Consciousness, as a subject, is nothing if not multidisciplinary. We have noted once or twice before that besides all the different groups of scientists and philosophers, novelists are strongly interested; in fact it’s not much of a stretch to claim that novel-writing is itself an exploration of human consciousness. If so, it’s an exploration that is generally pursued separately from the academic investigation, but the occasional linkages and crossovers are always interesting. Did Henry James’s works influence his brother William’s psychology? Alas, we’ll never know exactly, but William’s concept of the stream of consciousness had a massive impact on novelists.
Novels are certainly extended, virtuoso exercises in theory of mind. Novelists use their own understanding of other minds to evoke in the consciousness of readers an intense engagement with the purely imagined mental lives of their characters, and it’s all achieved purely through print on a page; a remarkably complex feat to pull off. As a result novelists arguably have a better appreciation than most cognitive scientists of just how complicated the actual experience of consciousness really is.
When you step back and look at it, the everyday experience of consciousness really is complicated, isn’t it? From moment to moment a gamut of miscellaneous sensory and proprioceptive impressions, memories, fragments of explicit speech, emotions and desires all float in and out of the several levels of conscious, unconscious, and half-conscious thought that run in parallel, with some in the centre or the penumbra of a focus of attention that may at times not be present at all, and others in one or more levels of background; all conditioned by prevailing but variable states of being calm, exalted, curious, depressed, drunk; the whole thing pushed along at times by perceptions, impulses and predispositions emerging unobtrusively from silent faculties outside the pale of true mentality. All of that, or the gist of it, has to represented in a linear text in such a way as to bring about the required ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in the reader, or indeed more than that, a positive, empathetic identification.
The basic technique, I suppose, is to present a text which seems to record someone recounting his own experiences. One option for complete realism is to present the text as letters or diary entries. Or like Plato, we could present two friends meeting by chance, one of whom then relates a memorable conversation Socrates once had. Already there another narrator has slipped unobtrusively into the background – the unmentioned person – Plato? – who must be telling us what the two friends said. This shadowy personage can, if we wish, do the whole job of narration for us, becoming the mysteriously omniscient narrator we have become used to in standard storytelling. The range of options that open up thereafter is wide: first person, third person, past tense, present historic, dialogue, unreliable narrator; the sophisticated free indirect style which allows us to slip smoothly between the description of physical events and mental ones, and more radical techniques like the aforementioned stream of consciousness; lately novelists have been able to use, or had to contend with, the narrative conventions and techniques drilled into readers by films and graphics.
It has been suggested more than once that the self and our conscious experience come from the brain spinning a narrative. There may well be some truth in that, but in the light of all the foregoing I think we can see that it raises as many questions as it answers. What kind of narrative? Visual? Textual? First person? Are we allowed flashbacks and jump cuts? Far from narrative being a simple primitive, something well understood which we can use to explain consciousness and the self, it seems to be one of consciousness’s most complicated and surprising final products.
If we under-rate the complexity of the task facing novelists, they may be partly to blame; it seems evident that to a great extent our view of our own conscious lives has been shaped by reading all those novels. We sort of expect our inner lives to resemble the neatened-up depictions assigned to characters in books, and that’s how we tend to think of them. More than that, and perhaps rather scarily, we may suspect that our mental lives have actually been changed and in some degree shaped by those expectations.
So with all that by way of a build-up – what do we think of A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks’ latest?
Most reviews have suggested the book isn’t really a novel at all, but a collection of short stories. Certainly it looks that way, although the separate stories have linkages: shared or duplicated experiences, common characters or objects. It seems natural to suppose that Faulks owes something to David Mitchell in this respect; but whereas Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas hinted at reincarnation Faulks seems, if we can trust the thoughts of one character which close the book, to be offering a more radical thesis: let’s come back to that, though.
The individual stories are pretty good and sketched out with a light but authoritative touch: I would single out a nineteenth-century one which I thought was remarkable. It’s not easy to depict Victorians from the poorer classes for a number of reasons (not least the looming presence of Dickens) but I thought this story rang true on every level. However, for Conscious Entities the most interesting one concerns two scientists who, in the near future, solve the mystery of consciousness. It’s clear that Faulks has done his research into the current state of the field, and we can spot the influence of Damasio and others in the sketch he offers us (again pretty convincing) of how the breakthrough arrives. The critical enabler proves to be, guess what, an advance in scanning technology, and the breakthrough is preceded by the discovery of Glockner’s Isthmus: a linkage which momentarily binds sensory data with input from the internal organs, providing a sense of self which is apparently common to humans and some other animals. This, however, provides only base-level consciousness: human-style self-awareness relies on the Rossi-Duranti Loop which connects the Isthmus with episodic memory.
This is a novel, not an academic paper: otherwise we might ask for a bit more detail on how a link and a loop are sufficient to do the ontological and cognitive work being asked of them here; but it’s not a bad thesis and the gist is clear: a sense of self from the guts and a context from memory. We are in fact dealing with a system designed to insert a self into a narrative. Proust, a literary critic suggests in the story, has been vindicated.
One incidentally interesting feature of Faulks’ system is that the Rossi-Duranti Loop only works now and then, with the implication that full consciousness is only switched on at particularly reflective moments. I think this mainly means that we operate largely on autopilot, with conscious decision-making and creativity reserved for when they’re needed or invoked, but it could suggest that most of the time we are philosophical zombies, without qualia; living examples of a thought-experiment we’ve mentioned before. Faulks makes the Loop a recent development, so that, in a sort of echo of Julian Jaynes, those old cave men and people from early times were not really conscious, in spite of their splendid paintings.
Our scientists are helped by the chance arrival of a subject who, rather like Phineas Gage, has had a rod driven through his head: in this case a kebab skewer. On Kebab Man the effect is to turn his Loop permanently on, but Faulks, alas, resists the urge to show or tell us what this is like (Marvellous? Exhausting? If this were SF, Kebab Man might become a super hero or a genius like those in Ted Chiang’s Understand).
Has the arrival of a naturalistic explanation for consciousness destroyed something important? Some, in the novel, think it has. Elena Duranti, one of the scientists responsible for discovering the Loop, has a childhood friend (or rather more than a friend) called Bruno who is a gifted story-teller and later an author(who talks about the narrative of their lives and the question, Copperfield-like, of being the hero of one’s own story). Angrily, towards the end, he tells her she has proved we don’t really exist and thereby brought despair: “I don’t think that’s what Beatrice and I proved.” Elena says.
What did they prove? Well, I think the radical thesis I mentioned above, which I take to be what Faulks is putting forward, is that the separate experiences of our life are not inherently unique to us, but shared or potentially shared: that our personal identity is only a loose linkage from a wider pool of shared experience, of which we are all part. No real need to fear death, then, because it follows that ultimately “we’re all in this thing, like it or not, for ever.” It is sometimes suggested that individual human consciousness emerges out of a general cosmic mind: this is the cosmic mind, nor am I out of it, Faulks might say.
If that is indeed the thesis of the book, then we can see that it could only be illustrated by apparently separate stories which at some level and in places are united, so the contention that it’s less a novel than a collection sort of misses the point. At any rate, I recommend it to anyone who is interested in this stuff.