Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soulby Published 07 Aug 2012
|Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul.pdf|
This title is printed in full color throughout.
From one of the most original and influential neuroscientists at work today, here is an exploration of consciousness unlike any other—as told by Galileo, who opened the way for the objectivity of science and is now intent on making subjective experience a part of science as well.
Galileo’s journey has three parts, each with a different guide. In the first, accompanied by a scientist who resembles Francis Crick, he learns why certain parts of the brain are important and not others, and why consciousness fades with sleep. In the second part, when his companion seems to be named Alturi (Galileo is hard of hearing; his companion’s name is actually Alan Turing), he sees how the facts assembled in the first part can be unified and understood through a scientific theory—a theory that links consciousness to the notion of integrated information (also known as phi). In the third part, accompanied by a bearded man who can only be Charles Darwin, he meditates on how consciousness is an evolving, developing, ever-deepening awareness of ourselves in history and culture—that it is everything we have and everything we are.
Not since Gödel, Escher, Bach has there been a book that interweaves science, art, and the imagination with such originality. This beautiful and arresting narrative will transform the way we think of ourselves and the world.
"Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul" Reviews
Phi is an extremely ambitious book which sets out to explain the nature and implications of consciousness. It's beautifully put together, incorporating numerous images from classical painting and sculpture and contemporary scientific imaging. The images are interspersed with a text which is consciously modeled on the Divine Comedy; everything comes in threes and Tononi balances his vision of the infernal dimensions of consciousness with the wonders of life. The book is structured around Galileo's three-part journey with sections focusing on the physical foundations of consciousness, a series of thought experiments concerning consciousness, and a section of philosophical reflections on the implications of the previous sections. Each section gives Galileo a different guide, figure based on Francis Crick, Alan Turing and Charles Darwin. Each chapter is followed by a section in which Tononi provides notes for images and the numerous quotations and adapted quotations and, problematically, offers ironic analysis of the contents of the chapter.
That's the description, now the review. The core of Phi is Tononi's vision of "integrated information" (a.k.a. the Phi of the title) as the defining feature of consciousness. This leads to the notion of "qualia": the irreducible states of perception which define what consciousness is. Each set of perceptions/experiences is a "quale" and our consciousness consists of the changing array of quale we perceive. In the first third of the book, Tononi revisits, summarizes and endorses material from neuroscientific research that will be familiar to readers of Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damaso. That section's fine. The second section, however, begins to lose its clarity and focus. Tononi knows he's playing with ideas that aren't as firmly established as those in the first section and he structures things so that every time an idea is advanced it's challenged and usually undercut. While the notion of integrated information emerges clearly, that's about it. And the third section of philosophical meditations is simply unconvincing. Tononi's not a philosopher--he's a Professor of Sleep Science and Consciousness Studies at my home institution, the University of Wisconsin. There are a lot of very large speculations, which lead to the assertion that integrated information provides a way of reconciling the tension between the "one" and the "many." I sympathize but I didn't find it convincing, even aesthetically. That's partly because Tononi's dramatic approach is more device than literary performance. The characters aren't convincing as characters; rather, they're clearly mouthpieces for perspectives. And I simply think the postscripts on the chapters were a bad idea; when Tononi, with ironic intent apparently, points out the failings of the positions which he's just presented, all too often I found myself saying "yeah, that's right."
Phi is an interesting and sometimes engaging attempt to present a major philosophical statement. For me, it didn't quite work.
I picked up this book thinking I was going to read a book on the neuroscience of consciousness and found something like Borges work or a Dali painting between the covers. When I read nonfiction I expect an idea that is laid out in a straight forward manner. Instead I got a baroque story about Galileo in a surreal dream. I couldn't make heads or tails of the authors thesis. Call me an unimaginative curmudgeon but I didn't get the point of this book. That's the downside but it is full of beautiful artistic prints and lovely imagery kind of like consciousness. That is why I am giving it three stars instead of one or two but it won't get four because I was left utterly confused and slightly miffed. Still it is interesting I will pick it up next time as not my nonfiction philistine self but I will try to read it in a more literary manner. Still the book should be advertised as a piece of interesting postmodern art not a book about the neuroscience of consciousness.
A creative, colorful, and poetic book, styled quite similarly to Dante's Divine Comedy, with spirit-guides walking the interlocutor through three perceptual realms. Certainly more of a scientific bent than DC, though ultimately I don't believe it connected all the dots it was supposed to in explaining the basis of consciousness.
Consciousness is explained to Galileo in parts by Frick, Alturi, and an unnamed bearded man (Francis Crick, Alan Turing, and Charles Darwin), where they lead Galileo from room to room with different allegorical scenes, usually based on historical or scientific evidence in each one. Frick displays some of the physical knowledge of consciousness and the brain--the effects of lobotomy or infarction. Alturi compares the brain to devices, both mechanical and information theoretic, concluding that Phi--irreducible integrated information--is the measure of consciousness. [Darwin] shows the practical and philosophical consequences of such a system--how dementia affects consciousness, whether other creatures possess it, etc.
I think the crux of this thesis lies near the end of Alturi's domain, and I found there a disconnect that I'll have to look into further. The author does a great job of explaining how the brain is not like a photodiode (simply registering 'ON' in the presence of light and 'OFF' otherwise), but that individual neurons more or less are (or can be modeled that way). But then a higher level of awareness (than a neuron) is attained through 'complexes', which aren't described physically (are they neurons? massively connected neurons?), and have probability measures (i.e. rather than binary 0 or 1 any value between them inclusive). And then qualia are introduced which seem to be high dimensioned hypercubes, unique to each individual concept--as though some neuron or complex (or ??) can hold all of the information gathered from uncountable precursor neurons. I don't disagree with this idea, I just don't understand the mechanics. The apparent hypercube in qualiaspace may contain more information than any individual neuron could perceive--knowledge of one measure being 00 means it isn't the state 01 or 10 or 11, etc., but I'm not sure if this is any more information than the readings alone--where does this become consciousness?
Regardless of my disconnect, this book was a pleasure to read--there are many full color reproductions of varied famous works, often with subtle modification giving them a stronger relationship to the story, and the story was quite an interesting allegorical journey influenced and backed up by science and history. I'm not sure whom I would recommend the book to, it's difficult to categorize or relate to other works--perhaps to a person of literary mind who wants a better scientific understanding of consciousness without too much technical detail?
"La memoria è immaginazione che scruta il passato, e l'immaginazione memoria che guarda nel futuro." (p. 273)
"Due coscienze [...] possono toccarsi solo come si toccano due sfere: in un punto soltanto, e persino quel singolo punto potrebbe non trovarsi mai." (p. 286)
"L'arte [...] ci porta in un'ala insospettata del vasto palazzo della coscienza, un'ala che, se gli anfratti più remoti del mondo, la cartografia di tutte le stelle, o la composizione di tutta la materia fossero stati esplorati in modo esauriente, sarebbe rimasta in sospeso, come la bella addormentata prima del bacio, uno strano angolo dell'universo dell'esperienza che era possibile ma non fu reale finché non fu immaginato. e ora è là, e tutti lo possono vedere." (p. 290)
Frequentareil campo delle neuroscienze è interessante perché è una terra di frontiera. Su quel confine della conoscenza, l'umanesimo, cioè quel che l'uomo ha tentato lentamente, nei millenni, di comprendere di sé, della sua mente e del suo corpo, si incontra con quel che sta scoprendo negli ultimi decenni con il metodo scientifico, ad una velocità sempre più vertiginosa. Nella ricerca neurologica, scienza e umanesimo si incontrano. La cosa che meraviglia e forse un po’ commuove anche, è che intuizioni antichissime “a mente nuda” e scoperte fatte oggi con la risonanza magnetica, i laboratori iperattrezzati e i computer non solo non si contraddicono, ma piuttosto si sorreggono e si confermano a vicenda.
Questo libro, bello come oggetto prima ancora che come racconto, denso di foto e di citazioni, è straordinariamente interessante proprio perché è centrato su questa convergenza.
Tononi è un neuroscienziato. Lavora in una università americana. Si occupa della funzione più alta e complicata del cervello, la funzione che chiamiamo coscienza. Ha definito e raccontato l'oggetto e lo stato del suo lavoro con una favola. Se Gombrich racconta la storia dell'arte come la favola della bellezza, Tononi ci racconta la storia della ricerca umanistica e scientifica sulla coscienza come una sorta di favola dell’anima.
Anche Tononi usa l'arte per costruire il suo racconto: la pittura, la scultura, la fotografia, il cinema, ma anche Proust, Dante, Borges e altri uomini che la coscienza l’avevano ipertrofica. Un viaggio che sembra un sogno, fatto da un Galileo surreale al di là dei confini di tempo e di spazio. La costruzione narrativa è barocca e forse troppo poco immediata; la lettura quindi è impegnativa, ma è anche suggestiva come poche altre.
La migliore recensione di questo libro l'ha scritta Antonio Pascale, nel link qui sotto e vale la pena di leggerla, perché è bella di per sé, indipendentemente dal libro voglio dire.