- File Size: 5968 KB
- Print Length: 105 pages
- Publisher: Harper (June 4, 2019)
- Publication Date: June 4, 2019
- Language: English
- ASIN: B07G13W75M
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
#12,525 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
- #9 in Free Will & Determinism Philosophy
- #4 in Free Will & Determinism
- #14 in New Age Meditation
Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind Kindle Edition
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118 customer reviews
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_Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind_ by Annaka Harris is promised to be as “concise and enlightening as _Seven Brief Lessons on Physics_ and _Astrophysics for People in a Hurry_". This is such a brave and ambitious undertaking as consciousness truly is an enigma.
Let me jump to the beginning of Chapter Two: Intuitions and Illusions to confirm what the author was trying to accomplish in the first chapter: “Now that we have a working definition of consciousness and the mystery it entails, we can start chipping away at some common intuitions.” So did chapter one give us that accessible, working definition of conscience? No, the author seems to give us sciency riddles, “An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.”
That quoted definition is followed by a paragraph that is the author’s own definition and the meat of this first chapter:
“In other words, consciousness is what we’re referring to when we talk about experience in its most basic form. Is it like something to be you in this moment? Presumably your answer is yes. Is it like something to be the chair you’re sitting on? Your answer will (most likely) be an equally definitive no. It’s this simple difference—whether there is an experience present or not—which we can all use as a reference point, that constitutes what I mean by the word “consciousness.” Is it like something to be a grain of sand, a bacterium, an oak tree, a worm, an ant, a mouse, a dog? At some point along the spectrum the answer is yes, and the great mystery lies in why the “lights turn on” for some collections of matter in the universe.”
Yes, the difference is simple when considering such dissimilar entities, but that only confirms we can intuitively identify a difference between extremes. Before considering the mystery of why the lights turn on, I want to understand what the properties are of this light and what phenomena you consider distinct and related or not. I’m left feeling that this book is too sophisticated for me and unsure who is the target audience of this book.
The conversation has to start from where the audience is. This book doesn’t meet me at the beginning of my understanding on this topic. There is an assumption that I’m ready to play a hard puzzle. If this is really meant to be accessible the chapter would at least start with what the human experience feels like.
A successful introduction starting from the shared human experience would use language like “subjective experience”, “a perspective of experience”, an “I experience”, or “my body and my environment”. How does this relate to “a sense of being”, “inner feeling”, “an emotional life”, “inner voice”, “a sense of self”, “self-awareness” or “feeling like an observer”? Or explain why this is the wrong path or inappropriate.
We are not told if “reflection” or “deep thought” is beyond this concept. Instead we’re left to parse and re-parse the cohesive, but terse “something that it is like to be that organism”, which depends on appreciating that “it is like to be” is the inner presence’s experience and not experiences like the physical sensation of the stimulus of the air current across a bat’s wing.
I was also counting on the author elaborating on “experience in its most basic form” and say whether there are any indications, observations, or methods of measuring consciousness.
Instead, we see the author setting up the “matter” panpsychism experiment from the start and heightening at the chapter ending with another overly witty “wonderful clear and playful portrait of the mystery” quote which starts: “Sure, consciousness is a matter of matter — what else could it be, since that’s what we are— but still, the fact that some hunks of matter have an inner life… “
I really wanted an onramp to the topic. The author’s expertise in consciousness seems to have made her blind to the needs of those unfamiliar . She accidentally pushed us readers in to these deep waters from a cliff.
I put down the book to capture my first impressions. I came for a “wonderfully accessible book” by an author known for being able to introduce topics to diverse audiences including children, but that isn’t what I’ve found. I see little likelihood that the book will enable new well-reasoned conversations on this new subject for me. These deep, cold waters leave my anxious to what would be asked for me to wrap my mind around next.
I finished the book and it is a fascinating book inspiring awe, but I was correct in my fears. I’m left struggling to come up with my own foundation to consider these ideas from. The book provided no stable structure to build on, but definitely surfaces great thought experiments and questions. It contributes to my interesting in further exploration in this area. Unfortunately, the author, her team, and her supporters’ intuitions on this being a general guidebook are incorrect. The promise wasn’t kept.
1. The lack of a good introduction is more puzzling considering the author acknowledges the “linguistically issue” on the Making Sense podcast #159 - Conscious 12:50. “It’s partly a linguistically issue … it’s not as accurate as we’d like it to be. I actually like the word experience better even though that can be misunderstood too.“ The author goes on to describe how she solves the problem with a back and forth, but I’d argue her solution is insufficient. After reading the book, I also listened to 10% Happier with Dan Harris podcast #190: The Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, Annaka Harris. Here too I got the sense the author believes she did have the feedback that the definition wasn’t working for some readers and she thought she had addressed the issue.
Endnote: The praise in the author blurbs also have the theme of “clarity”, but they all also look to be experts in related subjects. Was this prose tested on people new to the subject? Was constructive feedback received? Was it incorporated into introducing the topics? Or was the test audience intimidated by how brilliant the author and her writing are?
With toxoplasmosis, a 2017 study brings into question the idea that contact with cats causes psychosis. I am dismayed that old "evidence" against cats continues to be reinforced.
Re Libet, his research was conducted in the 1980's and has been called into question. Some of the articles referenced in the footnotes are interesting and more contemporary (the ones not behind a paywall anyway) but still, the idea that our brain knows what we are going to do before our conscious self does is complex, insufficiently understood, and IMO risky to generalize or take to heart especially if one is going to use the information to conclude that we have no free will.
Having said all that I very much enjoyed the second part of the book. Panpsychism is a new concept for me, and I like the idea of consciousness as a fundamental property of matter. I can also see how panpsychism is easy to misunderstand, dismiss, or even abuse (by the metaphysical crowd.) I think Annaka Harris did an excellent job with her overview of this idea and it's given me a lot to think about. I recommend this book.
She then begins to problematize our intuitions. Are we sure that plants and trees aren’t conscious? Can we be confident that free will is a fundamental part of consciousness? Do we think that our actions depend on consciousness in any way whatsoever?
Having sufficiently shaken the reader up and awoken them to the problem of consciousness, Harris then offers a version of panpsychism as a tentative theory. Distinguishing her account from the straw man theories often debated (a rock can’t think!) she argues that panpsychism offers a coherent explanation for why some matter is able to be conscious—because all matter is in some sense conscious.
Unfortunately, a slim volume allows other approaches little more than a similar straw man treatment. Since all relations between matter in the universe are governed by the laws of physics no such thing as a distinct free will can exist. The fact that physical determinism is incompatible with many interpretations of quantum physics and is itself a controversial stance is not acknowledged. Similarly, the explanation that consciousness is an evolutionary product that maximizes animal adaptivity is similarly dismissed since she’s “shown” that consciousness cannot have an effect on action.
But to engage the reader in clear and non-simplistic prose on a question that admits of lots of jargon, to give readers a sense of the depth of this simultaneously scientific and philosophic phenomena...that in itself is an incredible accomplishment. If the author had devoted more space to a deeper exploration of the science and philosophy around consciousness she would have risked turning it into another unreadable tome. Even if you disagree with her perspective, it’s hard not to welcome this as a useful popular introduction to the subject.