Philosophy and Literature 30.1 (2006) 299-309
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Mary Clayton Coleman
What contributions can fiction make to the representation and investigation of conscious experience? Might fiction help us to develop and advance new theories about the nature of consciousness? And might such theories, in turn, inform our understanding of the process of reading fiction? Three recent volumes—one by English critic and novelist, David Lodge; another by literary theorist, Alan Palmer; and a third by philosopher and (now) novelist, Dan Lloyd—raise these important, genre-bending questions, and they offer challenging if not always convincing answers to them. More generally, these volumes make valuable contributions to the fruitful cross-pollination that has developed between philosophers, scientists, literary theorists, and novelists who are interested in the nature of consciousness.
Lodge's new collection of essays is called Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays, and like all of the criticism he has written since the late eighties, this volume is intended for a general audience, not for [End Page 299] literary theorists. The title essay, "Consciousness and the Novel," is a revised version of the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature that Lodge gave at Emory University in 2001, and the other nine essays, all previously published, cover such topics as Howards End; the novels of Evelyn Waugh; The Letters of Kingsley Amis; Martin Amis's memoir, Experience; and the relationship between literature and criticism. I will focus on "Consciousness and the Novel."
Lodge's thesis in this essay is that novels play an essential role in our exploration of the nature of human consciousness. This thesis is certainly true, but it is also entirely banal. Much more interesting is what Lodge says in support of it. He argues that because of the unique representative possibilities of the novel, conscious experiences can be represented more effectively in novels than they can be in scientific writing. Taken literally, as an assertion about the relative representational power of novels and scientific discourse, this is extremely implausible. However, taken more loosely—as an invitation to those of us interested in consciousness to take a closer look at the ways conscious experiences are represented in novels—Lodge's claim is sensible and appealing. I will consider the literal reading of Lodge's claim first and then turn to the looser one.
It is undoubtedly true that, as a whole, novelists devote more energy to representing conscious experiences than writers of scientific discourse do. However, science writers can use whatever techniques best serve their aims, including the aim of describing conscious experiences, so there is no reason to think that conscious experiences can, in principle, be represented more effectively in novels than in broadly scientific discourse. Given that Lodge discusses such creative science writers as Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker in the course of his essay, it is surprising and disappointing to find him caricature scientific writing in the following way: "science . . . is a third-person discourse. The first-person pronoun is not used in scientific papers. If there were any hint of qualia in a scientific paper . . . it would be edited out" (p. 11). Qualia are the supposedly subjective qualitative aspects of conscious experiences. How the plucked string of a cello sounds to you; how the rotting fish in the garbage smells to you; and how it feels for you to inch down into the smooth, almost-too-hot water of a perfect bubble bath—these are all (supposedly) examples of qualia. Lodge is simply mistaken when he says that there is no hint of qualia in scientific writing. There is no consensus about whether qualia can be explained scientifically. In fact, there is no consensus about whether they exist. [End Page...