Ebb Tide: A Review of The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness by David Gelernter


Charles Edward White

Article ID:



Sep 9, 2022


Jun 29, 2020

A Book Review of 

The Tides of Mind:
Uncovering the Spectrum
of Consciousness

By David Gelernter
(Yale University Press, 2016)

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 39, number 6 (2016). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University, so one might expect that he would see the mind as the software that runs on the hardware of the brain, a view that he calls “computationalism.” But, in contrast to many in his field, computationalism is exactly the idea Gelernter wishes to refute. Many materialists use the idea of computationalism against Christians. They argue that human thoughts and the minds that think them are nothing but patterns of electron flow in the neurons deep in the brain. They say one cannot argue from the existence of a human mind to a divine Mind that shaped the universe. So Gelernter’s book should be a boon for believers because it undermines one of the foundations of atheist thought. Sadly, it is not.

This book is not a boon for believers wishing to assert the reality of the human mind. Nor does it point to the existence of a divine Mind that shaped the cosmos through the logos. There are four reasons for this disappointing result: (1) the apologetic use of the book is not what Gelernter has in mind; (2) the evidence Gelernter adduces to prove his claim begs the question; (3) the way he marshals his evidence is chaotic; and (4) his conclusion is buried under a mass of extraneous information.

Mind Control. The first problem with trying to use this book as evidence of the truth of theism is that proving that the brain is not a computer is only a small part of the book. From reading the preface, one could get the idea that the book is a manifesto against the “consensus view of the intellectual mainstream in the mind sciences” (p. xvii) that computationalism is true. That, however, is not the main purpose of the book. Gelernter hopes to teach us about the mind, and he also hopes to teach us to use our minds more effectively.

His hope is not so much that we will think more clearly but that we will use the lower reaches of our minds to be more “creative, bold, improvisational, [and] unconstrained.” He tells us, “This book could almost have been a Field Guide to the Mind from Within” (246). Just as one takes a field guide in hand on a hike to explore and enjoy nature, so Gelernter envisions us using this guide to better explore and enjoy our minds, especially the regions where dreams and feelings lie. Early on, he quotes Napoléon, whose source of genius was that every night “I do a thousand projects as I fall asleep” (49). If only we could tap into the roots of our minds as Napoléon did as he drifted off to sleep, we would be more successful and fulfilled. Helping us be more like Napoléon is the primary purpose of this book.

Science and Stories. The second problem of this book is that the reader needs to be convinced already of Gelernter’s ideas to find his evidence convincing. The paucity of hard data, or of much that could even be labeled “science,” would make the materialist dismiss this book out of hand. Instead Gelernter uses literary citations — poetry, fiction, biography, and autobiography — to support his assertions.

The book does have 116 footnotes, most of which refer to scientific research, but it lists 119 literary works by Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Winston Churchill, Alexander Dumas, Philip Roth, Leo Tolstoy, and other writers. Usually the ability of an author to draw from many different disciplines or to support his ideas from different genres and cultures is a sign of intelligence and wideranging knowledge, but here it is a sign of weakness. Gelernter should recognize that a hard-bitten materialist like “The Great Knock” who facilitated C. S. Lewis’s boyhood slide into atheism (remember the wonderful portrait of Kirkpatrick in Surprised by Joy) would scoff at literature as a source of truth. Those who think that the brain is a computer made of meat and that the human mind is a mere epiphenomenal illusion will not be impressed by the non-peer-reviewed speculations of storytellers. Thus Gelernter begs the question by using so much evidence that only a believer would believe.

Chaos and Convolutions. A section from page 50 illustrates the problem of question-begging and introduces the third problem of chaotic argumentation:

Jane Austen’s Emma tells us that “a linguist, a grammarian,” ”even a mathematician” is very different from her; she is “an imaginist.” Napoléon was too — although Jane Austen, English patriot that she was, would have hated to say so. “Her brother, she knew, was born to feel (Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies).” Some people are.

How does this paragraph go wrong? (1) Since when is a fictional character from a novel an authority to be quoted in a book on science? (In the context, the quote is used not as an illustration but a bit of evidence.) (2) Who cares what Jane Austen would have thought of Napoléon? How is that relevant to the discussion? (3) Why are there two quotation marks in succession instead of an ellipsis within the quotation? (4) Whose brother appears in the second paragraph? (5) “Some people are born to feel.” What does that mean? Does it mean that other people are not born to feel? Does it mean that other people only learn to feel later in their lives? (6) Who says some people are born to feel? By what authority?

Skipping to the Conclusion. The fourth problem is related to the first. Gelernter’s useful conclusion that “Computationalism…is wrong” (242) is expressed in just three sentences in eleven pages of conclusions. Most of the other conclusions have to do with the main purpose of the book, which is the structure of the mind, memories, dreams, beliefs, and feelings. Since these conclusions are speculations based on Gelernter’s amazing knowledge of what other people have imagined, the unsympathetic reader has no reason to accept them. Even if Gelernter were convincing in his belief that the mind is more than a computer, his barrage of other, unsupported, conclusions undermines the reader’s trust in his thinking. Reading Gelernter is like watching a debate between an atheist and a Jehovah’s Witness. You know the Witness is right about the existence of God, but so much of what he says is so cringeworthy that you wish he’d just shut up.

Gelernter’s foundational idea is that the human mind is not a computer because it feels as well as thinks. He illustrates this concept by citing 119 literary works to help us feel what he feels. It’s the best he can do. At the end of his book, he cites Wittgenstein: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (250). But Gelernter disagrees. He says, “What we cannot speak about we must still feel” (251). I feel otherwise. —Charles Edward White

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