A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind
A Book Review of Conscious, by By Annaka Harris
The book starts by sketching out what consciousness even is, which from the philosophical point she is coming from, she defines as “what it is like to experience something”. Consciousness is a hard concept to fully grasp when one is new to the field. Most people will simply think that consciousness is created by the brain, and that’s the end of it. She shows why exactly this view is problematic, and the difficulty of encapsulating consciousness in our current worldview — often coined the hard problem. To complicate things further, consciousness doesn’t seem to be detectable from the outside, and it doesn’t seem to be required for behavior. How can we prove something is conscious, and what is consciousness for?
This is the typical introduction to the philosophy of mind and consciousness in general. Not that it is a bad thing, but certainly nothing new. She does focus on two points surrounding consciousness, however, which aren’t as traditional. The first is free will. She argues that there is no such thing as a self, and it’s simply a false intuition. While we have the illusion of making choices, we’re simply aware of something else making those choices. I didn’t like this as much. Not that she does a bad job of presenting the argument, but at least to me by this point it feels rather bland. And while it’s certainly related to consciousness, it doesn’t help us very much about its nature. Free or not free, the mystery remains.
The second is panpsychism, which was very surprising to me. While it certainly fits within the mystery of consciousness, it’s certainly not a popular approach. It has gotten more popular in the last few years, but it’s still within the fridge of ideas about consciousness and mostly restricted to the philosophy of mind. Seeing it in such a popular book was fantastic to see. Panpsychism has several forms, but its basic premise is that consciousness can’t be divorced from matter. They either are always together, or they aren’t distinct, to begin with. She covers why this approach solves some of the issues that plague the hard problem of consciousness, and some common misconceptions about it. I think she presented the topic rather well and was succinct enough to not become the main theme of the book, but still make a solid case for it and why it’s so important. I enjoyed her humble yet confident approach. Humble enough not to claim that panpsychism is true, and admitting that indeed perhaps consciousness is only the brain, but nevertheless recognizing all the problems that would entail, and why panpsychism is so appealing, and as counter-intuitive as it may be, surprisingly logical.
I was pleasantly surprised by the book. While I think some extra details would present a better case for the problems surrounding consciousness, but taken as a whole it was well done. It covers all the main concerns of the topic and provides some insights and solutions. I’m sure that the slight tangent of free will and panpsychism will alienate some people, but it makes it much more interesting, especially if someone is encountering it for the first time.
The fact that the book is very short is a big plus. It took me perhaps a couple of hours to finish, and its writing is very accessible. It allows this topic to reach a broader audience, which is much needed since outside of philosophy, the topic of consciousness barely seems to be alive in our society and culture. Neuroscience is perceived as the solution to any problem of the mind, without realizing that it doesn’t solve the deepest problems we have. Given that her book managed to be a New York Times bestseller, she certainly helped to move us in the right direction.
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