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Book review

Conscious

A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

by Annaka Harris

Conscious by Annaka Harris

This is a brief introduction to the mysteries of consciousness, with much to commend it. It starts a conventional definition, after Thomas Nagel: “An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism”. From this starting point, Annaka Harris takes us via an interesting series of viewpoints to a view of consciousness that she acknowledges isn’t really the mainstream view – that of “pan-psychism”, which is that consciousness may be an inherent quality of matter even down to the smallest levels – electrons may be, in some tiny atomic way, conscious. From these small components, consciousness as we know and experience it as humans is produced.

The route to this conclusion covers some ground that may be familiar to many readers, such as David Chalmers’ “philosophical zombies” – people who look and act exactly like you or I, but who (by definition) do not have conscious experiences. It also covers some territory that was new to me, such as the discussion about trees and how they seem to communicate via their roots tapping into underground mycorrhizal networks. This was fascinating to me, and lead me off to all sorts of interesting searches – this was a nice summary I found.

The argument is overall well put, but I felt there were difficulties that had either been skipped for simplicity, or simply weren’t acknowledged. For example, Harris says that “as far as consciousness is concerned, there is nothing, then suddenly, magically, at just the right moment …. something!”. It’s not clear to me that this has to be the case. Introspectively, I am conscious at some moments to a greater degree than others. When I fall into a deep sleep, does my consciousness finally switch off at a defined point, or is it more like sunset on a cloudy day: it gets darker and darker, and eventually it’s definitely completely dark, but there was no one moment when the last light was extinguished. It seems to me consciousness is more like this – continuous, not discrete. And if the claim is that it’s discrete, I’d hope for a discussion of the point.

As another example, one of the traditional arguments against panpsychism is discussed in the book – the “combination problem”:

The problem is that this is very difficult to make sense of: “little” conscious subjects of experience with their micro-experiences coming together to form a “big” conscious subject with its own experiences

Harris argues that this problem isn’t present in versions of panpsychism in which consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, as consciousness is not interacting with “itself”, as it would be if it were combining. Think of gravity: individual atoms have a tiny amount of mass, and thus of gravitational attraction, and they can combine perfectly happily to produce a large planet with its own gravity.

This argument, it seems to me, can apply just as well to the “emergent” view of consciousness, where consciousness emerges as the appropriate kinds of information processing capabilities combine in an appropriate way. But Harris has already dismissed the possible emergence of consciousness by saying that it doesn’t really explain it at all:

…when scientists assume they have bypassed the hard problem by describing consciousness as an emergent property – that is, a complex phenomenon not predicted by the constituent parts – they are changing the subject …. If some matter has experience and some doesn’t (and some emergent phenomena entail experience and some don’t), the concept of emergence as it is traditionally used in science simply doesn’t explain consciousness.

But simply defining consciousness as something that all matter has, it seems to me, isn’t a good way out of this problem. Announcing that everything has consciousness, down to electrons and protons, and therefore some things get to be what we call conscious, is either a way of hiding from the hard problem (“everything is conscious, so no wonder we are”), or just causes the emergence problem to emerge in a different place (how does what we historically cause consciousness appear from combining a lot of this subatomic consciousness – and you can’t use emergence as you’ve already dismissed this!).

In the end, there was a lot to like about this book, and I found it hard to pick a final star rating. This is a three-and-a-half star book for me. Lots to like, some interesting new ideas, really nice to see a readable book on such a complex issue, although it was too short to do enough justice to all of its subject matter, even for a self-confessed “brief guide”. In the end, I have gone with four stars, to encourage Ms Harris to write more on this, and to guide readers to an interesting book.

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