Susan Blackmore 2015. Consciousness. A very short introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 146 pp.

Oxford’s “a very short introduction” books are a bit like Wikipedia treatments, but more coherent, at least this one is (although for some topics the same authors may be responsible for both?). This one is evidently a précis of the much more detailed Consciousness: An Introduction by the same author (which I haven’t seen, and perhaps now don’t need to). Therefore this is a very short overview of a very short introduction. The next step would be haiku. Perhaps one day…

Starts with a quick overview of dualist theories (which can be dismissed as requiring metaphysical explanations), materialist/reductionist theories (which so far fail to explain the “hard problem”: how is it that our physical brain comes to be conscious of personal experiences), Daniel Dennett’s rejection of the “Cartesian Theatre” and other such material. Brief mention too of some studies of patients with brain injuries, which show that there is a lot going on in our brains that we are not conscious of; and also of psychological experiments that show that the linear nature of our temporal experience is an illusory perception (dreams also often demonstrate this). And Stuart Hammeroff and Roger Penrose’s theory that consciousness can only be explained by invoking quantum phenomena only shifts the problem to another level.

Our sense of self, and of free will, are also difficult to sustain if the materialist view is accepted, as one must (I’m not writing this, my chemicals are). It seems to me these mostly restate the “hard problem” under the guise of different concepts. Consideration of dreaming, drugs and other altered states of consciousness also don’t add much in the way of explanation. One might have thought that Julian Jaynes might rate a mention in the final chapter The evolution of consciousness. But instead this is an unanswered inquiry into whether consciousness is adaptive, or is perhaps an inevitable consequence of some other adaptive function of the brain, perhaps just a sort of bug (my term, not Blakemore’s).

It is only right at the end that Susan Blakemore looks to future approaches and starts to become more interesting: that we can’t get far without discarding the illusion that our conscious self of yesterday is the same one that we are today. It follows that we also need to move on from the idea that consciousness is an unbroken temporal sequence. It only seems that way.

On page 1, Susan Blakemore glibly states that we need to “use consciousness to investigate itself, which is a slightly weird idea”. It is much more than that. Maybe it is at the heart of the problem, a much more fundamental principle and hurdle.

The Further Reading section is way too short for a book like this.