on 24 May 2013
Blackmore has admirable clarity in explaining complex ideas, and this gives this book merit in providing an intelligible summary of many of the concepts and arguments that have arisen in modern consciousness studies. However, there are shortcomings in her coverage of some important areas. Near the beginning of the book, she assumes a dismissive attitude to any connection between consciousness and decision making, which does not do justice to what recent neuroscience has to say about the brain's reward circuit. Her claim that only the dorsolateral prefrontal area, which is involved in executive planning and reasoning, has any impact on decision making looks questionable in the light of this research. Lengthy chapters in the middle of the book deal with the brain's processing of temporal sequences and lack of attention to much of the visual field, but ultimately this amounts to nothing more than saying that the brain provides a model or representation of the external world that is adaptive rather than particularly accurate or comprehensive. As such it says nothing about the origin or function of consciousness itself.
In particular, the author promotes a very specific theory of consciousness, without giving readers of what is supposed to be a starter or introductory book, a proper view of the alternatives. The idea offered here is 'delusionism', the proposition that consciousness is a delusion. Many consciousness researchers consider that evolution would not have selected for consciousness if it had no purpose, but rather than properly discussing the reasons for rejecting this view, the author uses what is no more than a play on the word 'zombie' (important in some versions of consciousness studies), to avoid discussing this crucial topic. Lacking this, the 'delusional' project looks to fail, without offering readers much development of the alternatives.
on 30 June 2009
Considering that this is a Very Short Introduction, this book is odd and I am ambivalent towards it.
On the one hand, it is well-written, persuasive and thought-provoking. On the other, it is openly biased and inappropriate for a short introduction to a new subject.
My misgivings about it mainly concern the style of presentation of the subject rather than Blackmore's actual opinions. These may or may not be correct, but it is unusual in an introductory work to present and then dismiss the opinions of swathes of other researchers and present your own views in the best light possible.
For example, the use of the word "magic" in scientific literature when describing a theory is obviously pejorative. Yet Blackmore uses it in this way several times, while also describing the theories of Descartes and the 20th century scientists Popper and Eccles as "hopeless". The only theories that receive unequivocal backing are her own and those of Daniel Dennett. Other opinions are often explained in terms of facile metaphors which lead the unguarded reader to see such views as silly.
Balance is not an easy thing to achieve and objectivity is, of course, the impossible goal. Yet Blackmore should have tried harder. The perspective she has may well be valid, but in an introductory work one should give a broad outline of the field and let the reader decide which arguments seems the most interesting or plausible. At most the reader can be given a prod in the directions that seem the most fruitful, but Blackmore indulges in several hearty shoves.
The above is the main criticism, but I also wonder whether Blackmore fully believes what she is saying or whether she has thought about the true implications.
Firstly, it is rather strange to write an introduction to a field of study and then argue that the thing being discussed is an illusion and does not exist - why not write an introduction to alchemy? Would a convinced atheist write a book introducing theology?
Secondly, consider this quote (p81), discussing the self: "We can equate it with some kind of brain process and shelve the problem of why this brain process should have conscious experience at all, or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self. I think that intellectually we have to take this last path." In the space of a few lines, Blackmore dismisses the self and uses the words "I think...". If the self does not exist, what does it mean to say "I think"? Whether or not Blackmore's view on the self is correct or not, her view on this and her writing a book on consciousness are blatantly contradictory. Who will read it? Why put your name on the cover? Perhaps "she" has thought of this: if the self does not exist, "she" can hardly be blamed for any flaws in the book.
Overall, it is a stimulating book to read and it will get you interested in the subject, but some may be tempted to throw it out of the window at various points. Perhaps Oxford should rename it a Very Controversial Introduction.
on 29 January 2011
Many books in this excellent series have provided clear and balanced introductions to their subjects - but not this one. It becomes clear early on that the author is determined to "sell" her take on the subject, which seems to be pretty much the same as that of Daniel Dennett. This rather unhelpful view is that consciousness does not exist and that we "imagine" it, missing the obvious problem that there has to be a consciousness to be able to imagine anything. Much experimental data is summarised to show that things are not exactly how they seem but there is no logical link between these findings and her nihilistic conclusion. For example the evidence that a decision to make a simple movement seems to have been made before we become aware of it only shows that some actions are controlled unconsciously - as everyday experience of eg walking illustrates: the "record keeping" function of consciousness does not require it to precede every action and she is quite unjustified in extrapolating this to asserting that consciousness is not involved in more complex decision-making.
She does not seem to have any clear idea of the value of consciousness in imagining hypothetical situations allowing us to formulate contingency plans, an important reason for humans and possibly other higher mammals to have evolved this capacity. She prefers to regard it as an incidental (and unexplained) by-product of parallel processing in the brain - again with no logical support for this assertion.
The author's dismissive viewpoint allows her to side-step the difficult problems of the subject and these are barely addressed in this disappointing book.
on 14 April 2013
This book, based upon "Consciousness: An Introduction" by the same author, attempts to tackle what consciousness actually is, and how the resulting subjective thoughts and feelings (or `qualia') that occur, are produced from the `objective' workings of a physical brain. The author attempts to tackle such issues by drawing from the findings of a variety of experiments that probe the inner-workings of the brain, as well as from philosophical disciplines. Ultimately, the author argues that the key defining characteristics of consciousness, specifically the sense of `self' and that experiences occur as a continuous stream, are but an illusion.
On the whole, the writing style is engaging, enthusiastic and informal, and does not resort to excessive jargon. Only on a few occasions are concepts introduced (particularly regarding the different areas of the brain, and what they do) where no elaboration is given. I also felt that some of the figures, while added character to the book, were not particularly useful, and did not help shed light onto the more challenging ideas that were discussed.
The author discusses, and challenges, our notion that there is an `experiencer' who experiences, and that such experiences occur as a stream that are either in or out of consciousness, by drawing from findings of a variety of experiments. Particularly interesting were the discussions regarding patients where the right and left hemispheres of the brain have been divided, and those patients which have multiple personalities. Such case-studies challenge our usual, and highly cherished and seemingly concrete, notions of `self' and our relationship with our surroundings. Indeed, such seemingly `real' feelings as these may be an illusion, exemplified by the fact that we are on `auto-pilot' while driving along an oft-travelled route; an act that requires very little consciousness.
Needless to say, none of the experiments reveal anything conclusive about the nature of consciousness, and many interpretations exist to explain their findings, which the author clearly acknowledges. Which is why it is all the more surprising that, towards the end of the book, the author takes the firm stance that we must accept that consciousness is an illusion and that we are `deluded'. Indeed, the author argues that consciousness is the result of a memeplex; the interaction between ideas and habits within the brain, which reinforce our illusion of `self' every time `I' is used. However, the author forgets what initiates this sense of `I' in the first place. Furthermore, the idea of memes is introduced using the example of how religion propogates, but instead this reads as a rant against religion, which I found inappropriate. All-in-all, this made for a very unsatisfying end.
To summarise, the book is a reasonable, interesting introduction to consciousness, which serves as a useful spring-board to other topics and books. Just be aware of the author's bias in the meantime.
on 4 January 2010
While neuroscientific research provides ever more detailed pictures of the brain's physiology and its intricate and staggeringly complex processing abilities, its presumed superiority as a means for answering the philosophical questions posed by any honest enquiry into the nature of consciousness or "knowingness" - not to mention self-consciousness - seems quite grossly overestimated in this book. Writers of Blackmore's ilk (Dennett and Dawkins are well-known frequenters of the same club) rely heavily on ridiculing "naive" or "speculative" theories which have been troubling philosophy for millennia. It's as though their own misconceptions about anything metaphysical are necessarily shared by the rest of us and necessarily prove that metaphysics and religious dogma are one and the same. Well they aren't, and there are plenty of very intelligent, earnest, open-minded and dedicated seekers of truth (as opposed to fact, a discrepancy dangerously overlooked by many an otherwise diligent scientist) who are no doubt more than a little disturbed by the irresponsible and disillusioning views presented in this book. It's not pleasant to be disabused of any belief or psychological crutch, and I was astonished to read that Blackmore casually imparted the "fact" of there being no self to the volunteers in her replication of Libet's experiment, and that she seemed surprised to note their "depression" at this conclusion. Surely a psychologist would understand the implications of such an action. The reaction of another of the reviewers here is not uncommon, I suspect, and it is perhaps only those who don't understand the implications of her assertion who are immune to its effects.
Psychoanalytic literature is riddled with accounts of patients who have become so traumatised as to have completely dissociated from themselves. This can manifest in such an extreme way as to leave the sufferer permanently without any sense of there being a "self" whatsoever. It is reported as being the most undesirable state of affairs. It is, in fact, the closest (hopefully!) anyone will come to becoming the zombie so casually invoked in so many philosophical "thought experiments." Conversely, the opposite process - that of gradually revealing the repressed, hidden and reviled self - is the aim of psychoanalytic therapy, and this process (if successful - and it rarely is, thanks, no doubt, to the hopeless attitude engendered by these nihilistic physicalist theories) always involves recognising something which feels like an "authentic self." Blackmore's assumptions radically undermine the possibility of psychotherapies ever being truly effective, and I'm sure they support more superficial and cognitive based therapies. And psychoanalytic theory is the tip of a very big philosophical iceberg in relation to theories pertaining to metaphysical actuality.
But the real danger is that this book, in overreaching its premise so radically, actually contributes even further to the greatest "delusion" of all - the "fact" that metaphysics is dead. This is simply not true, and I'm genuinely disturbed at the conceit with which modern "philosophers" like Blackmore are allowed to approach their readers, especially since most of these readers are as yet unable to formulate sophisticated arguments of their own; which is why, of course, they would want to buy an unbiased, balanced, critical, scientific work written by a trustworthy expert in the field. Instead, I'm afraid readers will get a potentially lethal dose of irresponsible one-sidedness.
That, at least, is my opinion on the matter.....
I first encountered Blackmore when, after searching long and hard for a scientific explanation of out-of-body experiences, I came across her book Beyond the Body. It was astonishingly well researched and offered a rational, convincing explanation for phenomena that were usually neglected by the scientific community. I became an instant fan and have followed her work ever since. But now, alas, she has aligned herself with the Dawkins/Dennett axis of drivel, and my loyalty to her is badly shaken. In this book (a shorter version of her Consciousness: An Introduction) she follows Dennett by denying the existence of consciousness and then indulging in much speculation about the properties and evolutionary history of this non-existent entity. Consciousness, she maintains, is an 'illusion', which she defines as something that exists but does not have the properties it appears to have. She then proceeds to discuss it as if it does not in fact exist, and slips into calling it a 'delusion', which she apparently regards as a synonymous term. So far, so Dennett. She follows Dawkins by labeling just about everything a 'meme' (as Poe might have said 'All that we see or seem is but a meme within a meme'), unless she happens not to approve of it, in which case it is 'a virus of the mind'. As an example, she indulges in a quite intemperate and completely irrelevant rant against religion, in which Roman Catholicism is described as a parasitic infection. Like Dennett and Dawkins, she leaves no axe unground.
So why do I give the book 5 stars if I disagree with so much of it? Well, I guess you can't keep a good scientist down, and Blackmore is still a great scientist. She brings considerable knowledge and erudition to the subject, presents fair summaries of opposing views, and gives excellent descriptions of odd phenomena like Libet's Delay and the Cutaneous Rabbit. And her style is as readable as ever. I was suspicious when I saw that her son Jolyon had contributed many of the illustrations - it smacked of nepotism - but I have to say his drawings are really charming and add greatly to the text. The other illustrations are useful too - with the possible exception of a photograph of the author opening a fridge door - which isn't always the case with this series. The book ends with a very useful Further Reading list. It's thus an excellent introduction to the subject (although I think John Searle's The Mystery of Consciousness is still the best place to start).
So, I shall keep the faith and continue to read everything Susan Blackmore publishes. I just hope that one day, just as she once abandoned a belief in the paranormal, she sees the light and abandons the axis of drivel.
on 29 December 2012
I've read a number of the titles in this series, and have found them to be wonderful starting points for further research. Even when tackling controversial topics, writers give balanced views. Not so here.
As others have stated, Blackmore approaches the topic with an agenda. The arguments have already been weighed. While I disagree with others' assertions that her point of view is ultimately nihilistic, it is clearly devoted to a neo-Buddhist negation of self, backed by Dawkinsian theory and some neuro-scientific leaps of faith.
There are a number of scientific avenues explored, but they are given radically different time, weight and devotion. With some topics, such as Libet's thought/action experiments, I was left with methodological questions hanging in the air. With others, such as mimetics, I felt that an extremely controversial field was presented as an accepted theory, in spite of its lack of support within many scientific circles.
Anyone with even a passing interest in metaphysics is sure to be disappointed by Blackmore's dismissive tone and scant coverage, which essentially negates whole millennia worth of philosophising.
A Very Short Introduction should spur one on to independent research on a topic. It should not be a condensed sermon on the merits of a relatively narrow point of view.
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.
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 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.