting both, with due discretion. Science is permanently provisional, always hunting for stronger evidence and more comprehensive theory, but it is surely giving us a riveting series of insights into our human nature. First-hand experience is where we all start, and indispensable, but notably prone to error. There is no end in sight to the task of integrating first and third person accounts. Come to think if it, since leaving that medical school it is what I have done each time I see a patient.

Indeed, far from “reducing” experience to something quite unlike it — the firing of billions of neurons — contemporary neuroscience can be seen as a vindication of experience. It is probably no great surprise that what you see and hear, your actions, your overt emotions are mirrored by changes in brain activity. It is perhaps more remarkable, certainly beyond the state of the art when I entered neurology, that subtle variations of our experience also have their neural correlates. The eerie sensation of déjà vu, for example, that sense of strong but erroneous familiarity that most of us have experienced from time to time, Walter Scott’s “sense of pre-existence”, can be traced to anomalous activation of brain regions that typically allow us to recognise the pleasingly familiar world; the shiver down the spine you may experience listening to your favourite symphony or song resonates with intense activity in brain structures linked by their response to significant reward, as shown by the pioneering Canadian musician-scientist Robert Zatorre. The implication is that while such experiences may be fleeting and elusive for the subject, at the neural level they are — huge! As Dennett has written in the past, neural events that come to consciousness must have achieved a high degree of “cerebral celebrity”: whatever delights or torments our awareness blows a gale in the brain.

The intellectual traffic runs both ways. Mental events have neural correlates — old hat, perhaps. But the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind. The startling recent discovery of the “default mode network”, not too familiar yet, I venture, to most readers of Standpoint, gives a topical example. The DMN is a set of brain regions particularly active when we rest — when we lie, for example in a brain scanner with the instruction that we do nothing in particular. These regions turn out to be involved in recollecting the past, anticipating the future and contemplating moral dilemmas — probably not too far from the thoughts that occupied your mind when you last daydreamt: but how fascinating that these functions are closely linked with one another in the brain, taking turns, it seems, with regions whose interests are focused on the external world, our experience of inner and outer interweaving in a previously unsuspected neural dance.

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Al de Baran
February 25th, 2017
12:02 AM
"the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind". Far more likely that the reverse is true: The conceptual structure of a particular type of mind (the Western, analytic, scientific materialist mind) dictates the way the brain is being studied.

Tom Hewitt
February 24th, 2017
10:02 AM
A good article. I'm ploughing through Dennett's tome at the moment. Pace Scruton, he is entitled to use the adjective sacred as he wishes. If it were being applied to a metaphorical transcendental, well and good, but, alas, Scruton intends that we should take the transcendent literally. In his writings on music and art, he emphasises the ineffable. But the ineffable is only the immanent which have not yet found the words to describe.

Klaus Rohde
February 23rd, 2017
11:02 PM
Is consciousness equivalent to intelligence and can it be digitalized? No. See here:

Eric MacDonald
February 23rd, 2017
5:02 PM
When you say that "the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind," would it not be more accurate to say that this study is providing hints about the structure of neural correlates of the mind? Unless you presuppose a one to one relationship between the structure of brain events and the structure of mind events – and it is not clear that you have a right to that presupposition – then the structure of the the neural correlates of thought is all that can be hinted at by the study of the brain.

Robert Landbeck
February 23rd, 2017
2:02 PM
" to transcend our tribalism." is what history demonstrates our species is incapable of doing! And for what appears as 'our' exceptionalism' from within the tinted glasses of any particular cultural construct, The Dooms Day clock is closer to midnight, an environmental crisis looks set to overwhelm us in the near future. However one might wish to describe our species, Evolution has fixed and limited our moral and spiritual potential. And secular or religious, there is no understanding that exists with the authority to to take man off the slippery slope to his own self made hell.

ted schrey montreal
February 23rd, 2017
2:02 PM
I prefer to understand that "mind" stands for the aggregate of all our "ideas". No ifs, ands, buts, hows or whys.

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