From Publishers Weekly
Blackmore (The Meme Machine
) began conducting interviews with leading figures in the study of consciousness for a proposed (but never realized) radio series. In book form, especially organized alphabetically, 20 transcripts with scientists and philosophers from the late Francis Crick to Daniel Dennett and Roger Penrose don't add up to a coherent presentation. The q&a format leaves Blackmore eternally circling around a handful of key issues. She's particularly fond of the philosopher's theoretical zombie, a creature that displays all the outward behavior of human consciousness but has none. She asks just about everybody if they believe it could exist, leading the exasperated Francisco Varela to blurt, "It's just a problem you create by inventing problematic situations. So what?" Other questions, like how studying consciousness affects one's conception of free will, would benefit from stronger thematic unity, a tighter narrative format like that of John Horgan's Rational Mysticism
(which profiles Blackmore in her capacity as a research psychologist). These conversations are fascinating raw material, but make for a frustrating guide to a highly complex subject. 22 illus.
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From Scientific American
The question What is consciousness? provokes all kinds of responses, ranging from jokes about psychedelic drugs to brow-furrowing discourses on life's meaning. Nearly everyone has an opinion, despite the lack of meaningful data explaining the phenomenon. Susan Blackmore posed this question to 21 leading scientists and philosophers who study consciousness for a living, compiling their responses into lively, though slightly repetitive, Q&A interviews. In each case, Blackmore asks, What's the problem with consciousness? Why does it differ from other targets of scientific inquiry? Several thinkers insist that it does not and that researchers will fare better when they treat consciousness like anything else in nature. Others assert that consciousness is fundamentally different, constituting something extra beyond the ordinary physical world. Says David Chalmers, an Australian mathematician- turned-philosopher: The heart of the science of consciousness is trying to understand the first-person perspective-- to explain subjective experiences objectively. In grappling with what neuroscientists call the hard problem--the struggle to explain how neural processes create subjective experiences--the experts are long on theories but short on answers. Nearly all agree that classical dualism doesn't work--that the mind and brain cannot be made of distinct substances. Many refer instead to the neural correlates of consciousness, the neural activity present during a person's conscious experience. Blackmore queries the thinkers on such issues as life after death, the self and free will. Most say they do not believe in extracorporeal survival, in contrast with 55 percent of U.S. residents. Most also agree that scientific evidence does not support the notion of free will, despite the gripping feeling that it exists. And because the search for the source of a conscious I in the brain has turned up empty, the existence of a distinct self seems remote, although subjective awareness suggests each person needs a self to experience consciousness. Blackmore also asks the researchers why they chose to study consciousness and how doing so has affected their lives. Several refer to a fascination with altered states of consciousness prompted by drugs, meditation, dreams or anesthesia. Many abandoned fruitful research careers in other areas to pursue the Holy C. Perhaps the most extreme case is that of Francis Crick, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize by decoding DNA's structure and then at age 60 turned his attention to consciousness work for a quarter of a century. Crick's interview by Blackmore was his last; he died shortly thereafter, in July 2004.