Consciousness and Those Questions

A textbook review.

Posted Sep 27, 2019

Consciousness has been called the deepest mystery facing modern science, which is odd if you think you know exactly what your own consciousness is like and what it does. It was this disconnect and this mystery that led me, long ago, to give up my university lectureship and write the first edition of a huge textbook, Consciousness: An Introduction. It’s now in its third edition, co-authored with my daughter, Emily Troscianko (who also blogs for Psychology Today). I delved into the academic philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology but above all I struggled with my own mind. This is why the book begins by praising "perplexity" and ends by hoping that the reader is even more perplexed than at the start.

Jolyon Troscianko
‘What is it?’
Source: Jolyon Troscianko

"Am I consciousness now?" I asked myself again and again. Try it yourself. Preferably, ask yourself this every few minutes—if you can remember to. It’s a killer question that I urged my students to work with when I taught consciousness courses decades ago. It grew into a new question each week; "Who is doing this?", "What is it like to be me now?", "Where is this pain?" or "Did I do this consciously?" Then, when I gave up teaching to write the textbook, the questions appeared in each chapter, and later still they morphed into the "Ten Zen Questions" of another book and the title of this blog. They can have very weird effects if you work with them determinedly.

This is why I was so pleased to see the first review of our third edition.

Nicholas Chater, a Warwick psychologist, writes ‘one of the charms of the book is that it introduces such puzzling and delightful questions so vividly’, the book is ‘stimulating and highly engaging’, ‘delightful, balanced, and wide-ranging’, and covers ‘a terrific range of perspectives’. It’s also nice that he appreciates Emily’s addition of lots of literary extracts and quotations, bringing yet another perspective to the great mystery.

All this is fine, but I will confess to being annoyed by his failure to grasp (or at least to mention) how radically Emily and I tried to undermine some of the most basic assumptions commonly made in consciousness studies. He happily uses phrases like ‘present in consciousness’, ‘the conscious flow of experience in itself’ and the classic ‘contents of consciousness’ – even ‘contents of the flow of conscious experience’, all ideas which we take apart ruthlessly in trying to get past easy assumptions that – we argue – hold back understanding consciousness.

I long ago argued that there is no stream of consciousness (Blackmore 2002), that consciousness is not a container, and (as Dennett has so often and elegantly argued e.g. Dennett 1991) thoughts and perceptions do not ‘enter consciousness’; it’s a mistake to think of processes, thoughts, ideas, feelings or anything else as being either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of consciousness. Admittedly it is hard to give up these easy assumptions – consciousness does seem that way if you don’t examine it more carefully. That’s why we worked so hard in the book to point this out and, of course, to encourage the deep personal inquiry that is the basis of all those questions.

If you read the book, or study it in class, I hope you, too, will get more perplexed. Enjoy the perplexity, and do try struggling with these mind-altering questions – Are you conscious now? Were you conscious just a moment ago? What is consciousness anyway?

References

Blackmore,S.J. (2002) There is no stream of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9, 17-28

Blackmore, S. 2009 Ten Zen Questions, Oxford, OneWorld,  2009. Paperback Zen and the Art of Consciousness,  OneWorld 2011

Blackmore, S., & Troscianko, E. T. (2018). Consciousness: An Introduction. Routledge.

Chater, N. (2019) Consciousness Explored. A review of Blackmore, S. & Troscianko, E. T. (2018). Consciousness: An Introduction

Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained, Little Brown