The Trinity Reporter Spring 2004
Behind what’s visible
Philosophy Professor Dan Lloyd creates a novel way to understand consciousness

by Jim H. Smith
photograph by Nick Lacy


In the classic noir novel or film, things are rarely what they seem. Characters pursue elusive dreams through shadowy landscapes where life tends to be cheap. At the end, they fall victim not so much to enemies who are more clever or less moral than they are, but to their own perceptions and to the inevitably fatal human capacity to overestimate their own intelligence. Trinity College professor Dan Lloyd’s new novel, Radiant Cool, just published by MIT Press, sure looks like a noir novel at first glance. It comes wrapped in a cover with an illustration of a wet, ominous, and neon-lit urban street. It delivers a “dead” body in the second paragraph of the first chapter. And then—hey! presto!—it hurries the plot right along by making the corpus delicti disappear in that same chapter.

There’s a plot to take over the world and a sinister Russian agent. The female protagonist, Miranda Sharpe, may not be quite as world-weary as Sam Spade, but she’s pretty cynical and she cracks just as wise and she’s got an instinctively analytical mind. And the primary setting—cyberspace and the vortex where it intersects with the human mind—is a decidedly shadowy landscape.

Beyond those similarities, Lloyd’s book is a work of fiction quite different from anything writers Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Cornell Woolrich ever imagined. But then, Radiant Cool is not entirely a work of fiction.

Miranda Sharpe doesn’t just solve a mystery. She discovers an entirely new theory of human consciousness.

The book’s first 222 pages, The Thrill of Phenomenology, are unquestionably a novel. But Lloyd devotes the second half of the book, The Real Firefly: Reflections on a Science of Consciousness, to an in-depth discussion of the ideas about consciousness that undergird The Thrill of Phenomenology.

And the fact that Firefly is as much the work of a bright mind as Thrill goes directly to the big question philosopher Lloyd is grappling with. What is reality? As the MIT Press notes in the promotional literature accompanying advance copies of Radiant Cool, “This sleekly written and ingeniously plotted thriller may also be the first novel of ideas that actually breaks new theoretical ground.”

A confluence
Radiant Cool, Lloyd says, is the consequence of two very different intellectual interests. Those complementary ideas define the two sections of Radiant Cool.

“I’ve always been interested in creative writing,” he says. As a young man he tried his hand at fiction, with some success. But graduate school and his Columbia University doctoral dissertation—Picturing: The Aesthetics, Epistemology and Ontology of Pictorial Representation—got in the way. “It beat the novelist right out of me,” he says.

Fourteen years would pass, in fact, before he was sufficiently “recovered” to tackle Radiant Cool. When he did, in 1997, he was drawn to the project because he was seeking a fresh way to tell people about ideas he was exploring as a philosopher. “Once I found the initial concept, a story that uses the theme and plot trappings of noir, the story just grew organically,” he says. “The ideas about consciousness carried me right along.”

It is not simply about consciousness that Radiant Cool concerns itself. It is about the very organ of consciousness, the brain, and the brain’s capacity to perceive both the world around it and itself. To help readers understand the brain’s computing power, Lloyd enlists cognitive scientist Paul Churchland:

About a quart in volume, the human brain “encompasses a space of conceptual and cognitive possibilities that is larger, by one measure at least, than the entire astronomical universe,” notes Churchland. “It has this striking feature because it exploits the combinatorics of its 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion synaptic connections with each other. The global configuration of these 100 trillion connections is very important to the individual who has them, for that idiosyncratic set of connection strengths determines how the brain reacts to the sensory information it receives, how it responds to the emotional states it encounters, and how it plots its future behavior.”

Churchland suggests that you think of it using a deck-of-cards analogy. “If we assume, conservatively, that each synaptic connection might have any one of ten different strengths, then the total number of distinct possible configurations of synaptic weights that the brain might assume is, very roughly, ten raised to the 100 trillionth power.”

While that immense—one hesitates the use the word “unimaginable”— computing power is what separates humans from all other species, it also presents the potential for striking problems. If the big computer goes haywire, what checks and balances are there?

“The division between mind and matter is one of the signal things that defines the modern world,” says Lloyd. “That’s what Miranda seeks – a way to understand the complexity.”

As she makes her way through Radiant Cool, she is helped along by other characters. The Russian detective, cleverly named Marlov, provides her with some of the tools she needs. In the end, it is Lloyd himself, whose alter ego eventually comes to Sharpe’s aid in the book, who leads her where she needs to go. She meets him via his Trinity Web site, The Web site doesn’t just help Sharpe solve her mystery. It allows readers to investigate consciousness in multiple dimensions, and it is a further connection between the real world and the ideas Lloyd is exploring in his fictional one.

The philosopher as gumshoe
Radiant Cool has already garnered critical acclaim. It was warmly reviewed in both the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and Lloyd has been interviewed by writers in Canada, Australia, and England, where the response has been especially positive, he says.

One reason why the success of the book is important to him is because he conjured up this story to provide an entertaining way to help readers explore the mystery of consciousness, which he describes as “a symphony of complexity and magic.” He expects to use the book in classes and hopes other professors will find it useful, as well.

Speaking more broadly, he says, “I hope that readers of Radiant Cool will contemplate the wonder that originates from this complex organ, the link between the mind and ordering consciousness.”

Which leads one to wonder if Lloyd see himself as a detective.

“I’ve never really thought of it that way,” he says, “but in some ways that’s what we do when we try to understand consciousness. We look for clues. Usually the clue won’t announce itself. You have to look for hints, look behind the phenomena, behind what’s visible.”

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