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

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

Susan Blackmore

Language: English

Pages: 283

ISBN: 2:00234479

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

"Human brains are just the most complicated thing that's yet evolved, and we're trying to understand them using our brains," notes philosopher Daniel Dennett. "We're trying to reverse engineer ourselves, to understand what kind of a machine we are."

In Conversations on Consciousness, Susan Blackmore brings together some of the great minds of our time, a who's who of eminent thinkers, all of whom have devoted much of their lives to understanding "what kind of a machine we are." Some of the interviewees are major philosophers (such as John Searle, Ned Block, and David Chalmers) and some are equally renowned scientists (Francis Crick, Roger Penrose, V.S. Ramachandran). All of them talk candidly with Blackmore about some of the key philosophical issues confronting us, in a series of conversations that are revealing, insightful, and stimulating. They ruminate on the nature of consciousness--is it something apart from the brain? Is it even possible to understand the brain, to understand human consciousness? Some of these thinkers say no, it isn't possible, but most believe that we will pierce the mystery surrounding consciousness, and that neuroscience will provide the key. Blackmore goes beyond the issue of consciousness to ask other intriguing questions: Is there free will (a question which yields many conflicted replies, with most saying yes and no); if no, how does this effect the way you live your life; and more broadly, how has your work changed the way you live.

Ranging from the curious (do bees have consciousness?) to the profound (is our sense of having a self just an illusion), these provocative conversations illuminate current thinking on the mind and on human nature itself.


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.

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


"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

"Consciousness. Where does it come from? Is it somehow separate from the human brain? Can the brain itself comprehend it? Blackmore 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

"...a lively and revealing look at what is going on in the scientific and philosophical study of consciousness."--PsycCRITIQUES

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consciousness with an account of the ‘hard problem’. Can you tell me how you came to categorize it that way? Dave I never thought of this as a terribly profound distinction to make. I thought I was just stating the obvious. I gave a paper at the first Tucson conference on consciousness, back in ’94, and early in the conference I got up and wanted to say some substantive things about consciousness. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll start by stating the obvious—what needs to be explained is behaviour (those

wanted to find out what it is about consciousness that makes people treat it as special or think of it as a problem that is different from other problems in science or philosophy. Of course some people, such as Pat Churchland, argue that it’s not; that consciousness is just like any other scientific problem that needs to be solved by patient empirical work, and Kevin calls it a ‘pseudo-problem’. But most people launched into versions of the mind-body problem or what Dave calls the hard problem.

irrationally and selfdestructively violent. So there are some very difficult questions about how we best deal with them, especially if it turns out we can intervene. The interventions may not always be pretty, but of course going to prison is not pretty either, especially in America. Also drugs to deal with addiction are just around the corner, and that may mean that we have very different possibilities for changing the drug laws than we do now. What would you like to happen to the drug laws? I

be, because I appreciate how difficult it is for brains to succeed in these many endeavours, and how much one’s own success depends upon luck. I’d like to know something that I don’t understand, and will hopefully learn more about before we die: What happens to married couples over long periods of time? What is the nature of the very special community that’s made there? I sometimes wax romantic on this. I’m given to be a bit of a romantic in any case, and I am willing to be more romantic in any

dialogue—or rather, the dialogue of the deaf—on those particular issues, goes round and round and round and round and never gets resolved. So from my point of view the first thing that you must do if you would like to actually answer some questions, is pose the questions in a way that’s answerable. Sue Go on then, pose me some questions in a way that’s answerable. I totally understand this going round and round. Tell me a question we can ask to get us out of that. Bernard Well, here’s the

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