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Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195179583
ISBN-10: 0195179587
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Editorial Reviews

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.

Richard Lipkin


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (January 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195179587
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195179583
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 1.1 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #648,581 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
That was a brilliant idea of Sue Blackmore, and the results are quite impressive. This book does what it was designed to do - it involves anyone (I believe) who reads it in the "hard problem of consciousness", that is in reflection on explanations of the fact of subjective experience arising from neural structures (there are a few other themes debated here like the problem of free will, but they are marginal - with an exeption of zombie-problem, which, however, is closely connected with "hard problem"). We see different approaches to the "hard problem" and a clash of philosophers, like Dennett, with scientists, like Crick or Koch. It became clear, however, that scientists are in need of philosophers these days. By the way, most elaborate responses in these conversations came from philosophers - Chalmers, Dennett, Velmans etc. So far - OK. Why only 4 stars then? Because the book is imbalanced, and Sue knows that. First of all, among her 20 "best minds" there are no Chomskian philosophers - Chomsky would probably refuse to respond - Fodor, McGinn, Pinker. Then where are Identity theorists - Armstrong or Smart? Why Edelman is not included in the list? Where is Kim? And so on. Of course, it is not easy to achieve balance in such projects. But still it is possible - I myself did something like that, collecting more than 100 opinions of Kant scholars in 2004 - so called "International Kant Interview". So Sue Blackmore did not do her best - but she did much. Her book helps to feel the progress in consciousness studies.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a collection of "conversations" with scientists working on the problem of consciousness, and I was hoping that it would provide a readable and interesting introduction to these scientists and their various hypotheses. However, I found this book unsuitable for this purpose. The author does not try to organize the material--the "conversations" are presented in alphabetical order of the interviewees' last names because the author could not conceive of a meaningful order. There is virtually no editing of the material--the author wanted to "let the people speak for themselves" and "make the editing very light". There is only a minimal introduction to the book, and only biographical introductions to the scientists. While there may be some merit in the approach of "light editing," overall I had to wonder what value was added by the author. Additionally, in the book introduction the author generally refers to her interviewees by their first name. Perhaps she is trying to show that she is on a first-name basis with all these scientists, but since scientists are more typically known by their last names, this was distracting at best and made it even more difficult to follow the minimal introduction (who is "Dave"? ... presumably Chalmers). Overall, this book seems intended for somebody who is already familiar with the study of consciousness, not for a reader relatively new to the subject. I had previously read the author's book "Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction," and I didn't feel that prepared me for "Conversations on Consciousness." So what value does this book provide? If you are already familiar with the subject of consciousness, you may find the interviews with your favorite researchers to be of interest.
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Format: Paperback
What is the problem of consciousness?

Are zombies (creatures that look and act like humans but who have no consciousness) theoretically possible?

Does consciousness survive death?

Is there such a thing as free will?

These are the types of questions Susan Blackmore poses to twenty-one experts, who come from neuroscience, philosophy and psychology, and who are all involved in the interdisciplinary field of consciousness studies. Each interview also includes specific questions about the subject's work and theories. The cumulative effect of reading them is that you walk away with a good sense of the frequently conflicting perspectives within the field and an idea of which ones you might want to explore further. As other reviewers have pointed out, the sequence of the interviews is alphabetical - an arbitrary choice but not one your reading of the book has to be restricted by. My preference was to dip into different sections till I'd read the whole book. As I'd read one interview, the subject would make reference to other interviewees and their ideas and if something struck me as being particularly interesting, I'd read the interview with that person next, sort of the way you might surf the net. In some ways it was a very liberating experience and I almost felt like I was creating the book that suited my level of understanding.

Some of the material presented here is undoubtedly very challenging but I didn't feel overwhelmed even if I didn't "get" everything. The only other book I'd read on the subject was V.S. Ramachandran's "A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness," which I found interesting but too brief. I also found that the conversation format in Blackmore's book made the topic more engaging and easier to penetrate.
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Format: Paperback
This is an interesting book allright. Blackmore is well aware that many important people are missing in this book, but it was never intended to be an encyclopedia of conciousness research. It was intended to be a fresh, simple introduction to the views some philosophers and scientists have on the problems of consiousness, and in this I believe it succeeds. It is certainly not to be read as a definitive source on the views of the various people interviewed. However, it was a refreshing read. And for those who are familiar with the authors extense works, but were perplexed by the complexity of extravagant philosophizing, this little book will be very welcome. By focusing on simple questions, such as "are zombies possible?", or "what is the hard problem?", Blackmore succeeds in focusing the discussions quite nicely. Of course, it would have been very interesting to ask other questions, about the knowledge argument, or blindsight, among many others. But of course, the same ways some important people had to be left out, some important questions had to be ommited.

I believe the greatest defect in this book is not the selection of interviews, but the fact that some interviews seem to be quite old, and therefore, the views expressed might not be similar to those in some of the philosphers more current work. This happens, for example in Dennetts chapter. Antoher complain might be Blackmores insistance in asking about free will, only to guide the interview towards her determinist view and supposedly peaceful aceptance of it. Her repetitive mentioning of meditation and such is understandable, given her background, and does offer some intereting discussions (with Metzinger, Varela, for example).
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