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Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain



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What is the nature of consciousness? What does it mean to be me or to be you? These are among the most difficult and arresting questions being researched by scientists today, and they are also among the most fundamental issues that divide atheists from theists. As with biological evolution, though, the answers and data being produced by science are not fitting traditional religious stories, which means that this is one more area where people will be faced with a choice between faith and science.


Summary

Title: Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human
Author: Susan Blackmore
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195179587

Pro:
•  Provides a nice overview of what researchers and scientists currently think
•  Offers a wider range of views and opinions than most books on the subject

Con:
•  Difficult to follow if one isn't already familiar with the issues and questions
•  Organization can be difficult to follow

Description:
•  Conversations with leading researchers into the nature of consciousness and how the mind works
•  Discusses popular theories with those most responsible for developing them

Book Review

One of the problems with contemporary research on consciousness is that there is so little agreement among the leading scientists. There are many questions and increasing amounts of data, but few solid and reliable answers. Indeed, there isn't even agreement on whether "consciousness" really exists — some argue that what we call a unified consciousness or self is ultimately an illusion.

You thus can't go to a single book to fully grasp where the current state of research is; instead, you have to learn what different researchers think, why they think that, and how well the theories stack up against each other.

One book where you can this information is Susan Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness. It was originally designed to be a BBC radio series based around interviews Blackmore did with scientists at a conference in Arizona in the year 2000. Among the 21 people interviewed are David Chalmers, Pat & Paul Churchland, Francis Crick, Daniel Dennett, Susan Greenfield, Roger Penrose, Vilayanur Ramachandran, and John Searle. The radio series didn't work out, but Blackmore had done numerous interviews with the top people in this field and decided to put the transcripts in book form. This provides readers with the ability to see what these scientists think about some of the same questions and issues, side-by-side.

I stated above that there is little agreement on just about anything in the study of conscious, but there are a few issues where there is little disagreement. Hardly anyone involved in the scientific research of consciousness believes in dualism anymore — the idea that "brain" and "mind" are composed of entirely different substances. Dualism is, however, a fundamental feature of most religious myths about who we are — with the "mind" commonly described as stemming from a supernatural, immaterial "soul" that is supposed to live forever.

Few of these scientists also believe in anything like an eternal life for the consciousness. Because they regard the mind and the brain as being material, they agree that when the brain dies, the consciousness is effectively eliminated as well. This, too, conflicts with popular religious beliefs about eternal life in some sort of heaven, hell, purgatory, etc. Although comprehensive scientific explanations of the nature of consciousness are still a ways off, what we do know about how the mind and brain work provide more than enough evidence to demonstrate that popular beliefs in dualism, souls, and eternal minds are unfounded, untenable, and unreasonable.

There are, unfortunately, a few problems with this book which prevents it from being a good choice for many people. The principle problem is that it dives into a great deal of complicated information relatively quickly — it's simply not suited for people who are unfamiliar with the issues, or even perhaps for people with just a cursory familiarity with the issues. People looking for a basic introduction to the issues and problems with consciousness should first read Blackmore's book Consciousness: A Short Introduction. With that in hand, this book will be much more informative and interesting.

A second problem is inherent to the format itself: a lot of ground keeps being covered over and over as the same questions are asked of different people. There's no thematic or chronological organization, either — not that that would be easy to achieve. This makes sense for a radio series, but it doesn't always work well in a book. As a consequence, this book isn't well suited for people with just a superficial interest in the topic — if you read Blackmore's introductory book and are satisfied, there isn't much reason to continue with this one. On the other hand, if you are intrigued enough to want to know more about what particular researchers think, this is the place to turn to first.


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