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Consciousness: An Introduction

by Susan Blackmore

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003, 459 pages, ISBN - 0340809094

Reviewed by Guy Saunders

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Is Consciousness Insoluble?
There has been a plethora of books on consciousness in the last ten to fifteen years; most of these are recognisably each author's particular take on the subject. Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained (1991) was an early example of the genre. Rita Carter's Exploring Consciousness (2002) is one of the most obvious recent examples, and one that explores similar ground to that covered by Blackmore. As a science writer, Carter takes a journalistic approach to science and philosophy, whereas Blackmore, a former research academic and now a full time writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is an interested figure in the science field taking an insider's view of the material. Blackmore taught the psychology of consciousness at universities in Bristol, UK for over ten years and this book is a distillation of the courses she ran combined with an extraordinary array of wider reading. She also brings her teaching experience to the style of the text. This is unashamedly a course reader, written with an undergraduate student group in mind. Indeed, the book is dedicated to all the students who took Blackmore's consciousness course. Nevertheless, the book is clearly aimed at a wider audience and allows for anyone with an enquiring mind to engage with the material, tackle the questions, and carry out the suggested activities and exercises. Numerous illustrations enhance the readability, although at times pages have a somewhat 'busy' look and feel.

Blackmore begins with the old saw: if you think you have a solution to the problem (consciousness) then you haven't understood the problem. She states that the text is 'aimed at increasing your perplexity rather than reducing it'. The book is organised around nine sections each comprising three chapters. The sections are the problem, the world, the self, evolution, artificial consciousness, the brain, borderlands (containing the paranormal and unconscious processing), altered states of consciousness, and first-person approaches. The idea is that each section can form the basis of a lecture session in a consciousness studies course. Moreover, each chapter can be read on its own allowing any reader to dip into arguments and evidence concerning a particular facet of the subject.

Each chapter has sidebars setting out a profile of a key figure, a key concept, exercises to do, and questions to mull over. So, for example, chapter one has a profile of Descartes, an explanation of The Hard Problem as its key concept, and a suggested task, which is to ask yourself 'Am I conscious now?' as many times as you can. The format is similar to many Open University texts in that it encourages active reading through exercises and self-assessment questions; it can also be used as easily on one's own as in a group. There is a distinctly academic and scientific tone throughout, although Blackmore is careful to address a lay reader and keep arguments accessible. Nonetheless, the writing is scholarly such that references and suggestions for further reading might put off some readers. While not a populist book, it should have popular appeal through its engaging style. This review will focus on two of the nine sections: The Problem (of consciousness and The Self.

Starting with the problem of consciousness, chapter one gives an outline of the mystery of consciousness, its historical trajectory and contemporary salience. In keeping with a frontier metaphor, consciousness is given the status of the last surviving mystery awaiting a scientific solution. Blackmore illustrates with the example of 'your experience of a pencil'. The problem of consciousness is posed as one of understanding how 'subjective, private, ineffable suchness of experience, arises from an objective world of actual pencils and living brain cells'.

Blackmore describes Chalmers' notion of 'hard' and 'easy' problems. The supposedly easy problems relate to aspects of cognitive function, such as attention, and these may well have solutions in neural mechanisms. The hard problem is to do with subjective experience. The perennial problem is posed anew as how do 'physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?' As Blackmore acknowledges, this is simply the latest form of an age-old question relating to the mysterious gap between inner and outer, subject and object or mind and (brain) body.

Chapter two draws us into the classic debate about subjectivity by way of Nagel's immortal question: 'What is it like to be a bat?' The reader is engaged to think about the problem of whether other creatures are conscious and if so, is there something it is like to be a bat from the point of view of the bat, ie., from the inside or subjective viewpoint. If there is, can we know it?

Section three takes up the problem of self or selves. The idea of a conscious self or an experiencer seems so obvious as to go without saying. Here, as elsewhere, Blackmore documents how although there seems to be a centre of experience, a self of some kind, this is an illusion. By illusion, Blackmore does not mean self does not exist, rather that self is not what it seems to be. However, later she discusses Strawson's intuition (from introspection) that self for him is like 'pearls on a string', ie., that it seems to Strawson that he is a succession of selves existing discretely one after another (from Strawson, 1997). Here is an example of a theory of self derived from introspection that does not fit with Blackmore's illusion. On many occasions scientific findings are 'counter-intuitive'; nonetheless, this does not entail that everyone shares the same intuition on a subject. Many readers may want to argue with the suggestion that they share a certain mistaken conception of what self is, but perhaps should accept the caveat that they could still be wrong from a strictly research science perspective. Blackmore sets out a good deal of research evidence asking only that we take the findings seriously.

Evidently, Blackmore's book is not exhaustive of all-possible explanations, theories or positions. Nonetheless, it does offer a sufficiently wide range of arguments, viewpoints and evidence to introduce the problem of consciousness to a readership beyond the academy.

Blackmore has trawled through an extraordinary range of material. Perhaps not surprising that in some places this reads as a disparate collection of disorganised elements. The advantage in this approach is that the readers are put in a position to come to their own judgement. There are some running themes, for example concerning conscious experience and subjective point of view. Blackmore does manage to revisit some long-running debates throughout the book. Nonetheless, the style of the book lays down a challenge to the reader: to enter perplexity. Any reader carrying out the activities and practices is likely to engage personally with the subject matter in ways other texts cannot reach.

Some might be dissatisfied. Many will be appalled at the strange mixture of themes, issues and debates. Even when Blackmore shows her hand, as in her admiration for William James and most of Daniel Dennett's work, or in her irritation with dualists and those who fall for various illusions, she still retains a beginner's mind. Her urgent sense of enquiry coupled with a scientific mentality allows her to range freely across a complex landscape that is 'consciousness studies'. And she carries this off in the manner most appealing to any student: she is always engaging you.

References:

Carter, R. (2002) Exploring Consciousness. University of California Press.
Chalmers, D. (1996) The Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press
Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown & Co.
Nagel, T. (1979) Mortal Questions. Cambridge University Press.
Strawson, G. (1997) The Self. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, 405-428.


Guy Saunders teaches the psychology of consciousness at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.

Reproduced from Scientific and Medical Review December 2003
© Scientific and Medical Network

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