Review of Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will and What it means to be Human.  Blackmore, Susan.  Oxford University Press.  2004

If like me, you enjoy a sort of amateur connoisseurship of current investigations of consciousness, then Susan Blackmore’s collection of interviews of many of this age’s most recognized, revered-- and simultaneously reviled-- figures in the field is a must read. (Also, as a former playwright, I’m a sucker for books that take mostly dialogue form.

Blackmore manages to run the gamut of greats, from Daniel Dennett ("Meh, consciousness really ain’t that big a deal."*)  to John Searle, "Consciousness is a unique and fundamental property of the universe, like gravity or electromagnetism."*) She even manages to bag Francis Crick, prior to his death in the same year as the book’s publication. Crick, as you may or may not know, devoted the latter portion of his scientific career to investigations of consciousness, after co-discovering the structure of DNA with James Watson (with no small contribution from Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray crystallography.)

Crick had little patience with cognitive philosophers. He used the laboratory of empiricism to make his investigations, telling Blackmore, "All philosophers... do is argue about it without actually finding out what’s going on." His contempt for Dennett is obvious and open. "He isn’t paying attention to neurons.... Not his department.... Our view is that if you won’t explain it in terms of neurons it’s like saying that you’re interested in evolution but genes are not your department."

One of of Blackmore’s funnest, wackiest exchanges comes with Christof Koch, a collaborator of Crick’s and firmly on the conservative/scientific side of investigations.

Sue:  How could you ever find out whether any animal is conscious or not?

Christof:  Ok, well, how can I know you’re conscious?

Sue:  I’m not.

Christoff:  Ok, well most people would assume that they are conscious and I assume I’m conscious.  I also assume you’re conscious!  Why? By analogy, because your brain is statistically speaking indistinguishable from mine, your evolutionary history is the same as mine."

Blackmore is a kook in the most favorable sense of the word, and because of her unique and sometimes utterly bizarre approach to her own experiences of consciousness, she can, with a straight face, confront some of the great minds of this ontological mine field and provoke from them unforgettable quotes. At one point she informs no less of a giant than John Searle that she thinks she has eliminated her own sense of free will. "I’ve tried very hard, and to some extent succeeded, in living without that sense.  It does gradually go away."

But Searle isn’t having it. "I don’t think you can live without it, because you can’t decide what you’re going to say next.  Think of the difference between yourself acting and watching an old movie of yourself: when you know what’s going to happen next on the screen is entirely fixed in advance.  You don’t, as you watch the movie, think ‘Well, I did a stupid thing then, let’s hope this time I won’t do it.’—because you know it’s all laid down in advance."

Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, argues for the importance of quantum coherence in microtubules to explain consciousness, but of course this theory is deeply controversial, especially to the strong Functionalist likes of Pat and Paul Churchland. Say Pat, "Pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum coherence in the microtubules."

Hameroff reponds:
"Well, in Pat’s case, methinks the lady doth protest too much, because she has no explanatory power whatsoever, not to mention the fact that she doesn't understand what we’re saying.... Why should neurotransmitter chemicals cause conscious experience?.... I think altered states occur when we shift more into the quantum subconscious phase. Dreams are quantum information."

As a historical document alone—as a wide angle group snapshot of a particular moment in the deepest human thinking about how it is that humans even think—this book is invaluable. There is nothing else quite like it in an otherwise fairly inexhaustible canon.

Here’s a complete list of the experts Blackmore talks with in the book:

Bernard Baars

Ned Block

David Chalmers

Pat Churchland

Paul Churchland

Francis Crick

Daniel Dennett

Susan Greenfield

Richard Gregory

Stuart Hameroff

Christof Koch

Stephen LaBerge

Thomas Metzinger

Roger Penrose

Kevin O'Regan

Vilayanur Ramachandran

John Searle

Petra Stoerig

Francisco Varela

Max Velmans

Daniel Wegner

I think it is noteworthy how little progress any of these experts have made in resolving any of the fundamental questions this book explores, even ten years after its publication.

*Of course these parentheticals are my own paraphrasings, but still they’re pretty damned close.

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