Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Conversations on Consciousness
Book Author: 
Susan Blackmore

A review of three of Susan Blackmore's books on consciousness.

Consciousness: An Introduction - softcover, 459 pages

Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction - softcover, 146 pages

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human - hardcover, 274 pages

For the philosophically inclined, the mind-body problem has special attraction just because it’s so intractable.  How can Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” produce, generate, or entail in some sense or another conscious experiences, such as pain, taste, and color?  Poirot’s problem-solving ability is one thing, his phenomenal experience quite another, perhaps. Considering this problem – the “hard problem” of consciousness as it’s now called – our concepts of the mental and physical collide and produce intense puzzlement.  But apart from the intellectual pleasures of trying to solve this conundrum, why should we care about the relation of mind to body?  One answer is that commonsense dualism about consciousness – that it involves something categorically mental or non-physical – is perhaps the last barrier to a fully naturalistic understanding of ourselves.  If we could integrate consciousness into the rest of science, then we’d see we’re all-natural creatures, not partly ethereal or supernatural.  And the full naturalization of human nature might have considerable personal, moral and even spiritual implications, which is why, ultimately, we might care about consciousness.

Susan Blackmore, researcher and writer on consciousness, cares in this sense, which gives her three books a personal and engaging touch, even though they have very different formats. Consciousness is just weird, she admits (if you're not puzzled by it, you haven't seen the problem), and she cheerfully but relentlessly shows that commonsense ways of thinking about it fail miserably, and that some standard philosophical approaches are likely flawed.  In particular, she believes mind-body dualism of any sort is dead, a non-starter. But then how can phenomenal experience – the smell of a rose – be the same thing, for instance, as a set of representational functions carried out by the brain?  It isn’t at all clear.  Nor is it clear we’re even conscious in the way it seems, with a definitive set of conscious contents always on display, so to speak, from moment to moment.  But what is clear on Blackmore’s account is that we unequivocally do undergo, sometimes, experiences, such as pain, pleasure, emotions and other sensory episodes, the basic qualitative elements of which philosophers call qualia.  However skeptical she might be of the continuity and specificity of consciousness, Blackmore is a qualia realist: there is something “it is like” to be conscious that’s a legitimate target for scientific explanation.  That explanation might ultimately show qualia to be in some sense the same thing as cognitive functions or representations or affordances to action, but at this stage of the explanatory game we’re not entitled to dismiss them as non-existent.  And how could we?  Is there anything that compels belief more than the undeniable reality of excruciating pain?  

Blackmore rightly sees that the mind-body problem is wrapped up intimately with the questions of the self and free will, and of course these issues hit us where we live.  Most of us, perhaps, have the sense of a unitary self that has experience, that controls behavior, that looks out at the world.  But what, if anything, is the subject that feels, tastes, sees, decides, and wills?  If we question mind-brain dualism and conclude that the brain runs the show, what role do consciousness and the consciously willing self play in behavior?  If the self is an experienced construction of the brain, and not in charge of anything, then who am I, really?  And how, if the brain and body are fully physical, deterministic systems, as seems the case, do we construe moral responsibility?  Can we get along without the idea of a contra-causally free will?  Such questions show the true bite of the puzzle of consciousness, and by giving them prominence in a way that most other consciousness researchers have not, Blackmore conveys the significance of the mind-body problem. 

Consciousness: An Introduction, published first (2003), is as close to multi-media as a paperbound text can be, pitched to the non-specialist student seeking immediate, full sensory immersion in the subject.  Do you want to know the major players in consciousness studies and their pet theories?  Want a taste of the brain science behind the theories, and their intellectual history?  Want first-person exercises that make the weirdness of consciousness palpable?  Want the full catastrophe of the mind-body problem laid out in 9 major sections and 27 chapters, from qualia to evolution to free will to artificial intelligence to altered states to Buddhism to meditation?  It’s all here with lots of graphics, sidebars, cartoons - a very diverting and detailed survey that conveys a lot of science and philosophy in its historical and cultural context.  Blackmore’s approach here and in her other books is delightfully clear, direct, and jargon-free. It’s also personal, letting her enthusiasm and puzzlement show so readers won’t feel alone in their quandaries.  The experiential encounter with consciousness is on practically every page of this text, which nicely motivates the theoretical material, which is largely non-technical but not oversimplified.  For those wanting to delve deeper, further readings are suggested in each chapter, and Blackmore provides an extensive bibliography. 

Next out is Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), one of the Oxford very short introduction series.  Compared to the Introduction above, it’s very short indeed, but for those wanting a quick tour of the hard problem and its ramifications, it’s just the ticket.  Again, Blackmore does a great job of motivating the problem, of zeroing in on the essential puzzlement, such that the reader will likely get caught up in the fascinating project of sorting out just where the puzzle lies.  Here’s a key question: “Is consciousness an essential ingredient that we humans have in addition to our abilities of perceiving, thinking, and feeling, or is it an intrinsic and inseparable part of being a creature that can perceive and think and feel?”  Many would suppose the former, in that as philosopher David Chalmers points out, we can conceive of smart creatures (the philosopher’s zombie) that function just as well as we do, but that have no inner, conscious lives.  But in that case, why would evolution have bothered to install consciousness?  To be selected for, consciousness as a distinct phenomenon in it’s own right would have to serve a distinct and valuable function, but all functions we can understand are carried out by the physical brain.  This casts doubt on the first alternative, and as Blackmore shows, it also casts doubt on the role of consciousness as something categorically mental which could control behavior, or that could have free will, or be an essential self. A Very Short Introduction challenges both traditional and more modern dualisms, but also shows the conceptual and personal difficulties involved in monism: how can consciousness just be the brain, or some of its functions?  Why should cognitive abilities entail a mental life?  And if there is no soul, substantial self, or free will, how do we proceed in being human? Blackmore is refreshingly candid in confronting such issues head on, and takes the position that from the perspective of science and philosophy, commonsense about consciousness, the self, and human agency is deeply wrong.  The readers of this well-designed back-pocket book will be very quickly catapulted into some of the most profound and disturbing questions we have the privilege of asking. 

Most recent is Conversations on Consciousness (2006) in which Blackmore interrogates 20 mind-body experts - philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and various hybrids. The resulting conversations have been transcribed nearly verbatim, so we get data on theories of consciousness and personalities, including Blackmore’s.  She doesn’t stand on ceremony, is persistent, probing, honest about her puzzlements, and happy to defend her own views if the occasion arises, which once or twice creates a bit of friction (beware the baroness!). The basic questions repeat for each interview, which provides the glue, but there’s plenty of spontaneous variety in the interactions to hold our interest.  Each subject gets to present a thumbnail sketch of their take on consciousness, but also on the self, free will, life after death and the personal impact of having investigated consciousness.  So again, Blackmore insists on the relevance of consciousness studies for our lives.  Most agree that the problem of qualia – phenomenal consciousness – is the central conundrum, but the proposed solutions differ drastically.  So, we get a taste of nearly all the major alternative explanations in the running, such as David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, Dennett’s deflationary qualia irrealism, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s quantum proto-consciousness, mainstream varieties of functionalism and representationalism such as Thomas Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity, the anti-functionalism of Ned Block and John Searle, the anti-representationalism of Kevin O’Regan, and others not easily categorized. No one claims to have definitively solved the mind-body problem, but some are quite sure that their rivals are barking up the wrong theoretical tree.  Most philosophical technicalities are by-passed in these conversations, keeping them accessible to the non-specialist, but reading Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction first wouldn’t hurt.   

The mind-body problem is fascinating in part because it’s inherently transdisciplinary, drawing together philosophy, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and (some think) fundamental physics.  Once gripped by the puzzle of consciousness, as is Blackmore, the poor victim is forced to consider a vast landscape of conceptual possibilities and empirical data, and embark on a first-personal phenomenological investigation to boot. That’s exactly the burden of these books, and Blackmore is a model victim: knowledgeable, completely absorbed in the problem, and honest in her reports from the front lines. To naturalize consciousness will likely require a multilevel theory, perhaps counterintuitive or non-obvious in the way that many scientific theories are, which leaves behind our intuitive conceptions of the mental and the physical, but at the same time explains why we have them.  To integrate phenomenal experience into our conception of nature may require some fancy philosophical-scientific footwork that shows how each side of intuitive mind-body dualism is a distortion of a theoretically well-grounded concept that’s fully consistent with the rest of science, for instance a concept having to do with representation, or information, or being a mobile creature interacting with an environment.  This is to say that a mature science that incorporates consciousness may not privilege either commonsense physicalism or commonsense mentalism.  Or it may turn out that the deflationists will convince us there never was a deep problem about consciousness to begin with. In any case, Blackmore’s books are a great way into the problem, whatever its eventual solution or dissolution.  But be warned: consciousness studies can be addictive. 

 TWC  3/06