Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

( 2017 ) , Oxford University Press, 7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xvi+ 146pp, ISBN 978-0-198-79473-8


This is a fascinating, yet concise review of the scientific thinking as to what it is to be conscious. In addition, Susan Blackmore comes to a bottom-line conclusion that we are all deluded, but that it may be possible to escape our deceiving ourselves.

This is actually a revised second edition of the 2005 book. Often, including with some OUP titles; its 'Landmark Science' series that is marketed as 'revised' but the three editions I have seen do not appear to be. However, in this instance I can assure you that this title has truly been updated and there are a god number of post 2005 references at the book's end. And we find out that psychologists have no generally, universally accepted definition of consciousness; an admission one might think does not bode well for the rest of the book's utility, but in fact Susan Blackmore does give us much on which to ponder.

Susan Blackmore begins with the mind-body problem of our experiencing an external world from within our own individual bodies: a dualist theory of two different realms. She then goes on to consider how we know others are conscious? We know that as individuals we are because we experience it, but we cannot directly experience what others think so we have no direct, concrete evidence that others do think: they could be 'zombies' merely acting out the role.

Along the way we cover many old and new theories as to consciousness including that one is a being trapped inside one's own head, looking out at the world much like the tiny numskulls in the British 1960s children's Beezer comic strip in which individuals are each 'controlled' by their own small crew of people (which begs the question as to who in turn controls these people?)

And then when consciousness goes 'wrong', such as with synaethesia, Blackmore explains we can begin to perhaps glimpse at aspects of the nature of consciousness. Illusions, such as the Necker cube, tell us where different types (or even complexities) of information are processed in the brain.

Along the way Blackmore's journey takes us through an almost inescapable conclusion that we are really unconsciously 'driving' ourselves through life, it is a fascinating ride.

For the Science Fiction aficionado and remember this site is primarily for scientists who are SF buffs (but others may enjoy it too? there is much of SF relevance even though there are no direct genre references. The idea that our consciousness is not fully in the driving seat of what we think we decide to do is reminiscent of Heinlein's short 'All You Zombies' (albeit that was more to do with temporal pre-determination) filmed as Predestination, and the idea of physical, corporal self in McCoy's disdain of using the transporter (which destroys the object being transported recreating it elsewhere), also touched upon in Scalzi's Old Man's War. And, of course, there is much that echoes with the works of Philip K. Dick whose life itself provides a rich vein for psychologists: are we or is the world real, how do we know we are not a copy of ourselves etc?

Clearly, being 'a very short introduction' the topic of consciousness cannot be covered in depth, but then that is the purpose of this series of books: it provides a quick but solid overview of the topic (and its cheap, very much so compared to an introductory undergraduate student text). Recommended.

Jonathan Cowie

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