Conversations on Consciousness – Susan Blackmore (2006)

Conversations on Consciousness

“Conversations on Consciousness” is a book of interviews with scientists conducted by Susan Blackmore, consisting of a very similar set of questions each time. Folks included are Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose, John Searle, Francis Crick and many others. Blackmore is the author of “The Meme Machine” and she is a pretty extreme thinker herself (she writes in her intro, “I long ago concluded that free will must be an illusion, and so over the years I have practised not believing in it”).

I found these interviews quite interesting, as the viewpoints range from a basically functionalist/behaviorist approach to those thinking about some sort of quantum mechanical process in the brain. The reductionist tendency is very strong; there’s a real desire for many of these scientists to map everything down to neurons and neurochemistry, and to call most higher level feelings and experiences as simply ‘illusions’. I found many of these folks to be pretty arrogant and blinkered in their thinking. There are also just a few oddballs – Kevin O’Regan says “Ever since I’ve been a child I’ve wanted to become a robot.”

The interview that I found most interesting was with Francisco Varela, who’s roots are in biology. He puts the objective/subjective distinction onto a spectrum, indicating that if we develop better language and descriptions of internal states, then we can begin to do better science on consciousness. “You see, if you think about so-called objective data in physics or biology, nothing is ever going to be observed unless you have somebody who reports on it. So you inevitably have a first person component to it.”

Varela goes on, “we need to introduce new first person methodologies way beyond those we have at the moment, and that means a sociological revolution in science. Among other things you have to train young scientists to become proficient in the techniques, you need a complete change in the curriculum design and so on. You know, I think we’re extremely naive. It’s like people before Galileo looking at the sky and thinking that they were doing astronomy.”

I think he’s on the right track, but I’m doubtful that many academics are listening…

Also – here’s Blackmore on Hofstadter’s I am a strange loop.

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