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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Consciousness – A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore

Consciousness is a very strange beast indeed. In this slim and fascinating volume the author attempts to discover just what kind of beast it is by examining our own beliefs about it and looking at ways to distinguish unfounded beliefs from actual knowledge.

The odd thing about consciousness is that although we all seem to understand that we have it, it has proven very difficult to actually pin down. Once questions relating consciousness to brain function are asked we starting hitting what has been called ‘the hard problem’. It seems clear that brain activity has something to do with it and that brain damage can result in consciousness issues. But there does not appear to be anywhere in the brain that is in control of things. There is no core where consciousness lives. There is no physical inner ‘self’ that is consciousness itself. The idea of an ‘inner theatre’ watched by a single self is untenable. No part of the brain corresponds to that ideal. Blackmore very successfully calls into question the standard model of the Self and undermines it to the extent that I have moved further along the road to being sceptical about its existence (already being on that road probably helped).

Blackmore also successfully, at least in my largely ignorant opinion, calls into question the major explanations we have to date relating to consciousness and the existence of the Self. One by one she sets up the explanations and one by one she knocks them down. However, although I applaud her conclusion that we don’t really understand consciousness at all (yet) she goes a little too far in her concluding remarks – or at least too far for me at the moment. To get around all of the problems outlined in this book Blackmore proposes something quite radical (IMO) – that conscious itself is a complete illusion. She puts forward the idea that we are not actually conscious beings! The consciousness we apparently feel and live with every day is a fabrication of the brain and, the moment we stop looking for it or at it, it simple vanishes as if it had never existed only to be recreated the next time we ‘look’ in its direction. This idea I will have to give considerably more thought and more book time. The Self being an illusion I can go with. I’m probably already half way there. But Consciousness being an illusion? That I can’t accept, at least not yet.

This was a fascinating read. People at work roll there eyes when they see me reading books like this in my lunch break. What they fail to realise is that such books both expand my mind and engage my emotions. They stimulate my intellect as well as exercise my ability to feel awe at the incredible universe we live in. Knowledge contained in books such as this is the best and only mind expanding drug I’ll ever need. People who can’t see that are missing out on so much. Which is why I’ll continue smiling through their comments and raised eyebrows. If you want to mess with your mind a little then read this book.

6 comments:

Karla said...

Very interesting. Thanks for bringing my attention to this new book review. I am currently reading "Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction" book by Oxford.

Of course, you know I will point out that if there is no natural source evident for consciousness and yet we seem to have it, that it could have a spiritual source not able to be nailed down by scientific exploration. Instead of concluding that it is an illusion, we can postulate that it may be non-physical and hence have no physical place in our brain for it isn't just a brain function.

I'd like to have the whole collection of these little books. They are fascinating reads.

CyberKitten said...

karla said: I am currently reading "Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction" book by Oxford.

I have that, but after reading other stuff about the Pre-Socratics put it into my 'might get around to reading eventually' pile.

karla said: Instead of concluding that it is an illusion, we can postulate that it may be non-physical and hence have no physical place in our brain for it isn't just a brain function.

Yes, of course I knew you'd say that. The author addresses that idea and easily dismisses it. It actually raises far more questions than it attempts to resolve. For example, what exactly is this non-physical thing? In what way is it non-physical? How does it interact with the physical brain? Etc etc... As with other examples of magical thinking it doesn't actually *explain* anything. If it is undetectable - even theoretically - how are we supposed to accept its existence? You might just as well say that our consciousness exists in another dimension that can not be perceived or examined by any known technology. How does that explain *anything*?

karla said: I'd like to have the whole collection of these little books. They are fascinating reads.

There are over 200 volumes to date, of which I've read just over 10%. If you click on the VSI link you'll see the last 20. I have a feeling that some of them will not appeal to you but wish you luck in expanding your knowledge and your mind. I have another 10-15 to read though. I'll let you know if I think any of them might interest you.

Karla said...

Does increasing the number of questions, or amount of mystery mean that something isn't real? Does a thing have to be explained to be real?

CyberKitten said...

karla said: Does a thing have to be explained to be real?

No. But I think that something has to be theoretically explainable in order to have any great credibility. You can't just say "This is beyond our understanding and will forever remain so" and move on to something else. With an attitude like that we'd still be living in caves.

Karla said...

I agree that something has to be feasible and reasonable with some evidence. But I do not think that the object needs to be fully explained or defined to be real. It can always have mystery involved and still be real. Even a human is such as having elements of mystery and yet elements where he/she is knowable.

CyberKitten said...

Such things as consciousness and the self may indeed be mysteries at the moment - but saying that they are unknown doesn't make them unknowable nor does such an idea make them any more valuable.

We do not need to put forward mysterious forces to explain things - because such ideas are *not* explainations they're just a recognition of our ignorance called by a different name. In the past we'd say 'here be dragons' today we say that 'we're working on it'.