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by Renate Bartsch
John Benjamins, 2002
Review by G.C. Gupta, Ph.D. on Feb 12th 2003

Consciousness Emerging

Consciousness Emerging is in three parts, exploring consciousness from different angles. The philosophical point of view, the first angle, shows what are the central tasks of consciousness for representation, intentionality, and for designing and following rules, as they have to be performed for language understanding, and especially for denotational semantics to be possible. The second, the connectionist and the neuro-cognitive perspective, especially neuro-dynamical approaches, which model, at least partially, how under a large-scale view the brain might work in achieving the central tasks of consciousness. The third, "from a view which combines the philosophical with the neuro-dynamical approach in order to find and determine a standpoint about some disputed questions in consciousness research."

The first part consists of chapter 1, which deals with the function consciousness has, mainly with respect to language, thinking, intentionality, and the possibility to devise rules and norms and to learn and to follow these. The central task performed by consciousness is entertaining representations such that we can evaluate these under different points of view. An important strain of argumentation in this chapter is the difference between causal semantics and denotational semantics, and what role consciousness plays there in order to make intentionality of semantics possible. A further point of discussion is the nature of rules and norms and how they function in language and in the linguistic reconstruction of language. Two standpoints that the author argues for are that consciousness is possible without language, and that "free will is possible because of the special contribution of consciousness, which consists in providing representations of situations and actions such that comparison and judgement is possible."

The second part consists of chapter 2 and 3, which explore the contributions dynamic conceptual systems and connectionist models can make to an explanation of the nature and function of representations. Chapter 2 elaborates the possibilities of dynamic conceptual semantics and the possibilities and the shortcomings of plain connectionist models consisting just of input, output, and one hidden map of units. The shortcomings are evident with respect to modelling contiguity relationships, classification, and the understanding of basic sentences. Chapter 3 is the central chapter of the book, which shows how an architecture of connectionist maps with circuits of activation in principle works as a model for perception, imagination, and for understanding situations and basic sentences. The representations are percepts or imaginations of situations and of basic sentence inscriptions, i.e. of sentence utterances or written instances. Central is the notion of an episodic map on which activation circuits involving conceptual maps and sensorial fields get expressed in the form of the representations, which constitute consciousness. The material basis of episodic maps is the primary sensorial and pre-motor fields, emotional fields, and also proprioceptic fields, which express feelings concerning our own body. Sensorial fields of the different modalities, or sensorial maps, receive input from the respective sensors. Pre-motor maps form gestures for realising the motor output. These maps have connections to higher order maps, conceptual maps, in which groups of neurones indicate when the system has classified and ordered input with respect to previous input under similarity or contiguity relationships. From the higher maps activation is sent back to the primary fields. Such circuits of activation, namely those that hit the primary sensorial, emotional, and pre-motor fields, receive an expression in consciousness. They have some short-term stability in that the firing of the neurones involved is co-ordinated in a certain oscillation. By hitting the primary fields in this way the phenomenal qualities and forms are brought about which constitute representations of situations, objects, and linguistic utterances. These episodes are the conscious expressions of the primary fields in their interaction with the conceptual maps. The role of episodic and conceptual maps in understanding situations and sentences is explicated in the architecture of maps, in which smaller and larger circuits form the constituent relationship between understanding and interpretation (in the model-theoretic sense), is elaborated on as a special capacity of consciousness. Thinking is seen as manipulating representations on episodic maps, with constraints given by the control through evaluation. 

The main thesis of this book has been that consciousness arises by "an interaction between primary sensorial fields and conceptual maps in resonance circuits. These synchronized circuits of activation constitute episodic maps, built on the primary sensorial fields" (p.237). All consciousness is episodic, according to this thesis. The episodes are "episodes of situations or episodes of linguistic inscriptions, spoken or written or signed otherwise. The constituent structure of situations and of linguistic inscriptions was modeled as a temporarily induced architecture of smaller and larger activation circuits, which when hitting a sensorial field, gives rise to a representation, which are conscious." Continuing, the author postulates that there are no thoughts without language. "Thoughts are either representations on linguistically specialized episodic maps, or on situational episodic maps or on both together."

 In the third part of the book the thesis about the episodic character of consciousness   takes up the controversial questions in consciousness research. The questions are "whether consciousness is an internal monitoring device of brain states, or rather a monitoring of the external, whether all conscious states involve thought or judgement, whether there are different kinds of consciousness, and whether there is a one-one correspondence between (a certain kind of) brain states and conscious states." The standpoint taken is derived from the evaluation of the arguments and the position on consciousness developed in this book, namely that "consciousness is a product of the episodic maps, i.e., of primary sensorial fields in their interaction with conceptual maps, and that therefore all consciousness consists of episodes in the form of representations, with or without their evaluations."

The foregoing is a challenging argument and knowing the contemporary status of research in consciousness it is bound to raise eyebrows from several sources.

 The author’s use of experimental evidence related to thought experiments as support and use of contemporary position on neural networks and evidence from semantics to bring home his thesis on 'consciousness emerging' makes the text in the book fairly sophisticated requiring the reader to have a competent information on the issues discussed.


© G. C. Gupta


G.C. Gupta, Ph.D., Formerly, Professor of Psychology, University of Delhi, Delhi, India