62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2006
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.
55 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2006
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.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2007
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. The fact that she is a scientist herself is actually a strength because she uses her intimate knowledge of the field to not only reflect back complex ideas in easy to understand language but also asks the right questions to lead the subjects to deepen their explanations of their work. She clearly has her biases but rather than detracting from the discussions I thought her disagreements with the interviewees brought more life to the material. I had to keep asking myself what I think and had an idea of what I need to learn more about to help make up my mind.
The back of the book has a helpful glossary to assist with learning some of the key terms that are used and also links to a couple of great websites that I'm sure I'll be spending time browsing through.
If you're willing to actively engage with it, this is a great book to start your explorations into a fascinating field.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2010
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). But again, the reader might be anoyed by the way she asks about the hard problem and the explanatory gap, where she takes their validity for granted and fails to remain objective in those discussions.
It is also quite engaging to find out what many answer when asked about zombies or free will. Although at times the answer is unsurprising (Chalmers or Wegner), in others the aswers are really unexpected. However, Blackmore fails to specify the epistemic, cognitive or metaphysical sense in which she asks wether zombies are or not possible. And also fails to ask what the response given means for physicalism, or dualism, or functionalism. These would have been exellent follow up questions.
This book cannot be used as a stand-alone reference for professional philosophers or scientists. However, it will be an entretaing read for them, and a great introduction for the general public as well. For the hardcore followers of the consicousness debate, hearing from the authors themselves, after reading their original works, is an opportunity not to be missed.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2008
Introduction and Overall Thoughts:
Susan Blackmore is a writer who holds an enthusiastic obsession over what consciousness means and how current research is attempting to define conscious in terms of scientific principles. Her book, "Conversations on Consciousness" is a collection of 20 interviews, with 21 of the leading thinkers on consciousness. Blackmore interviewees represent a variety of backgrounds, and showcase the purpose of the book: researchers cannot come close to agreeing on much of anything involving defining consciousness. The book contains a wealth of knowledge, each presented in a least `textbook' manner as possible. However, the arbitrary alphabetical organization (based on the interviewees last name) of the book favors readers well aware of the theories and experiments in defining consciousness. This may be the only drawback the book holds, as the questions and responses are very detailed and conjure up images of watching the interview transpire.
Format of Book:
The introduction explains the book came about through a failed BBC project. The project fell through, but Blackmore decided the conversations were so vivid they would suffice as a book. She then lays down the framework for each interview, as the same general questions would be asked to each interviewee to give some continuity and of course for comparison. The questions:
-Why consciousness is treated so differently?
-What brought the interviewee to study consciousness?
-Questions about the interviewee's theory, and opinions to reactions of it.
-Does a philosophical zombie exist?
-Is there such thing as free will?
-What happens to us after death, in specific the conscious?
-How has studying consciousness affected your life?
Opinion of Book:
Blackmore offers an interesting collection of varied opinions on consciousness. Prior to reading this book, I had little to no understanding of what consciousness was or how we currently interpret it. What I came to understand was I held the now `primitive' belief established by Descartes, dualism, or the separation of mind and body. The book immediately throws you into the current affairs of consciousness research, which is both good and bad. The good aspect of this comes from seeing the wonderfully detailed and vivid opinions, which these scientists and philosophers hold. Unfortunately, neophytes to current affairs are thrown to a level beyond what the introduction mentions. In a sense, I felt the introduction needed an introduction, or some detailed preface section outlining the very basic concepts in the glossary.
For example, after reading the book I noticed two very important common threads in many of the interviews. First, nearly every interviewee had an opinion on David Chalmers `hard problem'. In the introduction, Blackmore mentions the hard problem, but not in enough detail or emphasis. Due to the alphabetical arrangement of the interviewees, Chalmers does not come up until the third interview. I know one may choose to read ahead in a nonlinear fashion, but I think it makes much more sense for Blackmore to explain how Chalmers' landmark speech at the Tuscon conference put a name on a problem which all researchers were troubled with, and revitalized consciousness research. Until the Chalmers' interview, I actually went to the Internet to read up on the phrase, which in my opinion is ludicrous. Secondly, the field of consciousness research is essentially divided into two groups: as Daniel Wegner puts it "the robo-geeks and the bad scientists". Because of his last name, this recurring theme is not explained until the final interview and an easily understood concept is left unmentioned for basically the entire book. After reading the final interview, it became much easier to categorize the views held by many of the interviewees and this frustrated me that the realization was forced to the very, very end.
The writing style was essentially dictated by dialogue, which in my opinion helped move the complicated subject matter down easier paths. It also allowed many of the personalities of the interviewees to come out, especially in reactions to some of Blackmore's own opinions!
My primary gripe with the book comes with the organization or lack thereof. I sincerely believe a format in which Blackmore separated the interviewees into the varying degrees of "robo-geeks and bad scientists" would have helped make the opinions more cohesive and readily understood.
Highlights and Recommendations:
Of all the interviewees, my favorite was Stephen LeBerge whose primary research is lucid dreams, and how this can apply to the consciousness. While his research methods alone were interesting, I enjoyed his quote regarding Blackmore's questions of `lucid living' and `lucid dreaming':
"Suppose we take ourselves to be individual snowflakes with a particular crystalline form...one snowflake is falling into the ocean; what does it fear? `I'm about to be annihilated, I'll disappear...but perhaps what happens instead is an infinite expansion. You are not one drop in the water, but you are the water...the substance is unity"
I found it astonishing and fascinating the new age of scientist no longer rejects Eastern philosophical principles, but instead embraces such opinions.
I also found the interview of Roger Penrose fascinating, as he collaborated with the ideas of Stuart Hameroff to develop the theory explaining consciousness with quatum mechanical oscillations in microtubules of neurons.
Of course some of the interviews let the bizarre personalities shine through, as Kevin O'Regan openly claimed he, and everyone, is a robot due to the total lack of free will.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the philosophical and scientific nature of defining consciousness, with one caution: the material is not introductory level. I might suggest reading Blackmore's earlier effort, "Consciousness: A Very Brief Introduction" to get a proper background.
Overall, a very interesting and thought provoking book that could have used better organization but pulls through because of the undeniable genius of the interviewees.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2013
While trying to understand consciousness we are, as Daniel Dennett notes, trying to reverse-engineer ourselves. In other words, the central problem with studying and understanding consciousness is that the only subject matter at our disposal is ourselves. As Thomas Nagel argued in his famous essay, "What is it like to be a bat?", it is essentially impossible to understand any minds other than our own. This conundrum seems so fundamentally antithetical to the scientific process, one of whose main pillars is objectivity and a requirement for more than one observer to agree on a particular empirical outcome. Some scientists think that by focusing on and explaining the neural correlates of consciousness we would be on the way to showing what consciousness is and how it arises (the brain being the one and only causal agent in most of these thinkers' minds (hmm!)). Others argue however that this view is nowhere near being proven to be efficacious and instead seek other explanations.
This book recounts (basically unedited) dialogues Susan Blackmore had with a number of philosophers and neuroscientists about consciousness and related topics. In the process, Blackmore asks some very pertinent questions and her own excellent knowledge of the subject is evident in the discussions.
The participants' standpoints and preferred approaches are as diverse as the multitude of theories of consciousness proffered. Nonetheless, an incidental bonus the book offers is the surprising revelation that the views on the subject from seemingly opposite sides of the epistemic divide are a lot more conciliatory and balanced compared to the typical adversarial portrayal of academe by the media. In summary, this book can be used as a good guide to work out which of these approaches to the mind, brain and consciousness appeals to you. You could then consider exploring your interests in more detail later.
However (thanks may be to the imperatives of book publishing).Blackmore tries to circumscribe the discussions to a pre-set number of topics/questions - such as the hard problem of consciousness, the Cartesian Theatre, the philosopher's zombie, freewill, etc. Because of this, you feel at times that the discussions appear to end rather abruptly just as you get into the stride of the topic and thus may not have addressed all the questions adequately or at length.
Author Susan Blackmore interviews about 20 scientists working in the physics and biology of consciousness, and focuses mainly on the neurobiological aspects of mind, subjective experience, free will and consciousness.
Consciousness is a set of physical processes that give rise to conscious experience. But in order to understand the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, we need to know the nature of physical reality. This leads us to quantum physics and the explanatory gap between quantum and classical realities. We are conscious of only classical reality which is governed by the classical laws of physics, but we cannot comprehend quantum reality that is governed by the laws of quantum physics. This suggests that there is a hidden reality of nature that our mind does not sense but only revealed to us through the quantum physical measurements. Therefore our consciousness must include both classical and quantum realities. Many neuroscientists believe that consciousness is as fundamental as spacetime and matter (energy). Quantum physical measurements also imply that the physical reality does not objectively exist, but they exist after an intervention by a conscious observer.
There is another thorny question still remains as to why any physical process, quantum or classical, should give rise to subjective experience. This book discusses in depth about subjective experience, free will and the nature of consciousness with the leaders of consciousness research. The book illustrates that these are really hard problems to solve, and the opinions of the experts are varied and diverse. Many neuroscientists assume that these mental powers somehow emerge from the electrical signaling of neurons, the circuitry of the brain. Cartesian theater (CT) is a term Dan Dennett uses to describe a common idea that somewhere in the brain or mind, everything comes together and consciousness happens. Neurobiologist Susan Greenfield proposes that consciousness is associated with brain and brain generates consciousness. Dave Chalmers says, that consciousness ceases when one is dead, therefore consciousness is strongly associated with brain. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff propose "orchestrated objective reduction" ('Orch OR') theory, according to which consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules (protein polymers inside brain neurons) which both govern neuronal and synaptic function. They connect brain processes to self-organizing processes on quantum scale to produce quantum structure of reality. Stephen LaBerge takes a Vedantic view of a universal consciousness akin to the quantum physical reality. Kevin O'Regan believes that consciousness can survive death, but in years to come we would be able to download our personality onto a computer and re-live in virtual worlds. Philosophers like David Rosenthal and Michael Graziano suggest that consciousness is illusory. They observe that we have certain beliefs about mental states, and they have distinctive functional properties which causes some forms of attention. Philosopher John Searle believes that consciousness is essentially a biological property that emerges in some systems but not in others for reasons as yet unknown. V. Ramachandran offers a neurobiological explanation as to why animals do not have the same level of consciousness as humans.
Free will is another topic widely discussed in this book and it is the most disputed philosophical issue of all time. It is an idea that we can act or make choices unconstrained by external circumstances or an agency such as fate or divine will. It is often compared with determinism, which means that all events in the world are determined by prior events. The experts discussed in this book differ in their opinion. Pat and Paul Churchland, Francis Crick, and Chris Koch suggest that free will is an illusion, but Dan Dennett, Stuart Hameroff, Thomas Metzinger, and Kevin O'Regan believes that we have free will.
To summarize, it is evident from the discussion presented in this book that there is a lack of complete theory by neuroscientists regarding how neural activity translates into conscious experiences. Deepak Chopra argues that it is still a speculation no matter if you want to call consciousness a fundamental property of the universe consisting of matter (or energy) operating in spacetime; or consciousness is caused by brain activity and creates the properties and objects of the material world. Some critics argue that the hypothesis that the brain creates consciousness has more evidence than the hypothesis that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. Such arguments falls short, since quantum reality is not considered a part of overall reality in this argument.
on September 11, 2009
The study of consciousness is a kind of singularity in science, because you're studying precisely the most cherished quality of what it is to be alive. -- Francisco Varela
As I was reading your book I had the thought repeatedly that some of the most powerful memes are not memes that everybody thinks and talks about, but the ones we specifically avoid.. I think society has a lot of unwanted thoughts that are transferred from one person to another by this desire for avoidance. -- Daniel Wegner
In her recent book, Conversations on Consciousness, Susan Blackmore tackles the `hard problem' of consciousness in a different manner, using dialogues with the world's most famous scientists and philosophers who do research in the field of consciousness. The book is not an academic one with very well structured arguments, graphs of experiment results, lots of statistical evidence or many footnotes, and references but it provides a very clear panorama, or rather state-of-the-art of consciousness studies.
Is consciousness a fundamental property of universe similar to electromagnetism? Do our brain cells cause consciousness in a similar way that a moving magnet causes electric current? Is there a `consciousness field'? Do people have free will? What it means to see something `red'? What is the difference between the imagination / feeling of `redness' and the neural correlates of seeing something red? Is this all about quantum computations taking place at the microscale in our microtubules or even smaller at some nanoscale?
From Sir Francis Crick to Sir Roger Penrose, from Ramachandran to Dan Wegner, from Churchlands to Searle, from Chalmers to Varela this book is a very good read for anybody who has done even a superficial thinking on consciousness, what it really means to be humanly conscious, on the consciousness levels of animals and the excruciating problem of free will. It will clarify your thoughts, help you understand famous arguments (created, described and debated in a heated manner, and frankly, if I may say so), ask the questions you haven't asked before and maybe set your journey in consciousness with new questions. Blackmore also written a very short glossary and provided references to key articles so that the avid reader can further his or her research in this area.
on December 16, 2009
This is an interesting book. It consists of in-depth interviews with the worlds leading experts on the topics of consciousness and free will. The interviewer, Susan Blackwell is a leading expert herself, and the interviews are in-depth and searching. As she says in her forward, some authors wished to edit their contributions, but wishing to be faithful to the original objective of presenting live interviews, she resisted this, to her credit.
However, the various expert views naturally do not agree with each other, and usually disagree. Some of the contributions seem more substantial and plausible than others, but Blackwell has opted to present the interviews in alphabetical order. This is understandable, for her standing in the research community, but it would have been more helpful to those non-experts readers if she would have ordered by her personal preference, and hence hopefully by "quality and contribution".
Since SB, as an expert interviewer, will have got to grips with all the contents of the interviews, certainly more than most readers, I would have appreciated an overview chapter form her, presenting a synthesis and contrasting the various views and contributions. However maybe she is too wise to attempt such a synthesis in an area which still, after millenia, seems as turbulent as it ever was. Maybe many woudl have just been happy to read the synthesis and skip the detailed interviews!
on November 16, 2009
This is less an overture of current research into the symphony of the self than an amuse-bouche for the neocortex. It is an interesting and incomplete primer of some the current neurological and philosophical theories of self, mind, and brain straight from those at the forefront. Through a series of structured interviews conducted over several years at various conferences, Susan Blackmore prompts about 20 researchers and luminaries in consciousness related areas to discuss their theories (and those of their colleagues). The unflagging interview structure includes their ideas about the nature of the brain, mind, consciousness and self and whether we will be able to solve 'the problem'--or even if there is one. Also, she asks each to relate any personal influence their work has had on their perspectives and lives.
Susan Blackmore maintains the accessible spirit of the various dialogues by inserting explanations and asides. These keep the debates and considerations within the reach of an informed and interested public. Overall, even with the repetitive interview format, the book mostly moves along while informing us about the some of the issues, debates and personalities in this interesting and growing field. As one might expect from a well-crafted amuse-bouche--I enjoyed it, and it left me wanting more.