Have you been thinking about catching up on the latest consciousness theories but haven't had the time or energy to read those books on cognitive science and artificial intelligence? Do you remember all those fascinating questions proposed by your college philosophy professors, and wonder if those MIT scholars have finally resolved them?
If you don't mind a rambling but clear explanation of these theories interrupted by satiric descriptions of university life, the politics of organizing a conference, sexy peccadilloes, English country scenes, and the nitty-gritty job of turning reality into fiction, then David Lodge's latest book Thinks is perfect for you!
RECURRING THEME, ACADEMIA
Fans of Lodge's earlier books will recognize recurring themes. The setting is academia; the characters include a destitute British college professor, his obnoxious yet occasionally inspiring students and family, and fickle protesters whose targets change weekly. Also represented here are a misplaced American, an intelligent fiction writer surrounded by more practical people, and puns embedded in each of the character's names.
At the center of this novel is the mad scientist Ralph Messenger, a 40-something director of cognitive science at the fictitious University of Gloucester. Messenger has a wealthy and supportive wife named Carrie. Messenger is a philanderer who carries on multiple extramarital affairs. He pursues novelist and creative writing professor, Helen Reed, regaling her with facts about neurobiology. Indeed, the serious nature of this book's subject seems to have inspired Lodge to new depths.
Messenger begins the book by pondering the theory of consciousness by philosopher William James – a view that consciousness is like a stream or a bird, flying and perching. Messenger wonders whether these perchings are completions of thought or pauses in thought. “White space or white noise would be better because there is brain activity still going on all the time or you would be dead,” Messenger says. “‘I think therefore I am’ is true enough in that sense,” he dictates into his tape recorder. Then he adds irreverently: “If that's the best known sentence in the history of philosophy, what's the second best?”
Reed's “sabbatical” from her career as a novelist is triggered by the sudden death of her husband (due to a ruptured aneurysm). Her lonely life in a “maisonette” apartment on campus is invaded by Messenger. In Messenger, she finds a perfect teacher – a man who is passionate about computers, artificial intelligence, and the hunt for proof of the existence of the mind – without falling back on religion or Descartes.
Messenger tells Reed about his center, which he describes as a mind-body shop that aims to track the electrochemical activity in the brain using PET and MRI. He finds, however, that he is unable to translate brain activity into thought. Reed wonders if his questions or quests are beyond any answers.
The book proceeds in this way, with each character using his or her background and perspective to struggle with the deep philosophical questions and construct a theory to explain how our brains work to deal with that awareness.
The chapters alternate between the voices and thought processes of Messenger and Reed. Messenger's chapter usually begins with a nursery rhyme to signal his audiotaping of his memories in a stream-of-consciousness effort to see his brain at work; these thoughts are usually side-railed by pornographic reminiscences.
Reed's chapters include thoughtful observations about the people she meets, her love of her students and work, or her efforts to learn to use e-mail to contact her daughter in Australia.
Messenger defends his use of computers to explain the world with some help from Darwin, Descartes, and others, while Reed uses quotes from Milton, Henry James, or her own previous novels.
Through these discussions, the reader can gradually absorb lessons on the latest theories of consciousness without feeling there will be a test. Messenger provides readers with a healthy dose of “scientific sound bites” from the British television station, BBC. Reed quotes from her journal, lectures, and samples of student assignments inspired by the new philosophical questions but written in funny parodies of famous authors such as Salmon Rushdie and Martin Amis.
THE MIND-BODY DILEMMA
A mural in the second floor of Messenger's think tank – the university's largest source of funds, thanks to grants from the military – summarizes all the important problems of the mind-body dilemma. Eavesdropping on the clever conversations between the two main characters and their families led to some laughing out loud.
Finally, the annual conference on artificial intelligence organized by Messenger, with all its inevitable misadventures of academics away from their routines, provides a venue for Reed to use all her considerable literary skill to respond to theories advanced by the neurobiology field.
Reed concludes that their idea of the self as “just a pack of neurons, or just a junction for converging discourses, or just a parallel processing computer running by itself without an operator” is abhorrent to a human being and writer like herself.
At this point, we remember that this is a novel. It seems Reed's voice represents the author's point of view – not the boisterous Messenger, a character similar to protagonists in other books by Lodge.
This book is often very funny, with wild adventures and quick repartee. It is written in a self-mocking tone, debunking all things pompous. High on that list are discussions about the problems of life after death, existence of the soul, and the nature of thought. Named Thinks after those bubbles hanging above cartoon characters (representing their innermost thoughts), this book is a fun way to bring readers up to date on philosophy, as well as cognitive and behavioral neurology.
For those students wishing to move beyond this introductory course, Lodge provides a list of books that inspired him. Among them are V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain; The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David Campbell; Antonio R. Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotions and the Making of Consciousness; and John R. Searles's The Rediscovery of the Mind. I recommend this reading list and Lodge's earlier books wholeheartedly.