Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction | Susan Blackmore

Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction | Susan Blackmore

August 16, 2019 0 By William Hollis


One. The mystery. Many people say
consciousness is the greatest mystery facing science today, but why? Isn’t it
obvious? This is consciousness? No it’s not. And
the problem goes back to the philosophical problem called the
mind-body problem, or in its modern incarnation, the hard problem of
consciousness. We seem to have subjective experiences that are private
to ourselves and yet, we believe there is an external world that we can all see
and feel and hear and touch. How can these two things relate to each other?
How can a physical brain give rise to create, be responsible for subjective
experience. That’s the mystery. Two. What is it like to be a bat? This weird question was asked by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in 1974 and it has become
the closest thing we have to a definition in consciousness studies. If
you ask: what is it like to be a cup? Well, nothing. There’s nothing like to be a cup, is there? It doesn’t do anything or feel anything. But what about a bat? The idea is this – if there is something it’s like to be a bat, something for the
bat, the way things are for the bat, that’s what we mean by being conscious
and if there’s nothing it’s like to be a bat, that’s what we mean by not being conscious. Three. Qualia. Philosophers talk about qualia – these qualitative aspects of our experience. So
a quale might be, for example, the redness of this red, or the green-blue, whatever
this is. The experience. The way it feels to hit myself or the smell of
coffee. These are all supposed to be qualia and they’re supposed to make up our experience. But others would say ‘That’s
a ridiculous notion. Experience isn’t like that. You can’t break it down
into qualia.’ Which is right? Four. The philosopher’s zombie. I’m sitting here. Now imagine that there’s another Sue sitting here and she is, from the outside,
indistinguishable in every way from the real Sue. She behaves and looks and acts
and thinks, says the same things, but inside she’s quite different.
She’s not conscious. She’s a zombie. There’s nothing it’s like to be zombie Sue. We can easily imagine such a thing, but could it exist? Some consciousness
researchers say of course it could exist. They must believe that consciousness is
some kind of added extra – that we might have or not have. We might have evolved
to have it or not to have it. Others say that is completely wrong. Any
creature that could do all these things and behave this way and think and see
and feel and talk would have to be conscious by virtue of being able to do
those things. Five. Are other animals conscious? When I stood on my cat’s tail she howled and ran away and I’m convinced that she really felt pain. But did she?
Behavior can be misleading. I could, for example, have a toy cat and put some
mechanism in its tail so that when I stamped on it, it went ‘Yow!’ That wouldn’t
prove it was conscious. There are other methods though. We can look at the
anatomy. Other mammals, dogs and cats and even bats, have similar anatomy to us,
similar brain structures that make us think that probably they could feel pain.
But then what about fish or caterpillars or octopuses, they have totally different
anatomy. So we can’t tell from that. One last way we might tell is the physiology.
Experiments with fish show that they don’t like even mild electric shocks and
will swim away from them, but if you give them painkillers, the same sort I might
use for a headache, then they don’t mind so much. So maybe they do feel pain. Six. Altered states of consciousness. We all know what it’s like to feel
different. We sleep, we dream, even if we don’t remember our dreams and most of us have been an inebriated at some time or another in our life. But it’s not obvious
to know what is altered in an altered state of consciousness, or even how to
measure them. Do you take someone’s word for it? How they feel? Do you look to see
whether they’ve taken some drug, or been hypnotised? It’s not such an easy
concept as we might have first thought. Seven. The neural correlates of consciousness. One of the most popular ways of studying consciousness is to ask which bits of
the brain are responsible for when we’re conscious of something, or when we’re not. So experiments might take something like this. Are you seeing a duck or a rabbit?
And then look in the brain to see where things change. But we find that low down
in the visual system nothing changes, but higher up in the brain things flip,
according to when we flip from duck to rabbit, or back again. But does this
really tell us where consciousness is arising in the brain? Eight. Is consciousness all an illusion? That might seem ridiculous. I mean, I know I’m conscious.
But the so called illusionists don’t say that consciousness doesn’t exist or
there isn’t a problem, rather the idea is this – we have all these wrong notions
about our own minds. We think our consciousness is something we have, that we control, that it has effects and is powerful and does things. But we may be
completely wrong about that. So for an illusionist, our first task is to
undermine all our assumptions about consciousness and start again, in the
hope that this way, we might see through the mystery. Nine. Free will. Consciousness and free will are closely related. I may feel
as though I consciously decide to do something and that’s why
I do it. But when we look in the brain, we don’t see that this can happen and
indeed we can see there’s decisions being made in different parts of the
brain that explain why these actions happen. And experiments also show
that the conscious experience of deciding to act comes too late to be
the cause of emotion. So could free will be illusory and if so how do I live my
life without believing in it? Ten. The self. What is a self? I feel as though I’m
inside here looking out. I’m the one who has free will, who is conscious. There’s
got to be a me. But when we look inside brains, we don’t find anywhere that self
could be, or indeed anything that it will be needed to do. So what is a self? Is
it the construction of the brain? A representation of a self that doesn’t
exist? An illusion indeed? That’s an interesting thought. Who am I?