The key to consciousness?

The First Minds: Caterpillars, Karyotes, and Consciousness by Arthur S. Reber (Oxford University Press); reviewed by Jason Tougaw.

Reber argues that we need reconceive what we mean by mind if we are going to ‘resolve’ (rather than solve) the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – the explanatory gap between brain physiology and phenomenology. He contends that unicellular organisms exhibit dispositions that indicate mental experience. They seek environments that support homeostasis (the right nutrients, temperature, and population). As he argues, ‘a unicellular organism must be able to move, have a sense of its own physical form, have a representation of self that is distinct from the senses of others’ (p.135). Drawing on research in microbiology, Reber offers compelling examples: separate colonies of the bacterium Bacillus communicating to calibrate reproduction rates favourable to both; the protozoa Stentor roseli ‘uses the cilia on its upper surface to guide potential food sources into its funnel’.

Reber’s writing is a lively synthesis of research in consciousness studies and microbiology. His aim is to demonstrate that examining the material mechanisms of communication among bacteria or the feeding functions of protozoa may resolve the hard problem by showing how they generate mental experience. He offers a persuasive (and hilarious) demonstration of how often theories of consciousness reflect the research – or personal agendas – of their proponents. A physicist argues for a quantum explanation; an octopus enthusiast sees the origin of mind in cephalopods; a linguist looks for it in ‘generative language’.

So consciousness studies is in a rut, and Reber believes research on unicellular organisms and other species may be the solution. He acknowledges that little to no research has been conducted to support his argument. Without that research, it’s difficult to know whether his distinction between solving and resolving the hard problem is merely rhetorical or a genuine reconceptualisation. He does identify concrete avenues for research that might answer the question.

Reviewed by Jason Tougaw, Queens College & The CUNY Graduate Center, author of The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience and The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism

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