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Humanist Archives: June 18, 2022, 8:03 a.m. Humanist 36.72 - pubs: Picturing the Mind (MIT Press, 2022)

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 72.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2022-06-18 06:43:10+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: new book on evolution and consciousness

Allow me to recommend an extraordinary new book, Simona Ginsburg 
and Eva Jablonka, Picturing the Mind: Consciousness through the lens 
of evolution (MIT Press, 2022), with illustrations by Anna Zeligowski. 

As far as computing is concerned, the attraction will begin with the 
sections at the end on 'conscious robots' and 'virtual and cyborg
realities', but what makes these unusual and especially meaningful is  
their place in the context of the evolutionary biology of consciousness. 
But then the juxtaposition of each short section of the book (mostly one 
to two pages) to a resonant illustration irresistibly invites imaginative 
exploration. Is not the subject of consciousness like that?

But the authors' words are better than mine could be, so I quote their 
Preface below.

As an old professor used to say to me after recommending a book, "Read
it tonight!"



Being alive yet unable to experience-unable to feel, move, smell, see,
hear, taste, or touch, like people in a deep coma-seems to most of us a
life not worth living. It makes us acutely aware that our cherished and
intimate capacity for subjective experiencing, which is also referred to
as consciousness or sentience (we use these terms interchangeably),
cannot be taken for granted. What is it that makes an entity, a living
body, conscious? What happens when the state of mind we call
consciousness is lost?

Philosophers call the puzzling relation between the mind and the body
the mind-body problem. Once the brain was found to be essential for
conscious activity, the mind-body problem was reframed in terms of the
relation between the brain and the mind. Here is the vivid way that T.
H. Huxley expressed the difficulty of understanding this relation in 1866:

How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes
about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as
unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.

We use evolutionary biology as our Ariadne's thread to lead us through
the maze that is the mind-body problem. Evolutionary biology leads us to
the questions that run through the book: Which entities are conscious?
How did consciousness evolve? Which varieties of consciousness do we
recognize? Is human consciousness special, and if it is, in what ways?
Can we envisage alien or artificial forms of consciousness? We present
some of the views of writers, poets, philosophers, psychologists, and
biologists, but since their ideas breed even more questions, the book is
focused more on questions than on answers.

We use visual and verbal images as well as explanatory texts to present
these questions and some tentative answers. The richness and inherent
ambiguity of images and metaphors allow a wide scope for imagination and
interpretation. They are vistas through which we look at the many
aspects of consciousness. Each page of text, which presents a specific
topic, faces a picture, a visual metaphor that engages with the text and
with the reader's imagination, and opens up additional perspectives.
Every topic is both autonomous and integrated with the preceding and
subsequent text, so the book can be read either "in bits" or as a
continuous picture-text. Sources for quotations and further reading
about each topic are presented in notes at the end of the book.

The book has five parts, or vistas, each discussing twelve to sixteen
topics. The first vista introduces some of the ways in which people have
imagined consciousness and conceived of the nature of the mind. We start
with metaphors that capture aspects of consciousness, go on to describe
general approaches such as dualism and physicalism, and end with puzzles
and thought experiments that illuminate its seemingly paradoxical nature.

Our own naturalistic evolutionary approach focuses on living organisms.
In the second vista we ask: Are all living beings, including bacteria,
conscious? Are plants conscious? Are only humans conscious? We leave
these questions open, but in the third vista we present an evolutionary
approach that provides a way of addressing them, an approach focusing on
the transition from nonconscious to conscious animals. In this vista we
suggest that the evolution of consciousness was entailed by the
evolution of an open-ended form of learning that can be found in some
brainy animals. Some of the texts that develop this suggestion may be
difficult for nonbiologists, but they can be safely skipped without
losing track of the overall message. Human consciousnessits uniqueness,
origins, and wondrous and monstrous consequences-is described in the
fourth vista, while the fifth vista presents some of the varieties of
human consciousness that allow us to go beyond the boundaries of the
familiar and explore new forms of future and alien consciousness through
visions and fantasies.

The book is intended for all people who are fascinated by consciousness,
from curious high school students to retired professors. We hope that
the combination of art, philosophy, and science will engage people's
imagination and reveal the many ways of exploring the landscapes of the

Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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