- Hardcover: 130 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins (4 June 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0062906712
- ISBN-13: 978-0062906717
- Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.5 x 19 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 200 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind Hardcover – 4 Jun 2019
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"A user's guide to the scientific thinking on consciousness--delivering an assumption-shattering take on how we think about our mind, our self, and this very moment."--Daniel Goleman, author of NYT bestseller Emotional Intelligence
"Wild ideas are on the table--you'll come away with an appreciation of the major conflicts and the high stakes that come with any attempt to understand how consciousness really works."--Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist and author of The Big Picture
"There is a profound intellectual adventure awaiting the reader of this exquisite book."--Rebecca Goldstein, philosopher and author of Plato at the Googleplex
"Annaka Harris expertly and eloquently explores one of the deepest questions the
human mind has ever grappled with: itself. Harris turns the light inward, encouraging us to reflect on how we reflect as she clearly presents the prevailing theories of consciousness."--Dean Buonomano, neuroscientist and author of Your Brain is a Time Machine
"Conscious offers the clearest, most compelling explanation that I've seen of consciousness. If you've ever wondered how you have the capacity to wonder, some fascinating insights await you in these pages."--Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B
"Harris holds a mirror up to ourselves and the reflection she casts is wondrously unfamiliar. In salient prose that intertwines science and philosophy, Harris turns her joyful curiosity on the nature of awareness. Every sentence of this book works upon the next, delving the reader deeper into an exploration of consciousness. While most books that contemplate the mysteries of the universe make one feel small in comparison, Conscious gives the reader an undeniable sense of presence."
--Nathalia Holt, author of New York Times bestseller Rise of the Rocket Girls
"A remarkably focused, concise and provocative overview of the 'problem of Mind.' Written with great clarity, she gives readers unfamiliar with the debate a chance to see the fault lines defining modern discussions about the nature of consciousness."--Adam Frank, astrophysicist and author of About Time and Light of the Stars
"I have read many, many great books on consciousness in my life as a neuroscientist. Conscious tops them all, hands down. It deals with unsolved questions and dizzying concepts with a graciousness and clarity that leaves the reader deeply satisfied."--Marco Iacoboni, neuroscientist and author of Mirroring People
"A delectable introduction to a fundamental mystery that science has been struggling with since antiquity."--Christof Koch, neuroscientist and author of The Quest for Consciousness
From the Back Cover
What is consciousness? How does it arise? And why does it exist?
We take for granted our experience of being in the world. But the very existence of consciousness raises profound questions: Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious? How are we able to think about this? And why should we?
In this wonderfully accessible book, Annaka Harris guides us through the evolving definitions, philosophies, and scientific findings that probe our limited understanding of consciousness. Where does it reside, and what gives rise to it? Could it be an illusion, or is it a universal property of all matter? As we try to understand consciousness, we must grapple with how to define it and, in the age of artificial intelligence, who or what may possess it.
An illuminating meditation on the self, free will, and felt experience, Conscious offers lively and challenging arguments that alter our ideas about consciousness--allowing us to think freely about it for ourselves, if indeed we can.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
With toxoplasmosis, a 2017 study brings into question the idea that contact with cats causes psychosis. I am dismayed that old "evidence" against cats continues to be reinforced.
Re Libet, his research was conducted in the 1980's and has been called into question. Some of the articles referenced in the footnotes are interesting and more contemporary (the ones not behind a paywall anyway) but still, the idea that our brain knows what we are going to do before our conscious self does is complex, insufficiently understood, and IMO risky to generalize or take to heart especially if one is going to use the information to conclude that we have no free will.
Having said all that I very much enjoyed the second part of the book. Panpsychism is a new concept for me, and I like the idea of consciousness as a fundamental property of matter. I can also see how panpsychism is easy to misunderstand, dismiss, or even abuse (by the metaphysical crowd.) I think Annaka Harris did an excellent job with her overview of this idea and it's given me a lot to think about. I recommend this book.
_Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind_ by Annaka Harris is promised to be as “concise and enlightening as _Seven Brief Lessons on Physics_ and _Astrophysics for People in a Hurry_". This is such a brave and ambitious undertaking as consciousness truly is an enigma.
Let me jump to the beginning of Chapter Two: Intuitions and Illusions to confirm what the author was trying to accomplish in the first chapter: “Now that we have a working definition of consciousness and the mystery it entails, we can start chipping away at some common intuitions.” So did chapter one give us that accessible, working definition of conscience? No, the author seems to give us sciency riddles, “An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.”
That quoted definition is followed by a paragraph that is the author’s own definition and the meat of this first chapter:
“In other words, consciousness is what we’re referring to when we talk about experience in its most basic form. Is it like something to be you in this moment? Presumably your answer is yes. Is it like something to be the chair you’re sitting on? Your answer will (most likely) be an equally definitive no. It’s this simple difference—whether there is an experience present or not—which we can all use as a reference point, that constitutes what I mean by the word “consciousness.” Is it like something to be a grain of sand, a bacterium, an oak tree, a worm, an ant, a mouse, a dog? At some point along the spectrum the answer is yes, and the great mystery lies in why the “lights turn on” for some collections of matter in the universe.”
Yes, the difference is simple when considering such dissimilar entities, but that only confirms we can intuitively identify a difference between extremes. Before considering the mystery of why the lights turn on, I want to understand what the properties are of this light and what phenomena you consider distinct and related or not. I’m left feeling that this book is too sophisticated for me and unsure who is the target audience of this book.
The conversation has to start from where the audience is. This book doesn’t meet me at the beginning of my understanding on this topic. There is an assumption that I’m ready to play a hard puzzle. If this is really meant to be accessible the chapter would at least start with what the human experience feels like.
A successful introduction starting from the shared human experience would use language like “subjective experience”, “a perspective of experience”, an “I experience”, or “my body and my environment”. How does this relate to “a sense of being”, “inner feeling”, “an emotional life”, “inner voice”, “a sense of self”, “self-awareness” or “feeling like an observer”? Or explain why this is the wrong path or inappropriate.
We are not told if “reflection” or “deep thought” is beyond this concept. Instead we’re left to parse and re-parse the cohesive, but terse “something that it is like to be that organism”, which depends on appreciating that “it is like to be” is the inner presence’s experience and not experiences like the physical sensation of the stimulus of the air current across a bat’s wing.
I was also counting on the author elaborating on “experience in its most basic form” and say whether there are any indications, observations, or methods of measuring consciousness.
Instead, we see the author setting up the “matter” panpsychism experiment from the start and heightening at the chapter ending with another overly witty “wonderful clear and playful portrait of the mystery” quote which starts: “Sure, consciousness is a matter of matter — what else could it be, since that’s what we are— but still, the fact that some hunks of matter have an inner life… “
I really wanted an onramp to the topic. The author’s expertise in consciousness seems to have made her blind to the needs of those unfamiliar . She accidentally pushed us readers in to these deep waters from a cliff.
I put down the book to capture my first impressions. I came for a “wonderfully accessible book” by an author known for being able to introduce topics to diverse audiences including children, but that isn’t what I’ve found. I see little likelihood that the book will enable new well-reasoned conversations on this new subject for me. These deep, cold waters leave my anxious to what would be asked for me to wrap my mind around next.
I finished the book and it is a fascinating book inspiring awe, but I was correct in my fears. I’m left struggling to come up with my own foundation to consider these ideas from. The book provided no stable structure to build on, but definitely surfaces great thought experiments and questions. It contributes to my interesting in further exploration in this area. Unfortunately, the author, her team, and her supporters’ intuitions on this being a general guidebook are incorrect. The promise wasn’t kept.
1. The lack of a good introduction is more puzzling considering the author acknowledges the “linguistically issue” on the Making Sense podcast #159 - Conscious 12:50. “It’s partly a linguistically issue … it’s not as accurate as we’d like it to be. I actually like the word experience better even though that can be misunderstood too.“ The author goes on to describe how she solves the problem with a back and forth, but I’d argue her solution is insufficient. After reading the book, I also listened to 10% Happier with Dan Harris podcast #190: The Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, Annaka Harris. Here too I got the sense the author believes she did have the feedback that the definition wasn’t working for some readers and she thought she had addressed the issue.
Endnote: The praise in the author blurbs also have the theme of “clarity”, but they all also look to be experts in related subjects. Was this prose tested on people new to the subject? Was constructive feedback received? Was it incorporated into introducing the topics? Or was the test audience intimidated by how brilliant the author and her writing are?
She then begins to problematize our intuitions. Are we sure that plants and trees aren’t conscious? Can we be confident that free will is a fundamental part of consciousness? Do we think that our actions depend on consciousness in any way whatsoever?
Having sufficiently shaken the reader up and awoken them to the problem of consciousness, Harris then offers a version of panpsychism as a tentative theory. Distinguishing her account from the straw man theories often debated (a rock can’t think!) she argues that panpsychism offers a coherent explanation for why some matter is able to be conscious—because all matter is in some sense conscious.
Unfortunately, a slim volume allows other approaches little more than a similar straw man treatment. Since all relations between matter in the universe are governed by the laws of physics no such thing as a distinct free will can exist. The fact that physical determinism is incompatible with many interpretations of quantum physics and is itself a controversial stance is not acknowledged. Similarly, the explanation that consciousness is an evolutionary product that maximizes animal adaptivity is similarly dismissed since she’s “shown” that consciousness cannot have an effect on action.
But to engage the reader in clear and non-simplistic prose on a question that admits of lots of jargon, to give readers a sense of the depth of this simultaneously scientific and philosophic phenomena...that in itself is an incredible accomplishment. If the author had devoted more space to a deeper exploration of the science and philosophy around consciousness she would have risked turning it into another unreadable tome. Even if you disagree with her perspective, it’s hard not to welcome this as a useful popular introduction to the subject.