- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (January 8, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195179595
- ISBN-13: 978-0195179590
- Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.6 x 5.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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
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"Consciousness. Where does it come from? Is it somehow separate from the human brain? Can the brain itself comprehend it? Blackmore, a lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England, poses these and other intriguing questions to some of the top thinkers in philosophy and brain studies. In each interview, the author gets to the heart of the struggle to explain subjective experience in objective, scientific terms. Francis Crick, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, David Chalmers, and others describe the fundamental ideas behind the study of consciousness, including free will, the separation of mind and body, artificial intelligence, and conscious versus unconscious experience."--Science News
"Succeeds in providing a very brief survey of the multitude of positions occupied by thinkers in this area.... The often quirky personalities and mannerisms of the interviewees shine through the text.... Blackmore herself comes across as spunky and clever, and the probing follow-up questions she occasionally asks prevent the interviews from seeming too repetitive and boring."--Nature
"Susan Blackmore posed the question "What is consciousness?" to 21 leading scientists and philosophers who study consciousness for a living. It provokes all kinds of responses, ranging from jokes about psychedelic drugs to brow-furrowing discourses on life's meaning."-- Richard Lipkin, Scientific American
"Are some scientists zombies? That is among the thoughts raised by this diverting collection of interviews with neurobiologists, philosophers and others engaged in the study of the mind...a very efficient overview of contemporary strands of thinking about its subject."--Steven Poole, Guardian Unlimited
"Blackmore interrogates 20 mind-body experts--philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and various hybrids. 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."-- Tom Clark, Naturalism.org
"One remarkable aspect of the consciousness research field is the lack of agreement on what the key subject matter should be. What is the phenomenon for which we need an explanation? Susan Blackmore begins with these questions in Conversations on Consciousness, a collection of interviews with 21 prominent scientists and philosophers. Their answers introduce the reader to some of the concepts and puzzles at the centre of this fieldConversations on Consciousness provides a casual and accessible introduction to the topic. Few topics are specifically detailed, but the empirical and philosophical work summarized in the book is fascinating and easy to read."--Ephraim Glick, EMBO Reports (a publication of the European Molecular Biology Organization)
About the Author
Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Her research interests include memes and the theory of memetics, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She is author of The Meme Machine, as well as over seventy academic articles.
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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.
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.
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!