Actual Consciousness

By Ted Honderich

A review by Janna Thompson, LaTrobe University, Australia

Our perceptual world is rich in colour and sound. We think and imagine. We experience repugnance and longing. Meanwhile in our brains neurons are firing and chemical reactions are taking place. Conscious experience and brain events are obviously related. Reputable Australian philosophers insist that they are one and the same. But how can events with such different qualities fit together?

This is the problem of the relation between mind and body. It has been with us since Descartes and philosophers and scientists have been grappling with it for almost four centuries. Some conclude that it is unsolvable. Noam Chomsky believes that its solution requires a scientific revolution in our conception of the physical. In this book Ted Honderich claims that he can clear up much of the mystery by paying attention to actual consciousness: our ordinary experiences of perceiving the furniture of a room, thinking our thoughts and making decisions.

When we see the contents of a room we encounter them; they are right there, close and real. Honderich thinks that these features of perceptual consciousness are sufficient to eliminate some influential ideas in the philosophy of mind. When we perceive a chair or another person we are not encountering a mere representation or a collection of sense data. There is no veil of mental constructions between us and reality. We are not trapped in an inner world with no exit. Honderich thinks that the widespread view that objects of perception are in the mind is due to a failure to distinguish perception from thought or a failure to distinguish actual consciousness from other things in the mind – from mental dispositions or the activities of a self.

The room we see is out there and real. But it is also a product of our brains and nervous system. Honderich believes that close attention to actual consciousness leads to the conclusion that when we look at the furniture in our room or the trees of a forest we are perceiving a subjective physical world. This world does not exist in the mind. It is physical; it is in space and time. But it is also subjective. Your subjective physical world is not the same as mine.

Thoughts and desires, by contrast, are internal to our minds. They are essentially interpretative; they are the constructions that we impose on the world of our experience.

Descartes’ belief that the contents of the mind cannot be physical has been responsible for insuperable problems in philosophy and science. So it is especially important to Honderich’s project that the subjective world you perceive belongs to the physical world and is in causal relations with other physical things. This requires attention to what it means to be physical. Honderich concludes that being subject to the scientific method is sufficient to make something physical and he points out that scientists have no trouble studying the way we perceive objects and events in the objective physical world.

Honderich has thought long and hard about consciousness and he intends the results to be available not merely to philosophers but to anyone who has ever wondered about the nature of mind. Before you take up his invitation be warned that your journey through this book is going to take time and patience.

On the way to the view about consciousness that Honderich favours you will have to work your way through thickets of philosophical argument and counterargument. The going is not made easier by a prose style that piles clause upon clause or by typographical mistakes that should not have been tolerated by a reputable publisher. Honderich is like a loquacious and sometimes obscure Virgil who is intent on guiding his readers through circles of philosophical hell and purgatory – rising from those views that are flawed beyond redemption to those that have some redeeming features and finally to the enlightenment offered by his own approach. In the course of this journey he cajoles, prods, reminds, encourages, warns and even admonishes his reader. The effect is oddly engaging. If the world of your subjective experience is similar to mine you will be motivated to struggle on; you will want to reach the journey’s culmination.

Is the effort worthwhile? Few, if any, will think that Honderich has the answers to all problems of mind and body and neither does he. But his focus on the data of consciousness is a good start for a theory of consciousness and his approach makes sense of what most people assume when they take the reality of their experience for granted.

Any self-respecting philosopher is likely to come up with a quibble or two. Some may complain that Honderich is too quick to dismiss reasons for thinking that perceptual experience must be in the mind. How about the illusions to which perception is subject? How about the pink elephant in the drunkard’s room? Especially questionable is his elimination of the self from actual consciousness. The self may not be an object encountered in the subjective physical world, but its presence is evident from the way that desire and thought is related to perception and action.

Honderich explains how scientific progress is possible in the study of the relation of mind and brain. But does he clear up the mystery of how neural firings become for us experiences of colour and sound, joy and sorrow? To this question the answer is ‘no’. The mind body problem awaits its Einstein.