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Thinks . . .
A Novel

David Lodge

Published by Viking/Penquin/NY in 2001
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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This book is listed in "A Reader's Journal" under the Chapter, "Evolution of Consciousness," but deserves rather to be under the rubric of "Devolution of Consciousness" as befits its theme according to the hero, Ralph. The heroine, Helen, didn't think much about consciousness before she met Ralph Messenger, but apparently she doesn't completely buy the lugubrious messages about consciousness broadcasting from the Messenger. Carrie, his wife, calls Ralph "Messenger." This is an intimate name which only those very close to him use, and one that Helen comes to use eventually. The novel is organized in a curious fashion, which requires a bit of sleuthing by the reader to catch on to: the chapters alternate between journal entries by Ralph into a Pearlcorder cassette recorder, journal entries by Helen into a computer, and narrations of the activities and conversations of the two of them and their companions. You get to hear Ralph's view of what he's planning to do, followed by Helen's view of what she's planning to do, followed by a narration of what happened, followed next by Ralph's and then Helen's view of what happened. Once one gets the hang of the sequencing and learns to watch for the clues in the first paragraph of each chapter, the tempo and unfolding of the novel gets to be rather enjoyable.

Ralph is director of a university research project studying consciousness and is doing an experiment in stream of consciousness journal entries — simply saying aloud into his recorder what his thoughts are. Helen comes to the same university to teach creative writing, and is keeping a detailed journal to keep her writing skills active between novels. Ralph is married to Carrie, Helen is a widow, and one expects that Ralph and Helen will soon get together and they do. Filling out the cast of characters is this interesting man, described by Helen:

[page 23] Nicholas Beck, silver-haired Professor of Fine Art, had been invited to make a pair with me, but only in the table-planning sense, because Jasper informed me that he is a celibate homosexual, on what authority I don't know.

Not only would it be impossible to confirm such a statement, but the very concept is rather curious — Nicholas would have a sexual preference for those he chooses to abstain from having sex with! If this sounds to you like a phony cover story for something else that is going on, you could be right.

Where Ralph and Helen teach is the University of Gloucester, which was designed on a huge campus with the Science Department on one edge of the campus and the Arts Department on the other edge, two huge buildings with gobs of green space in between with the idea of filling in the space with more buildings as the university grew. Since it didn't grow as planned, the distance between Science and Art on the campus was about as great as the psychic distance between Ralph the scientific researcher and Helen the artistic writer of novels.

In the first narrative chapter (3), Ralph talks about how nobody can know another's thoughts. From this passage we learn the origin of the book's title:

[page 42] 'Imagine what the Richmond's dinner party would have been like, if everyone had had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kids' comics, with "Thinks . . ." inside them.'

Talking about behaviorists, who claim that one can only know about someone else by observing their behavior, Ralph tells an insightful joke to Helen:

[page 42] 'There's an old joke that crops up in nearly every book on consciousness, about two behaviourist psychologists who have sex, and afterwards one says to the other, "It was good for you, how was it for me?" '

When Ralph takes Helen up to the Centre for Cognitive Sciences and shows her the mural, we get a guided tour of some of the most famous conundrums of cognitive science. The first one conjures up an image of Thomas Nagel's famous paper, "What is it Like to be a Bat?" The image shows a vampire bat that got lucky regurgitating nutritious blood into the mouth of another bat back at the cave. This reminded me of the pelican, the state bird of Louisiana which appears on the flag doing something similar for its young. The pelican has an articulated bone in its beak which can break a blood vessel under its tongue to feed its young that are too small to feed directly on fish and such. But why would two mature vampire bats do this?

[page 50] 'It's got something to do with motivation. It looks like altruism at first glance, but a lucky bat will only share its blood with another bat with which it has a reciprocal arrangement should circumstances be reversed, so it's really a form of enlightened self-interest. The same is true of human beings — as the Prisoner's Dilemma illustrates.

And with that Ralph shows her the mural image of the two prisoners who are interviewed separately, just like on "Law & Order," and the first one who confesses gets the lighter sentence. The complete structure of the Prisoner's Dilemma was investigated to great effect by Robert Axelrod as documented in his book, "The Evolution of Cooperation."

Then follows John Searle's famous thought experiment, "The Chinese Room", in which a man sits with a manual and converts characters of the Chinese language into English according to the manual. The question arises, "Is he conscious of what's he doing?" "Can he be said to understand Chinese?" All he sees is an unknown character come and converts it into the proper word according to the manual. If he can do this without understanding Chinese or being conscious of what he's doing, then neither can a computer, no matter how smart, be said to be conscious or understand any language that it translates.

The next experiment is Frank Jackson's "Mary the color scientist."

[page 53] 'The idea is that she's been born and raised and educated in a totally monochrome environment. She knows absolutely everything that there to know about colour in scientific terms — for example, the various wavelenth combinations that stimulate the retina of the eye in colour recognition — but she has never actually seen any colours. Notice there are no mirrors in her room, so she can't see the pigmentation of her own face, eyes, or hair, and the rest of her body is covered. Then one day she's allowed out of the room, and the first thing she sees is, say, a red rose. Does she have a totally new experience?'

The next thought experiments presuppose the existence of hypothetical zombies that are "indistinguishable from human beings in appearance and behaviour." I found this one as intriguing as it was insipid. Actually "insipid" is a rather good description of a zombie since it means, among other things, "lifeless" and "dull". What distinguishes a human being is the look in their eye. You can verify this for yourself if you are old enough to have come upon someone you had not seen in a long time and this person's looks had completely changed. Their hair had turned white, wrinkles had sprouted when none were before, they were slight of built whereas formerly they were stout, and only thing was obvious to you — they had the same look in their eyes. To presuppose a zombie which has the same look in the eyes as a live person to create a vacuous fantasy and to reason from a vacuous fantasy is pure pedantic folly.

The last mural painting pictured "Schrödinger's Cat" — a famous thought experiment in which the wave equation, of a cat in a box designed to randomly execute the cat, shows the cat to be neither dead nor live until the box is opened and observed by a conscious human being. After explaining this so carefully in the early part of the book, it was amazing to me that it never occurred to Ralph near the end of the book that he had become the "Schrödinger's Cat" when he was diagnosed with a lump on his liver. Would he be alive or dead when Baby Father Time looked into his box on the next New Year's Day? What did Ralph see when he looked into his own box? Ralph never asked these questions because he is not a cat, not a thing, but a human being. And yet he spent a lot of air time trying to convince listeners and viewers and Helen that human beings are nothing but a fancy animal, a thing that could be replicated by a fancy enough computer.

Consciousness, the study of, requires someone, some thing, that has consciousness already. How is a cat or a computer ever going to grow into some thing capable of asking a question about what it means to be conscious? The study of consciousness is the most recursive study there is. When we study consciousness we exhibit and utilize the very process from within that we are attempting to paradoxically study from without. Asking how can consciousness arise in inanimate objects is like asking how lemon trees can grow from the ground. Everyone knows that lemon trees are made of elements contained in the ground, and one essential thing is necessary in addition to fertile ground for the lemon tree to grow — there must be a seed of a lemon to be planted into that ground. Does it not make good sense that there must be a seed of consciousness planted in human beings before consciousness can appear in cooperation with the elements in our bodies? Our bodies, after all, just like the lemon tree, come from the elements contained in the ground of the Earth.

Without that seed of consciousness, we would be true zombies, and that spark of recognition that survives the ravages of age and time would be gone from our eyes. Without that seed of consciousness we could only look out of our eyes as a cat or a dog does, with a look that can only appear to be conscious to some other being who already possesses consciousness and would be capable of projecting it onto us. Cats, dogs, and other pets are attracted to humans because of the very thing humans have that they don't, but would like to have, consciousness. When we nurture, help, and share our consciousness with our pets, they return the favor with their love and affection for us. In the grand scale of the cosmos, surely there are beings who nurture, help, and share their consciousness with us and to whom we in turn give up our love and affection. The study of consciousness, if pursued, leads one inevitably to the study of Soul in this age which some call the Consciousness Soul Age for the very good reason that this is the age during which materialistic science will find itself confronted with conundrums that can only be solved by confronting one's own soul experience as a spiritual being in a material body.

Only by confronting one's soul experience can one ever hope to understand the phenomenon of crying in human beings. Animals, without resident souls in their bodies, do not cry. Only humans cry. Darwin said, "Crying is a puzzler." It was a puzzler to Darwin because it presumed the existence of a soul, something Darwin found no need for in his theory. But a series of strange processes began to happen to Darwin as soon as he promulgated his theory:

[page 59] . . . he develops all kinds of symptoms — boils, flatulence, vomiting, shivering, fainting . . . piles . . . tinnitus . . . dots before the eyes . . . every damn thing you can think of . . . none of his doctors could explain or cure any of it . . . one of them said it was suppressed gout, more like suppressed guilt . . . and he tried all kinds of quack remedies that no serious scientist should have contemplated for a moment . . .

Ever try to treat a cat like a dog? It never works. The cat will not fetch, will not heel. Will not walk on a leash. It will fight every attempt you make to treat it as some animal it is not. Darwin tried to treat human beings like dogs, and being a human being himself, his body reacted strenuously to his attempt. Being human is a puzzler, rightly understood. Try to eliminate or minimize that reality and your body will react just as strongly in its own way as Darwin's did in its way. Perhaps you've already noticed something along that line, if you've lived long enough.

The neuroscientist Libet "showed that conscious awareness of a decision to act always lags behind the associated brain activity by about half a second . . . so in a sense every moment of our lives is already in the past when we experience it . . . you might say consciousness is a continual action replay. . ." (Page 72, 73) Or you might say, in the words of Matherne's Rule #8: "It always happens before you know it."

Lodge's prose glows at times when Ralph's pouring out his stream of consciousness to his Pearlcorder, like this piece, his first piece actually, with Martha, a mature woman who seduced him when he was seventeen:

[page 76, 77] . . . I could still scarcely believe my luck, for that matter I can hardly believe it now, imagine, a seventeen-year-old schoolboy whose body was a testosterone power station constantly on edge of melt-down and his mind . . . his mind a pornographic theatre that never closed . . . but whose sexual experiences extended no further than french-kissing girls from our sister grammar school up the road in the lunch hour and maybe squeezing their tits under serge uniform blazers if you were lucky . . . to lose my virginity to an experienced, warm-blooded fully grown woman . . . who laughed and told me not to worry when I came prematurely as inevitably I did . . . but I'm getting ahead of myself . . .

Or when he does the exercise that Helen gives her class: Write about what it is like to be a bat in the style of a well-known author. Lodge writes the students' essays in the style of Martin Amis, Irvine Walsh, Salmon Rushdie, and Samuel Beckett. For fans of these authors will not want to miss this series of cross-cultural writing exercises by Lodge in Chapter 8, pages 90 to 96.

In this next passage, Ralph makes a statement that would be agreed upon by nearly every cognitive scientist — and their unanimity would be matched only by their wrongness.

[page 101] Primitive man was like a guy who's been given a state-of-the-art computer and just uses it to do simple arithmetic.

The presupposition is that the human brain did not change in function, capacity, or processing capability since primitive man, that the evolution of consciousness came about due to humans learning over aeons of time how to better use a tool that remains identical today to what it was back then, only we have learned to use it better. To hold to this line belies the evidence of the changes in the shape of skull bones that indicate an ever increasing size of the cranial cavity; it belies the evidence of the Cro-Magnon skulls which rose vertically from the bridge of the nose allowing growth of the prefrontal lobes that could not have been present in the steeply sloped skulls of the Neanderthals. Rather than a tool that we learned how to use which usage increased our abilities for consciousness, human consciousness evolved in locked step with the evolution of the brain. And this evolution can be witnessed in the microcosm of every child as it is conceived, born, and grows to maturity -- in the single human being's growth we can observe the evolution of consciousness progress. What took place over hundreds of thousands of years, we can observe take place in the course of a dozen or so years in every human child as it grows to maturity.

When Ralph tells Helen that man is the only animal who knows it will die, Helen rebuts him by saying, "Elephants must know - they have graveyards." Ralph says, "I'm afraid that's a myth." When Rudolf Steiner was asked that question, he said that due to the thick skin of elephants, when death approaches, they want more earth, of which their skin is most akin, around them, so they withdraw into caves.

This is an amazing and interesting book. In Chapters 30 and 32, first Helen and then Ralph speak of the process of recognizing a karmic necessity: Helen calls it superstition and Ralph calls it a strange symmetry. Read the two passages and pay close attention only to the feeling state Lodge evokes for each character — it is in the feeling state that one can experience something that evades the day-time consciousness, something that operates below our level of awareness such as karmic necessity does in this day and age, up until now. As Steiner said once, "Feelings live longer than thoughts."

[page 298, Helen] The moment Messenger said, 'I've got a lump on my liver,' I felt a cold qualm of fear, and yet no surprise — it was as if I had been unconsciously expecting some such blow, and now it had fallen. There's superstition for you.

[page 327, Ralph] . . . There was a strange symmetry about yesterday evening, the way my reprieve arrived from Halib at the very same moment that catastrophe stared Duggers in the face. It was as if we were balanced on a pair of scales, and Halib's call was the thumb in the pan that brought me safely down to earth and sent Duggers flying up into the air, hanging by his neck . . .

Halib, the London specialist that Carrie hired to care for Ralph, was the observer who opened the "Schrödinger's Cat" box and observed Ralph to be alive — in Lodge's words, Halib had his thumb on the scale to tip it towards Ralph. Sgt Agnew had his thumb on the scales to tip it towards Ralph's colleague Professor Douglas Douglass (Duggers) as the suspected pornographic downloader culprit. The phrase "strange symmetry" is the closest that Ralph express in his mode of rational thought what was probably a deep feeling of connection with his karmic destiny. "Superstition" to Helen; "strange symmetry" to Ralph -- both of them felt the wheels of karma turning and used scientifically acceptable ways of sloughing off the deeper night-time reality they discounted with their day-time consciousness.

Will Carrie go back to Ralph? With Ralph give up Helen? Will Nicholas Beck always remain known as a celibate homosexual after his affair with Carrie is over? Will Helen let go of her beloved, faithful, and dead husband Martin after one of her students reveals in her writing assignment Martin's penchant for bedding young co-eds? Will the two structures of Arts and Science finally meet one another? Will Helen offer The Last Word for the Con-Con? Yes, she will and when she did, she quoted the two wonderful stanzas from Andrew Marvell's poem, "The Garden" — the first for the green thoughts of the Cognitive Scientist and the second for the silver wings of the Artist:

[page 318]
Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

[page 318]
Here at the Fountains sliding foot,
Or at some Fruit-trees mossy root,
Casting the Body's Vest aside
My Soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a Bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver Wings;
And, till prepar'd for longer flight,
Waves in its Plumes the various Light.

I see that you have enjoyed the review. How was it for me?


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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