Thinks . . .by David Lodge

Penguin Putnam Inc. June 2001 342 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

Is the human mind merely a complex set of logical operations, reducible in principle to computational processes?  Or is the mind irreducibly mysterious, accessible only in part through the imagination of the novelist and the piety of the religious?  This enormous question forms the bulk of David Lodge’s tenth, and problematic new novel, Thinks . . .

 The setting is one where Lodge feels most comfortable, an imaginary British university, in this case The University of Gloucester.  Here, among an eight-thousand strong student body, we find handsome, mediagenic, fifty-year-old Ralph Messenger, director of the Holt Belling Center for Cognitive Science.  Corporate funding, along with television appearances and popular publications, have granted Messenger a life few academics experience: houses in the city and the country, expense-paid trips to the Continent and America, and warm, available, and young female flesh to complement his seemingly devoted and independently wealthy wife, Carrie, mother of his two children.

Into this idyll arrives Helen Reed, a novelist of modest fame whose husband, Martin, died suddenly the previous year.  Helen is to replace the campus creative writer, and her cheerfully combative intelligence, her curiosity, and her body all attract Messenger.  For her part, Helen finds her clever, talented students to be a challenge as well.  Reading one of their novels-in-progress, she discovers that what she thought of as her own settled past may well have been built on a lie.

Consciousness, says Messenger, “the systematic study of the mind . . . is the biggest white space on the map of human knowledge.”  Enter cognitive science, a rough cluster of inquiries by “physicists, biologists, zoologists, neurologists, evolutionary psychologists, mathematicians,” and others who approach the mind’s functioning scientifically.  Imagine “if everyone had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kids’ comics, with ‘Thinks . . .’  inside them.”  Helen Reed assumes that “that’s why people read novels  . . . to find out what goes on in other people’s heads.”  Messenger, on the contrary, thinks that “all they really find out is what has gone on in the writer’s head.  It’s not real knowledge.”  It’s the problem of “how to give an objective, third-person account of a subjective, first-person phenomenon.” 

And how does novelist Lodge succeed in depicting this debate?  Not so well.

At the heart of the book is a romanticized view regarding the irreconcilability of art and science, a meditation on the idea made famous by C. P. Snow.  As Lodge’s book has it, cognitive science is encroaching on the traditional bailiwick of the novelist, in seeking to explain the mystery of consciousness not by dramatizing it (as in a novel) but by offering up its supposed logical substructure.  Consciousness, as the cognitive scientist would have it, is algorithmic. Lodge is having none of it, opting instead for the mystery of consciousness, and indeed of human life, a mystery which impels us to seek literary and religious, not scientific, explanations when we try to understand the meaning of human existence.

            Such a huge theme is illustrated schematically by Lodge, with characters standing in for various points of view.  Lodge’s usual genre--and admirable strength--is satire, and his habitual targets are vain, overpaid, and oversexed academics. Yet, in Thinks . . . and other recent books, Lodge has traded satire for the novel of ideas.  He wants to dramatize a real struggle here--can science explain exhaustively human existence?--yet his treatment of it consists of a series of talking heads swapping irreconcilable points of view. It is a dissatisfying handling of both the explanatory capacities of literature and one of the most exciting areas of contemporary scientific inquiry.

            For those curious about cognitive science who desire an entertaining treatment of its ideas in lieu of actually reading the primary texts, perhaps Thinks . . . will fill the bill.  However, most readers will find it an insufficient treatment of cognitive science and an inadequate novel in its own right.