Who hasn’t wondered about their awareness, their perception, and their experience of the world around them? I think it’s a rare person who hasn’t thought about these things from time to time. In Consciousness: An Introduction, Susan Blackmore presents the views, research, and conclusions the philosophical and scientific communities have developed. This is a potentially complicated subject, and Blackmore writes with enough clarity to make understanding easy.
Blackmore starts off the book by discussing what, exactly, consciousness is. She discusses the philosophical history of the idea of an inner self, like René Descartes’ idea that the soul made contact with the body through the pineal gland in the brain. We are given thought experiments to make us think about what it would be like to have a different experience of the world, and then to be exposed to the world as we experience it. I found this very interesting because it challenged my perception of what makes up elemental blocks of experience, like color, why we perceive it in that particular way, and whether that is the only valid way to experience it.
Further on, Blackmore discusses the “theater of the mind”, an aspect of consciousness that we all appear to have. It seems that we can think about things, imagine them, and think about them within ourselves before we take action. Some think this is an actual construction of the brain, and others think it’s an illusion created solely by physical brain processes.
I, personally, am partial to that second idea. The simplest answer is usually the right one; why posit a completely separate construction of the brain if consciousness can be folded in as a side-effect of what the brain is already doing? That makes sense to me.
Another part of the book that I found completely fascinating was the section on artificial intelligence (AI). Blackmore talks about the research into the field and the controversy about whether machines can actually be considered to have consciousness — is this an attribute that only humans can have because of their unique build, or can machines, if behaving in a way that is indistinguishable from that of a human, also be considered conscious? My conclusion was that, if it seems to act like it has an inner self, then it’s conscious. It doesn’t matter what the physical makeup is. The function is what defines consciousness; the brain does it in one way, and machines do it in another, but the result is the same. This, I think, is awesome.
I also liked the section on the paranormal. While remaining respectful (probably more so than I would be capable of), Blackmore explores and debunks most supernatural “evidence” for a soul or inner spirit. She is, however, more open to things like Buddhism and meditation, which I do think are useful for people who need something to help them feel centered; I just happen to also think that need is determined by some process or chemical balance in the brain, and not by a spiritual component we all have.
The drawbacks to this book are few. One is that the dichotomy between the “theater of the mind” people and those who think everything is solely a result of brain processes gets dropped in the last half of the book. I would have liked to see that carried through the entire work. The other thing, which isn’t Blackmore’s fault, is that it’s a textbook. There are activities and comprehension questions, which weren’t of interest to me, a person just reading it for pleasure.
Overall, I think I learned a lot. I now know that I think my sense of consciousness is a product of brain processes, and not of any sort of “ghost in the machine”. A recommended book for college classes dealing with the topic, and those who are intensely interested in the topic.