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A review of Susan Blackmore, (2004) Consciousness, An introduction. Oxford University Press, New York and Hodder & Stoughton, London A delightful compendium Written by Katharine A. McGovern Susan Blackmore’s new introductory As a professor, I love it text Consciousness, An introduction is a delightful compendium of ideas, theories, empirical findings, and experiential “practice” opportunities related […]

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Posted January 15, 2004 by thomasr

 
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A review of Susan Blackmore, (2004) Consciousness, An introduction. Oxford University Press, New York and Hodder & Stoughton, London

A delightful compendium

Written by Katharine A. McGovern

Susan Blackmore’s new introductory As a professor, I love it text Consciousness, An introduction is a delightful compendium of ideas, theories, empirical findings, and experiential “practice” opportunities related to the philosophy (heavy on the philosophy!), psychology, and neurobiology of consciousness— with excursions into history, cultural anthropology, ethology, and religion. If I were an undergrad, I would love it! Or a grad student….. Actually, as a professor, I love it!

Each of the twenty-seven short chapters in Consciousness is filled with text boxes, illustrations, biographies of consciousness scholars, first person “practice” experiences, activity boxes, self-assessment questions, and further readings. The chapters are fascinating and engaging. In flipping through the book, I found myself drawn to such section headings as “The Mysterious Gap” (p. 18—between mind and body), “Mary the Color Scientist (p. 26— a thought experiment on the qualia of color), “The Half Second Delay in Consciousness” (p. 57 regarding Libet’s neurological work on the post-stimulation delay in consciousness), “The Place Where Consciousness Happens” (p. 66— the lurking remains of the Cartesian Theater in scientific theories) “The Experience of Will” (p. 132 concerning the debate over free will), “Theory of Mind” (p. 172—as applied to the apparent inability of animals to know other minds), “Conscious machines are impossible” (p. 198 ) and then “Deluded machines (p. 217, part of an extended discussion of the possibility of machine consciousness), “Whose pain?” (p. 238—can there be pains if there are no selves?), “The Binding Problem” (p. 244— how it all comes together even if there is no place where it happens), “Unconscious perception” (p. 274), “From spiritism to psychical research” (p. 289— Blackmore doesn’t shy away from discussing psi or near-death experiences), “Are dreams experiences?” (p. 344— Hobson thinks so), “Neurophenomenology “ (p. 377) and “Heterophenomenology” (p. 382— variations on a first person theme), “Methods of Meditation” (p. 385— more first person methods of study), and “The Four Noble Truths” (p. 403ff, a short lesson in Buddhism).

One of the strengths of the book is the collection of activities-to-do scattered throughout the chapters: “Are you a synesthete?” “The cutaneous rabbit,” “”Getting out of bed (à la Wm. James),” and “Inducing lucid dreams.” “The “balloon debate” (p. 177) is provocative and effective in getting us to engage the question of animal suffering (and by extension consciousness and suffering of other beings in general). In this exercise, we are asked to participate in a debate. We must decide which of a collection of zoo animals should be thrown out of a hot air balloon as ballast first—- in effect, which animal suffers the least? In engaging the question, we have to come to grips with the ethical heart of consciousness research. Which creature suffers? Which creature is conscious? How do we know? Physicians are forced to make such difficult decisions frequently— they help decide when life-support machinery should be terminated, when pain medicine should be administered, when abortions will be done. Greater clarity about when consciousness and suffering are present can ease these decisions somewhat.

Blackmore does an excellent job of presenting both sides of ongoing debates in the study of consciousness. For example, she plays out the old Cartesian Theater debate (again), the free will debate, the qualia debate, the consciousness machines debate, the animal consciousness debate, the unity of consciousness debate, the no-self debate, Blackmore does an excellent job of presenting both sidesand the many variations on the “Hard Problem” or how can a body have a mind? She generally leaves the resolution of the debate up to the reader. She provides evidence on both sides and philosophical commentary and then ends many of her chapters with a question to the reader: in chapter two, “Is there a hard problem?”, in chapter four, “How does subjective experience arise from… this particular kind of neural activity?”, in chapter twelve, “What is it like to be a snake?”, in thirteen, “Could a machine be conscious?”, and in chapter twenty-seven, “Might psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists …see nonduality directly for themselves?…Would the problem of consciousness then be solved?”

My favorite debate shows up in chapter twenty-five, “The View from Within,” where we witness “The Battle of the A’s and B’s.” (p. 372ff.) The A’s, who champion the “fantasy of first-person science” position, are captained by Daniel Dennett . The B’s, led by David Chalmers, hold high the banner of “first person methods in a science of consciousness.” As the battle is joined, we see Captain Dave claiming that first-person data are a “manifest fact” to which we have first-person access and, with John Searle, that first-person data are irreducible to third–person data. On the counter-attack, Dennett and team A aver that studying consciousness is the same as studying any other psychological phenomenon: we study what people say and do, we do not study some privileged inner experience. According to Team A, when people claim to be observing inner experience they are really theorizing about how it seems. Dennett makes a distinction between how it seems to us and how it really is— a difficult distinction for many of us. At the end of the chapter, following her presentation of Dennett’s heterophenomenological method, Blackmore ends with the question: “Isn’t heterophenomenology only studying what people say and leaving the experiences themselves? Isn’t it treating their inner world as a fiction when it really exists?” (p. 384) She says that heterophenomenology “maintains neutrality on these points” leaving it “open whether as if intentionality is different from real intentionality” and concludes that first person methods may still play an important role in third person science.

If Blackmore had only told us ahead of time that there was going to be so much philosophy……… Oh, well. No one’s perfect.

© 2003, Katharine A. McGovern.

Saybrook Graduate School, San Francisco & California Institute for Integral Studies


thomasr

 


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