[Off Topic] A Scanner Darkly

[This is going to be a little different than the books I normally recommend on here, but I think that it will be worth your time.]

I recently finished Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, and I highly recommend it. Keep in mind that I rarely read fiction books, so if I can get myself to finish it, then it’s really something that I enjoyed a great deal.

The book takes you on a trip through the eyes of Bob Arctor, a drug addict and undercover narcotics agent, as he deals with the illicit drug Substance D. To avoid too much in the way of spoilers, I’ll pique your neuroscientific interests with the following, and leave it at that:

Substance D doesn’t just alter the mind, it splits it in two…

Conversations on Consciousness

convoncons

Since the spring semester is now in full swing, it has been increasingly difficult for me to devote the necessary time to a full-length treatment of consciousness as I would like. This in mind, I picked up a copy of Susan Blackmore’s Conversations on Consciousness the other day, and I have not regretted it. It serves as an informal introduction to several competing theories and views on the scientific study of the brain and conscious experience. The set-up of the book is simple: interviews with the researchers/philosophers themselves explaining their theories in their own, colloquial way. Add to this a few questions on free will and the fate of consciousness after death, and you get twenty of the most interesting conversations that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. They allow, among other things, the chance to see these researchers as actual people, and not simply as objective reporters of experimental results as happens far too often.

I have only one complaint about the book, which you may have guessed given the author, Susan Blackmore. Put simply, Blackmore endorses a few very fringe (and some, myself included, would say absurd) ideas about the nature of consciousness. Normally, this would not be an issue—everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I often disagree with the authors that I read. The complaint comes, however, in the questions that Blackmore chooses to ask her interviewees. The book is accompanied by the sub-script, “What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What it Means to be Human.” At times, though, it seems like it would read more accurately as, “What the Best Minds Think about My Ideas about the Brain, Free Will, and What it Means to be Human.” This is not over-riding, and most of the time the book stays true to its stated purpose (I thank the interviewees for most of this, they do a good job sticking to what they believe are the real issues), but it is, at times, distracting. It is not enough to knock this down as a great book, well worth reading, but it is something that should be noted, nonetheless.

I would like to give this five out of five stars—it was great fun to read—but the above complaint makes me unable to do so. That said, I would give the interviewees five out of five stars and Blackmore four out of five stars, so let’s say that the book as a whole gets four and a half out of five stars.

Musings on Consciousness

When it comes to consciousness, I assume two fundamental notions:

1) The first I borrow from David Chalmers, which runs along the lines that we must be “taking consciousness seriously.” By this, I mean that I assume that it exists, thereby ruling out the possibility of eliminativism. I also take this to mean that consciousness is not merely an “illusion,” as the fact of experiencing it directly seems to show—it is the only fact that we can ever know directly. Relatedly, conscious experience is the only phenomenon in nature so far that seems to have a first-person aspect. Everything else can, arguably, be explained or described fully in third-person terms, but to explain consciousness in this way leaves out a fundamental aspect: that it is experienced. This may eventually prove to be false, but at the least, it suggests that we may need to adopt a radically different explanatory strategy.

2) I assume that conscious experience is not merely epiphenomenal. In other words, I am assuming that conscious states have some ability to act as causal agents to guide behaviour, and that behaviour and consciousness are not both results of some other non-conscious process. How this will play out, I do not yet know, but to deny that conscious states have some causal purpose seems to miss the point and run directly against phenomenal experience. However, if it turns out that conscious states are not causal agents, and sufficient arguments can drive that point home, I’ll have to learn to live with it. In the meantime, I’ll retain my current stance, as it seems to me to be a logical foundation to build off of. An interesting avenue I have recently stumbled upon has suggested a fundamental link between causality and consciousness, in the sense that consciousness allows causality to be “realised,” in a sense. Rosenberg discusses this idea, so I will be investigating that possibility first. Other avenues will be investigated in time if this proves to be a dead end.