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A THRILL-RIDE THROUGH THE 'SELF',
This review is from: Consciousness (Hardcover)
Nothing could be of more interest to us, as conscious beings, than the nature of consciousness itself, but the scientific study of our 'selves' can be all but impenetrable to those of us without a relevant academic background. True, there are plenty of books on the theme of consciousness aimed at the popular market, but all too often they are written by scientists so locked into their specialisms that they can't quite bring themselves to surrender the bias of their theories. Broadly speaking, the scientific community seems to fall into two utterly opposed camps: either consciousness is something special and apart from the merely physical and biological workings of the brain, or it is not. Likewise, half the robotics experts in the world think that consciousness is simply an informational 'process' that can one day be reproduced in a computer, if only we can invent the right software, while the other half are just as sure that consciousness has some ineffable ghostly quality that cannot ever be generated within a machine.
Rita Carter's lively, accessible overview of the state of consciousness studies reads like the story of a particularly entertaining dinner party, attended by some of the best scientists and philosophers at work today, and representative of what might most compactly be described as the 'materialist' and 'non-materialist' opposing camps. Most of the debates are good-natured, but a few of them bring a delicious hint of bad-temper to the proceedings - and Carter herself is no slouch as the 'host' of this gathering: her descriptions of brain processes and witty analogies are often rather more accessible than those of her expert guests.
A central chapter of the book delivers a wonderful story in which a colossal airship is staffed by countless thousands of pallid zombies who are intelligent but not self-aware. Any given zombie has only a small, relatively simple task to perform, and none of them are smart enough to steer the airship single-handedly. Indeed, the ship is piloted by none of them in particular, yet somehow it blunders through the sky avoiding collisions and preparing to land at a crowded airport. This may sound rather comical, but it serves as an extraordinarily effective analogy for the human brain and its chattering neurons. In themselves, the neuron-zombies are unconscious, yet their airship ends up behaving as though it were being piloted by 'someone' sentient. It's a lovely description of how conscious behaviour could emerge from the collective interactions of small unconscious components.
Carter is brilliantly even-handed in building up, then knocking down, the various opposing views of consciousness, but occasionally she shows some steel of her own. She seems near-convinced that consciousness may not be particularly useful, in itself, as a survival mechanism. If we act as though we are conscious, we can get along, but there is no need, in survival terms, for us actually to 'be' conscious. She challenges evolutionary biologists to come up with a genuine 'usefulness' for it. Again, her smart-but-unconscious zombies provide an unsettling analogy. How do we know if the people around us are 'conscious'? They might just be extremely elaborate zombie computers, capable of behaving as if they knew about their own existence, but not actually 'experiencing' self-knowledge inside themselves . . .
All good fun, but beneath Carter's deft storytelling and chatty style, she maintains the academic discipline and reliably comprehensive coverage of her subject that informed her previous ground-breaking book, 'Mapping the Mind.' A (very minor and probably accidental) glitch in describing the nature of ions in the chemistry of neurotransmitters, and a hint of uncharacteristic timidity when dealing with quantum theories, cannot spoil a hugely entertaining and reliably informative read.
Most fascinating of all, Carter tells us what consciousness is NOT. Compelling experimental data shows that the version of our 'selves' that we think we live with is a massive delusion. Just three examples: we live our inner lives at least half a second behind the outside world. We 'decide' to do physical actions entirely unconsciously, long before we become 'aware' of wanting to do those actions; and we can't tell the difference between being genuinely unconscious of pain while anaesthetised in an operating theatre, or simply waking up afterwards to find that we have absolutely no memory of it. It sounds weird, even terrifying, but apparently hospital staff often pump us, before an operation, with 'just-in-case' drugs that suppress the laying-down of memories.
We are not who we think we are, and we don't 'will' ourselves to do things in quite the way we might imagine. Carter's book reads, accordingly, like a thrilling mystery. Beautiful illustrations deliver added value, providing cogent information in conjunction with an eerie, dreamlike visual style that perfectly matches the book's subject.
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Initial post: 14 Feb 2011 16:14:46 GMT
mr william parks says:
did you consciously post the same review twice?
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