I suppose it was inevitable that novelists would eventually provide their intriguing perspective on recent important developments in the cognitive neurosciences, such as on the concept of consciousness, our ill-understood subjective relationship to objects and events.
We’re in a strange uncharted era. Consciousness had historically been the sole purview of philosophers and theologians, who viewed it as a disembodied phenomenon (spirit, soul, mind, etc.) — but biologists have now become major players, arguing persuasively for a shift to an embodied biological consciousness. Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999), and Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi’s A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000) laid out the underlying neurobiology of consciousness. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili explored the specific neurobiology of religious belief in their Why God Won’t Go Away (2001). Other scientists are exploring additional elements of the concept.
Conversely, philosophers, theologians, and politicians have now become very involved in the social applications of such research developments as cloning and embryonic stem cells — areas that used to be the principal purview of biologists.
Remember the halcyon days when we used to have these nice clear divisions between various areas of scholarship? Well, novelists explore such divisions, and the issues implicit in the current coupling of categories described above.
David Lodge Thinks. A university colleague recently alerted me to David Lodge’s latest novel, Thinks (2001, Viking). Although Lodge had written 10 successful novels and additional literary criticism and essays, I wasn’t aware of his work. I found Thinks fascinating – witty (and raunchy in spots), but also thoughtful and thought provoking.
Ralph Messenger is the married Director of the Center for Cognitive Science at the (fictional) University of Gloucester, and Helen Reed is a recently widowed London novelist who has come to the University as a temporary writer in residence – to work with advanced writing students. A mixed bag of other major and minor characters also move in and out of the narrative (which is also a deft satire on academic life).
The book uses the different perspectives of science (Messenger) and the humanities (Reed) to explicitly explore a variety of personal and social issues emerging out of recent developments in consciousness — consciousness and conscience, morality and ethics, private and public life, science and religion, commitment and abandonment, serial and parallel experience, truth and deception, love and lust, fidelity and philandering…..
The acknowledgements section suggests (and a reading of the book supports) that Lodge has done his homework in the literature of consciousness: Chalmers, Damasio, Dawkins, Dennett, Edelman, Greenfield, Pinker, Ridley, Ramachandran, Searle, for starters.
Those of us who have been fascinated by the dramatic developments in the cognitive neurosciences (and have focused our reading on scientific explanation) probably need to get into books such as Thinks, and their often wry commentary on the human condition.
If you’ve already been doing that, I would appreciate your recommendations of other stimulating novels that explore issues emerging out of the cognitive neurosciences. I’ll pass on your suggestions in a future column.
David Lodge’s Thinks has something to please and irritate just about every reader — and I think that’s the mark of a good novel. I plan to read more of his work.