on 29 August 2007
What is consciousness? How do a set of electrical responses of millions of brain cells produce private, subjective conscious experience? Several theories have been proposed, and they include, grand unifying theories, quantum mechanical theories, biophysical/neurochemical mechanisms, philosophical, and spiritual theories. None of these completely explain the relationship between mind and brain (body), or subjective and objective thoughts. That is, the way things seem to me as opposed to how they should be objectively; in other words, the theory has to explain how subjective experience arises from objective brains? How billions of interconnections of neurons produce perception, learning, memory, reasoning, language, and finally consciousness. Different areas of brain perform different functions, such as, vision, hearing, speech, body image, motor control, and many other tasks. They are linked to each other but not into one control processor to produce consciousness. For example, pain is visible to a certain extent, but one can not fully comprehend another person's pain unless one experience that pain oneself.
Throughout history, philosophers and scientists proposed some form of dualism that mind and brain are different, however, some scientists prefer monism; the mind and body are one and the same, but this does not explain a consistent physical world. A third form preferred by physicists is materialism, which makes matter most fundamental. This also does not explain how a physical brain (matter) can give rise conscious experience. It is also unclear if consciousness is a power (energy) or a force but the laws physics relate each other.
Could consciousness lags behind the events of the world? The experimental results of Benjamin Libet are discussed (chapter 3) in light of dualist theories, quantum mechanics, Higher order of thought (HOT) theory, and Global workplace theory. Each theory offers explanation for certain aspect of consciousness, but eludes from addressing the subjectivity experience. In chapter 4, there is a brief discussion of weather consciousness is a grand illusion: Much of this concept depends on individual visual awareness. In chapter 5, the spirit, self and souls are discussed in light of many theories. The Upanishads, the sacred scriptures of Hindus, and Buddhist philosophy propose self is as an independent entity, but modern philosophers such as David Hume claim that self is a bundle of sensations. The experimental results of psychologists Roger Perry, Michael Gazzaniga, and Earnest Hilgard have been discussed. Most theories equate self with a particular brain process, but fail to explain the relationship of self with consciousness. Chapter 6 discusses the origin of free will that makes the decision or expresses willingness, is that inner self or due to power of consciousness? Since all events in the universe are deterministic, i.e. all events are determined by prior events. It follows that everything happens in future is inevitable; hence no room for free will! However some philosophers argue that deterministic process is chaotic and outcomes are complex, which may not be predictable. Therefore both determinism and free will could coexist independently. Many psychologists believe that free will is an illusion. In chapter 7, altered states of consciousness, due to sleep and dream, psychoactive drugs, stimulants, out of body experiences, and meditation are discussed in relation to mind and consciousness. The last chapter presents an interesting discussion about the evolution of consciousness and examines if animals have consciousness. The author presents arguments in favor of lack of consciousness in animals because they do not have language skills. It is proposed that language and mathematical skills coupled with deep thoughts help humans to communicate about past, present and future that may confer consciousness. This argument is unclear since the term consciousness itself needs to be defined. This book is well written and it is recommended.
on 7 May 2013
Good overview of the current thinking on 'what is consciousness' by the brains of out time. It is a series of interviews with academics from different backrounds - science, philosophy etc. on what is consciousness and where/how does it work? Really useful as a synopsis without having to plough through a tone of other books. It is also really thought provoking, as we kind of take consciousness a given. It is pretty good stuff and links in science, psychology and philosophy - from different peoples perspectives. Recommended.
on 23 December 2013
This book si hard to read, being a mash-up of interviews with totally different people, with unique perspectives and ideas about theory of mind. If you can navigate through the maze of ideas, it is a fascinating journey. This book has been deeply inspiring and thought provoking. I find it best read in small doses, with intervals for contemplation!
on 4 August 2010
Of course, I read this book from cover to cover.
I have only recently started to seriously research the extremely interesting topic of consciousness.
I now use Susan Blackmore's book as a precursor to the works of other scientists/philosophers.
Along the lines of...
1) re-read one of the 'conversations' to get a feel for the interviewee's opinion
2) read the book I have purchased by that same interviewee
My only niggle is when she questions how the interviewees' beliefs on consciousness have affected their lives (I skipped that bit, sorry). Maybe I will appreciate that question when I have researched consciousness for many years - which I intend to do :)
For me, at the start of the journey, Susan Blackmore's book is invaluable.
on 23 May 2010
This is a very useful book. Conversations often reveal quickly where a person stands on a controversial issue. Here Blackmore pursues free will, the existence of an 'I' and the zombie argument (the latest thought experiment to challenge materialism) with an array of neuroscientists and philosophers. This is cutting edge philosophy and the thinkers are packaged into short readable chapters, making this book approachable for anyone with some background in philosophy, or a strong desire to find out what is going on.
The relationship between mind and body, and the tremendous difficulty of explaining that relationship, has been a central theme in modern philosophy since Descartes' famous 'cogito ergo sum'. In the subsequent centuries the entire heavy artillary of analytical philosophy has been brought to bear, categorical mistakes have been claimed, behavourist theories championed, yet the awkard I stubbornly remains, peering out at the world. A bundle of neurons and synapses themselves composed of randomly spinning atoms and electrons, somehow able to ask questions 'why am I? who am I? What am I?'.
Recently however, the problem of mind has taken on a new academic guise - the study of consciousness. The ancient riddle has been reframed into a seemingly narrower and more fundamental question - the problem of how physical matter be self-aware, how can the brain think and feel? The central question may have become more focused, yet suddenly it is not just the philosophers who are discussing it. The study of consciousness is now truly a multi-disciplinary subject, drawing in experts in psychology and neuro-science amonst others. Suddenly a subject so old and profound appears to be one of the most exciting fields in academia. One that might even be on the verge of providing answers that would transform our very sense of self and identity.
Susan Blackmore does a remarkably good job here of introducing such a complex and wideranging subject. You really do get a sense of what the question is and just why it is so challenging. Not only that but you should get a feel of why the subject is particularly exciting at the moment and for those versed in the 'traditional' formulations of the philosophy of mind, this book stands as testamant to the fact that the study of consciousness is really a subject in its own right now.
Having said all that, this book (and others by Susan Blackmore) really should come with a government health warning. I've read David Hume's reflections on the illusory nature of the self, as well as some of those of Eastern Philosophy. Like Hume, I feel largely able to set aside such considerations as soon as I attend to other matters. Reading Blackmore, I really do feel a little shaken. I can give up the idea of a concrete self lurking behind my eyes controlling my fingers as I type this review, but when plausible argument after plausible argument chips away at the belief in consciousness itself, or at least our faith that there is a stream of consciousness, then the effect is rather more disturbing and profound.
Blackmore introduces all the main theories relating to consciousness here, in a very readable and succinct manner. You are fully made aware of her own viewpoint, but that is not a bad thing, as they are clearly put in contrast with the others and in a way that helps you come to your own conclusion, though as I just said, it may leave you a little unsettled.
Though the stream of consciousness mayby some kind of 'grand illusion' as Blackmore and of course Daniel Dennet quite persuasively argue for, its not clear that the problem of explaining consciousness is in anyway diminished. No matter how many insignificant little pieces you try to break conscious awareness into, the fundamental problem still remains : how does physical matter achieve any consciousness at all?
A must read introduction for those interested in the study of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. I'd also fully recomend her longer introduction (as a follow up) which has student exercises and chapter summaries etc. Just take care!
on 24 December 2007
You get all the different raprochements on the relation of consciousness to matter: You get the theories of those who believe in gods, of those who believe in classical laborious science and of those who suggest a quantum raprochement. I strongly suggest this book because it opens access to many other writers and books, depending on which theories included in this book persuade you best.
on 25 September 2007
And what's worse, "If you go on believing you are always conscious, and construct metaphors about streams and theatres, then you only dig yourself deeper and deeper into confusion."
First we're introduced to the influence of specific brain regions on consciousness. So the temporal cortex is responsible for our changing perceptions, whilst the visual cortex simply processes retinal input which is interpreted later. All this might suggest the temporal cortex is more `subjective', but as Blackmore points out, "correlations alone do not solve the mystery... how can some cells give rise to subjective experience and some not?"
Delving deeper into the brain only confuses the issue though. It turns out that much of what we think we're conscious of is in fact illusion. Chapters 3 & 4 concentrate on these illusions. Libet's `neuronal adequacy for consciousness', the cutaneous rabbit experiment, daydreaming and such are all pulled in to break up William James' good old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness theory. Some visual games emphasise how much of our sensory world is constructed; inattentional blindness and Ramachandran's `filling-in' are the main culprits.
With all these thrown at our sense of the world, Blackmore then proceeds towards our concept of the self. Most religions and common sense generally perceive a continuous I, a self, in relation to the world; this is ego-theory. Against this is Buddhism and the 18th century Scot, David Hume, who said that the self is more like a "bundle of sensations" threaded together by memory and relationships. The self then becomes a "centre of narrative gravity", "a useful fiction" for relating experiences to each other. But though Bundle theory is useful in relation to some strange neurophysiological effects, it soes remain deeply counter-intuitive.
Finally, even our sense of free-will is preceded by electrical stimuli, shown in Libet's `consciousness-timing' experiments, leading psychologists to produce true-order diagrams for thought processes along the lines of, 1) the brain begins planning an action, 2) the brain activity leads to thought about the action, 3) we assume the thoughts caused the action. She concedes by the end that Dennett's `multiple draft' theory may be the closest have to understanding all of what we don't know; the brain plays out parallel translations of the world of its own accord and not until it's asked to account for its experience does it bother at all with consciousness. In this way maintaining consciousness becomes (for Blackmore at least) a matter of application, of repeating Zen koan-style questions, like `Am I conscious now?', or `Who am I?', etc.
Overall, this is a good read. The visual games (like those of the VSI to the Brain) are a good, cheap laugh, and the sheer number of theories sketched show just how confused consciousness studies is at the moment. The only gripe is that the theories are spread about between the chapters rather than coherently stated and contrasted. Blackmore's priority is the brain and the faculties of consciousness it attends to, only sprinkling along the way parts of related theories which by the end became, for me, confused and nebulous. Anyway, good for prodding your bonce. Definitely recommended.
on 19 November 2013
This is a subject with many questions and few definitive answers. Susan Blackmore lays out her material very clearly, listing the various hypotheses. Her style makes easy reading, leaving the reader with a clear picture of current opinion. There is a good bibliography for those who wish to persue the subject further.
on 29 May 2016
An interesting look into the science and philosophy behind the problem of soft and hard consciousness, discussing free-will and consciousness-of.